FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Research Papers

The First Centuries of Christianity in Finland
Anni Järvinen, Spring 2005 (GB)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENAK1) Finnish Institutions Research Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

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 Finland.

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 47).

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 (47).

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 (Pirinen 72).

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 148).

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 (Pirinen 202).

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 years.

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.


  1. Translations: "In the name of God", "Amen" and "My Lord"
  2. Translations: "priest", "cross", "Bible", "pagan"
  3. 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.
  4. A "reredos" is a screen or a decoration behind the altar in a church that usually depicts religious iconography or images (Wikipedia).
  5. 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).

Works Cited

  • 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.
  • Kotiseutukokoelma: Piispa Henrik [The Home District Collection: Bishop Henry]. Nousiaisten kunnankirjasto [The Municipal Library of Nousiainen]. Consultation date: 08 March 2005.
  • Medieval 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, 1991.
  • Reredos. Wikipedia. Consultation date: 16 April 2005.

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