1 Introduction

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

The Gospel According to Matthew

There must be the ability to encounter facts with openness and honesty, even when the facts are not pleasing to us.

—SRK, Päivämies article concerning the 1970s

There is a distinct sectarian group, primarily located in a single small country, that claims to be the only true Christian Church. It is only through this church “that man can receive redemption and the forgiveness of sins,” as one writing from the group puts it, and Jesus invites man to enter his fold in order to be saved. According to God’s plan of salvation, one must believe not just in Christ, but also in his church–they are inseparable. Others “say that to believe alone in Christ is enough to gain salvation,” the group notes, but it claims they are wrong about that.

This group asserts that one must be given understanding, which only comes through those whom God has sent. It criticizes “false preachers” of our times who all say they are of God but have diverse and conflicting religious views, whom it claims simply do not have the God-given authority to preach the true gospel. It teaches, in the words of one outside commentator, “simple and straightforward religious principles, which together provide a secure and compelling spiritual anchor for the faithful.” The members value these components of faith and righteous behavior as embodying eternal scriptural truths.

It originated from the revelation and work of a single founder, who reached what the outsider commenter called “a pivotal point in his personal religious odyssey.” After that distinct event, which occurred well before the birth of even the oldest current members of the group, the founder began evangelism among the indigenous people of his isolated land and quickly gained converts. The group believes that its founder “was guided by the Holy Spirit,” and that the same Spirit now guides its ministers in preaching the gospel. Many years after his death, the group remains profoundly influenced by the founder’s theological ideas.

The group interprets the way that a single isolated Old Testament passage mentions one of the points on the compass to justify its claim that, during “these last days,” the true church is now located (for the most part) in a distinct location thousands of miles away from ancient Israel. Fairly early in its history, however, members of the group emigrated to America and, with guidance from the leadership back home, established congregations there. Now there are numerous American congregations. But the movement has not attracted substantial interest outside the original ethnic group from the old country. The American adherents still represent only a fraction of the total membership.

One critic on the Internet claims that members “are not allowed to think for themselves when it comes to interpretation of the Bible,” and disagreements are not tolerated. Ultimately, those who are in opposition to the church’s teachings will be cast out and told that they are headed for hell. There is tremendous intimidation to stay in the church, he says, especially for “those who are second, third, and fourth generation,” who are “convinced they are in the true Church.” In the group’s own words, what it offers is “encouragement” to the faithful to not allow anybody to destroy their faith: “Resist the devil and his tricks (many of them are on the Internet).” Writings from the group emphasize unity and make clear that submission and obedience are expected.

There are strict lifestyle rules against drinking, drug use, gambling in any form, adulterous relationships, foul language, and performing (again quoting the group’s writings) “the kind of dances popularized in the world, characterized by provocative and sensuous behavior.” Even “joining organizations or labor unions whose principles are in conflict with Bible teachings” is to be avoided. Members, to quote the outside commenter again, “cannot marry outside the faith and they are advised to live modestly as law-abiding citizens in a secular world. Recalcitrant individuals commonly endure shunning or even expulsion.”

Those within Conservative Laestadianism will readily recognize this as a description of their exclusivist group of 100,000 or so in Finland (the Suomen Rauhanyhdistysten Keskusyhdistys or SRK) with an associated Laestadian Lutheran Church (LLC) in North America having another 7,000 or so adherents that are almost all descendants of Finnish immigrants. It fits completely, from the historical background to the statements by outside critics. But many believers will be surprised to learn that the description is actually of the Iglesia ni Cristo, a church based in the Philippines that condemns everybody outside what it has designated itself, the “Church of Christ.”1

I doubt if many Conservative Laestadians reading this will be overly troubled by the knowledge that they are considered destined for hell by a group of some 5,000,000 Filipinos. But why not? Does it just seem too ridiculous to contemplate that God would condemn you for being outside a group you’ve never heard of until now, made up of people from a very different culture, none of whom you’ll probably ever have a chance to meet? Surely it can’t be their limited reach that allows you to so casually dismiss their claims–there are about fifty times more of them than there are Conservative Laestadians, after all. Is it their humble origins with a single founder? Their assertion that the Holy Spirit is now found only among the people of (almost entirely) a single ethnic group largely unknown in your culture or anybody else’s? Or is it their obviously fabricated interpretation of an Old Testament passage to support the idea that God would conclude his salvation work with them of all people? Your ho-hum reaction to all of these aspects of Iglesia ni Cristo are exactly the reactions that most everybody outside Conservative Laestadianism (i.e., 99.998% of the people on this planet right now) has to the very same aspects of your own exclusivist group.

It is from the perspective of those outsiders that this book is presented. Such a viewpoint is far different from the simplistic, comforting reverence of the devotional writings provided by the church itself. And, depending on how much you have allowed yourself (or been allowed) to consider anything else, that might make the book quite a bracing read, with many more surprises and challenges ahead that may well be uncomfortable for you to encounter. But taking that objective stance–what John Loftus presents as the outsider test for religious faith–is the only honest way to evaluate any religion. The result of the test is that “the presumption of skepticism” becomes “the preferred stance when approaching any religious faith, especially one’s own.” It is “simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your faith” (2008, loc. 1052-54).

The remainder of this section tells the story of my personal struggle with Conservative Laestadian Christianity, why I wrote the book, how I wrote it, and things to keep in mind as you read it. If you want to get right to my examination of this pearl that Conservative Laestadianism puts on offer as the Kingdom of God, you can skip to Section 4. If there are specific issues you’re wondering about, there is an extensive Index with over 1300 entries that you can consult. Those readers whose interest is more geared toward Christianity in general might want to begin with my discussion of various issues about the Bible in 4.3, or even jump ahead to the specific discussion of the Old and New Testaments in Section 6 and Section 7, respectively. In any event, I hope you will read the rest of this Introduction to better understand the context of the book, whether you proceed through it now or come back to it later.

1.1 Examination

Honest investigation is utterly impossible within the pale of any church, for the reason that if you think the church is right you will not investigate, and if you think it wrong, the church will investigate you.

–Robert G. Ingersoll, Lecture on Individuality

Uneasy in Eden

Ever since childhood when I wondered how there could have been no rainbows before Noah’s Flood, given the refractive properties of water (6.1), I have lived with an uneasy combination of faith and doubt. My lifetime of fascination with science and engineering led to a rewarding professional life, but the problem-solving mental attributes that work well for designing a radio or writing a patent aren’t particularly compatible with “childlike faith.”

Engineers don’t like to leave unsolved problems just laying around. They want to analyze the data, come up with a mathematical model or design that integrates the data in some sensible fashion, and produce a solution. I knew about only a few “unsolved problems” with Conservative Laestadianism for most of my life, and fewer still with Christianity in general. But they still bothered me, and I yearned for some kind of solution beyond the admonitions to just accept the gift of faith humbly and gratefully, and to regularly obtain forgiveness not just of sins but also of doubts.

Things went along uneasily but steadily for years. There were many moments of frustration and doubt but also joy and fellowship in the church. My family grew and grew until reaching 11 children, not at all an unusual size for Conservative Laestadianism. My work was a source of great fascination, and one day it led me to some research about an intriguing way of optimizing design parameters without the engineer having to explicitly specify those parameters: genetic algorithms.

This was amazing stuff! In computer software, you set up an artificial chromosome with each “gene” determining a design parameter. Then you run a simulation of your widget a few hundred different times, with different sets of parameters specified by random numbers in the genes of each chromosome. Each simulation produces a “fitness” metric, a value that shows how well the widget works in its simulated environment with the particular “DNA” that it was randomly assigned as a starting point.

Then the fun starts: The widgets mate with each other, crossing over their chromosomes just like parents do in real life. Each widget in the next generation has a randomly shuffled combination of the genes from two widgets in the first population, plus a few mutations sprinkled in. Things are set up so that only the “fittest” widgets from the first generation are likely to be parents of those in the next.

The result: evolution by a simulated form of natural selection. I had been raised believing that Adam and Eve were my ancestors and Darwin was of the devil, but now Darwin had come to my computer. What was happening on the screen before my eyes not only worked, but made a lot of sense. I could understand exactly what was happening, because it was computer code, and pretty simple code at that.

I decided that I should learn a little bit about this evolution business to help give me some perspective about how to use this new engineering tool. Not only that, but I found it fascinating. Could there really be something to this, after all? I started cautiously reading, initially feeling guilt and anxiety about leafing through evolution books as if I were over at the rack of porn magazines instead of the Natural Sciences section of the bookstore. But read I did, and after a few hundred hours of study, I came to the conclusion that evolution was true and Genesis 1-2 were not (4.3.1, 6.1). It was not an easy or welcome discovery for a fundamentalist Christian to make.

Eating of the Tree of Knowledge

The acceptance of evolution put me at odds with most of my fellow believers and everything I could recall the LLC ever saying about creation and original sin. I thought and thought, and could not stop thinking about the problem. Most every sermon and issue of the LLC’s Voice of Zion monthly newspaper seemed to talk about Adam and Eve and how their transgression was the reason why Jesus had been sent as a sacrifice for “sin-fallen mankind.” Yet what I had finally, reluctantly accepted as indisputable truth–that I am not the descendant of any first human pair but the product of millions of years of primate evolution–didn’t match up with that story. How could I avoid the awful conclusion that Christianity–my troublesome but beloved Conservative Laestadian Christianity–was based on a false premise?

Soon a tragic and shocking death occurred before my eyes, which made the reality of my own mortality all too apparent. As a result, I was able to put my concerns back on the shelf for a while. But they didn’t stay there more than a few months. When they intruded again, I was seized by the separate and conflicting drives to learn the truth about my religion and also to salvage my faith in it. I listened to podcasts about religion, including a very entertaining and informative one called The Bible Geek by Robert M. Price. I started reading voraciously about the Bible and Christian history, which had always been interests of mine anyhow. (About 15 years ago I learned German for the express purpose of reading Luther in his own language.) Now I was learning with the blinders off, daring to ask the difficult questions not just about evolution but also about the Bible, the foundations of Christian doctrine, and the history of my own Conservative Laestadianism.

What Luther called “the whore of reason” had been living in my head and fighting with my believing heart for a long time, fuming and grumbling under her closeted second-rate existence, as I put it in my Introduction to the June 2010 edition of this book. But at that point, her cries of resistance became almost intolerably shrill. Yet she, or some vaguely defined opposing faculty in my “heart” remained terrified of the horrific consequences that could accompany open rebellion. It was an unbearable situation, and I was receiving nothing but unsatisfying non-answers to my questions from my LLC brethren. Finally, I contacted Dr. Price and asked if he could act as a sort of theological therapist, a reasonable and sympathetic partner for intelligent discussion of these vexing issues. He graciously agreed, and I decided that the best way to proceed would be to write an email to him summarizing just what it is that I am expected to believe in this obscure little movement, which of course he had never heard of.

What began as a summary quickly turned into another full-blown research project. I had the time to spare, and my desk was soon covered by stacks of Voice of Zion issues and books from the LLC and its predecessors, their pages festooned with tabs that marked particular statements on a wide variety of topics. A love of things old and arcane was also expressing itself in some work I did transferring recordings of decades-old sermons from reel-to-reel tape to digital format. In the process I came across a few interesting statements that I transcribed into written quotes. Mapping out the many points of doctrine, which collectively form what is supposed to be a simple, childlike faith, was confirming my longtime suspicions that things weren’t nearly so simple. There was some satisfaction in that even as absurdities and inconsistencies became more apparent and filled me with dread.

Finally, after compiling many pages of quotes from the pages I had flagged and recorded statements I had transcribed, I sent my “summary” (whose length had reached over a hundred pages) to Dr. Price. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough with him about my goal to find some way of remaining in the church, despite my nagging concerns, because within a few days he responded with his observation that

it appears as if you are trapped (simply by irrational, childish, wakeup-in-the-night fear of going to hell) in an introverted, brain-dead cult whose tenets fundamentally contradict one another. It stresses, in Lutheran fashion, the finished work of the atonement yet makes everything depend upon the shifting mists of pious feeling. It claims salvation is by faith but adds onto it a degrading ritual of self-criticism and absolution (what a control mechanism!). It celebrates charismatic phenomena yet forbids them. It cultivates a sheltered plausibility structure in which it is impious to think for oneself or to hold onto one’s convictions if the mass cannot affirm them (out of ignorance and fear, I might add). No movies? No TV? No sports? No novels? It’s like eighteenth century revivalism, almost like the Amish, certainly like the Plymouth Brethren. I cannot imagine what keeps you desirous of sticking with this cult which is clearly making you suffer. Tillich: “Fundamentalism has demonic aspects in that it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents and makes them suppress aspects of the truth of which they are dimly aware.” Only in your case, it’s not “dimly.”

I called up Dr. Price and said, “No, Bob, let me be clear: I want to stay in this church, not leave it. It means a lot to me, and I’d like to find a way to make it work somehow.” He agreed to explore things with me, and we had some great discussions. With one doctorate in systematic theology and another in the New Testament, Price has tremendous respect and sympathy for religion (despite not adhering to any belief in God himself), and he offered many words of encouragement.


Since pat answers were not doing the job for me anymore (and Dr. Price was certainly not giving any of those), I felt compelled to continue my research. In doing so, I met Carl Kulla, a member of the Apostolic Lutheran Federation (4.1.6) who is a historian and, at age 90, a living repository of Laestadian history. He helped broaden my inquiries beyond just what the LLC was saying about itself, to writings by (and about) other Laestadian groups and the movement as a whole.

I quickly expanded my summary with footnotes expressing various concerns about the compiled quotes. I wound up reading over those quotes and footnotes many times, comforting myself with the hope that somehow the issues might be frozen into the printed page and left there. Seeing it all laid out in the cold medium of print helped me to deal with the mental disconnect that I was continuing to experience every Sunday between the beliefs that were expected of me and what I was finding out from my studies.

I also decided to read the Bible–the entire thing starting with Genesis 1:1. After hearing Dr. Price praise the New American Standard Bible (NASB) as being the most faithful to the currently available manuscripts, I checked it out and found that it’s not just well regarded among Bible scholars, but a highly readable result of careful and conservative scholarship:

[T]he NASB translation team adhered to the principles of literal translation. This is the most exacting and demanding method of translation, requiring a word-for-word translation that is both accurate and readable. This method follows the word and sentence patterns of the original authors in order to enable the reader to study Scripture in its most literal format and to experience the individual personalities of those who penned the original manuscripts. [www.lockman.org/nasb]

The King James Version is a venerable translation that the LLC seems to esteem almost as the Holy Word itself–its website has a How We Believe page that begins, “The Holy Bible (KJV) and the Lutheran Confessions . . .” But the KJV is not the most accurate translation by any means, nor particularly understandable by today’s reader. With a copy of the NASB in hand, along with the trusty old KJV and a newfound appreciation for a scholarly rather than merely devout approach to the ancient text, I began reading. I spent much of the Summer of 2009 doing so, learning the historical and theological context of each book and even subtexts within each book in an effort to appreciate what the Bible writers actually meant to say rather than what pious but ill-informed interpreters would like to have them mean.

All told, I think I’ve read most of what’s been written in English about Laestadianism, most of what the LLC and its North American predecessors have written about themselves, and a fair amount of what’s been written by and about the SRK. I’ve studied (not just read) the entire Bible. I’ve become intimately familiar with Luther’s teachings and understandings. I’ve gone through the writings of earlier Christians, too, including most that are preserved from the first several centuries as well as some of Augustine’s from the fifth.

I’ve come across expressions of simple, childlike faith, and criticisms of such faith. I’ve discussed my historical interests and concerns with some wonderful people who share them–in the SRK and LLC, in other branches of the Laestadian movement, and in other faiths or no faith at all. It’s been a distressing but fascinating quest.

1.2 Disputation

People who are insecure in their religious beliefs may feel the impulse to silence and harass those who disagree with them, because their mere existence arouses the painful dissonance of doubt.

—Carol Tavris et al., Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

The June 2010 Edition

By June 2010, I had a 200-page book on my hands, with nearly as much of it being footnoted comments as there was of the quotations being commented on. I decided to share the results of my research with a few carefully selected friends in the LLC and SRK. Before doing so, I asked Dr. Price to carefully review the book for consistency and accuracy, especially my comments about the Bible itself. He wrote a glowing foreword to it, which I toned down as much as I could to avoid charges of arrogance, high-mindedness, etc. It captures very well, I think, the motivations behind my research and writing, and is preserved here in the next section, Foreword to the June 2010 Edition. As he put so well, I was walking “the lonely, narrow path of great love for [my] faith community and simultaneous, painful alienation from it, because [I] cannot avoid asking the questions that [my] tradition fears.” My own anguished introduction also explains those motivations and questions, and is in the next following section, Introduction to the June 2010 Edition.

About a dozen people read the June 2010 edition, but many more than that heard about it. And one of the people I shared it with, an elder of my local LLC congregation, was deeply troubled by what he was reading. Although our subsequent phone conversations seemed to go well, his concerns were not just about what I was writing, but about me for writing it. Marlene Winell makes an observation to troubled fundamentalist Christians that may have more truth about the situation than that elder or his fellow critics would care to admit: “In trying to make sense of your doubts and fears, you might try to get help from church leaders, only to find that they don’t want to hear you; it triggers their own fears” (Winell 1993, 17).

In retrospect, the elder’s reaction should not have been surprising to me. Our values are sacred “when they are so important to those who hold them that the very act of considering them is offensive” (Dennett 2006, 22). The word is sacred, not scared, though the typological similarity is perhaps telling. Seeing our cherished religion paraded naked before the world can be both frightening and awkward. Our first impulse is to rush in and restore modesty, to drape the faith’s exposed beliefs and cultural peculiarities in a cloak of piety and escort it away from the gaping crowd.

In September 2010, the congregation’s preachers and board of trustees called me to a meeting to discuss the book. It was stressful, coercive, and emotional–about a dozen somber men sitting around a conference table with one person whose faith and motives were being questioned. “Are you really believing? Are you?Beyond some concern about how I could dispute what “God’s Word” says regarding Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark, there wasn’t much substantive discussion of what the book actually had to say. It was mostly about me for having said it.

They said the book was an expression of my doubts, which would have been best kept to myself or private conversations. (The messenger-shooting extended beyond just me; one board member brought printouts from Price’s website, no doubt intending to impugn him as a bad influence.) It could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands, they said. It would leave the impression among outsiders that there are differences of opinion in “God’s Kingdom.” And it is certainly not something that believers should be reading. Indeed, one board member said he personally would not read the book because he wouldn’t be able to do so and still keep his faith. I don’t know whether to applaud his honesty or grimace at the hollowness of his purported faith.

After over two hours of this, the meeting concluded with the understanding that I was to retrieve copies of the book. Some of those present were unhappy about my unwillingness to cave in about Adam and Eve, but one board member (a longtime friend) put out his hands in resignation and said something to the effect of, “It is what it is.” All their pressure about Noah’s Ark did coerce me into saying, “I guess I can leave it open about the boat,” though I can’t imagine what I was thinking in saying that. After I did, some of the brothers proceeded to chuckle amongst themselves about aspects of the Noah story. I didn’t find that amusing at all: “You sit here telling me I have to believe this story, and then you laugh about it? It’s not funny!

I went home and told my wife, “You are about to witness the intellectual disintegration of your husband.” Then the years of doubt, fear, and frustration–culminating in being muzzled into silence by a church far more interested in rebuke than reality–boiled over. I collapsed into my wife’s arms in tears, and went to bed for a fitful night.

A few days later, I called Dr. Price and said, “Well, Bob, I have examined the pearl and found it to be a cheap imitation.” He cautioned me not to act rashly, and asked if I still found the preaching of absolution to be of value. I replied that yes, the forgiveness of my sins was the whole reason I went to church, and I didn’t feel I could do without it. “So go, then,” he said, “And take that.” And go I did, sitting through sermon after sermon full of things I knew the preachers were wrong about, just to hear the comforting words of forgiveness. But I could never get over the blatant disregard for the truth that had revealed itself to me that evening. The pearl had a big crack in it, and would never appear whole again.


There was a long process of alienation from my LLC brethren, even before the meeting. Even without actually leaving the faith, but merely raising questions about it, I understood what Price meant when he wrote, “When and if born-again Christians discover someone who has actually been where they are and left, it is a terrible threat to their faith” (2006b, 335). As one longtime friend told me, it isn’t easy to have someone so close to you questioning the things you have held dear since childhood.

And I have to acknowledge that it wasn’t just the discomfort of those friends with my questions that caused tension. Frankly, I think I just wore some of my friendships out. During Sunday afternoon visits with other couples, I would bring up various issues of concern and eagerly grab hold of our friends’ sympathetic replies, which were full of support and understanding. Each time someone confessed sharing doubts or concerns with me about one issue or another, it was heartening to learn that I wasn’t the only one struggling with my faith. But the relief and sense of solidarity was accompanied by the concern that a person thrashing around in the water alongside me might not be in the best position to pull me back into the boat.

Visits between Conservative Laestadian families are times for having the kids disappear into a boisterous cloud, enjoying a long-standing and strong sense of camaraderie (see 4.2.3), and chatting about everyday life. Discussing “the way and the journey” is much less about theological questions than comparing notes about what is happening to whom in the church community and commiserating about challenges posed by the shared behavioral norms. I’m sure the questions I continued to raise soon became an unwelcome intrusion into that pattern of things. As was the case with William Bagely in the midst of born-again Christians, my “intense intellectual investigations were not always welcomed by those with whom I fellowshipped. Doubt was considered a sin or a door through which Satan could enter to confuse believers” (2003, 186).

As I learned and questioned more about church history, the Bible, and aspects of science that conflicted with important points of doctrine, the resulting frustrations undoubtedly must have showed, too. My behavior soon became much like what Rachel Held Evans admits to concerning her own difficult days:

Publicly, I grew obstinate and incorrigible, ready to debate family and friends whose easy confidence baffled and frustrated me and gave me an excuse to be angry at someone besides God. It bothered me that other people weren’t bothered. I couldn’t understand why no one else was stressed out about the existence of hell or angered by all the suffering in the world. I feigned surprise when my friends got annoyed that I raised such topics at bridal showers and poker games. Wherever I sensed a calm sea, I sought to rock the boat; I wanted others to share in my storm. [2010, 113-14, emphasis added]

In the year following the September 2010 meeting, I just lost the energy to continue swimming against the current of the church’s clannish, insular social scene (4.2.3). I found myself unwilling to engage in any more one-sided efforts toward social contact. In response to my own withdrawal, there was little but silence from most of my old friends.

The difficult thing about silence is that it’s hard to interpret. Perhaps my silent friends were all very busy making a living in a bad economy. Perhaps they felt the best thing to do was let me sort it out on my own. Perhaps they were angry, intimidated, or just plain disinterested. The most disturbing thing to me is how it affected the rest of my family, too. My wife and children were just as disregarded, despite having expressed no questions, no concerns, nothing at all. Finally, some months prior to this writing, the lack of interest towards us found itself accompanied by a lack of interest by us in the whole LLC social milieu.

There is something quite disturbing to me about conditional friendship. Most of the bonds that seemed so strong turned out to fray pretty quickly. Let the “earnest Christian start questioning the party line, and he will find a pink slip enclosed in the next handshake. He is henceforth a leper,” (Price 2006b, 163) and apparently his family is, too.

Off With the Muzzle

Given all of that, with news about troubling responses to child sexual abuse, with various people close to me leaving the faith for reasons against which I had no arguments, I finally decided I was ready to shake off the muzzle and publish what I had learned and observed. Over the past several months leading up to this writing, I have put into print what has been swirling around my head and flagged in the pages of my library of books, more than doubling the size of the June 2010 edition. Given the outraged reaction I encountered to a very limited, private distribution of the book, which consisted mostly of church statements and relatively restrained footnotes about those statements, I have no illusions that this published edition will be well received. As Ken Daniels noted about his own book, “whether I take a gentle or harsh approach, I am sure to elicit criticism. The very act of confronting deeply cherished religious convictions is unforgivable to some, regardless of my tactics” (2010, 13).

So be it. About 18 centuries ago, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “If our faith is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed; for it will have been proved that we do not possess the truth” (Stromata 6.10.80, from MacDonald and Porter 2000, xv). Is the faith of that board member who refuses to read anything critical about what he supposedly believes really faith in anything other than the people around him who are repeating the old slogans? They, too, are ignoring the facts about their “faith,” making the whole thing a self-sustaining doctrinal bubble that quivers unsteadily in the air, vulnerable to being poked by the slightest intrusion of fact.

1.3 Publication

Christian groups are known for banning books and objecting to certain curricula, such as the teaching of evolution. Clearly there is a fear that too much outside information will threaten faith, so it should be controlled. Children grow up thinking that what they have been taught is all there is. If you control the information people receive, you restrict their ability to think.

—Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold

Whose Voice is the Chorus?

I often treat Conservative Laestadianism as a single system of belief and practice having a single unified standpoint at any given time. I will often say that Conservatives do this or believe that as a group, or did so at some particular point in the movement’s history. That unanimity is certainly what I have perceived as the LLC’s claimed and desired mode of operation in my own decades of life within it. Neither the LLC nor the SRK seem eager to acknowledge dissent, and they highly prize the idea of unity of the spirit, as attested to by many quotes about the “Kingdom of God” in 4.2.1 and 4.2.3, the importance of unity in 4.2.6, and the near-deity of the congregation “Mother” in 4.4.4.

One correspondent observes that the appeal to unity is made by both individuals and the movement itself in public discussion as a last resort when no actual basis or argument is available to defend particular opinions. According to my correspondent, Conservative Laestadianism has never actually agreed that any stamp of doctrinal approval should be placed on everything written and said in the movement’s name. Indeed, we will see in 4.1.6 that the Conservatives differentiated themselves early on from a rival movement that formed around the idea of the “firstborn,” which established a strict hierarchical control over its doctrine from a group of exalted elders in Lapland. A consequence of rejecting the doctrine of the firstborn has been a century of aversion to allowing any single or central authority to speak for “God’s Kingdom.” Despite a succession of strong-willed preachers rising to prominence and sometimes going outside the bounds established by that principle in the last hundred years, it seems to remain in place.

I saw the “no central authority” principle in action myself during an hour-long discussion in 2011 with Matti Taskila, the second highest official of the SRK. I wanted to nail down what the SRK’s current official position is on evolution after hearing nothing but ambiguous and contradictory answers. Taskila convinced me that even he really couldn’t speak for the organization or even the SRK board on the matter. His statements were heartfelt and sincere admonitions to retain the faith of a child and trust in “God’s Word,” but seemed no more authoritative than the same statements I’ve heard time and again from preachers in the local congregation.

What does seem to be acknowledged is that there are differences in thought from one era of Conservative Laestadian history to another. For example, Väinö Havas made statements (many of which are quoted in this book) that were undeniably different from what was being said in the 1960s and 1970s (Palola 2011).


To capture that change in viewpoints over time, I present my quotes (really excerpts) of church writings and sermons in chronological order within each sub-section unless otherwise indicated. Those excerpts are denoted by a cross symbol (“”). Although they are indented like block quotes, they use quotation marks and inline citation format like regular text. For brevity and clarity, they sometimes include my own paraphrases to connect or introduce quoted language. Here’s an example, copied from 4.2.1:

Often “members of other churches and groups” ask the question “Why is it then that only here in your church men are saved?” Several Bible passages are quoted in reply: Eph 4:4 (“one body, one spirit,” etc.); Gal 1:8 (“though an angel preach any other gospel let him be accursed”); John 10:1 (“he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold is a thief”); John 10:16 (“one fold and one shepherd”) (VOZ, 6/1980).

The connecting language outside the quotation marks helps to concisely present a pretty lengthy original statement about biblical justification for the church’s exclusivity doctrine. I trust it does so without detracting from what the original author had in mind.

These excerpts are the result of an effort to make a representative sample of statements from Conservative Laestadian writings and sermons for each of the various topics I came across during my research. Contrary to what critics have said both in the September 2010 board meeting as well as the most recent review by some prominent LLC preachers, the excerpts were emphatically not taken “out of context.”

Nor are the excerpts the result of any attempt to find and focus on errors. Of course, I’m only human, and my attempt to fairly sample the myriad documents on my desk (and in my camera) wasn’t perfect. When an outrageous statement by Peter Nevala or Heikki Saari catches one’s eye, there is an inclination to include it no matter what. But I submit that you will find Nevala’s gem about women and henpecked husbands in 4.7.6, for example, not just because I found it too good to pass up but because it was the kind of thing that was being written thirty years ago.

When I felt that I had enough statements to represent the thinking for a particular era of the church’s 150 years or so of history, I refrained from flagging any more of them. Similarly, I went to some trouble to find statements from times for which documents weren’t so readily available. Carl Kulla’s books were helpful in providing statements from the earliest days of the movement, as were Hepokoski’s three historical documents. I spent about a day and a half of a vacation to Phoenix with 3-ring binders of old Greetings of Peace issues borrowed from the Phoenix LLC congregation, snapping away with my camera to include material from the 1940s through the early 1970s. Of all the accusations one might make against this book, I don’t think a lack of thoroughness or fairness in collecting my samples of Conservative statements should be among them.

I also tried to avoid quoting articles or sermons from individuals who departed from Conservative Laestadianism even decades later. For example, I passed over many beautifully written articles in The Greetings of Peace by Walter Torola simply because of the possible charge that he was among those (the leader, in fact) who “went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19) after the 1973 schism. For all articles quoted from the pre-1973 Greetings of Peace, I include the author’s name in case others disagree with my selection of sheep versus goats. Immediately after the 1973 schism, the Conservatives began another publication from which I quote thereafter, The Voice of Zion.

The book is divided up into sections under numbered headings and subheadings. Some large sections are further divided up by subheadings without numbering. Within each section (or subsection), the (“”) church statements are generally presented in the order in which the Conservative authors and preachers wrote or said them.

I tried to relate topics in adjacent sections, but sometimes it may seem that they are just jammed together. For example, the sacraments (4.7.3) of Communion and baptism may not seem particularly related to marriage (4.7.4) and children (4.7.5). But they are all part of the “life of a believer” (4.7), and there seemed no better way to group them.

In some sections there may seem to be a tiresome redundancy of quotes. That again is simply a product of my effort to arrive at a fair sample of Conservative Laestadian statements. The movement emphasizes some topics far more than others, and I wanted to give a flavor of that variation in emphasis rather than just conveying what has ever been said about each topic. Also, the repetition serves to show subtle differences where they exist, and unanimity of thought where it exists.

The discussion of Luther (Section 5) and the Old (Section 6) and New Testaments (Section 7) designates new sub-topics with each section or subsection with a leading bullet point (“• ”). My hope is that the bullets make it easier to see continuity within each sub-topic without going overboard with the subheadings.

The extensive Index may be helpful in cases where a topic of interest is not readily located within a particular section. It also reveals the level of emphasis on various topics, and just how detailed the various theological nuances are for certain issues.


Referring to Conservative Laestadians by the third-person pronoun (“they,” “them,” etc.) is something I avoid because doing so implies that I am not one of “them.” I’ve heard quite enough “us versus them” talk in my decades within the church, and do not intend to contribute to it any further. Despite finding many of its claims indefensible, I have been very hesitant to come out and repudiate my childhood faith.

I believe in a God who started everything with the Big Bang, who is the reason that there is something rather than nothing. But the seemingly endless problems with both the Bible and the opinions of its Conservative interpreters (including their naïve viewpoint that the Bible has no problems) leave me wondering what to think beyond that. My affection for this odd little sect persists, though, despite a diminished ability to tolerate the rants of its ill-informed preachers. This book is not the result of caring too little about the faith of my childhood, but sadly, of caring too much.

It may offend some people to see Conservative Laestadianism referred to as an “odd little sect.” But that’s what it is: undeniably “odd” in so many respects; “little” to an extreme, with its total membership (including children) that amounts to less than 0.002% of the world’s present population; and a “sect” according to all four definitions of the term provided by Dictionary.com.

Nobody would have an issue with Conservative Laestadianism being a body of people “adhering to a particular religious faith,” of course. The second definition of “sect” is “a group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition,” and that may be more controversial. But that’s actually what happened both with Luther deviating from medieval Catholicism, and Laestadius deviating from the Lutheranism of Sweden. The OALC would even argue that Heideman deviated from Laestadianism, as we will see in 4.1.6. Indeed, Laestadius’s successor Raattamaa (whom the Conservatives claim as one of their own, along with A.L. Heideman) criticized Heideman’s followers as departing from the “firstborn” Laestadians and following “the dictates of a newborn sect” (Palola 2000, 50).

It also seems indisputable that Conservative Laestadianism meets Dictionary.com’s third definition: It is certainly “a Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.” And, per the fourth definition, it is a group that puts great emphasis on being “united by a specific doctrine.”

Conservative Laestadianism is also a fundamentalist religious movement. That’s used as a term of disparagement by many. But those who put such stock in being “God’s Kingdom,” led by the Holy Spirit to preserve true Christian doctrine in the face of an evil world, should not find anything disagreeable about the label. According to Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, religious fundamentalism

manifests itself as a strategy, or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group. Feeling this identity to be at risk in the contemporary era, these believers fortify it by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past. These retrieved “fundamentals” are refined, modified, and sanctioned in a spirit of pragmatism: they are to serve as a bulwark against the encroachment of outsiders who threaten to draw the believers into a syncretistic, areligious, or irreligious cultural milieu. Moreover, fundamentalists present the retrieved fundamentals alongside unprecedented claims and doctrinal innovations. These innovations and supporting doctrines lend the retrieved and updated fundamentals an urgency and charismatic intensity reminiscent of the religious experiences that originally forged communal identity. [from Mercer 2009, xxi]

Mercer lists some tendencies of fundamentalists that have all been exhibited by Conservative Laestadians at various times. They “form dramatic eschatologies; name, dramatize, and mythologize the enemy; engage in missionary work with zeal; exhibit a crisis of identity; replace inherited structures with their comprehensive ideological system; and seek out charismatic and authoritarian male leaders” (2009, xxii).

I can’t resist adding Robert M. Price’s one sentence summary of the distinction between a fundamentalist Christian and an evangelical one: “An evangelical is a fundamentalist who’ll let you go to the movies” (2006b, 45). We will see which category better fits Conservatives in 4.6.1.

Another loaded term is indoctrination, which may raise images of high-pressure cults and mind control. However, I take the word simply to mean what its roots imply: instilling doctrine. Doctrine is “a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system” (Wikipedia). Indoctrination “is the process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology.” The more benign term “education” is much preferred by those tasked with teaching Conservative Laestadian doctrine, especially to impressionable children, but what they are doing is “distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned” (Wikipedia).

Finally, an important and inflammatory term must be mentioned that this book never uses to describe Conservative Laestadianism: cult. Critics of the movement haven’t hesitated to label it that way, as evidenced by the alternative queries suggested by Google when searching for the term Laestadian. But the term is unfairly perjorative, and has never really applied to Conservative Laestadianism. At various times in its history, the movement has had many of the traits that appear on checklists of cults and cultlike groups, to be sure.2 But two essential features are missing: a single individual, living or dead, whose leadership is so strong as to make him or her an object of veneration, and the invention of entirely novel doctrines or practices. Even when strong leaders like Juhani Raattamaa, A.L. Heideman, and Peter Nevala wielded a great deal of personal influence, it was clear that they were servants and not masters. And every single aspect of Conservative doctrine and practice has some basis in earlier forms of Christianity. It is indeed a sect of Swedish and Finnish Lutheranism, but that is a very different and less judgmental term.


My sources, about 180 in all, are listed in the References list at the end of the book. Yes, I quote extensively from “heretics” and “unbelievers,” even from some books with disconcerting titles like Biblical Nonsense and Leaving the Fold. It would be impossible to undertake an objective examination of a religion without citing its critics as well as its devotees. In the middle of those two extremes are many honest historians (both amateur and professional) who try not to mix their personal faith with their impartial assessment of what has actually happened and is happening in the church.

I have the highest respect for those church historians and the tightrope of objectivity they must walk. I would like to single out Tuomas Palola and John Lehtola, ordained preachers within the SRK and LLC, respectively, for my appreciation. Their sincere and unfeigned faith has moved them to caution me about my plans for publication even as their intellectual honesty has prevented them from condemning me. This book is not their fault, not by a long shot. I hope they are not tarnished in any way by my citing their personal communication with me about various interesting and helpful facts from their vast awareness of church history.

Bible quotes are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated. Usually, those exceptions are cases where the New American Standard Bible seemed to offer a clearer or more accurate reading. For some Old Testament texts with extant manuscript sources in the Dead Sea Scrolls (far older than the Septuagint or Masoretic Text), I refer to the Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (Abegg et al. 1999).

I cite a number of sources from the first five centuries after Christ, which are listed in 5.1 as part of my introduction to the question of Luther’s Christian predecessors. Those early Christian writers are interesting for several reasons. First, they provide us with evidence–usually the only evidence we have–of early Christianity’s doctrine and practices. Second, some of the earliest ones are authoritative in their own right. They were treated much the same as our canonical New Testament books by early Christians, as evidenced by the way they are referenced in other writings as well as the inclusion of their books in early copies of the New Testament. And at least one of them, Augustine, was viewed by Luther as a fellow believer and source of inspired wisdom.

Luther’s own writings make frequent appearances, too. In many cases, I have checked the English translation of quoted materials against Luther’s original German, or have provided my own translation. Also included is the Apology of the Augsburg Confession [1531], which was written by Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s co-worker in the Reformation. Its purpose was to defend The Augsburg Confession, which is the centerpiece of the Lutheran Confessions that Conservative Laestadianism prizes as one of its founding documents.3 Conservatives might harbor suspicions about the authority of Melanchthon’s writings, but Luther was involved with the writing of the Apology and approved of it. In a 1533 letter, Luther urged Leipzig Christians to adhere to both it and the original 1530 Augsburg Confession (McCain 2005, 70).

An Appeal to Readers (and Non-Readers)

Luther began his 95 Theses by saying he was motivated to discuss the matters at Wittenberg “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.” I take the risk of being presumptuous in making the comparison because that statement of his is really what this book is all about. The church claims to be the “pillar and ground of truth.” If that’s the case, why not engage the truth rather than seeking to suppress or ignore it? Would such a negative reaction have been appropriate to Luther’s 95 Theses, too, or do we simply deem that critique of the established Church laudable because, well, we’re Lutherans?

This is a study of Conservative Laestadian doctrine and practice, and their historical and biblical foundations, by a lifelong and troubled member of the church who still believes in God. I have a great deal of affection for both the faith of my childhood and the many good and decent people in that faith. But after years of suppressing my concerns, and then being told to suppress them, I am not going to hold back from offering my honest, unapologetic commentary in the pages ahead. There’s no getting around the fact that many of the statements and positions we will encounter from both Conservative Laestadianism and the Bible are–I’m afraid there’s just no other way to put it–simply outrageous. I will not overly restrain my writing from raising its eyebrows, or smiling a bit here and there, in discussing them.

In the calm waters of a pool of reverence, even a drop of criticism creates disquieting ripples. No doubt my bluntness and, at times, even bemusement about sacred matters will cause discomfort for those who have never heard their faith discussed with anything but devotion, piety, and praise. I’m sorry about that, I really am. I wish there were a way to honestly share the knowledge I’ve acquired over these past years without some of those who have been my closest friends taking it as an act of betrayal. I have already lost many of those friends, and know that I am likely to lose more. Please don’t think it hasn’t weighed heavily on my mind.

Here’s the only thing I really ask: Please only talk about this book to the extent that you have read it. I understand if you’d rather not read it at all. In fact, I sincerely think that it’s not in some people’s best interests to do so. If you are one of those people, I ask (through those who have dared to read at least this far) that you refrain from characterizing or condemning either this book or its author.

It’s really just an issue of honesty–you cannot justifiably criticize that which you do not understand. That’s why I spent over a year of full-time work researching the faith that had been causing me so much heartburn. I take it too seriously to have done otherwise. Only now do I dare to speak out about its problems, after having done everything possible to understand them.

The next two sections refer to the June 2010 edition. They’re pretty short, but if you’ve grown impatient with all this prologue, you may choose to skip directly to Section 4.

1 Here are the supporting references with the same paragaph layout as the description itself:

“Certain that the Iglesia ni Cristo is the only ‘true’ Christian church, the ministers and members work in concert to implement a far-reaching programme of evangelism that has no national bounds” (Reed 2001, 564). “Salvation was promised by the Lord Jesus Christ to His Church–the Church of Christ . . . It is only through His dear Church that man can receive redemption and the forgiveness of sins . . . This explains why He invites people to enter His fold or join His Church to be saved” (Pasugo, 1/1997). “He who has faith and believes in our Lord Jesus Christ, must also believe in the existence of the Church of Christ”; “In God’s scheme of salvation, Christ and the Church of Christ are inseparable” (Pausgo, 9/1988). “Do not let others deceive you when they say that to believe alone in Christ is enough to gain salvation” (Manual for New Members).

“Without being given understanding or revelation, one can never know the mystery of God’s words and can never come to know the truth”; “Those sent by God–His inspired messengers–of the ones exclusively given the understanding of His words: they speak God’s words” (Pasugo, 10/1995). “In our times, we witness the burgeoning of preachers or evangelists professing that they are of God despite their diverse and conflicting religious views and precepts. Whether or not they are aware of it, these false preachers have to face the fact that they have no divine authority to preach the true gospel” (Pasugo, 10/1998). “Scholars interested in the Iglesia ni Cristo agree that its binding creed is an amalgam of simple and straightforward religious principles, which together provide a secure and compelling spiritual anchor for the faithful. Although these components of faith and righteous behavior are unequivocally dogmatic, and abhorrent to many Catholics and Protestants, the Church membership is convinced that they embody eternal scriptural truths” (Reed 2001, 574).

“Felix Manalo reached a pivotal point in his personal religious odyssey during November 1913. . . . [H]e embarked on a programme of evening evangelism in Punta, Santa Ana (Manila), thereby launching the Iglesia ni Cristo. Within several months, Manalo had attracted a dozen people to his new indigenous Church . . . [B]y year’s end it embraced around 100 converts” (Reed 2001, 568). “[W]ho are the capable guides/preachers of the Bible? The messengers of God because they are guided by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that guided the biblical writers is the same Holy Spirit that guides the true preachers  . . . This is the primary reason why the Iglesia Ni Cristo consistently upholds the authority of Bro. Felix Manalo in preaching the pristine gospel since as a messenger of God, he was guided by the Holy Spirit . . . The same Holy Spirit is guiding now the ministers of the Iglesia Ni Cristo in preaching the gospel truth throughout the world” (Introduction to the Iglesia Ni Cristo Part II). “Even today, some 37 years after the death of its prophet and organizational mastermind, the Iglesia ni Cristo remains profoundly influenced by the theological ideas and managerial legacy of Felix Y. Manalo” (Reed 2001, 565).

“The Church of Christ that appeared from the Philippines (in the Far East) during these last days is the fulfillment of the prophecies made by God and Christ. This is the third part of the Church founded by Christ. It arose in these last days after the Church built by Christ in the first century was completely led astray by the false prophets. This Church’s later extension into the Far West is equally the realization of God's prophecies in the Bible” (Manual for New Members). “The third group of people unto whom also is the promise of the Holy Ghost are those that God will bring from the Far East, whom He calls ‘my sons’ and ‘my daughters’ [Isa 43:5-6]” (Pasugo, 11/1995). Emigration to America: Reed 2001, 583-85. “Iglesia is not better known, despite its numbers, because the majority of Iglesia’s members are Filipino. Virtually the only exceptions are a few non-Filipinos who have married into Iglesia families” (Anonymous commenter on aboutiglesianicristo.blogspot.com).

“Members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo, unlike the rest of us Filipinos, are not allowed to think for themselves when it comes to interpretation of the Bible. They must submit to the official interpretation of Scripture from the Central Administration of the Iglesia Ni Cristo. If any member disagrees with the interpretation of the Scriptures as taught by the Central Administration of the Iglesia Ni Cristo, they are cast out and told they are damned into the flames of hell”; “The force by which members of INC are intimidated to stay in the membership is tremendous, especially those who are second, third, and fourth generation. By now they are brainwashed in the cult's teachings and convinced they are in the true Church of Christ” (What about the INC Church). “A word of encouragement for the faithful brethren throughout the world who stood firm in their calling and election, let us continue the good work. Let us not allow anybody to destroy our genuine faith. Resist the devil and his tricks (many of them are on the Internet)” (Introduction to the Iglesia Ni Cristo Part II). Unity valued, submission expected: see Pasugo quotes from Salvation? By what way, Let Us Reason Ministries.

“If you used to get drunk or you used to drink liquor or take drugs, you must refrain from any of these acts now. God forbids them. If you used to gamble, you must know that all forms of gambling are prohibited in the Church of Christ, like: racing, lotteries, card or dice games, slot machines, etc. If you are involved in an adulterous relationship, you should stop this right away. God forbids adultery. If you are employed in a dishonest occupation, committing fraud or any illegal acts, this is not allowed. We should live decently and righteously. You must cease from any vice or sin in your life. Refrain from swearing or using foul language and do not perform the kind of dances popularized in the world, characterized by provocative and sensuous behavior”; “You are also commanded to avoid joining organizations or labor unions whose principles run in conflict with Bible teachings” (Manual for New Members). Members “cannot marry . . . endure shunning or even expulsion” (Reed 2001, 575).

2 Diane Wilson lists 36 “Characteristics of Cults and Cultlike Groups,” which seem to be tailored to her critique of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nonetheless, there are undeniably a lot of traits in common with Conservative Laestadianism, especially before the moderation of recent decades.

Here are twenty of those characteristics in her checklist that seem applicable: (1) “Members of the group must believe the doctrines of the group are the one and only ‘Truth’”; (2) “Members must follow the doctrines even if they do not understand them”; (4) “An ‘Us-vs.-Them’ belief that no outside group is recognized as godly”; (5) “No independent thinking by members is allowed”; (8) “Members are made to feel elite, chosen by God to lead humankind out of darkness”; (9) “The group looks down on other religious groups”; (12) “When members leave the group, the love that was formerly shown to them turns into anger, hatred, and ridicule”; (14) “Fear is a major motivator”; (16) “Many groups teach that ‘The Apocalypse’ is just around the corner, and have timetables for its occurrence with dates near enough to carry an emotional punch”; (18) “The future is a time when members will be rewarded because ‘The Great Change’ has come”; (19) “There is never a legitimate reason for leaving the group”; (20) “Members are indoctrinated with the belief that if they ever leave the group, terrible consequences will befall them”; (21) “Members are forbidden to think negative thoughts about the group”; (25) “There is no allowance for interpretation of or deviation from the group’s doctrines”; (27) “The group causes members to become extremely dependent on its compliance-oriented expressions of love and support; dread of losing the group’s support”; (30) “Members must believe the group is always right, even if it contradicts itself”; (31) “Members spend more and more time with and under the direction of the group”; (32) “Those who do not conform to the group’s requirements will be expelled”; (33) “Disagreement with or doubts about the group’s teaching are always the fault of the member, due to lack of faith or lack of understanding”; (34) “The group is superior to and different than all other groups” (Wilson 2002, 148-49).

3 “The teachings of Laestadianism are based on the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions” (Our History, LLC Web site, llchurch.org/our-history.cfm).