Dr. Mikko Ketola, a researcher and university lecturer at the University of Helsinki, Department of Church History, has in his recent essay described the violence of healing meetings in the Conservative Laestadian revival movement (SRK-Laestadianism). He has analysed the question of public apologising in the fundamentalistic community, by comparing SRK and other cases. (Apologising for Past Errors: Two Finnish Religious Revival Movements and Their Different Strategies, August 2010.) Dr. Ketola is recently elected the Secretary of the association of the researchers of Christian church history CIHEC (Commission Internationale d’Histoire et d’Etudes du Christianisme) in 2010-2015.
The review offers valuable information and views on the near history of the Conservative Laestadian revival movement in Finland and worldwide.
Mikko Ketola says as his conclusions that it is not probable that a public apology will be made by the SRK anytime soon, although recent sexual abuse charges against several SRK-Laestadian lay preachers have further darkened the public image of the movement and put more pressure on the SRK leadership to do something.
Regardless, the consequences of the apology will certainly be considered carefully by the SRK management. The thorough calculation can give advise whether such an apologising would offer advantages e.g. to support the position of SRK in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Anyway, in the possible collective apologising would arose questions inside related with the doctrine of unerring congregation. On the other side, there is increasing effort in the community generally to own-initiative confessions of the past errors, to compensate for the victims and also to commit transparency and the fair treatment of people in all situations. However, the implications of the collective apologising are always unexpected and uncontrollable.
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The aim of the review
”The paper concentrates in recent discussion about the necessity of the apologies of two Finnish religious revival movements: SRK-Laestadianism and the Finnish Lutheran Mission (Suomen evankelisluterilainen kansanlähetys). The movement’s secretary-general of the Finnish Lutheran Mission issued an apology in 1999 for all the mental and spiritual anguish the movement has caused for its adherents during its history in Finland.
Public ecclesiastical apologies have become quite usual during the last 15 years. In July 2010, the Lutheran World Federation, at a joint service of repentance with Mennonit es, asked for forgiveness for the 16th-century persecution of Anabaptists, the religious reformers whose modern-day descendants include Mennonites.
The aim is not to describe and analyse the actual events being apologized for but to analyse the apology and its motivations (in the case of the FLM) and the lack of apology and the reasons for that (in the case of Laestadianism).
One of the Finnish Lutheran Church’s significant features is the role of revival movements within the church. During the 19th century four principal revival movements emerged, all inspired by German pietism but each with its own distinctive characteristics and doctrinal emphasis. They all blossomed within the Church rather than outside of it and went on to have a profound impact on both religious life and society in Finland.
The largest of these is Laestadianism which came to be in the middle of the 19th century in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Today, it has around 100.000 adherents in Finland, and its mass meetings bring as many as 70.000 people together each summer.
During its history Laestadianism has split several times. At the beginning of the 20th century, the movement broke into three branches, Conservative Laestadianism remaining the largest of them. Even after this major schism, other groups have also departed or been forced to depart, the last of them at the beginning of the 1960s. At the core of these schisms there has always been the congregational doctrine. Who can be considered a true believer and member of the Kingdom of God?
The branch of Laestadianism I’m talking about is in English called Conservative Laestadianism but in Finland it is known as SRK-Laestadianism.
SRK stands for the Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations, established in 1906. Incidentally, in the original Finnish name of the committee the word ’conservative’ does not appear or isn’t even implied. Actually, it is not needed; in Finland everyone knows that the Laestadians are religious conservatives.
A literal translation of the SRK would be The Central Association of the Associations of Peace in Finland [Suomen rauhanyhdistysten keskusyhdistys ry.]. Namely, the local congregations are called Associations of Peace. [Or the Assembly of Peace, as well.] For some reason, this term does not appear in the official English name at all.
The Central Committee is based in Oulu, a regional metropol in northern Finland. There are Associations of Peace everywhere in Finland. The Helsinki Assembly of Peace is one of the largest.
No salvation outside the SRK – the exclusive congregational doctrine
The central, defining feature of SRK-Laestadianism has always been its exclusive congregational doctrine. The SRK-Laestadians see themselves as the Kingdom of God upon earth. The Kingdom of God is unanimous in faith, doctrine and love.
The central teaching of Conservative Laestadianism is the forgiveness of sins. One becomes a believer by confessing one’s sins to another Laestadian. The receiver of the confession proclaims that ’You can believe all sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood.’
An individual believer can err but the congregation is never wrong.
The members call themselves either Laestadians, ’believers,’ or ’Christians’. Thus, it can be confusing for an outsider to listen to a Laestadian using a very ecumenical and inclusive-sounding term ’Christians’ when in fact it means a very limited group of Finnish Christians. The borders of the true congregation are kept very clear.
Inside these borders lies salvation, outside there is only ’unbelief and confusion about matters of faith’. In fact, all outsiders are on the way to hell. There is no salvation outside the SRK.
The Kingdom of God upon earth
The SRK-Laestadianism sees itself as the empirical and historical successor of the apostles. They are convinced that they constitute the visible and concrete reality of the Kingdom of God upon earth. In their view, this role has in the course of history been offered to other groups and communities of believers in different parts of the world but they have all failed.
Within the SRK-Laestadianism the epithet ”revival movement” is resented because it is seen as demeaning.
This self-understanding of the SRK-Laestadianism has understandably caused problems in its relations with the Lutheran Church of Finland.
For instance, the SRK-Laestadians do not accept women pastors, whose number in the Lutheran Church is steadily growing, but then again, they do not regard any other pastors than their own as ’right’ although they might be legitimate.
They rarely attend regular services at the local parish churches, not because it is forbidden for them, but because they do not find the preaching and proclamation of Gospel there ’fruitful’ or useful.
However, they have not been interested in leaving the Church which they see as as important protector, and as long as they are not forced to leave the Church, they will stay.
On the other hand, the Lutheran church leadership has been reluctant to disturb their relations to the movement; even though the SRK-lestadianism quite clearly constitutes a church within a church because of its exclusivity, it has been considered a vital part of the wider church, especially in northern Finland.
Violence in the healing meetings
Keeping the border between the Kingdom of God and the outside world clear once again became a burning issue at the second half of the 1970s. The leadership of the SRK-Laestadianism which consisted mostly of lay preachers began to see the unity and purity of the Kingdom increasingly threatened by harmful outside influences and lax discipline inside. It became a necessity to root out these influences and those who kept disseminating them.
The way to achieve this was to organize so called public ’healing’ or ’pastoral care’ meetings. They were called by the local Associations of Peace but were very often attended by one or more members of the executive committee of the Central Committee (the SRK). The official organ of the Central Committee carried notices of these meetings.
People accused each others and were manipulated to fight against each others
In reality, these meetings meant interrogation and disciplining of those who were deemed to be led by a false spirit. Those accused had to step in front of the whole congregation where they had to listen to the charges made against them. The whole congregation, not just those acting as chairmen, could join in making accusations.
The accused then had the chance to repent and receive forgiveness. If they did or could not do this in the right way, and this often meant using very specific words and phrases, they could be expelled from the congregation and thus from the Kingdom of God.
These events were traumatic for many accused.
Many of them were old people who could not understand that they had done anything wrong. Many tried to repent immediately just to be spared further pain and humiliation but this was not possible because the leaders wanted to be certain that the accused really understood what they had done wrong. This could in some cases take hours. All kinds of things could be cause for reprimand.
“The False spirit”: greeting, television, books, singing in the choir, hunting society, wrong political party…
Watching television or using contraception were considered particularly serious faults at this time. Other ’crimes’ included greeting non-believers, reading ’ecumenical’ journals or literature (i.e. any other religious literature than that published by the SRK), or voting for the wrong political party (e.g. any leftist party or the ideological competitor to the Centre Party which is the Laestadians’ party of choice).
Even singing in the local parish choir or being an active member in the hunting society could be reason enough to be called in front of the congregation. Precise minutes were always made of these meetings but they remain confidential. However, enough information has been provided by those who participated in the meetings for us to know how things were done.
Whole families were expelled out of ”the Kingdom of God”
Many people were deeply hurt and even traumatized by the oppressive methods used in these meetings.
For some people being first humiliated in front of other believers and finally thrown out of the Kingdom of God was so painful that they committed suicide. Almost always casualties included not just individuals but other members of the family and even other relatives. Whole families were expelled.
The meetings and purges raised an intense public discussion at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, and probably due to the wide popular attention further meetings were soon halted.
The events of the late 1970s caused long-standing resentment and bitterness among those who felf personally wronged. Some of them became ex-members active in seeking justice for the falsely ”healed” and an apology from the leadership of the SRK-Laestadianism.
The new discussion emerged in the Internet
They were gradually joined by a younger generation many of whom wanted a relaxation of the strict lifestyle norms and a modernization of the movement. From the start of the new millennium, they joined forces especially at the Internet message boards and discussion forums where the healing meetings became a special focus at the start of 2006.
On 19 January 2006, at an Internet forum called Suomi24.fi a woman who gave her name as Paula E. demanded that the SRK should employ an independent university scholar to research the events around the healing meetings. After the work is completed, the results must be published and an open apology issued to all those who had suffered from the spiritual terror and mental anguish of the meetings. The apology must be published in the official organ of the SRK-Laestadianism, and in the leading national and regional newspapers. It should also be made known to the members of all Associations of Peace.
This demand would perhaps have remained unknown for the wider public but for the fact that the issue was picked up by the religious press.
[In fact, previously as early as in March 2000 the young Laestadian priest Antti Pentikäinen with two colleagues, Matti Hyry and Jyrki Rauhala, launched public discussion on the state of Laestadian movement. They made suggestion to SRK for a public apology, in the interview published in Sana, the religious magazine. Antti Pentikäinen was worried about people’s unfair treatment in the healing meetings and pointed out the responsibility of the Laestadian revival movement. He also emphasized womens rights and their problematic treatment in the congregation and wished progress for the gender equality in the future. The consequences towards the priests were expected. Some members of the executive committee of the Central Committee of SRK arranged a healing meeting for them. Thus, thereafter they stopped activities concerning the healing meetings. As a matter of fact, even before that outcome of the young Laestadian priests there had been going on already for years the debate and writings in the media about the violence and individual experiences in healing meetings. – Editors’ note.]
Kotimaa gets the ball
The semi-official organ of the Lutheran Church, Kotimaa, interviewed the secretary-general of the SRK and also a prominent historian of Laestadianism who was a member of the movement himself. [Taneli Kylätasku: ”Hoitokokousten” kipu tuntuu yhä. Kotimaa 3.2.2006, p.4.]
The historian Dr Seppo Lohi’s judgement was that clear mistakes had been make in the course of holding the meetings and individuals had been wronged. It seems evident that only through the medium of Internet discussion forums and blogs has it become possible to effectively challenge and even pressure the SRK Laestadianism’s leadership.
Open criticism and discussion has not been tolerated within the movement’s ranks.
Conservative Laestadians do take part in online discussions but always anonymously. The reason for this probably is that they are afraid of being labelled and becoming subject to questioning by the elders of their congregation.
I would tentatively claim that there was a fairly clear period of intensification of internet debate not only concerning Laestadianism but also in the case of the small Roman Catholic Church in Finland, and also more generally in regard of religion, in 2005–2006. Whether this was a mere coincidence or whether it was because people had finally ’found’ this channel and had realized the possibilities of Internet to voice their dissatisfaction with the status quo, remains a matter for further study.
It would also be interesting to know whether there are similiar observations from other countries.
No need for an apology
In his view, the apology should be issued by those individuals who had been personally involved with the organising and carrying out of the actual meetings, as the Central Committee had not been responsible for the meetings.
However, it has been pointed out that members of the Central Committee took actively part in many of the meetings, especially when asked to help out as speakers and ’judges’.
Also, the main organ of the SRK-Laestadianism, the weekly Päivämies, carried notices of the meetings, making them thus very public and official-sounding.
In general, the view from today’s leadership of the SRK seems to be that the critics are either bitter outsiders and ex-members or young people who were not even born in the 1970s and thus not capable of having an informed view of the issues.
The present SRK leadership evidently want to detach themselves from and deny their responsibility for events 30 years in the past.
Background of the Case of the Finnish Lutheran Mission
The Finnish Lutheran Mission (the FLM) was established in 1967. The FLM united like-minded people from different conservative groups and movements. In Finland, these circles have been called neo-pietistic to stress on the one hand their roots in the old German pietistic tradition, and on the other hand in reference to the newer influences they received from British and American Evangelicalism.
The FLM has also been called the ’Fifth Revival Movement’ to imply that it belongs to the same league with the four other, more traditional, revival movements.The FLM was to a large extent a protest movement. It protested against liberal tendencies in university theology, especially the use of historicalcritical method in Bible studies, increasing ecumenical cooperation, and general leftist radicalism of the 1960. The movement was conservative not only theologically but also politically and morally.
An important part of the mode of operation of the FLM was active personal evangelisation. Every member was expected to regard it as their duty. Sometimes there were excesses, committed particularly by the younger followers in the early days of the movement, and many of those who had been targeted for evangelisation felt they were objects of psychological and spiritual harassment. The strict moral code also felt oppressive to many and became a reason for gradual alienation and eventually leaving the movement.
FLM apology of 1999
In 1999, the FLM held its annual youth summer festival in the town of Hämeenlinna in southern Finland. The festival performance was followed by a prayer service during which a groupof Christians apologized for all spiritual violence they or their reference group might have been guilty of.
There was an apology for all Lutherans, for the parish of Hämeenlinna, for older Christians, for younger Christians, and for the FLM. Primus motor for the apology service was the youth Pastor Jussi Miettinen who said he got the idea from his own experiences of revivals in the Pacific area.
The FLM apology was made by the secretary-general of the movement, Pastor Timo Rämä. He felt he could ask forgiveness for the whole organisation as its leader and as someone who had been with it from the beginning.
With his apology he said he wanted to give an example of the proper apologizing and forgiving mentality that is needed in the Church where differing opinions should be tolerated and respected. Later he also stressed that his aim was not to apologize for the whole existence and history of the movement, thus devaluing the movement’s accomplishments. The apology was made for ’undeniable mistakes’.
However, the nature of these mistakes was never put in detail. It seems there was some doubt whether an apology would undermine the FLM’s credibility.Rämä’s apology can also be seen as a move in the ongoing struggle between the conservatives and liberals within the Lutheran Church of Finland.
The FLM is steadfastly on the conservative side on issues such as women’s ordination and the blessing of same-sex couples. Rämä has characterized himself as a victim of ’religious oppression’. By this he evidently means that he and the FLM have been under heavy pressure to adapt to the official Church policy regarding female ordination.
Yet another issue that must be pointed out in the FLM case is that the secretarygeneral explained his apology in a newspaper column also with his own bad experiences of a wrong sort of manipulative charismatic Christianity which tries to cast people in the same mould. This complaint may reflect a larger development within evangelical Christianity of charismatical groups like Pentecostals gaining supporters from the ranks of more traditional evangelicals.
The obvious difference between the two cases was that the Finnish Lutheran Mission apologized unasked and the idea came from within the organization. The whole thing was in fact carefully planned to take place in a ceremonial fashion.
The SRK-Laestadians have not apologized even when asked repeatedly. There has been strong pressure from the outside, they have been pushed to do it, especially by exmembers.
However, there is strong resistance within Laestadianism to yield to these demands to apologise. In part this resistance arises from the movement’s selfidentity as the infallible Kingdom of God, in part from juridical arguments.
The FLM could choose the time and place for its apology. It could use an occasion which offered a natural context. They could be quite certain that their apology would be met with sympathy.
The FLM apology can also be seen in the context of internal Church struggle. Sometimes an apology can be used as a ’weapon’, or at least in order to bring the other side to shame; one can apologize for something that one actually sees as the other side’s fault. In this regard, there can be discerned a whiff of self-pity in secretary-general Rämä’s statements.
Outside models and inspirations can be found in both cases. Shortly before the demand aimed at the SRK was launched, the semi-official organ of the Finnish Lutheran Church, Kotimaa, apologized for supporting certain rightist movements and praising the Nazis’ coming to power in Germany in the period between the two World Wars. The newspaper asked forgiveness for thus oppressing the workers who were to a very large extent also members of the Church.
Another symbolic factor which may have had something to, at least unconsciously, with the timing of the FLM apology, was the approaching new millennium. It had been the reason for Pope John Paul II to launch his own series of papal mea culpas, but Jussi Miettinen, the primus motor behind the FLM’s action denied getting any sort of inspiration from the Pope.
It would perhaps been more surprising to hear that the FLM had emulated the Pope, given that one reason for the movement’s founding had been a deep prejudice towards the Roman Catholic Church.
It is certainly true that the Internet has given plenty of opportunities for all kinds of oppositionists and critics to voice their views uninhibitedly. In cases like the SRK-Laestadianism where the community itself does not encourage or tolerate criticism, an outside forum where criticism can be practised anonymously is almost the only viable channel through which to pursue change.
It is not probable that a public apology will be made by the SRK anytime soon, although recent sexual abuse charges against several Laestadian lay preachers have further darkened the public image of the movement and put more pressure on the SRK leadership to do something.”
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This study is based on printed sources such as journalistic reports, news stories, letters to the editor and memoirs, interviews, and internet message boards and discussion forums. Archival sources were not available. There is yet very little research on these matters.
The original paper: Apologising for Past Errors: Two Finnish Religious Revival Movements and Their Different Strategies, University of Helsinki / University of London, Institute of Historical Research. The International Historical Congress, Amsterdam, 22-28 August 2010.)
(Abbreviation by permission of the author. The subtitles and abbreviation by the Freepathways blog editors.)
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(Unfortunately, some of the texts are only in Finnish. To translate those articles, please try Google Translate)
Admata: Kotimaa-lehti hoitokokouksista 3.2.2006. Hakomaja discussion forum.
Johannes Alaranta: Kokousta pukkaa, “ollaan hänestä huolissaan”, porukalla.
Simo Alastalo: Tutkija: Vanhoillislestadiolaisen liikkeen pitäisi pyytää hoitokokouksia anteeksi. Kotimaa24 uutiset, 23.11.2010. (Published after this blog posting.)
… and forgive us: Lutherans Repent Anabaptist Persecution. Lutheran World Information 6/2010.
Jason A. Edwards: Apologizing for the Past for a Better Future: Collective Apologies in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Southern Communication Journal, 75 (1), January 2010 , 57–75.
Leo Hartvaara: Suden uhrit. Joensuu: Kirjavaaka 1984. (The novel describes healing meetings in a SRK-Laestadian congregation from the victims’ point of view.)
Warren H. Hepokoski 2002: The Laestadian Movement: Background Writings and Testimonies. Rev.ed. Culpeper, Virginia, US.
Hoitokokous (lestadiolaisuus). Wikipedia. (N.B. references and a review on the research and discussion about the healing meetings.)
Vuokko Ilola: Hoitokokoukset pitää selvittää. Kotimaa 18.12.2008. (An open letter and a petition to the management of SRK for healing meetings’ investigation.)
Hannu Karpo: Syntisin silmin. Tv-dokumentti, YLE 3.10.1981. (A report about the healing meetings in the Northern Finland by a renowned Finnish journalist.)
Mauri Kinnunen: Tämä vuosituhat haastaa lestadiolaisuuden: Suomen suurimman herätysliikkeen pitäisi pystyä avoimesti kohtaamaan menneisyytensä kipupisteet. Kaleva 1.10.2006. (One of the first public petitions to the management of SRK written by a member of the laestadioan movement; the author is PhD and a renowed researcher of the Laestadiasim.)
Korpijaakko: Anteeksipyyntö 2010 – historiallinen sovinto.
Taneli Kylätasku: ”Hoitokokousten” kipu tuntuu yhä. Kotimaa 3.2.2006. (A remarkable report which broadened further the discussion originated in the net.)
Laestadian-ism : a blog of the research project on political laestadianism funded by the Academy of Finland, 2010-2012, at the University of Lapland. One part of the research will focus on the impacts of healing meetings.
Tuomas Lohi: Haapajärven lestadiolaisuuden vaiheet 1863-1999. Oulun yliopisto. Pro gradu -tutkielma.
Matkalippu helvettiin: vanhoillislestadiolaisuden piiristä erotetut kertovat. Tv-dokumentti, YLE 31.10.1985.
Pekka Mikkola: Anteeksipyyntö on vaikeaa hengellisille yhteisöillekin. Kaleva 12.7.2006.
Paula E.: SRK:n anteeksipyyntö. Suomi24 Keskustelua vanhoillislestadiolaisuudesta, 19.1.2006.
Tuomas Peltomäki: Järkyttävintä toimittajan uralla: kollektiivin pelko mursi perhesiteet. Helsingin Sanomat 28.7.2007. (An interview of a journalist Hannu Karpo.)
Puhujat 2008: “1970-luku oli rakkauden ja anteeksiantamisen aikaa” (The SRK-laestadian preachers’ meeting 2008: ”The 1970s was time of love and forgiveness”.)
Jussi Rytkönen: Hoitokokouksista ei anteeksipyyntöä. Kotimaa 2.7.2006. (An interview of secretary-general of the SRK Aimo Hautamäki.)
Kari Salonen – Kimmo Kääriäinen – Kati Niemelä: Kirkko uudelle vuosituhannelle – Suomen evankelis-luterilainen kirkko vuosina 1996-1999. (Information on the collective apologizing of FLM 1999.)
Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence (a review in The Guardian)
Marjo Valtavaara: Conservative Laestadians’ lifestyle debate boils over onto the Internet. Helsingin Sanomat 23.10.2007.