The Saints in Finland

By David Mitchell, Editorial Associate

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    As Finland moves gradually from a winter of 24-hour nights into summer’s 24 hours of sunlight, so the Saints in that country are entering into a bright period of progress and strength.

    Edging into the Arctic Circle, Finland is a comparatively new country and the home of an expanding mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Finland came into being as a nation with its Declaration of Independence in December 1917, and the Finnish Mission came into being in September 1947. However, prior to these two important milestones in its history, the country was first populated with migrants in 100 A.D., while LDS missionary activities began there in the mid-1870s. The first baptism in Finland was performed on May 7, 1876.

    Today there are more than 3,000 members of the Church in five mission districts in what is now known as the Finland Mission. Some of these Saints joined the Church prior to World War II, but the main impetus and vitality are coming from young families and professional men and women who willingly accept leadership roles and help direct the activities of the Church.

    It has not been easy for the Finns to become Mormons. The state church has long held sway, and those who decide to leave its ranks often face the censure of their families and neighbors. But those who have met this challenge and have built upon their faith and testimonies have reaped many blessings.

    One of those who faced both social and spiritual pressures is Jukka Laine, a high school teacher in the coastal city of Rauma. Brother Laine was also recreation director for the community and local director of the youth program of his church. The decision to become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not an easy one for him and his wife, and even after baptism they underwent a period of spiritual torment.

    Brother Laine first came into contact with the missionaries in 1960 during a serious illness. “I had promised my Heavenly Father that if I recovered I would tell people of his goodness. I prayed with my whole heart, with a burning eagerness, that God would show me the road that I should take to overcome my illness and to serve him. The following day there were two men at my door. They said that they had come from distant America to preach the gospel. I remember receiving a copy of the Book of Mormon and kneeling in prayer with them. When they left, I wondered if they had come as an answer to my prayers. But 12 long years were to pass before I had any positive contact with the missionaries, and again I was stricken with the same illness. I had told the first missionaries I didn’t need them to call anymore. I had read the Book of Mormon and discussed the doctrine with friends, and I had received no encouragement from them.

    “When the missionaries called in 1972, I didn’t ask people if the doctrines were right; I asked only my Heavenly Father. On the night of April 5, 1972, my wife and I were baptized along with the four oldest of our five boys. The missionaries had told us that after baptism we would be the happiest family in the city, but that night we experienced neither happiness nor joy. I was awakened by a bad dream, and I felt as though a great weight were on my chest. My first thought was to reach for the telephone and cancel all record of our baptism, but it was 2:30 A.M. All the next day this weight remained with me, and my wife was undergoing the same experience. Finally I called on the good friend who had baptized me. He invited my wife and me to visit with him in his home, and he explained that Satan was tempting us.

    “Then we understood everything very clearly, and although I couldn’t speak, I cried. That good brother then asked our Heavenly Father to free us from the evil that was about us, and immediately the weight was lifted. My wife and I looked at each other through tears of inexpressible joy, and the love of God filled my heart with such force that I wanted to embrace the whole world.”

    The good brother who baptized Brother Laine fared better than a John Blom (Bloom), who was arrested and fined 595 marks and 20 pfennigs for baptizing two ladies in the 1880s. Brother Blom had been the center of attention when he appeared in court and presented a discourse on the gospel. However, sentence was passed, and because he was unable to pay the fine, he was shipped off to the state prison in Helsingfors for 28 days.

    In those early missionary days there was no religious liberty in Finland, a geographic area that was under the rule of Czarist Russia. Missionary efforts were conducted from Sweden, and the October 1876 mission records show that an Elder Axel Tullgren of Utah was to proceed to Finland to administer to the needs of the Saints. He was advised to preach while “sitting instead of standing, as there was no law against the former,” and also to “move slowly and wisely, and have others attend to the baptizing.”

    In a report to President Ola N. Liljenquist, Elder Tullgren wrote: “He [the governor] received us in a very rough and impolite manner and forbade us to preach, telling the police to watch us. He went so far as to threaten to have us arrested and send us to Siberia, if we did not cease our preaching, but I do not think his power extends so far. It is uncertain how long we are at liberty, as a policeman may at any moment come and arrest us … for all kinds of lies have been published against us.”

    Two years later the missionaries were banished from Finland, and although one missionary did return in the summer of 1878, he contracted pneumonia and was released. In August 1879, an Elder Peter O. Petersson, who had been laboring in Sweden, was called to serve in Finland. In an account of his experiences, he wrote:

    “I arrived in Nikolajstad, Sept. 3. Before we were permitted to land, the baggage belonging to the passengers was inspected by the customs officers. I had very carefully packed a lot of Church works in the bottom of my trunk and covered them with a heavy piece of pasteboard, which looked like the bottom of the trunk itself, so that the officers saw only some of my private books, which were among the rest of my allowed articles of baggage. But in a smaller hand satchel I had five copies of the Book of Mormon, which they took away from me under the pretense of wanting to give them a closer examination.” They were never returned to the missionary.

    As the missionary efforts ebbed and flowed, so also the fortunes of the country have swung back and forth. Finland has undergone great political upheavals since the first Finns migrated northward from what is now Estonia—(USSR) across the Gulf of Finland into the southwestern toe of what is now Finland. Other migrants crossed the Gulf of Bothnia from Sweden.

    As the new migrants settled Finland over the next few hundred years, they developed into three main groups—the Finns, the Karelians, and the Tavastians. Each group owed its allegiance to its own chieftain, and each group fought with the other two.

    Eventually the Finns sought Swedish protection against the other tribes, as well as their Russian neighbors. This led to further bloodshed as the Swedes undertook a Christian crusade against the eastern border of Finland.

    With the Swedes came their culture, and Finland became part of the Swedish kingdom. But the Finns were still under constant siege from Russia on their eastern border, and during the Great Northern War, 1713–21, Russia became the occupying force. At the cessation of the war, Sweden ceded a large portion of southeast Finland to the Russians. Further military outbursts resulted in Finland’s becoming an autonomous state under Russian rule. However, Swedish was still the language of the administration and of the educated. Finnish was finally permitted in government agencies in 1900, but later Czar Nicholas II of Russia decreed that Russian should be the official language. Once again the country was embroiled in conflict; however, during a national strike of all workers the Czar changed his mind, the four-chambered Finnish legislative body was reorganized into a single chamber, and universal suffrage was introduced.

    Finland still had to go through the testing periods of World War I and a civil war to remove some 40,000 Soviet troops within her borders, before the 1920 establishment of a peace treaty between the two countries and the formation of a republican government with a president at its head, assisted by a cabinet.

    The peace treaty was shattered by World War II, at the end of which more territory was ceded and 400,000 Finns were displaced and had to be absorbed into the remainder of the country and its frail postwar economy.

    But even during this period of conflict, the Church continued to grow in Finland. The first genealogical group there was organized in 1941, followed in 1942 by the organization of the Sunday School. This latter auxiliary had been in operation for some time, but it had not been officially organized. And in 1945 the Relief Society was organized in Finland.

    Sister Liisa Uusitalo, who has served as Relief Society president for the Finland Mission for eight years, says, “The Finnish sisters are very thankful for the Relief Society program. They attach great value to the fact that they have the same lesson plan as other sisters in the Church around the world. They are also thankful that the Relief Society is mindful of our national traditions. This is especially notable in our homemaking lessons. In Finnish, ‘homemaker’ would directly translate to ‘hostess,’ and our tradition always has been that the homemaker, or the hostess, is a valued individual working alongside her husband for the overall good of the family and home.”

    Sister Uusitalo pointed out that most branches in Finland extend over large areas, and the sisters have long distances to cover to get to their meetings.

    “Long trips, however, don’t hinder the sisters. Right now, very few of them drive cars. They come to Relief Society on foot or by public transportation or on bicycles. Visiting teaching has to be done at night when it’s very dark during Finland’s long winters. Some of the sisters have large areas to cover to get their visiting teaching done, but then they wouldn’t feel it was properly done unless they had some traveling to do. Wherever you go, the sisters are enthusiastic, from Helsinki in the south to the northernmost branch at Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle. Overall, our numbers are increasing, and the Relief Society is growing.”

    Following World War II and a tour of Finland by Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve, the decision was made by the First Presidency to establish the Finnish Mission with a Finnish-speaking president. In his book On Wings of Faith (Bookcraft, 1972), Frederick W. Babbel gives this account of how the first mission president was found and called:

    “Early the next spring [1947], after returning from his mission to Europe, Elder Benson left Salt Lake City by train to handle certain Church business matters in the East. En route he found himself prayerfully seeking guidance, as he had frequently done, to be directed in his anxious search for a worthy Finnish-speaking Church member to serve as mission president in Finland.

    “The Lord strongly impressed Elder Benson to get off the train in Chicago to make a special purchase. When he returned to the railway station he discovered that his train had gone on without him. He quickly phoned President John K. Edmunds of the Chicago Stake and asked him to send someone in a car to pick him up and take him to the airport. President Edmunds’ stake clerk was available and was soon driving Elder Benson to the airport.

    “As they chatted, President Benson learned that this good man’s name was Henry A. Matis.

    When he inquired as to the derivation of the name, he learned that it was Finnish, that Brother Matis was born of Finnish parentage and spoke the language with some fluency. Elder Benson was so overjoyed that he could scarcely wait to report this good news to the First Presidency, who, upon learning of the matter, appointed Brother Matis to preside over the Finnish Mission as its first president.” He served in Finland for seven years.

    The building of chapels in Finland has moved forward in recent years. President Toivo Hiltunen of the Jyvaskyla District reports:

    “As members of the Church, we have been involved with the construction of two chapels, one in the Helsinki North Branch and the one where we now live in Kuopio, which is in central Finland and surrounded by some of Finland’s 60,000 lakes.

    “Construction on the first chapel was slow, as we ourselves did the work, aided by building missionaries. Because of the climate we have to build double-thick walls with double-paned windows and expensive insulation. It took four years to build, but in all that time the Spirit of the Lord was felt in great force in that branch.

    “The Church is our family and actually fills our lives. On Mondays we have family home evening; on Tuesdays, Relief Society; on Wednesday evenings, Primary; and on Fridays, MIA. Sunday School and sacrament meetings crown each week. But all this is the Lord’s work for our best good and for that of our neighbors, and we have strong testimonies of Jesus the Christ.”

    Regarding the youth of the Church there, Sister Anna-Liisa Rinne, young women’s president of the Aaronic Priesthood MIA, says, “Many of our young people are the only Church members in their schools or communities. Many are converts whose families belong to other churches. So it is important that we gather these youths together to gain strength from their mutual association.

    “One of our major youth projects each year since 1969 has been a trip to the Swiss Temple. This is a 3,000-mile trip, and we travel by bus and camp out along the way. This past summer 72 young people were able to make the trip.

    “We performed 2,355 baptisms for the dead, and those involved have developed great testimonies. On the return trip we held a testimony meeting in Copenhagen, where we bore our testimonies and told of our love for each other and of thankfulness for the gospel. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The meeting lasted for over two hours, but when it was ended no one wanted to leave.

    “Although we saw many sights during our trip, the highlight of it all, besides the wonderful work we did in the temple, was that we were able to get together as Saints from around the country.”

    Adults also participate in two temple trips each year, excursions that help create the spirit of love and an appreciation for membership in the Church, and strong testimonies to help it grow.

    Relief Society sisters set out on visiting teaching assignment in late afternoon on cold, dark winter’s day in Finland.

    Mikkeli, on shores of one of Finland’s 60,000 lakes, is setting for a branch of the Church.

    Above left: Folk dancers, dressed in traditional costume, perform on Luostarinmaki Hill, Mikkeli, Finland.

    Above: Market building, founded in 1896, in Turku.

    Larsmo Branch, first LDS chapel in Finland.

    Relief Society sisters, dressed in traditional costume, meet for homemaking activity.

    Chapel in Tampere, example of LDS architecture in Finland.

    Opposite page, bottom: Naantali, established in 1443, is one of oldest towns in Finland.

    Top: Turku meetinghouse, built on solid rock foundation; cultural hall (left in photo) also serves as community center

    Lower: Indoor market scene in Finland.

    Right: Scenic view of flowers and forest on island of Rymattyla.