Columns, Faithful and Reforming

The prophet of Lapland

Apostolic, or Laestadian, Lutheranism, with its roots in the 19th century revival of northern Scandinavia and Finland, remains arguably the most enigmatic aspect of North American Lutheranism. The small size of this heritage, coupled with the social isolation that is found among at least some of its congregations, has caused many to overlook these Finnish-ethnic Lutheran groups.

Like other branches of American Lutheranism, Apostolic Lutheranism traces its roots to Pietistic awakening movements that swept across Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The awakening movement in question was led by Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861), a pastor in the state (Lutheran) Church of Sweden.

Sometimes called “The Prophet of Lapland,” Laestadius carried out his ministry in the region north of the Arctic Circle where Finland, Norway, and Sweden share borders. Therefore, the revival movement that bore his name influenced all of these Nordic countries to some extent, though it was in Finland that Laestadian influence took root most deeply.

Thomas E. Jacobson

Other congregations are isolationist in their outlook and have been affectionately labeled “Lutheran Amish.”

In 1826, Laestadius received an appointment as the pastor of a remote parish in Swedish Lapland. Though there was a spirit of stagnation in this parish regarding spiritual matters, Laestadius was not overly concerned.

In addition to theology, he had an interest in botany. Some commentators even remark that his passion for the study of plants exceeded his passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He would come to understand later that what he taught during that time had more to do with “head knowledge” than with Christian conviction.

When Laestadius became seriously ill for the second time in his life in 1842, he reflected on his eternal destiny. His illness caused him to recognize his poverty of spirit and the same ungodliness that existed within his parish.

Upon his recovery, he began to emphasize what others would call “living Christianity,” something that moved beyond a focus on doctrine and morals. For Laestadius, it was not enough to simply try to be a better person; what truly produces Christian people is the recognition that their emptiness can only be filled with the righteousness of Christ. Laestadius’ new kind of preaching caught on in the Lapland, from which many thirsty souls drank deeply.

To this day, there are Lutherans in the Nordic countries who identify with the tradition of Laestadius. Due to Laestadius’ emphasis on the need for a public recounting of sins, Laestadians in these countries are known for some peculiar regulations that organize their lives, such as a refusal to use curtains in homes so as to avoid engaging in secret sins. As immigration fever swept across Europe in the 19th century, Laestadians were among the many Europeans who sought a new home in North America for a variety of reasons.

Where do Laestadians fit in the American religious community?

Like other Lutherans, Laestadians in America could no longer rely on the state churches of their home countries. The roots of what would become known as “Apostolic Lutheranism” began in Calumet, Michigan, with the founding of a congregation in 1873. An official church body would not be formed, however, until 1928.

As more Finnish immigrants came to America, the Laestadians among them formed congregations that are now concentrated in Michigan, northern Minnesota, and Washington. Today, most American Laestadians are found within two denominational groups — the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America and the Laestadian Lutheran Church — though many other, smaller bodies exist, as well as independent congregations.

A full discussion of the matters of doctrine and practice that have caused this small group of Lutherans to fragment in so many directions would require significant space. Suffice it to say that some Apostolic Lutheran congregations are more open to the modern world and resemble American Evangelicalism. Other congregations are isolationist in their outlook and have been affectionately labeled “Lutheran Amish” due to their non-conformity in matters of dress and their discouragement of higher education.

In spite of some theological emphases among some Apostolic Lutherans that are unusual for other Lutherans, they clearly fall within the boundaries of historic Lutheran teaching. Curiously, however, some groups of Apostolics claim that they are the only real Christians in the world, that their form of “living Christianity” being the only legitimate form of Christian expression, a belief that has led some to label such groups of Apostolic Lutherans as “cults.”

Perhaps in time a greater understanding will be reached between Apostolic Lutherans and other branches of Lutheranism in North America. This would require intentional engagement with the leadership of these many and varied communities. Until then, the best source of information about Apostolic Lutheranism comes in a book by Carl A. Kulla: The Journey of an Immigrant Awakening Movement in America: A Brief History of Laestadianism and the Apostolic Lutheran Church. For more information about Laestadius, see chapter eight of They Lived in the Power of God: Lutheran Revival Leaders in Northern Europe by Uuras Saarnivaara and others.

Thomas E. Jacobson is a Lutheran pastor in South Dakota and a Ph.D. candidate at Luther Seminary, St. Paul.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,