Friday, January 27, 2023

Today on the show, we tell the story of Paavo Ruotsalainen and Finnish Christianity.

It is the 27th of January 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.


My education and training as a historian didn’t give me much deep background knowledge of Finland. I am familiar with Teemu Selanne- the Finnish Flash whose number 8 Jersey was retired by the Anaheim Ducks. Also, the band Architecture is in Helsinki, but it turns out they are from Australia.

So, today is the anniversary of the death of Paavo Ruotsalainen (thank you to the Finnish phonetic alphabet for help on that one). Ruotsalainen died on this, the 27th of January, in 1852. He is one of the central figures in Finnish Christian history and the subject of a very popular Finnish opera.

Its Swedish neighbors have long subjected Finland to the West and Russia to the east. The Danes evangelized it and, during the Reformation, went the way of the other Nordic countries- namely, becoming Lutheran. The Lutheran Reformation came to Finland through Mikael Agricola- a Finnish bishop who studied in Wittenberg under Martin Luther. He would translate the Bible into Finnish and, in doing so, would codify the modern Finnish language.

As was common in Lutheran churches- especially state churches, renewal groups influenced by Pietism spread. When church membership and attendance were required, it makes sense that some would find Christianity to be dry and rote and thus begin conventicles, or small groups, to encourage a more effective faith. Paavo Ruotsalainen, born in 1777, was born into such a family of rural farmers. He was given a bible at a young age and came under the influence of pietist literature. He would become an itinerant preacher and one of the early characters in the Finnish “Herännäisyys” or Awakening. 

The popular opera written by Joonas Kokkonen, called “The Last Temptation,” is indicative of how the Finns see him. The opera takes place amidst a distressed dream Paavo is having. In it, he meets his first, now deceased wife, and her friends claim that she will be cursed by their marriage. Surely enough, she is. They will have a family, but he will be accused of neglecting them because of his long travels across Finland to preach at various events. His children meet various tragic fates, all going to heaven. Paavo is unsure if he is worthy of heaven, which torments him. That, and the local townspeople mock him for his fanaticism. Eventually, his first wife dies, and she is shown going to heaven. He is called by his wife to join her but is certain he is unworthy. Ultimately, he is taken, in his dream, to the blacksmith who engendered faith in him, and he wakes from his dream- now he is ready to die and believes himself worthy of heaven.

The Opera uses popular Finnish hymns and, despite its overtly religious themes, is still popular in an increasingly secular Finland (like other Scandinavian countries, the church is still a site for the social ceremony, but most polls reveal a largely ambivalent people towards Christianity).

Ruotsalainen, as he is depicted in the opera, was a curious figure but is significant for uniting the disparate pietist and revivalist communities across Finland. The Awakening movement he is largely responsible for continues to this day with a popular summer festival and its own schools in the Danish folk school tradition. Today we remember the enigmatic Finnish itinerant preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen on the anniversary of his death on this day in 1852. Born in 1777, he was 74 years old.


The last word for today comes from a Finnish hymn written by the great Finnish poet Johann Runeberg:

1 I lift my eyes unto heaven above,

And fold my hands to draw near thee;

For thou, dear Lord, dost thy children love,

And thou hast promised to hear me.


2 How sweet to bless thee and praise thy Name,

For thou, O Christ, art my Saviour;

Kind Shepherd, guard me from sin and shame,

And let me love thee forever.


3 A little flower in thy garden fair,

My life to thee has been given;

O Saviour, keep me in thy dear care,

And bring me safely to heaven.


4 Dear Lord, I thank thee for all thy love

And gifts divine beyond measure;

A sweeter song I will raise above

To thee, my heart's dearest treasure.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of January 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who knows what the poet Runeberg and the video game Mortal Combat have in common: a Finnish Hymn. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who is sorry for such an obscure reference for a pun- but still… I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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