The Introduction of Mormonism to Finnish Society, 1840-1900
Honored Custos, honored Opponent, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A few weeks ago, the nationwide newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published a multi-page article in its monthly appendix, discussing a small Christian religious movement that grew out of a Bible study group founded at Helsinki University of Technology in the 1980s. In presenting the movement to the great majority who had most probably never heard of it, the focus appeared to be not so much on trying to understand the worldview of the movement as it was on exposing the movement’s alleged misconduct and excesses, or the way in which “the sect members humbly adhere to their shepherd’s … strange teaching.”
Discussion on various internet message boards and during coffee breaks soon ensued. Many people who had just learned of the movement and never actually spoken with its members first hand were quick to denounce it online as an exercise in religious extortion. The pejorative labels of “sect” and “cult” were thrown around freely, without much effort to define them or ponder whether the movement really was so bad. Some clergy criticized the movement, while civil authorities took action to investigate its reported excesses. Movement members were cast as gullible believers, its leader as a cunning deceiver, and the movement itself made to look like something that should be removed from civilized society.
Such are the processes through which our understanding of previously unencountered phenomena are sometimes born. We trust our societal institutions as purveyors of information and build our own ideas and thoughts in interaction with other individuals. That understanding, those ideas and thoughts, become our reality. Whether it actually corresponds to reality “as it actually is” is another matter entirely, but that is to some extent irrelevant. We act based on our own understanding of reality.
Rewind over a hundred years, change the societal and technological context and the content of the criticisms in Helsingin Sanomat and online message boards, and you pretty much have what happened with regards to the Mormons when the movement spread to Finland through printed material and missionary work. This encounter between an established society and its culture, “us,” and a new social phenomenon, “them,” is at the core of my work. In fact, the division between “us” and “them” is at the core of how we structure our understanding of reality.
Religion in nineteenth-century Finland was no longer what it had been for over a couple of centuries. Although there was strictly speaking very little religious freedom, many people were ready to walk on the borders of the law due to religious options other than the Lutheran and Orthodox state churches, even if it got them into trouble. Possibly most famous is the case of the Pietists inspired by Paavo Ruotsalainen, who were sentenced after an 1838-39 trial in Kalajoki in Ostrobothnia. The rising religious currents included both such domestic revivals and completely new foreign movements.
Anglo-American movements such as the Baptists and the Methodists arrived in Finland from Sweden during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were small in terms of numbers, but as argued by an important church historian, “at the time they formed a serious challenge to the Lutheran church.” Their emphasis of an individual’s personal faith corresponded to the democratic and liberal spirit that was gaining traction in society at large. They were also very active in missionary work, organizing Sunday schools and caring for the needy, something that stood in stark contrast to the state church’s efforts in these directions. It was not uncommon for some of these movements to meet with societal resistance, and as was the case especially for the Baptists and the Salvation Army, such resistance could be quite heavy. Nevertheless, they managed to continue their work.
The Mormons entered the religious scene from Sweden in lieu with this contingent. Whereas the first Finnish newspaper notice on the Mormons was published already in 1840, ten years after the movement was formally founded in New York state in the United States, twenty-five missionaries worked in Finland between 1875 and 1900. This is a forgotten period in Finnish Mormon history and a forgotten religious presence in the Finnish history of religion, and thus seemed a very attractive topic for enquiry. Who, then, are the Mormons?
Who Are the Mormons?
Mormonism is a child of what is known as the Second Great Awakening in the United States. This was a wave of Christian religious revivals that swept the country in the early nineteenth century and that gave rise to many denominations. One of the regions especially affected was upstate New York, dubbed as the “burned-over district” and being the home of Joseph Smith, Jr., born in 1805. Through religious worry and a number of theophanies in the 1820s, Smith became convinced that traditional denominations had gone astray, and that he was to serve as the conduit through which God’s pure truth and priestly authority would be restored into the world.
The Mormon movement, whose mainstream later became called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was formally organized in 1830. One of the core tenets were a belief in divine revelation to Moses-like prophets in modern times, embodied for example through the scriptural Book of Mormon and other extra-Biblical texts that the Mormons put on par with the Bible. It was this belief in the reality of prophetic revelation to Joseph Smith and his successors that put the Mormons on a course different from the Protestant environment from which it sprung. Through various circumstances, church headquarters were moved from New York to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally in 1847 to the far west in Utah, which remains the centerplace of the Mormon mainstream, the strand of Mormonism that is discussed in my work.
Because the Mormons believed they were literally God’s modern-day covenant people, led by a modern-day Moses in Joseph Smith and his successors, their task was to gather God’s elect from the four corners of the earth in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ and the onset of the Millennium. This led to an expanding missionary effort that still continues today. The work expanded outside North America to Europe through Great Britain in 1837, and to Scandinavia through Denmark in 1850. Twenty-five more years passed before missionaries introduced the faith to Finland.
On Mormon “Otherness”
One of the surprises I encountered in my research was how much information on the Mormons actually was available in Finland already before the missionaries entered the scene, and especially how much was written on the faith after they did so. From the first article in 1840 to the close of my study period in 1900, a total of nearly 3,500 items ranging from mere mentions to wide articles were published in Finnish newspapers, and numerous books discussed the movement. This material, like the December 2010 article of Helsingin Sanomat on another movement, served as the stuff that conversations on the Mormons drew from and from which people’s images and understanding of the Mormons were born before they had ever encountered them.
It is hard to determine what the average Finnish nineteenth-century layman knew about the Mormons. But if there was at least one thing he knew, it was most probably that a Mormon had many wives. Although Mormons, believing in the restoration in modern times also of this marital arrangement of some Biblical patriarchs, in actuality were part of polygamous households mostly only in Utah and not in the mission fields of Europe, polygamy in an era of Victorian morality provided an object of unending fascination, a justification for scathing denounciations of immorality, and a source even for jokes.
“How is one to work against Mormonism,” asked the title of one joke published in a Finnish newspaper. The answer? “The best way would be to send some fashionable milliners and tailors for ladies to Salt Lake City. The number and sums of the invoices would soon convince every Mormon that one wife is good enough.” Another joke introduces a rich businessman with four lovely daughters and an American businessman whom the former had met with multiple times and who had been warmly recommended. One beautiful day the visit was out of the ordinary: “Sir, he then says directly, I love your daughters and ask for their hands. What! All four?” the perplexed father exclaims. Do you happen to be crazy, my dear sir? Crazy? No, not at all. I am a Mormon!”
While these are funny jokes that we may laugh at, they simultaneously and perhaps unconciously perform an action on the listener. The representation of the Mormon world as one where regular expectations related to courtship and marriage do not apply functions to make the Mormons seem as not part of “us,” something foreign, thus affecting the listener’s understanding of reality. In addition to polygamy, many other such distancing themes were in abundant supply in Finnish publicity on the Mormons, while for example their work ethic in building a society in Utah could also be praised.
The Work in Finland
A historian and journalist once quipped that calling somebody a Mormon in the nineteenth century was in effect similar to calling somebody a Muslim terrorist in the twenty-first century. While this is an overstatement, it hints towards the difficulties that Mormons were in due to being seen as an “other.” In Finland they were often denounced in the newspapers, by clergy whose understanding of reality labeled the Mormon missionaries as dangerous heretics, and by civil authorities who saw the missionaries as lawbreakers.
While the missionaries reported that regular Finnish people often felt positively disposed towards them, this atmosphere of trouble is the one in which they proceeded with their work. The missionaries’ task was to help Finns see reality and the divine scheme in the way that Mormons did, and they were just as sure of being in the right as were their most ardent Finnish opponents, often embodied by Lutheran clergy. According to my research, they worked mostly in the coastal areas, from Karleby up on the west coast down to Borgå on the south coast. The missionaries were mostly Swedish natives, who came to Finland directly from Sweden or after having emigrated to Utah and being called on a mission from there.
In contrast to the present, Mormon missionary work in Finland was mostly a Swedish-language affair and thus reached only country’s minority population. One missionary who was a Finnish native apparently knew some Finnish, and one Swedish missionary bravely tried to jot down a few words phonetically in his notebook, perhaps in order to use the useful phrases to get or buy food and lodging in Finnish-speaking households. A total of 78 individuals were baptized between 1876 and 1900, mostly belonging to the Swedish-speaking minority. In comparison to Mormon success in Sweden and Denmark were baptismal numbers ranged in the thousands, this was very little indeed.
When we encounter something new, we often look to our peers when deciding how to react to it. The people we know form a social network, and it becomes substantially easier for us to accept the novelty when someone who is a part of our network already subscribes to it; it is less foreign to us, and perhaps our peers will also wonder less at our actions. This is true also in matters of religion; it is easier to convert to a new religion if someone we know is already a member. Indeed, my research shows that at least 60% of the Mormons in nineteenth-century Finland were related to one other Mormon and is evidence to the importance of these networks. In my opinion, they also explain why Mormon missionaries chose little Vaasa as the starting point of their work, not the large cities of Helsinki or Turku in the south.
But networks are not enough in order to form a vibrant, expanding church. The Finnish Mormons were scattered around the country in small groups of only a few persons. Their baptisms had been preceded only by minimal introduction to the Mormon message, they did not meet together with the other groups, nor did they form a national association to forward their cause. While many were faithful and felt that they had found their way home to God, they were in essence sheep who were only sporadically visited by a shepherd and who for most of the time had to make do alone, with the little knowledge regarding their own church that they had.
They were eventually forgotten, both by their contemporary leaders in Sweden, by the modern church in Finland, and by writers of Finnish religious history. Only a group in Larsmo managed to transfer their faith to succeeding generations so that there was a continued presence when a concerted missionary effort began after World War II. This is in stark contrast to much of the rest of Scandinavia, where the church flourished for a time, with many converts moving to Utah, the place they viewed as Zion, the Kingdom of God on earth. Indeed, a great percentage of modern-day Mormons in Utah have Scandinavian roots.
Because the nineteenth-century Finnish Mormons were forgotten and Mormon activity in Finland was very small-scale, it has been an interesting and time-consuming research challenge in terms of basic research, which plays a great role in the thesis. Nevertheless, adventures and detective work at archives in Finland and the United States have produced some material that sheds light on the topic. The advent of digital technology, enabling automated searches of hundreds of thousands of newspaper pages, has provided and made possible the creation of entirely new vistas of understanding about what it meant to be a Mormon in nineteenth-century Finland and how Mormons were portrayed to the general population.
To some extent one may indeed wonder how little has changed in how we humans react to something that we have not encountered before. One cannot help but think that some of the calls to battle produced by the reactions to that December 2010 article in Helsingin Sanomat are very similar to reactions produced by a 1845 article in Borgå Tidning, titled “The Mormons, an Armed Religious Sect in the United States,” among the paper’s main readership, Lutheran clergy of the Borgå diocese. Indeed the Mormons were armed, but that most probably was not their defining characteristic in their own mind and the one they, members of what they saw as the true Christian church, not a sect, hoped to be known by. But that is how some outsiders saw them, and that conditioned those outsiders’ reactions.
The study of nineteenth-century religion in Finland has tended to be lacking in a treatment of the place of smaller foreign movements in an overwhelmingly Lutheran country. While exceptional neither in the level of resistance that it met nor the number of converts it made, Mormonism made a clear impact on the nation’s religious canvas both through the physical presence of its members and missionaries and through images constructed by the printed word, earlier and in more ways than has been revealed by prior studies. While very small, it should thus join the ranks of movements such as the Adventists, Baptists, the Free Church, Methodists, and the Salvation Army when examining foreign religious influences in nineteenth-century Finland generally.
Who these people were who heard about a Zion far in the west, who converted them, and what was thought regarding this new movement in nineteenth-century Finland are some of the themes that will be discussed here today.
I call upon the Opponent appointed by the department council to make any comments that he finds that my thesis gives rise to.
 “Valitut,” Helsingin Sanomat – Kuukausiliite 12/2010 (4 December 2010), p. 46.
 Eino Murtorinne, Suomen kirkon historia: Autonomian kausi 1809-1899 (Porvoo: WSOY, 1992), pp. 310-311.
 Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950).
 Kim Östman, The Introduction of Mormonism to Finnish Society, 1840-1900 (Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press, 2010), pp. 85-160.
 “Huru skall man kunna motarbeta mormonismen?,” Finland, 27 July 1888, p. 4.
 “Också en förklaring,” Nya Pressen, 9 June 1887, p. 3.
 Axel Tullgren diary (MS 4968), n.p., Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
 “Mormonerna, en beväpnad religionssekt i de Förenta Staterna,” Borgå Tidning, 20 August 1845, pp. 1-4.