The Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther initiated in Germany in 1517 spread quickly to other countries. German merchants, students, and missionaries soon brought Lutheran doctrines to Scandinavia, where for centuries German influence had been strong, and where, moreover, there was some receptivity to the new doctrines. By the time Luther died in 1546, Lutheranism was firmly implanted in the Scandinavian countries. Sweden-Finland converted to Lutheranism largely through the efforts of Gustav I Vasa, who acted mainly for political reasons, especially in order to strengthen the monarchy. The decisive break with Rome took place in 1527 at the Riksdag held at VasterAs. This acceptance of Lutheranism enabled Gustav I Vasa, with the help of the aristocracy, to break the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, which had stood in the way of his desire for a stronger centralized state. The confiscation of Church properties that accompanied the Reformation also provided an enormous economic windfall for both the aristocracy and the monarchy. Before the Reformation, the Church had owned about onefifth of the land in Sweden.
In Finland there was little popular demand for the Reformation because more than 90 percent of the homesteads were owned by the farmers, and the Church, which owned less than 10 percent, used most of its income to support schools and charities. Lutheranism was instituted without serious opposition, nevertheless. In part, this was attributable to the gradual and cautious manner in which Lutherans replaced Roman Catholic doctrines while retaining many Catholic customs and practices. The Lutheran Church was not firmly established finally until 1598, when the last Catholic king of Sweden-Finland, Sigismund, was driven from the throne.
The outstanding ecclesiastical figure of the Reformation in Finland was Mikael Agricola (1506-1557), who exerted a great influence on the subsequent development of the country. Agricola had studied under Luther at Wittenberg, and, recognizing the centrality of the Bible in the Reformation, he undertook to translate the Bible into Finnish. Agricola's translation of the New Testament was published in 1548. He wrote other religious works and translated parts of the Old Testament as well. Because Finnish had not appeared previously in print, Agricola is regarded as the father of the Finnish literary language. After 1554 he served as the bishop of Turku, the highest office of the Finnish church.
The Reformation brought two educational benefits to Finland. Its emphasis on religious instruction in the vernacular languages supported an increase in literacy, especially after the Ecclesiastical Law of 1686 had confirmed royal control over the Lutheran Church of Sweden-Finland and had charged it with teaching the catechism to each church member. Another benefit of the Reformation was the founding of Abo Academy in 1640 to provide theological training for Finnish clergymen. Abo Academy was the precursor of the University of Helsinki, which later became the center of higher education in Finland and the focus of Finland's cultural life.
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