The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is celebrating 2005 as the
850th year of Christianity in Finland. The counting starts from 1155 AD,
when St. Henry, the patron saint of Finland, first came to the country.
For centuries Finland was a Roman Catholic country. During the 16th
century, like many other European countries, it underwent a reformation.
Nowadays the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the established state church;
an overwhelming majority of the population belongs to it.
The influence of the church is everywhere. No matter how secularised
Finland nowadays may seem, the Christian faith is the undisputed key to
modern Finnish society. It affects the legislation, the way people think
and even the way they speak. In fact, Western culture was brought to
Finland by the church. The schooling for which Finland is so well known
abroad, and so proud of, also has its roots in the church.
But what actually happened in the 1150's? How was it possible for a new
religion to completely take over an entire culture? This paper will
illuminate what happened all those years ago.
The Roman Catholic Church in Northern Europe
As often in Finnish history, its Nordic neighbors and Russia played
important roles in introducing Finland to Christianity. The three other
Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, became Christian far earlier
than Finland. The first missionary appeared in the Nordic region as early
as the 7th century. This man was from Anglo-Saxon England, as Kauko
Pirinen notes in Suomen kirkon historia (20).
As Simo Heininen and Markku Heikkilä report in Suomen
kirkkohistoria, missionaries came to the Nordic countries from both
the British isles and the Continent of Europe (14). In the 9th century the
emperor Charlemagne ruled Europe all the way up to the Southern border of
Denmark. In 829 his son Louis I (the Pious) of Aquitaine sent monk Ansgar
to Birka, Sweden. Ansgar later became the archbishop of the diocese of
Hamburg (Pirinen 20).
In the North, conversion to Christianity started from the top of the
social class (Pirinen 23). Kings used the new religion to secure their
rule, but it was not always easy to get the lower classes to convert. The
three countries all had martyr kings. St. Olaf Haraldson of Norway died in
the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. St. Knut of Denmark was murdered in
Odense, Denmark in 1160. St. Eric of Sweden was slain in Uppsala, Sweden
in 1160 (Heininen and Heikkilä 14).
The Greek Catholic Church in Russia
There had been missionaries in Russia (Novgorod) before a Russian princess
called Olga converted to Christianity in 955 (Orthodox World). However, it
was Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev who decided that Russia needed a common
religion. After negotiations with Byzantium, the Eastern Roman empire,
Vladimir was baptised in 988. This is considered a turning point in a
long-term development (Pirinen 18).
Christianity spread first to cities, but gradually also to rural areas.
During the reign of Vladimir’s son Jaroslav the Wise, Christianity became
the official religion of Novgorod. The bishop of Novgorod was to became an
archbishop of the Greek Catholic church (Pirinen 18).
Russia became an important cultural and religious centre. The Muslim
Turks invaded Constantinople, the capital and centre of the Eastern Roman
Empire, in 1453. After this a Russian Tsar declared Russia the third Rome
(The Roman Empire had been the first and Byzantium the second).
The First Christian Influences in Finland
Doctrinal disputes between the Roman Catholic church in the West and the
Greek Catholic church in the East resulted in a mutual excommunication in
1054. This meant that both churches were now sending their own
missionaries to pagan areas and competing for souls to save.
Finland was in between two kingdoms with different religions. Sweden
was a Roman Catholic country and Russia a Greek Catholic one. Finland thus
became a battleground of the two religions.
The first Christian influences had come to Finland already in the
Viking Age. Graves have provided material for researchers. It was the old
custom in Finland to bury different objects with the deceased. From the
end of the first millennium AD graves have been found that have objects
connected with Christianity. These include crucifixes and swords with
writing in Latin, such as In nomine Domini, Amen and
Dominus Meus 1 (Heininen and
Heikkilä 14, Pirinen 29). As the old Finnish way was to burn the deceased
together with all the objects given to him or her to help the spirit to
adapt to the afterlife, burying is therefore also a sign of Christian
influences overcoming the old habits (Heininen and Heikkilä 15).
However, all the examples given in the previous paragraph serve more as
a sign of meeting Christian influence than of a person's own personal
religious conviction. Later changes in burial rituals, however, do speak
for a deeper rooting of the Christian beliefs (Pirinen 29, 30).
Along with archaeological evidence, language can also give some hints
to the origins of the first Christian influences. Such Finnish
religion-related words as pappi, risti, raamattu and
pakana 2 are loans from ancient
Russian (Pirinen 32). This proves that the first influences came from the
East. It also lets us know that these words are very old, from before the
year 1000. After this, religious vocabulary came from the West (Heininen
and Heikkilä 14, Pirinen 32).
The First Crusade to Finland and the Legend of St. Henry
The original idea, or "conquest" theory of how Christianity came to
Finland, recorded by Mikael Agricola in his translation of the New
Testament in 1548, originates from medieval times. According to this idea
the Swedes forced the Finns, who had not heard of the new religion before,
to turn to Christianity. In addition to this, Swedish rule was also forced
on Finland. However, archaeological evidence now shows that Christian
influences had existed in Finland long before the Swedish influence
(Heininen 45). The “conquest” theory was not abandoned until the beginning
of the 20th century (Heininen and Heikkilä 12).
This theory has its roots in the legend of the first crusade to
Finland. According to the legend, this crusade 3 was made by King Eric Jedvardson (later St. Eric
of Sweden) and Bishop Henry of Uppsala. The latter was an Englishman who
became the bishop of Finland (Turku), and later the patron saint of
The legend of St. Henry is of Finnish origin and is written in Latin.
It is the very first piece of Finnish literature (Pirinen 43). It
describes Bishop Henry’s work in Finland. According to it, the bishop came
to Finland to convert the heathen, establish the church and strengthen its
newly acquired power (Pirinen 43, Heininen 43). Along with the legend of
St. Eric it also describes Henry’s death. The murderer’s name is not
mentioned (Heininen 43). According to the legend the murderer kills Henry
because the bishop was trying to reprimand him for another murder he had
committed (e.g. Heininen and Heikkilä 15).
Another source of information is Piispa Henrikin surmavirsi
(“The Death of Bishop Henry”). It is in Finnish. It was not written down
until the 17th century, but it probably originates from the 13th century
(Heininen 43). Some of its parts, which are not found elsewhere, are
portrayed in the reredos 4 of the Isokyrö
church from the 15th century (Pirinen 43).
Piispa Henrikin surmavirsi has an entirely different story to
tell about Henry’s death. In this version the murderer has a name, Lalli.
But the real culprit is Lalli’s wife, Kerttu. According to the story
Bishop Henry and his companions arrive at Lalli’s house and ask for some
food and forage. Kerttu does not give it to them. So the bishop tells his
companions to take what they need for themselves, but to pay for
everything. After the bishop and his entourage have left, Lalli, the
master of the house, returns home. His wife tells him that the bishop’s
people just took everything and did not pay. The enraged Lalli skis after
the bishop and kills him on the ice of Lake Köyliönjärvi.
Lalli himself comes to a sad end. After finishing his deed he returns
home wearing the bishop’s mitre. When he takes it off his entire scalp
comes off along with it. Later he dies when he has to flee a horde of mice
(or rats) to a lake. He drowns and the lake is thereafter known as
Hiirijärvi (“Mouse Lake”).
The Truth About St. Henry and Lalli
Interestingly enough, there is no contemporary account of the crusade. In
fact, modern Swedish scholars regard it as a myth (Pirinen 41). The only
information available is in the legends of St. Eric and St. Henry.
However, according to Pirinen, the legend of St. Eric has its roots in the
time of Eric’s son, Knut. Since some of the people involved would have
been still alive at that time, it would have been impossible for the story
to have been entirely false (42). The crusade was made in 1155 or maybe a
few years later.
On the other hand, it is now well known that the crusade was not a
military conquest. This story is propaganda of Eric’s son. King Knut used
the legend of his father the saint to secure his own rule and to make sure
that the succession to the throne stayed in his family (Heininen 47).
Bishop Henry did not come to Finland to baptise pagans, either. As
mentioned above, there had been Christianity in Finland before Eric and
Henry came. The reason the bishop actually came to Finland was to organise
ecclesiastical affairs, establish parishes and build churches (Heininen
How about the bishop’s death? The popular belief has always been that
Lalli and Kerttu were heathens, who cruelly murdered the innocent
Christian. This is not true; both Lalli and Kerttu have Christian names
(Heininen and Heikkilä 16). The names are Finnish modifications of
Laurentius and Gertud (Nousiaisten kunnankirjasto), of
Christian origin. However, it is impossible to know if the bishop’s
murderer’s name really was Lalli (Heininen 47).
According to Heininen, reactions like Lalli’s were not uncommon in
medieval times. In areas like Finland the new religion had been received
but not yet embraced. The new ideas of justice were very different from
the old ones. In addition to this, it cost a lot to build churches and
hire priests. The local people rebelled against all these changes in their
lives. This is probably why Lalli, too, did what he did (Heininen 47,
Heininen and Heikkilä 17).
The New Diocese in Finland
The very first historical document about Finland is from the year 1171.
This is a papal bull from Pope Alexander III to the Archbishop of Uppsala.
It is often called Gravis admomum; these are the very first words
of the bull. In it the Holy Father expresses his resentment against the
Finns. According to the information he has received, when threatened, they
embrace Christianity. However, as soon as the threat is gone, they go back
to their pagan ways, and persecute the priests and preachers (Heininen and
Heikkilä 17, Pirinen 47). According to Pirinen, this implies that Finland
was not taken over by the Swedes. Instead, the two countries were allies
In a letter of 1216 Pope Innocent III gave the King of Sweden rights to
the land his predecessors had won from the heathens. This land is not
named, but apparently it means Finland (Pirinen 56). In the same letter
the Pope also gives his permission to have one or two bishops in the land.
These bishops would be subordinate to the Archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden
(Heininen and Heikkilä 18, Pirinen 56).
After his death Bishop Henry was buried in Nousiainen in South-Western
Finland. Nousiainen was also the first centre of the diocese of Finland
(Heininen and Heikkilä 17). The episcopal see was there, too. The see was
transferred to Koroinen, by the Aurajoki River, in 1229 by permission of
Pope Gregory IX (Pirinen 58).
Bishop Henry had been succeeded by two bishops, Rodulf and Folkvinus
(Pirinen 48). Besides their names, nothing else is known about them
(Heininen and Heikkilä 17). The first bishop of Finland who is mentioned
in contemporary documents is Tuomas in the 13th century (Pirinen 58).
Like Bishop Henry, Bishop Tuomas was also an Englishman who had come to
Finland from Uppsala (Heininen and Heikkilä 18, Pirinen 58). His name is
first mentioned in documents in the year 1234, but he had probably been in
Finland before that (Pirinen 58). The bishop believed in converting the
heathen by force, and was ready to take tough measures when doing that
(Heininen and Heikkilä 18, Pirinen 61). He resigned from his position in
1245. The reasons for this are given in a resignation letter from Pope
Innocent IV. The letter says that Tuomas had both let a man be tortured to
death and falsified a letter from the Pope (Heininen and Heikkilä 18,
Pirinen 61). Bishop Tuomas died in a Dominican monastery in Visby, Sweden
in 1248 (Pirinen 58).
The Crusade to Häme
In 1237 Pope Gregory IX wrote to the archbishop of Uppsala. In the letter
the Holy Father expressed his worry concerning the people of the inland
county of Häme in Finland. According to him, the people of Häme had with
great effort converted to Christianity. Now, however they seemed to be
turning back to their old pagan ways. The Russians and Carelians, who
lived near, were said to be guilty of making the people of Häme go back to
paganism. The Pope asked the Christians in Sweden to fight the renegades.
He also added that this mission would be identical to a crusade to the
Holy Land; the participants would be absolved of their sins (Heininen and
Heikkilä 18-19, Pirinen 60-61).
According to tradition, the crusade to Häme was made by Birger Jarl
(Earl Birger). He was the brother-in-law of the King of Sweden (Pirinen
63). In 1240 he lost a crusade-inspired battle by the Neva River in
Russia. The victor of the battle, Alexander Nevsky, later became the
patron saint of Russia (Heininen and Heikkilä 19).
Modern studies date the crusade to 1238, before the time of the Neva
battle. This would make sense, as men from Häme fought at the Neva River.
The original idea is, however, that the crusade was some ten years later,
in 1248. This is because of a Swedish chronicle from around 1320. It is
much coloured by memories of later expeditions to the area of Carelia
(Karjala) at the Finnish-Russian border (Pirinen 63).
According to the chronicle, Birger Jarl built a castle in Häme. This is
not the castle in the present-day town of Hämeenlinna in Finland. Instead,
the castle in the chronicle is apparently the hill fortification of
Hakoinen in Janakkala (Heininen and Heikkilä 19, Pirinen 64).
The chronicle also mentions that Christians had now started to come and
live in the land. This refers to the Swedes, who now came to live on the
Finnish coast. According to modern research, this did happen mainly in the
13th century. This fortified Finland’s defence and also the position of
the church in Finland (Pirinen 64).
The Partition of Carelia Between Sweden and Russia
At the end of the 13th century the Russians and the Carelians often made
raiding expeditions to Finland, which now was a part of Sweden. Valdemar,
the king of Sweden, complained about this to the Pope. In 1293 a crusade
was made to Carelia. The leaders of this expedition were the Lord High
Constable Tyrgils Knutson and the bishop of Västerås (Heininen and
Heikkilä 20, Pirinen 75-76).
During this crusade the castle of Vyborg was built “in honour of God
and the Virgin Mary, to protect the kingdom and to safeguard the
seafarers”, as the king of Sweden says in a letter (Pirinen 76). As
Pirinen notes, this is rather openly admitting that trade and safety were
at least as important as missionary work (76).
The crusade was followed by three decades of fighting (Heininen and
Heikkilä 20). In 1300 the Swedes, led by the Lord High Constable Tyrgils,
attacked the Russians by the Neva River and built a castle near the
present-day St. Petersburg, Russia (Pirinen 76). However, they soon lost
the castle to the Russians.
The fighting did not end until the year 1323, when the Pähkinänsaari
Peace Treaty was signed. This treaty divided the area of Carelia into two
parts. The newly-formed border was to remain the border between the Roman
Catholic and Greek Catholic churches for the next 300 years (Heininen and
Heikkilä 20, Pirinen 76). Thus 1323 can be considered the year when the
missionary and crusade era was over in Finland (Pirinen 77).
The Position of the Bishop in Medieval Finland
After the resignation of Bishop Tuomas, the bishop’s duties were possibly
taken over by the prior of the Dominican abbey in Visby, Sweden (Heininen
and Heikkilä 20). The next three bishops were all former chancellors of
Swedish rulers. According to Heininen and Heikkilä, the first of these,
Bero, became bishop in 1248 (20). According to Pirinen, Bero started in
1249 (71). The chancellor bishops, as they are called, were elected by the
king of Sweden and were loyal to him (Heininen and Heikkilä 20). Around
this time the Finnish bishops started to be included in politics, too
A 1259 papal letter is where the appellation ‘Bishop of Turku’
(episcopus Aboensis) is first used. Until then the bishops had been
called bishops of Finland (episcopus Finlandensis), after their
missionary area (Heininen and Heikkilä 21, Pirinen 72).
After the chancellor bishops came Bishop Johannes I. In his time, a new
cathedral was built and St Henry’s legend was compiled (Pirinen 73).
However, Johannes I was soon elected the archbishop of Uppsala. After him,
in 1291, it was time for the first bishop who had been born in Finland,
Maunu I (Pirinen 74).
Of all men in Finland the bishop had most power. He had an armed
entourage, a castle in Kuusisto, east of Turku, and a garrison to protect
it. He was also one of the king’s councelors (Heininen and Heikkilä 29).
Since they got a share of the church tax, the bishops were also very
wealthy (Heininen and Heikkilä 30).
The Cathedral Chapter
The cathedral chapter is the oldest office in Finland. It was founded in
1276, although the permission to establish the chapter had been given by
Pope Urban IV as early as 1264 (Pirinen 73). Its members, the canons and
prelates, were all educated men (Heininen and Heikkilä 21, Pirinen 73).
The members of the cathedral chapter were the bishop's councelors. In
certain matters the bishop had to take the chapter's advice into
consideration or have it agree on his decision. The chapter also
supervised the cathedral and its building fund (fabrica) (Pirinen
The cathedral chapter’s most important duty, however, was to elect the
new bishop. The first time it got to do that was in 1289. Lacking a
Finnish candidate it elected Johannes, the prior of the Dominican abbey in
Sigtuna, Sweden (Pirinen 73).
However, the cathedral chapter’s decision was not valid without the
Pope’s confirmation. The Holy Father did not have to agree with the
chapter’s choosing; he could choose anyone. Johannes was confirmed, but in
general the chapter wanted a Finnish man on the bishop's see. A lot of
money and diplomacy was needed to make sure there would be no unpleasant
surprises. However, the most important factor in getting papal
confirmation was having candidates who were qualified for the task
(Heininen and Heikkilä 31).
The Church as the Establisher of Education in Finland
Western culture was brought to Finland by the church. The first written
language in Finland was Latin, which was used by the church (Heininen and
Heikkilä 45). Almost all books belonged to the men of the church, too
(Heininen and Heikkilä 46). The church was also for a long time the only
institution that provided education (Pirinen 202).
The first school in Finland was the cathedral school in Turku. It is
first mentioned in written documents in 1326, but it had probably been run
in some form as early as the time of Bishop Tuomas. The main aim of the
school was to educate future priests (Pirinen 202).
The studying was based on the so-called trivium. This includes
three subjects: grammar, rhetoric and dialectics. These were to provide a
basis for the learning of Latin (Pirinen 203). The rector (headmaster) was
usually a young Finn who had got his Master’s degree in a foreign
university. His salary was poor, as was the livelihood of his students
The second most important school in Finland was in Vyborg, first
mentioned in documents in 1409. It was the first school in Finland where,
in the spirit of humanism, Virgil and Terenty were included in the
curriculum (Heininen and Heikkilä 47, Pirinen 203).
Many former church school students continued their studies in foreign
universities. There are records of about 140 Finnish students in
universities in the Middle Ages (Heininen and Heikkilä 47, Pirinen 204).
There were probably many others, since the documents have not always
survived or in many cases they did not mention the nationality of the
student (Pirinen 204).
A third of all the Finnish students went to the University of Paris
(Heininen and Heikkilä 47). The first Finns were recorded there as early
as 1313 (Pirinen 204). Finnish students also studied in the universities
of Prague, Cologne, Vienna, Bologna and Rostock, among others. The men in
the highest ecclesiastical positions in Finland had, therefore, contacts
all around Europe.
Almost all bishops had a Master’s degree. The cathedral chapter used to
give a scholarship for those it wanted to be educated to become the rulers
of the diocese (Heininen and Heikkilä 47). Olavi Maununpoika (Olavus
Magni), who was later to become Bishop of Turku, was even the Rector of
the University of Paris in 1435-1436 (Heininen and Heikkilä 48). He is
one of the few Finns who are known to have done post-graduate studies
5 in the Middle Ages (Pirinen 117, 204).
Christianity Is The Key to Modern Finnish Society
Evidence shows that there has been Christian influence in Finland for over
a thousand years. The first signs are from the end of the first
millennium. This means that the old "conquest" theory cannot be accurate.
When King Eric and Bishop Henry arrived in Finland in the 1150’s, there
were already Christians present. Bishop Henry came to Finland to organise
ecclesiastical affairs, not to convert cruel pagans. His killer, Lalli,
was not a savage heathen, either. Lalli probably rebelled against the new
expenses the coming of the church brought to the people of Finland.
Pope Innocent III gave the King of Sweden the rights to Finland in
1216. For the next century Finland remained a missionary area in unstable
circumstances. The 1323 Pähkinänsaari Peace treaty marked the beginning of
a more peaceful era. The border defined in the treaty remained the border
between the Roman and Greek Catholic churches for the next three hundred
After the missionary era Finland was a fully functioning diocese. The
bishop of Turku was the most powerful man in the country; he even had some
influence on affairs in the mother country, Sweden. In the Middle Ages the
only way to education and culture was through the church.
- Translations: "In the name of God", "Amen" and "My Lord"
- Translations: "priest", "cross", "Bible", "pagan"
- The word ”crusade” is usually used when talking about the military
expeditions to the Holy Land in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.
However, the term ristiretki (crusade) is used in Finnish to
describe the same kind of expeditions made by the Swedes to Finland in the
12th and 13th centuries.
- A "reredos" is a screen or a decoration behind the altar in a church
that usually depicts religious iconography or images (Wikipedia).
- In medieval times it took six years to study for a Bachelor's
degree and up to 12 additional years for a Master's degree and doctorate.
Only after a student had obtained a Bachelor of Arts did he choose one of
the three faculties (law, medicine and theology) in which to study for a
Master's degree or a doctoral degree (Wikipedia).
- A Brief
History of the Orthodox Church: The Baptism of Russia. Orthodox World.
Consultation date: 07 March 2005.
- Heininen, Simo, and Markku Heikkilä. Suomen kirkkohistoria
[Finnish Church History]. Helsinki: Oy Edita Ab, 1996.
- Heininen, Simo. Talonpoika Lalli – Paha pakana vai vihainen
viljelijä? [Peasant Lalli – A Cruel Pagan or an Angry Farmer?].
Tiede [Science]. 22 February 2005: 42-47.
Piispa Henrik [The Home District Collection: Bishop Henry].
Nousiaisten kunnankirjasto [The Municipal Library of Nousiainen].
Consultation date: 08 March 2005.
university. Wikipedia. Consultation date: 10 May 2005.
- Pirinen, Kauko. Suomen kirkon historia 1: Keskiaika ja
uskonpuhdistuksen aika [History of the Finnish Church 1 : The Middle
Ages and the Lutheran Reformation]. Porvoo: Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö,
- Reredos. Wikipedia.
Consultation date: 16 April 2005.