Michael Agricola, Father of Finnish Literature

Dan Graves, MSL

Michael Agricola, Father of Finnish Literature

Not many bishops are the center of national holidays. But the bishop who brought the Reformation to Finland does have a holiday. Finns honor Michael Agricola on this day, the anniversary of his death, April 9, 1557. They remember him as the father of Finnish written language.

Born in Finland, he encountered Reformation ideas while studying at Turku, Finland. The bishop there was a humanist (one who studies the contributions of mankind) and sympathetic to reformation ideas. He sent Michael to Wittenberg, the center of the Reformation, to study. There Michael met both Martin Luther and his close ally, Phillip Melanchthon. His studies complete, these two Reformers gave him a letter of recommendation that enabled him to get a job teaching at the important school at Turku, where he trained clergymen in the Bible and taught Reformation theology. Michael wasn't as concerned with throwing out Catholicism as he was in encouraging his students to discover a new inner Christian life.

He saw how important it was for Finns to learn to read and to know something about their own history and culture. One of the first things he did was to create a spelling book in Finnish. At that time, Sweden controlled Finland. Swedish was the official language. Michael had to print all his books in Stockholm. He printed his ABC book around 1543.

The next year, he printed a prayer book. In addition to prayers by Luther and Erasmus, he included Bible prayers and prayers by saints of the Middle Ages. He wasn't the kind of reformer who says the past has nothing worthwhile to offer us. But the prayer book included more than prayers: it included a calendar, short outlines of astronomy, meteorology and theology. It is amusing to note that it included instructions for proper hygiene! Had his classrooms gotten smelly?

Most important of all, Michael translated the New Testament from Greek. It took him twenty years to complete, but he considered the labor worthwhile. Like other reformers, he believed that everyone should be able to read the Word of God in his or her own language. He taught that every sinner has a way open to salvation through Jesus: that Jesus did for sinners what masses, pilgrimages, holy places, prayers to Mary, relics and good works never can do.

Only 500 copies of Michael's New Testament were printed, but more than a hundred still survive. Printed in the old German typeface, they were filled with pictures printed from woodcuts. At the front of his New Testament, Michael compiled a history of Christianity in Finland and gave details about Sweden's occupation of his country. So his Bible has value for historians, too.

He also translated the Psalms and key passages of the Old Testament. In the preface to the Psalms he listed the old gods of Finland. This is interesting information that would otherwise have been lost. All in all, Michael Agricola helped make the Finns the independent people that they are today. He brought about a quiet reformation in his homeland by changing only what really needed to be changed.

Bibliography:

  1. "Agricola, Michael." Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  2. Grell, Ole Peter, editor. The Scandinavian Reformation. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  3. "Literature of the early Reformation period: Michael Agricola (ca 1510-1557)." http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/ kirjaeng.html#agri
  4. Ottoson, Knud. A Short History of the Churches of Scandinavia. Archus, 1986.
  5. Various internet articles.

Last updated June, 2007

  • Editors' Picks

    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
  • Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
    Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
  • So You Think Theology Is Impractical?
    So You Think Theology Is Impractical?