The Scandinavian Reformers: Mikael Agricola – The Father of Finnish and the Finnish Reformation

Mikael Agricola - Statue in Turku, Finland

Mikael Agricola – Statue in Turku, Finland

Mikael Agricola worked tirelessly throughout his career to bring the Reformation to his homeland. Finland, at this point in history a part of the Kingdom of Sweden, had slowly begun a policy of Reformation under Gustav Vasa. Agricola thrived. He pioneered the written form of the Finnish language by simultaneously educating Finns in the catechism of Martin Luther through his educational primers, and in the reading of a Finnish language New Testament. Mikael Agricola stands as one of those eminent historical reformers with a legacy that continues to the present day.

Map of the Kingdom of Sweden - Courtesy: Albert Collver

Map of the Kingdom of Sweden – Courtesy: Albert Collver

Born c.1509, Mikael Agricola grew up in an agricultural region near Pernå in Eastern Uusimaa, Finland. His parents knew their son Mikael (whose original last name was Olavinpoika before he changed it to reflect his agricultural parentage) was a talented young man and so they sent him to school in Viborg to prepare for ministry. Here he would have delved into renaissance humanism as well as the scholastics. Following his schooling in Viborg, he worked with the bishop of Turku who set him to none other than the University of Wittenberg in 1536 – the same place of study of Olaus Petri (1517) and Hans Tausen (1523). The Reformation had already kicked off in Wittenberg years before, and the bishop would have known exactly what he was doing when he sent Agricola there. Regardless, he had done so anyway. Singleton and Upton relate that, “One of the most important Finns to study at Wittenberg was Michael Agricola, who was taught there by Melanchthon and by Luther himself.” (A Short History of Finland 33) Both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon had a profound effect on Agricola. One chronicler believes that Agricola may have even stayed at Luther’s house while he worked on his studies. Regardless, we see a completely reformed Agricola flowing out of Wittenberg. As soon as he got back to Finland, Agricola “began to translate religious texts into Finnish…[feeling] that…ordinary people should have access to the Bible in their own language.” (Singleton and Upton 33). Agricola came home and started taking the reformation doctrines he had learned and put them into practice.

Mikael Agricola translating the Greek New Testament into Finnish - Albert Edelfelt

Mikael Agricola translating the Greek New Testament into Finnish – Albert Edelfelt

Mikael Agricola set up shop as the head of a local Latin school in Turku. Finland had not yet developed a sophisticated writing system, nor did it have the ability to produce works in its own vernacular with any type of consistency. Therefore, Agricola set out to produce what is now known as his ABC-Book (Abckiria) in 1543. This book “included a translation of Luther’s Small Catechism” so that while children learned to read and write they would also be taught reformation doctrine. (Grell 65). A few years later he got married to Brigette Olafsdotter (endorsing marriage for the priesthood), translated the New Testament from Greek into Finnish in 1548, and “translated the mass and the manual [for prayer and worship] from Swedish in 1549 [to Finnish].” (Grell 67) The people received these works well. Due to his reforming efforts, and King Gustav Vasa’s desire to increase the scope of the reformation in his empire, Argricola was appointed Bishop of Turku in 1550. (Lavery 40)

Mikael Agricola presents the New Testament in Finnish to King Gustav Vasa - from Kari Tarkiainen: Sveriges Österland, p. 252.

Mikael Agricola presents the New Testament in Finnish to King Gustav Vasa – from Kari Tarkiainen: Sveriges Österland, p. 252.

The translation of the bible into Finnish in 1548 was no small feat. It was a project Agricola had been working on ever since he got back from Wittenberg. Collver relates that, “although approximately 30% of the people in the Swedish Empire spoke Finnish, until Mikael Agricola translated the New Testament into Finnish, no literature existed in Finnish. [Due to the accomplishment] Mikael Agricola is considered the “Father of the Finnish language.” (“The Lutheran Reformation in Finland”) Through his Finnish works, Agricola continued to spread the doctrines of justification by faith alone, a Lutheran Eucharist, a vernacular liturgy, and other reforming ideals among the people. It is this mass appeal that may have influenced King Vasa in choosing a candidate to help negotiate the Treaty of Novgorod in 1557.

The Greek New Testament Translated into Finnish - Mikael Agricola.

The Greek New Testament Translated into Finnish – Mikael Agricola.

The political scene had never really been quiet in Finland as Russia had set its sights on the Swedish controlled area. A war had been raging from 1554 to 1557 between the two countries. In addition, ecclesiastical affairs and state affairs were not separate. As a result, “Agricola became increasingly involved in the diplomatic negotiations between the two countries [and]…in 1557 he was sent to Moscow as a peace negotiator.” (Grell 66) Agricola would never return. Mikael died of an illness that same year before making it back home to Turku on the Karelian Isthmus.

Mikael Agricola, due to his efforts has his own holiday in Finland on April 10th. The father of written Finnish literature, Agricola will forever remain a giant of the Reformation who set out to enlighten an entire nation. In 2017, he will be honored among many other reformers for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by the Turku Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies in Turku.

Collver, Albert. “The Lutheran Reformation in Finland.” Witness, Mercy, Life Together. 09 August 2012. Web. 24 Oct 2015.

Jacobs, Henry Eyster, and John Augustus William Haas. The Lutheran Cyclopedia. Scribner, 1899. Web. Google Books.

Lavery, Jason Edward. The History of Finland. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. Web. Google Books.

“Michael Agricola: Luther2017.” Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Singleton, Fred, and Anthony F. Upton. A Short History of Finland. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Web. Google Books.

The Scandinavian Reformation: From Evangelical Movement to Institutionalisation of Reform. Ole Peter Grell, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Google Books.

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