Mikael Agricola and the Reformation in Finland

Agricola is mostly remembered as the father of Finnish orthography and literature.

In introducing the Reformation to Finland, Agricola followed Luther’s example of moderation, aiming at explaining the changes rather than forcing them on the population. For example, he included in his Prayer Book the Ave Maria, but only as angelic salutation and song of praise about what God had done. He emphasized this with a strong warning against looking for mediation between God and humanity in anyone but Christ.

 

Like Primoz Trubar in Slovenia, Mikael Agricola was a Protestant reformer who had to develop a language before he could spread the gospel.

From Farmer to Bishop

Born around the year 1509 in a small village on the southern coast of Finland, Agricola (originally Mikael Olavinpoika – “son of Olavi”) was able to receive a humanist education in Viipuri (or Vyborg, now in Russia), under Johannes Erasmi. It was there that he adopted the Latin name Agricola, meaning “farmer” (his father’s occupation).

In 1528, Martin Skytte, a Dominican prior who was newly appointed to the bishopric of Turku (a major Finnish town), invited Erasmi to work as his secretary and Agricola as his scribe. When Erasmi died the following year, Agricola took his place.

The same epidemic that took Erasmi’s life struck Petrus Särkilahti, a preacher with Lutheran leanings who had been proclaiming the gospel in Turku since 1523. Agricola benefited from Särkilahti’s preaching and studied some of Luther’s works. In 1530, he was ordained priest and preached both in Turku and other cities.

While still a Roman Catholic, Skytte agreed with Luther’s doctrines of grace and held the University of Wittenberg in high esteem, so much that he sent eight of his young priests, including Agricola, to study there. While in Wittenberg, these men worked on a translation of the New Testament from Greek into Finnish.

Agricola stayed in Wittenberg from 1536 to 1539 when, provided with a letter of recommendation by Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, he returned to Turku and became headmaster of its prestigious cathedral school. This was not a dream job. The students were often unruly, getting into fights and bringing mayhem to the city, while the teachers’ salaries suffered from frequent cuts.

In spite of this, he found it hard to leave his position when King Gustav Vasa (ruler over Sweden and Finland) replaced him with another headmaster. Agricola then continued to serve as assistant to the bishop. When Skytte died in 1550, Agricola became a de-facto bishop, even if the his seat remained officially open for a few years, waiting for the king’s orders. In the meantime, Agricola suffered, like most of the Finnish people, from the effects of a dreadful famine. He was appointed bishop in 1554, becoming Finland’s first Protestant bishop.

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