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The History of Conservative Laestadianism

Ari-Pekka Palola, Translation: Paul Waaraniemi | The Voice of Zion November 2020 --

Installment 20 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)

In my article, I briefly examine the history of Conservative Laestadianism. I aim to paint a general picture of the movement’s various periods, but I especially focus on events of significance from the perspectives of the movement’s doctrine and beliefs. I deal only superficially with events occurring after the 1960s since research regarding the period is incomplete. [Note: research on this period was completed after this article was written. The research has been published in Myrskyjen keskellä, Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistyksen historia 3 (1962–1980), SRK, 2019.]

Laestadianism’s Early Stages in the 19th Century 

The Laestadian Revival Movement got its name from Lars Levi Laestadius (1800–1861) who served first as rector of the Karesuando and later the Pajala parishes in Swedish Lapland. In January 1844, on an official trip to the church at Åsele, Sweden, Laestadius met a Sámi woman, Milla Clemensdotter. This “Mary of Lapland” helped Laestadius into living faith.

Soon Laestadius’ repentance sermons began to echo in the Karesuando church. The Revival began in early spring of 1846, firstly among the local Sámi population and quickly spreading to both Finnish and Norwegian Lapland. The concern for loved ones among those awakened prompted discussion, which contributed to the further spread of the Revival. Nonetheless, it was spread most effectively by Lapland’s mission schools. The Revival achieved a complete change of life in many communities. Drunkards made repentance, tavern keepers closed their businesses, and even lawsuits ceased.

One of the main characteristics of Lapland’s Revival was the use of lay preachers who, when called and sent, began covering an ever-widening area. From the beginning some Lutheran Church pastors were also involved in the movement. At the time of Laestadius’ death in 1861, the movement had spread to an area that reached from Hammerfest, Norway, to Jokkmokk, Sweden, and from Vadsjö (Vesisaari), Norway, to near Oulu, Finland. The movement’s new leading figure became Laestadius’ closest work companion, schoolmaster Juhani Raattamaa (1811–1899). The name Laestadianism was first used in the 1870s as mockery. By the end of the 19th century, Laestadianism had spread to most of the northern portions of Finland, Sweden and Norway, to North America, Russia and Estonia. There were already several hundred preachers.

The widespread movement did not have any sort of formal organization. The importance of preachers became central to the movement remaining cohesive and maintaining connections. The organization of Laestadianism began at the end of the 1880s at the local level. The main practical reason for Laestadians’ organizing was to obtain their own meeting houses. The first Rauhanyhdistys organizations [called RYs or Associations of Peace] were established in Helsinki, Turku and Tornio. The name association of peace (rauhanyhdistys) referred primarily to the peace of conscience in a Christian’s heart.

Laestadianism’s Great Schism

Laestadianism’s unity began to crack across the broad area it had spread as early as the 1870s. Keeping a large movement together without a centralized organization proved to be impossible. In the late 19th century, Laestadianism’s Great Schism occurred, in which the movement split into three groups.

Juhani Raattamaa and his closest co-workers placed importance on the free proclamation of the gospel, to which was connected an exclusive understanding of the congregation. According to them, “true Christians” were found only among the Laestadians. On this basis Conservative Laestadianism was formed, which became the main branch of the movement in Finland. In Sweden and Norway, the support for Conservative Laestadianism was mainly in the eastern regions, which led to talk of Eastern Laestadianism. The Conservative Laestadians valued the church [Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Finland and Sweden] and had a positive attitude towards it, even though they recognized as brothers in faith only those Church pastors that had repented into Laestadianism.

Firstborn Laestadianism began to develop in the 1870s in connection with disputes among North American Laestadians. Emphasis on geographically defined “firstborn congregation” became its identifying characteristic; this congregation was located in the Laestadian Revival’s birthplace in Swedish Lapland. All Laestadians were to show obedience to the firstborn congregation and follow its instructions. The Firstborn Laestadians had a negative attitude toward the church [Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Finland and Sweden] although they did not seek to separate from it. Their ideal was a free, lay congregation in accord with the American model. Firstborn Laestadianism gained a strong foothold in North America as well as western parts of Swedish and Norwegian Lapland, hence the name Western Laestadianism. Gällivare, Sweden, [Finn. Jällivaara] became its central location.

The New Awakening’s roots were in Finland’s Awakening revival movement, and it became the most purely Finnish branch of Laestadianism. The New Awakening was influenced by 1870s and 1880s Alliance Christianity. It rejected the exclusive congregation doctrine and held the view that true believers are found in other Christian groups as well. The New Awakening criticized the free proclamation of the absolution of sins and emphasized that forgiveness is to be proclaimed only to “the awakened” and those remorseful over their sins. In addition, the New Awakening approved of the third use of the law, i.e. the understanding that the law belongs to the Christian as a spiritual teacher in Christian life. The New Awakening group had a positive attitude toward the church and felt a special attraction to mission work among non-Christians.

By 1906, the division into three separate movements had been established, even though in many localities the groups had not clearly separated from one another. Meanwhile, ingredients for the birth of a fourth group had already begun to form in America, where the division among Laestadians was different than in the Nordic countries. As early as the late 1870s, American Laestadians had begun to divide into supporters and opponents of the Calumet, Michigan, congregation’s lay minister, centrally influential Juho Takkinen (1838–1892). The Takkinen supporters embraced the congregation doctrine of the Firstborn, but only part of them accepted Gällivare’s leadership position. The minority looked to the Lannavaara, Sweden, congregation as the successor to Raattamaa’s work. Consequently the Takkinen supporters divided in the Gällivare and Lannavaara Firstborn, or Large and Small Firstborn – the latter names referred to the relative clout of the two groups.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Small Firstborn, for the most part, outwardly merged with the Heideman group, whose pastor was Arthur Leopold Heideman (1862–1928). The Heideman group most closely corresponded to the Conservative Laestadians. However, doctrinal unity did not result. Beginning in 1908, large service gatherings, the so-called Big Meetings were arranged in America. In these, the Firstborn and New Awakening doctrinal understandings were presented, even though a significant part of the service guests belonged to the Heideman group. By the 1920s, the participants of these services became their own group – the “Big Meeting” group – which had no equivalent in Finland.

The Organization of Conservative Laestadianism

In their first big services meeting in 1906, Finland’s Conservative Laestadians established their Mission’s Headquarters in Oulu to organize the movement’s mission work. In 1914, to continue its duties and to serve as the central organization of the whole country’s Associations of Peace, the Conservative Laestadians established Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistys (the SRK, Central Organization of Finnish Associations of Peace).

Following the Mission’s establishment, raising funds proved to be a threshold issue that regulated the possibility of arranging mission work. In 1907, the Mission’s board proposed that a mission paper be established “to raise funds and to make the Mission known.” Siionin Lähetyslehti (Zion’s Mission Paper) began to be published at the beginning of 1912. Income from the paper enabled a significant expansion of missionary work.

Common gatherings were generally considered necessary, and “large meetings” began to be arranged on an annual basis. After the establishment of SRK, the meetings became “Annual Meeting services.” These meetings became a forum for Conservative Laestadians in which they could find common solutions to timely questions. Discussions at large meetings and at Annual Meeting services had decisive importance in clarifying many doctrinal understandings and establishing common positions on many questions related to living as a believer.

In those discussions, participants were reminded, for example, that humans do not justify, but rather preaches the gospel through the effect of God’s Spirit, and God justifies one who believes. Reading does not bring about faith. The characteristics of righteousness are the fruits of the Spirit, while self-righteousness causes strife, lovelessness and contempt. If the impetus of the work is wrong, the work itself is wrong, “even if it took the correct form.” Believers who have received the Holy Spirit are not under the law of Moses, nor do they consider it their guide, but they do not hate the law. The correct fear of the Lord is not the fear of a slave, rather it’s the desire to avoid grieving the Heavenly Father’s mind.

God affects and functions everywhere but justifies only through His congregation. In its essence, God’s kingdom is the fellowship of believers on earth. It is built on the foundation of God’s Word. The duty of the child of God is to rebuke for sin, but it is to be done in the spirit of the gospel and love. Public sin must be rebuked publicly. A demand for confession cannot be made a condition for salvation, but rather the conscience requires confession of sins.

Discussions on living as a Christian included admonishments about both the deeds of the flesh and self-righteousness. Both require repentance. God’s grace instructs us to reject ungodly life and to live soberly, righteously and in a godly manner. Parents’ responsibility is to treat children mercifully, as Christ has treated us. Parents should love their children and care for them.

In discussing forgiveness, it was instructed that forgiveness be granted to one who asks. In connection with this it was stated, “In time it will become apparent what people have believed.” It was reminded that the use of the key of binding belongs to the congregation in accordance with the Church Law of Christ. The congregation has the right and the responsibility to use it in order to avoid harm. In discussing the congregation, it was noted that a completely pure congregation has never been found on earth. In Christ, however, the congregation is holy and perfect. The Holy Spirit has gathered a congregation of believing people and rules it. One must be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s instructions.

Activity within the Church [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland]

The first big meeting in the fall of 1906 especially discussed “being and remaining in the bosom of the State Church.” The background for this discussion was separatist aspirations arising in Karelia. The meeting made a statement in favor of remaining in the State Church. The majority of Conservative Laestadians thought the same as preacher Kaarle Helisten (1848–1915), who in 1909 made the comparison of Christianity’s two protective shells: one being Christian governance and the other the Christian [State] Church.

In 1920, proposed legislation on freedom of religion divided opinions among Conservative Laestadians. Some supported the law because they saw it as guaranteeing freedom of religion and conscience for Conservative Laestadians. Others opposed the law on grounds that it made it too easy to separate from the church. After the law was passed, it was brought out how the new law made it possible for Conservative Laestadians to establish their own church according to the American model. The SRK Annual Meeting and speakers meeting determined, however, that Christians had no reason to separate from the church “as long as the sacredness of the sacraments and the doctrine according to the confessional books is preserved in the church, and we are not forced to leave the church for confessing our faith.”

The decision to remain within the church did not mean that Conservative Laestadians’ attitude toward the church had become free of critique. For example, the movement’s periodicals addressed doctrines within the church that were considered wrong. Conservative Laestadians also wanted to obtain freedom to function within the church and in the 1920s and 1930s they increasingly achieved this. At the same time, Conservative Laestadianism began to be seen as one of the established revival movements and its activity began to be viewed in a more favorable light.

In the post-war period, Conservative Laestadians have often appealed in public statements on behalf of the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confession. They have warned of the dangers associated with relinquishing “the foundation of God’s Word” and “the doctrine of justification that is according to our church’s confession.” Conservative Laestadians have opposed “ecumenical multi-doctrinalism” and resented the church’s secularization. Nevertheless they stated that it does not change their perception of “the national church that contains within it the living church of Christ.”

Disagreements about the Doctrine of the Congregation

The American Big Meeting group founded the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church Federation (Kirkkokunta), which invited Conservative Laestadian speakers on a speaking trip in 1931. This invitation initiated a series of events in Finland that led to a schism in Conservative Laestadianism. After 1913, Conservative Laestadian speakers [from Finland] had, in America, visited only the Heideman group, but now three speakers answered yes to the Church Federation’s invitation. The Speakers Meetings in the fall of 1932 posited that the three had gone to America “contrary to the decision of the general meeting and God’s congregation,” and decided to demand public repentance of them for their conduct.

The speakers who had gone to America also had supporters in Finland who based their position on the understanding that in America there were true believers in both groups. The majority of Conservative Laestadians could not accept such an understanding. They maintained that “one locality cannot have two quarreling groups of Christians.” The Speakers Meeting stated that a person who teaches correctly can be a heretic if he “belongs to the other group that opposes us.” Pastor Arne Vasunta (1891–1943) summed up the matter “Even though America is a land of wonders, it is not so wondrous that there could be two kingdoms of God there.”

The opposing group did not accept this view nor the interpretation that they would have, through their actions, torn themselves away from God’s kingdom. Instead they felt they had been expelled by the central organization.

Wartime events brought a new twist to the matter. A brothers-in-arms spirit on the warfront also influenced the relationship between Conservative Laestadians and the Small Firstborn by blurring the boundary between these two groups. A key factor in establishing connections was the so-called Cenchrea congregation in the town of Karhumäki in Eastern Karelia. Small Firstborn members serving in Karhumäki also participated in its activity.

At the Speakers Meeting in November 1945, a proposal arrived from the Small Firstborn for negotiations to seek a possibility “to heal Zion’s wound.” The meeting was held November 30, 1945. In the discussion, consensus was achieved on the relationship between the law and gospel, but differing views were expressed on the doctrine of the congregation. The Conservatives felt that at the time of the schism it had been a question of an internal congregational matter, but that it was no longer the case. In the end, the Small Firstborn conceded this. Both sides asked for forgiveness for a lack of love and disagreements. It was mutually felt that the two sides had reached reconciliation with each other.

News of the reconciliation reached at the “Andrew’s Day meeting” aroused many thoughts and feelings. It was asked that if both sides had to repent, then where had God’s kingdom been for the past ten years. In accordance with the decision at the reconciliation meeting, “Reconciliation Services” were held in various localities, which nonetheless caused mainly confusion and questions.

The March 1946 Speakers Meeting held in Tornio noted that the preceding months had shown that the Andrew’s Day meeting had not borne “blessed fruit.” The Tornio meeting issued a statement which emphasized that “Christ’s congregation is one and indivisible,” and stated clearly that repentance from heresy cannot happen as a “group annexing” without personal repentance. In practice, the Tornio meeting meant the end of the reconciliation process. As a result of the process, some Small Firstborn members rejoined the Conservatives, but the majority remained as their own group.

Disagreements on the Doctrine of the Sacraments and Significance of the Confessional Writings

Among Conservative Laestadians, varying understandings of the sacraments and differing interpretations of the meaning of Lutheran confessional writings existed long before they became a source of dispute at the end of the 1950s. Some of the Laestadian clergy (pastors of the national church) thought that referring to the confessional writings was the right solution in finding agreement. Strong emphasis on the confessional writings, however, was in conflict with Conservative Laestadians’ traditional understanding that all belief and doctrine was to be examined in the light of Scripture. Thus, this did not lead to unification, but rather contributed to disagreement. Gradually certain clergymen’s doctrinal understandings began – on the basis of the confessional writings – to diverge from the laymen’s doctrinal understandings. The central figure in this development was Pekka Tapaninen (1893–1982), who became in the 1950s a leading figure in clergy circles.

Attitudes toward the confessional writings had to be reconsidered in a new light when the Kuopio Speakers Meeting presenters in the summer of 1957 came to different conclusions on the significance of baptism. The central question became whether baptism effects forgiveness of sins and whether a child has faith before baptism. Closely related to the baptism question were the understanding of justification as well as the doctrine of the congregation. Some priests considered the church their spiritual home rather than Conservative Laestadianism. The laymen, meanwhile, considered it a serious error that confessional writings were placed above the Word of God.

Over the next couple of years, the “Ministers Line” (or clergy line) which emphasized the confessional books, increasingly evolved into its own group that renounced the traditional doctrinal understandings of Conservative Laestadianism. At the same time, the discussion increasingly included the question of God’s kingdom and whether proclaiming the gospel was “the office of the Spirit or the Word.” At the Speakers Meeting in April 1960, there was discussion of the doctrine of justification and of God’s kingdom. The meeting decided to adhere to that “which has been believed and understood up until this time in Christianity” and to “the principle in the confessions of the Lutheran Church that the Bible is the highest authority of doctrine and faith.”

During the year 1960, the Conservative Laestadian movement moved towards an inevitable split. On December 29, 1960, about one thousand speakers and congregation elders gathered at the Oulu RY (Association of Peace). The meeting held that “a wrong spirit” was the underlying reason for differing doctrinal understandings. The Ministers Line was publicly called a heresy for the first time and its supporters were urged to repent. However, they rejected the call for repentance. In practice, the Ministers Heresy separated from the SRK at the end of 1960.

Mission Work

Initiating mission work among non-Christians was discussed in Conservative Laestadian circles many times in the 1940s and 1950s, but plans did not come to fruition. In 1949, the Mission Society of Finland, with which several Conservative Laestadians had privately been in contact, offered to arrange SRK its own mission field to non-Christians, but the SRK annual meeting did not consider the project financially possible. At the end of the 1950s, certain clergymen’s negotiations with the Mission Society launched new discussions about mission work among non-Christians. The discussion affirmed that the mission command obligates Christians, but the decision was made to wait for God to open work opportunities.

For decades, among Conservative Laestadians mission work mainly meant SRK’s domestic mission work in Finland. Foreign mission trips were made only to Sweden, Norway and America amidst Conservative Laestadians. The situation changed at the end of the 1980s when the disintegration of the Soviet Union opened contact with Russia where there was found interest in the gospel. Mission work in Russia was extensive in the 1990s, but in the 2000s the focus of foreign mission work has shifted to Africa, where opportunities for work opened in Kenya, Togo, Ghana, The Gambia and Senegal.

Other Activity

Child and youth work started in Conservative Laestadian circles in the 1920s with Sunday school. In the same decade the first Conservative Laestadian folk school (opisto) was founded. After the war, child and youth work began to expand. Its goal was defined as gathering youth “into the bosom of the congregation” and caring for them “in the midst of Christianity.” Confirmation school work began in the 1950s as part of the church’s confirmation school work. Camp work expanded in the 1960s and in the following decade youth Bible class and Day Circle became established.

Publications has developed into a broad and multifaceted area of work. The Siionin Lähetyslehti (Zion’s Mission Paper) was augmented in 1931 with Lasten Siioni (Children’s Zion) and in 1954 with the Päivämies newspaper. The SRK has published Biblia, the Old Finnish Church Bible, since the 1920s, and in the 2000s it also published the Trio Raamattu (Trio Bible) which contains three translations of the Bible side-by-side. The Siionin laulut (Songs of Zion) collection, which since 1944 has been published as a joint volume with the church’s hymnal, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It has been revised several times over the years, most recently in 2016. Devotional books and doctrinal books have been the core of SRK’s publications, but since the 1980s Christian fiction and books for children and youth have formed the bulk of publications. Publications have for decades been a significant source of income for the SRK.

The Annual Meeting services, the name of which was changed in the 1950s to Suviseurat (Summer Services) have expanded to become Finland’s largest religious summer event. Suviseurat are arranged in different parts of the country every year and they are attended by 65,000–70,000 participants annually. The Finnish Public Radio has arranged broadcasting from the services since 1939. Nowadays the whole Suviseurat program can be heard throughout the country via Kesäseuraradio (Summer Services Radio) as well as around the world via the internet.

There were as many as 330 Associations of Peace (RYs) in the 1960s. After that the number of RYs has almost halved due to domestic migration, but at the same time the total number of members has increased by half. Today there are approximately 170 RYs in Finland. They have called as their speakers over 800 lay preachers and about 150 clergymen. In terms of membership, the largest RYs are in Oulu, Helsinki and Jyväskylä.

The Current Situation

Conservative Laestadianism is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s largest revival movement. It includes about 35,000 members of Associations of Peace and a large group of children and youth. The most important activities are services, Sunday school, Day Circle and youth Bible class. These events are open to all. Outside of Finland, Conservative Laestadians have regular activity in eighteen countries.

Conservative Laestadians’ beliefs are based on Scripture, for in their view the Bible is God’s Word. Therein God has revealed all that humans need to know to be saved from the power of sin, to live in fellowship with God and to attain eternal life. For Conservative Laestadians, the Bible is the highest authority on faith and life. They think as Martin Luther did that a person becomes righteous, or acceptable to God, alone by faith, alone by grace and alone by the merit of Christ.

Conservative Laestadians live as part of society but they want to hold to scriptural instruction and to traditional Christian values and live in accord with them. They welcome societal development and changes, as long as they do not lead to conflicts with faith and good conscience. They value conscientiousness and responsibility and also want to actively participate in improving society.


Lohi Seppo

  • Sydämen kristillisyys. Lars Levi Laestadius ja lestadiolaisen herätyksen alkuvaiheet. SRK 1989. [Note: this work is available in English as Christianity of the Heart: Lars Levi Laestadius and the Beginning Phases of the Laestadian Revival. LLC 2019.

  • Pohjolan kristillisyys. Lestadiolaisuuden leviäminen Suomessa [Christianity of the North] 1870–1899. SRK 1997.

  • Lestadiolaisuuden suuri hajaannus ja sen taustat [Laestadianism’s Great Schism and its Background]. SRK 2007.

Palola Ari-Pekka

  • Kahden kuoren suojassa. Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistyksen historia 1 (1906–1945/1946). SRK 2010.

  • Evankeliumin työ laajenee. Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistyksen historia 2 (1945–1961). SRK 2011. [Note: Summaries of these two works are available in English as Expanding Gospel Work: SRK Historical Summary and Photographs 1906–1961. LLC/SRK 2012.]

Palola Tuomas

  • Amerikkalainen vai pohjoismainen? Amerikan apostolis-luterilaisuus 1884–1929. SRK 2014. [Note: this work contains an English summary.]

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