Suomi Finland: A Beacon in the Baltic


It is said, “When God finished creating the earth, all the leftover tree seeds were dropped right here in Suomi.” Suomi—Finland—means marshy land. From arctic Lapland south to the Baltic Sea, Finland’s landscape bristles with a thick coat of pine, spruce, and birch. The foliage is so dense that, when seen from the air, the land resembles a gigantic green moss rising from the sea.

The Finns have a word that describes their national character: sisu (pronounced see’-soo). It means “don’t give in; stick to it.” This stamina, resoluteness, and boldness—even obstinacy—is perhaps the single quality that may explain why Finland never became an eastern-bloc country. Many times in the past two hundred years, Finns held back the larger Russian armies. And though they lost their beloved forests of East Karelia to the Soviets in 1940, reducing their land by a tenth, they preserved their independence and remained a beacon of freedom.

Once a Finn becomes converted to the gospel, sisu and faith combine to make a deeply committed Church member. And though the Church has not grown as fast here as in some other areas of the world, the bonds a new member makes when baptized and fellowshipped are not easily broken.

A Familiar Sound

Matti and Kirsti Salmi exemplify this combination of faith with Finnish resolve. They live in the west coast city of Kemi, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Bothnia, less than one hundred kilometers below the Arctic Circle. In 1988, the Salmis became the first Finnish couple to serve a mission in their own land.

Kirsti had joined the Church in 1973 in Kuopio, after the missionaries taught her the gospel that “sounded familiar and true, especially after reading the Book of Mormon.” Matti was forty-eight when, in 1978, the elders brought “an undeniably strong spirit with them.” And he too was baptized. The two met in the summer of 1981 at the Swiss Temple.

“How glad we were for our proselyting mission call,” says Matti. “Within the first week of our mission, we met and taught our first people to be converted. By the end of the month they were baptized; then came another and another.”

“Even when people weren’t baptized,” adds Kirsti, “we never felt we taught in vain. On the other side, when some things are clearer, many of those will accept.”

Their work brought three young converts in Savonlinna, the beautiful site of the nation’s annual opera festivals. The city’s setting is dramatic, on a large archipelago in the middle of the largest of Finland’s 180,000 lakes. “We so enjoyed our work in that lovely setting,” says Brother Salmi. “The members there are devoted to the gospel and freely helped us share it.”

According to the Salmis, “teaching eternal principles together and sharing love for others deepened and strengthened our marriage more than anything we could think of.”

Love to Share

Most Finns speak Finnish; however, they share much with Sweden. A sizable Swedish-speaking minority inhabits the south and west coastal cities. Road signs and official printed materials are usually bilingual, using Finnish and Swedish words. The country’s official name, which is Suomen Tasavalta, is most frequently written Suomi Finland.

“Our national tendency to share and interact makes Finland a good place for spreading the gospel,” says President Pekka Roto of the Tampere Finland Stake. “There are, however, several reasons this isn’t happening as rapidly as we would like. For one, the state religion has been so long established that even though few people attend, its members have sisu. Consequently, they are not usually interested in talk of another church.

“But in my mind, our biggest single obstacle to spreading the gospel in Finland is, ironically, our country’s high standard of living. Like many nationalities in the world, Finns are hardworking people who leave too little room in their lives for spiritual things.” He explains that the government provides citizens with so much that Finns are not inclined to sacrifice—and that the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that sacrifice is an essential element of religion.

“Our priesthood leaders are well prepared for their work and do it joyfully,” says President Seppo Forsman of the Helsinki Finland Stake. “We just need more time in the day.” When the stake was formed in 1976, there were two years of faster growth. Then it slowed again until 1988. With increased growth now, efforts to fellowship new converts have raised the retention level to 75 percent.

In 1990, with 120 missionaries serving in Finland, 125 people joined the Church, bringing Finnish membership to just over 4,200. There are two stakes—both in the south, in the largest population centers—eleven wards, nineteen branches, and three districts.

Youth with a Mission

More than 50 percent of the eligible youth from the Tampere stake are currently serving missions. The youth of both stakes are strong and well prepared for missions. Among the young men and young women, 70 percent are active, and 80 percent of those attend seminary.

Most LDS parents in Finland are education-minded and expect a lot of their children. Furthermore, living gospel standards gives the youth a purpose outside their own desires. “These kinds of advantages help our youth want to achieve beyond the average and enable them to care for and be kind to others,” says President Roto’s wife, Anna Kaarina. Their children, Matti, Liisa, and Kaisa, have all been leaders in their school and are outstanding students. Liisa served a mission in Utah. Matti, who is studying in France, made a presentation to Parliament about conserving the Finnish environment.

Attracting Attention

The high cost of living is hard enough for a couple in a land where the national average is 1.8 children per family and most mothers work. For a family of eleven, like Tapani and Sinikka Friström’s, the challenge is manifold.

The Friström family has struggled to do what they thought was right for them. To a couple with less sisu, the obvious choice would be for Sinikka to accept one of the many lucrative offers she has received to do research for the country’s leading pharmaceutical company—or to begin a teaching career at the University of Helsinki, where she had distinguished herself as a student. Instead, Sinikka decided to center her life around her family. She serves as ward organist and Primary pianist, and Tapani serves on the stake high council.

Large families in Finland are not exactly scorned, but they do attract attention and frequent questions. The most common question asked of Jarkko Metsätähti and his wife, Virpi, is “How can you afford so many children when you are not rich?” Virpi and Jarkko are tempted to respond that they are rich—because they have seven children.

The Metsätähtis live in Turku, on the southwest coast, the capital of Finland until 1812. The home they built is surrounded by more than a dozen large old apple trees. Jarkko has his own business, producing educational computer software that is sold worldwide. “Our family is our life,” he says. “Virpi and I have no other interests that are as important as our children.”

The Metsätähti family includes four boys and three girls, all of them musical and artistic. Their daughter Säde is typical of their children: she plays the piano, sings, sews her own clothes, and studies English. (See “Hear the Song,” page 8.)

For her part, Virpi, a homemaker with a college degree in science, loves to study. She enjoys organizing stake concert series and has translated many LDS hymns into Finnish.

Jarkko has been branch president and has served in the stake presidency. But after thirty years of serving in the Church, he has found “new dimensions in one of the most important callings I’ve ever had—as Scoutmaster.” His troop has more than fifty members. His Scouts recently conducted a charity drive for needy people in Romania.

Even smaller Finnish families in the Church attract attention. Eleven-year-old Juha Linnanen’s schoolteacher told his parents that she admired the way the Linnanens spend time with their children. “That was a wonderful compliment,” says Sister Seija Linnanen, a stake Relief Society leader in the Helsinki stake and mother of four children, ages four to twenty-one.

Her husband, Vesa, who has a kitchen furnishing business, adds, “I’ve gained so much from the gospel that has helped me. I used to think that children would just grow to become what they would be. But gospel principles have helped me realize my responsibility for guiding them in learning the truth. Seija and I have tried our best to raise our children in all the wisdom of the Lord as we continue to learn ourselves.”

Rays of Light

“What people say about the feeling in our congregations being the same anywhere in the world is true,” says Pertti Vorimo, a businessman who, with his wife and family, lives in the Espoo Ward. “But what I prefer to notice is the variety among our people. The Lord created the earth in all its variety for a purpose. We can respect each other for our differences and not be too eager for a superficial unity. The gospel teaches unity through variety.”

One way to observe how Finnish members are coming to a unity of the faith is to look at individuals in their variety as they serve, learn, and sacrifice together in building the kingdom.

For Hannu Sorsa, of the Helsinki Ward, going on a full-time mission was a sacrifice: “I love music so much—performing, practicing, composing, and arranging—that it was a sacrifice to leave daily devotion to music to go out and spread the gospel for two years. But I have been blessed for going.”

At twenty-eight, Hannu is now completing his music education at Sibelius Academy, Finland’s finest music college, named for its best-known composer, Jean Sibelius. Hannu plays piano, saxophone, clarinet, and various percussion instruments. “He is nearly always leading, directing, or accompanying some musical production for the stake,” says Leena Multamäki, who sings in many of the productions.

Leena comes from Savonlinna, where her father is president of the Kuopio district, and she works in the Church translation office in Helsinki. “Each member’s good works here represent tiny rays of light,” Leena says. “We’re small in number but noticeable.”

For single members in Finland, the gospel adds an increased capacity to love, says Mirja Suonpää, Helsinki stake Single Adult leader. “I love the Church. The people, the activities, the teachings have come to fill my life. I am so much happier since I joined; it has made a complete change in the way I see things.

“People noticed changes in me,” she says. “New things have become important to me, and things don’t bother me that used to.

“In my profession as a psychiatric nurse, I have gained insights from the gospel that have helped me understand the needs of Heavenly Father’s children, enabling me to be an even greater comfort, with more patience and strength than I had without it.”

Warmth of Their Light

Members from all over Finland have shared the warmth of their spirit with their Russian neighbors across the frigid Gulf of Finland and eastward in old Karelia. Since political barriers to religion have been removed, many Finns have been sharing the gospel in Soviet lands.

Couples like the Jäkkös of Lappeenranta, the Laitinens of Oulu, the Lammintauses of Jyväskylä, the Kirsis of Lahti, and the Kemppainens of Helsinki have gone Sunday after Sunday since 1989 to visit and work with Soviet Latter-day Saints. At first, they shared their testimonies and their love of the Savior. Then, as congregations grew, these faithful Finns worked and organized and trained to prepare new members in Vyborg, St. Petersburg, and Tallinn so they could worship and perform ordinances of the priesthood themselves.

“Since the day Kari Haikkola was called to preside over the first Finnish stake in 1977,” says Jussi Kemppainen, president of the Baltic District, “we’ve seen the coming of this day. Carrying the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Russia is a blessing that has come from the Lord after years of the people’s prayer and patient faith.”

“The Finns had long believed they would take the gospel to the Soviet Union,” says Steven Mecham of Ogden, Utah, who was called to preside over the Finland Helsinki Mission in 1987.

President Kemppainen adds, “From the beginning of the work in the USSR, we felt we were walking in footsteps that had been prepared for us. So many things have happened to help the work, things that could not be coincidental. These people have been prepared by the hand of the Lord.”

Since the first Finnish missionary efforts began in what was then the USSR, branches have grown in several cities, and three missions have been established. Finnish members continue to help.

The faith and sisu of Finnish Latter-day Saints have enabled them to serve steadfastly and patiently in their own land—and to extend their light beyond their borders. Finnish members have seen that, despite times of darkness and discouragement, a resolute faith eventually penetrates the fog of apathy and even political boundaries.

In this way, a measure of Finnish sisu intensifies the faith and love of Latter-day Saints everywhere.

[photos] Photography by Giles H. Florence, Jr.

[photo] Seija and Vesa Linnanen of Helsinki say the gospel helps them guide their four children in learning the truth.

[photos] Above: A scene from Finland’s lake district. (Courtesy of FPG International.) Below: Elder Harri Aho of Finland (left) and his companion from the U.S., serving in the Finland Helsinki East Mission.

[photo] The first Finnish couple to serve a mission in Finland, Kirsti and Matti Salmi, right, visit with Steven and Donna Mecham, who presided over the Finland Helsinki Mission, 1987–1990.

[photos] Sinikka and Tapani Friström of Helsinki, with their children (from left), Jyry, Otso, Pilvi, Tuuli, Pyry, Kukka, Meri, and Visa. Not shown is Suvi (Skinner). Right: Eleven-year-old Juha Linnanen.

[photo] Arja Lilja is well known for sharing the culinary delights that come from her kitchen. She and her commercial artist husband, Kari, live near Helsinki.

[photos] Above: Mirja Suonpää, Helsinki stake Single Adult leader. Below: Nellie and Aimo Jäkkö of Lappeenranta were among those who took the gospel to their Russian neighbors.