4.2 The Kingdom of God

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

The Gospel According to Luke

4.2.1 The One True Church

According to some fundamentalist groups, only they are true Christians, and only they are going to heaven, while the rest of the world’s “so-called” Christians, including those in other fundamentalist groups, are going to hell.

—Edward T. Babinski, Leaving the Fold

Conservative Laestadianism has about 100,000 adherents in Finland, although estimates vary from 80,000 to 120,000. There are some 33,000 formal members of the SRK, a status that can be obtained at age fifteen (Hallamaa and Parry 2009). About 40,000 Finnish Conservatives are adults (Hurtig 2011). Another 7,000 or so Conservatives are in North America, with the same demographic of less than half being adults (3,000 formal members). Sweden, Togo, and Ghana each have congregations of several hundred. Finally, there are some very small isolated congregations in a few other places, together accounting for perhaps a few hundred more.

The movement equates itself with “God’s Kingdom,” and claims to be the only true church, the exclusive repository of grace on this earth after 2,000 years of Christianity. All of the billions of mentally competent individuals over the age of accountability who now occupy this planet, other than the approximately 60,000 fortunate enough to have been “born into a Christian home” or the fewer than a thousand converted “from the world,” are headed for an eternity of unthinkable torture. And, unless the world finally ends after two thousand years of failed expectations, that same horrible fate will be shared by almost all of the billion or so of the world’s children as they reach the age of accountability without any clue about how to be saved.

It is a claim that cannot be viewed by an outsider as anything but outrageous. The Conservative believers with whom I have had many private discussions about the topic will rarely venture to defend it, resorting to a form of Pascal’s Wager and saying that it’s enough for them to be part of a group that surely won’t be condemned itself. Even the website of the LLC tiptoes around the issue, dropping hints about the kingdom of God (It “is to be found on earth according to the teachings of Jesus. It is a kingdom of grace on earth and a kingdom of glory in heaven. The kingdom of God is one-minded in faith, doctrine, and love”) but never coming out and saying that you, the stranger who has come across the site, are going to fry forever in hell if you don’t join up. I asked a member of the LLC board about that, and he said that they didn’t want to scare people off. So much for the preaching of the law to the unsaved (4.5.1).

But the exclusivity doctrine is a significant point of the church’s teaching, and as we will see from the quotes below, it is what the organization professes even if its individual members and public relations efforts are more hesitant to do so.


With its claimed doctrinal and historical ties to Luther, it is natural that Conservative Laestadianism would seek support for its exclusivity doctrine in Luther’s writings. What it has found, and frequently cites, is his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed. For example, a 1979 article in Siionin Lähetyslehti quotes Luther’s explanation more or less accurately as follows:

“The Holy Spirit first leads us to the communion of saints and within the pale of the congregation, under whose caretaking He exhorts us and takes us to Christ–the Holy Spirit having a special congregation on this Earth. This is the mother who gives birth to and sustains all Christians with the word of God. I believe that there is on Earth a small holy flock and congregation, under one head, Christ, called together by the Holy Spirit, in one faith, one mind, and one understanding. They possess various gifts, but are of one mind in love, without factions or divisions. I also am a part and member of this flock and a sharer in its blessings. To this flock the Holy Spirit has led me and joined me because I have heard and continue to hear the Word of God. This then is the first step toward entrance (from VOZ, 1/1980).

This is, however, hardly the end of the matter. Luther’s teachings on the scope and extent of the Church will come as a surprise to most Conservatives (5.2). An early quote by Raattamaa is quite in accord with Luther’s assessment that Christianity is scattered “under the Pope, Turks, Persians, Tartars, and everywhere,” but “spiritually gathered in one gospel and faith” (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper):

The power to forgive sins “has not been given to the pope, but to the flock in living faith which is scattered around the whole world of all peoples and tongues. The sermon of repentance and forgiveness of sins is established with them” (Raattamaa, sermon given 1894, from Kulla 1985, 181).

But it would not be long before the Laestadian movement would undergo its first major fragmentation and the factions on opposite sides of the Tornio river would associate “living faith” with “one living congregation.” The Firstborn and the Conservatives were closer to each other doctrinally than they were to any other religious body on Earth. Thus their spiritual rejection of each other could not help but entail a rejection of everybody else as well. The sermons of Väinö Havas attest to how firmly in place the exclusivity doctrine was by the early 20th century:

“The Holy Ghost is always a gathering power. It melts believing men to a living fellowship. It does not beget isolated Christians, one into one corner, and another to the next, but it forms one flock around the Good Shepherd” (Havas [1935], 18).

“There is but one Congregation of Christ. It is according to the Bible the Fellowship of believers that the Holy Spirit has called, gathered, enlightened and by the true Faith protected in Christ. It is the Savior’s Body and, therefore, one and indivisible here on Earth. Outside of this Congregation no one can be saved” (Havas [1938], 16).

“This foundation of the living Church stands, for this holy temple is not built upon great earthly property of church organizations or high civilization, nor broad knowledge of the doctrine of Divinity, neither upon the support granted by the stately power, as important factors as they may be when looked through the natural point of view. Every member of the family of God is built upon the unwavering rock foundation of God’s Word, the holy writings of the prophets and the apostles” (Havas [1940], 14).

In 1948, Jussila claimed that Raattamaa himself had been of an exclusivist viewpoint. He considered the claim that

“Conservative Laestadian Christianity has moved from the early Raattamaa line to the line of a single congregation” to be false in every respect. “I had been believing over 15 years during Raattamaa’s lifetime and had traveled at services in the north, in the south, in the east, and in the west, and the congregational doctrine has not changed at all since that time. No one would have been believed that Raattamaa would have had a line or two of several congregations” (Jussila 1948, 119).

But it is hard to see what Raattamaa could have meant by “the flock in living faith” being “scattered around the whole world of all peoples and tongues” if he taught a “single congregation” doctrine so exclusive that even different Laestadian factions were not of the same flock. And, if he held that just one Laestadian group was correct, that would leave the Conservatives unable to claim him as a spiritual brother, as he never repudiated the Firstborn (4.1.6).

The exclusivity doctrine has never softened. Conservative Laestadian preachers provide the flock with reminders of their special status in just about every sermon, by expressing praise and thanksgiving to God for allowing them the incredible good fortune to be one of “God’s children,” to have the “precious gift of living faith,” or even (in an acknowledgment of how almost everybody comes to be a Laestadian) to be “born into a Christian home.” And it is equally emphasized by references to the world and how lost and sadly ignorant it is of “God’s Kingdom.”

“There are not many spirits by which we have access to the Father through Jesus Christ. There is only one, the Holy Spirit, which is of God. Neither are there many kingdoms, as the world would believe. There is only one kingdom that has the foundation of the faith and doctrine of the prophets and the apostles with Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone” (VOZ, 9/1979).

“There have always been, and are today, peddlers of false doctrines who try to open the narrow gate so wide that everyone can enter no matter how they believe. They attempt to pave a road to heaven, to have a wide gate, saying that the best of every religion will be saved through good works. Some even use the comparison that there are many highways in this world to get from one place to another; so also, there are many roads to heaven. They say you just need to commit yourself to Christ and choose a road with which you are comfortable, and where you can find friends that have the same interests as you. These people have not themselves entered through the narrow gate. How, then, can they save others? Jesus called this doctrine, the blind leading the blind (Mt 15:14)” (VOZ, 7/1999).

“We have witnessed how God has led seeking ones from many lands” to the gate of his kingdom, which ”does not consist of one country or nationality, but dwells among believers. . . . The unbelieving world has tried to create many gates to the kingdom. They teach that you can enter through prayer, or by changing your behavior. But Jesus made it clear when he said, ‘I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out (VOZ, 8/2003).

That last quote refers to mission activity taking place in the past two decades. I recall a lot of inspiring stories about conversions in Russia in the early 1990s, with talk about more believers being there than in North America. Then, suddenly, not much more was said about it. The attention shifted to conversions in Ecuador, Togo, and Ghana. I was finally able to learn that the vast majority of the Russian converts had drifted away, as have most in Ecuador. However, it appears that Laestadianism still has a vibrant, active presence in Africa, with several indigenous preachers and well-organized congregations.

Actually, it’s not just Conservative Laestadianism that is active in Africa. The Apostolic Lutheran Federation has been conducting mission work there for years, and is also working in Russia, India, and the Philippines. For someone maintaining the belief that the Federation is a heresy lacking the Holy Spirit (4.1.6), the stories and photos at foreignmissionnewsblog.blogspot.com will be as disturbing as they are intended to be inspiring. Somehow God’s grace is being denied to these people who are believing in the proclamation of the forgiveness of their sins in Jesus’ name. One page even shows some of them preaching the forgiveness of sins to each other. But their experiences of love and piety are supposedly just a cruel joke being played on them by a God who has entrusted his offer of salvation only to those other Laestadians operating in Togo and Ghana who are saying similar things and having similar experiences.


The need to deny any value in the Federation’s mission work is just one example of the exclusivity doctrine’s troubling implications. It is an extreme aspect of the “soteriological problem of evil” (Myers 2003) that is posed by Christian exclusivity in general (4.9.2). The problem had already troubled me for years by 2009, when I learned of Bible passages and teachings of Luther that really brought my doubts about Conservative Laestadian exclusivity to a head.

The following are some thoughts I wrote down in December of that year after attending the Christmas program of my younger children’s elementary school. The scene I describe is of a group of kids around 7-8 years old on stage. Ours is a rural, simple, and fairly religious community, but of course, nobody there or most anywhere else in the U.S. has ever heard of Conservative Laestadianism.

The Christmas Program

Children stand on stage singing Christmas carols, twirling their curled hair and smiling shyly out at the faces of their parents. They have learned words that tell of Wishing us a Merry Christmas, of a little Town named Bethlehem, of a jolly old man named Santa Claus. In their classes they are also learning about one plus one and the alphabet, and even about bugs and plants.

But something they will never learn is that they are damned. Neither they nor their beaming parents will ever hear about a small, nondescript church 20 miles away that is attended by a few hundred children and their parents who look exactly like them and their parents, but who are (largely) not damned. They will grow up to embrace various beliefs. Most will confess a belief in the saving powers of the Jesus they are singing about (more or less) in their caroling. Some will be more enthusiastic about that belief than others, and some of them will come to reject the whole notion entirely. But all of them are damned, every single now-innocent one of them, because they will never enter that small, nondescript church and accept its particular doctrine of salvation.

Perhaps as their adult forms are writhing in unspeakable, eternal agony someday, many of them will ask, what about the Jesus we believed in? Didn’t we accept him as our personal savior? Didn’t we read the Bible that spoke of him, which said that God loved the whole world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that all men might have eternal life?

Perhaps one of them, surprised that the particular Jesus doctrine he so piously confessed and taught was to no avail, will scream in his agony, “Why? Why? Why? Now I find out that there were just a few hundred people for hundreds of miles around me who made it to adulthood and then to heaven? And because none of these people ever had occasion to speak to me (including two parents who were apparently in the audience at my first grade Christmas program but never could or did say anything to me), I am going to be tortured forever? How could I have believed in a doctrine I’d never even heard of? If you are a loving God, why did you hide it from me? Why did you give me instead a lifetime of false consolation about Jesus that would prove utterly worthless to the fate of my soul?”

The extremity of this scenario, but not its horrible nature, is apparent in Gus Wisuri’s observation:

“There are cities of millions and millions of people without a Christian in them. I have just returned last evening from a city of over a half million people where to the best of my knowledge there is not a Christian. There is one little girl there who believes the gospel message, but she is a little too young to go out and preach it to the other people. That city is surrounded by religious faiths that make a thorough study of the Scripture and lay down strict rules of beliefs for the members of their congregations but they have no peace of God” (sermon published in Greetings of Peace, 12/1953).

But when something sounds crazy, you can count on theologians to call it a mystery that can only be understood by divine revelation:

“The spiritual body has and will always remain a mystery to man, because he has sought salvation through spiritual leaders and has not recognized that true salvation is found in the communion or fellowship of the body of Christ, where He himself dwells” (VOZ, 6/2006).

“Throughout the Bible, various names are used for the congregation of God’s people on earth: the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, New Jerusalem, kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, etc. the Psalm writer uses the term ‘Zion.’ Regardless of the name however, one key characteristic is that God’s people are a united flock or group and are spiritually separate from all other religious groups. It remains God’s will that His people are spiritually separate from other groups, as He said to Moses and the wilderness travelers: ‘I am the Lord your God which have separated you from other people’ . . . the Kingdom of God is always a mystery to man’s own mind. Sometimes man has imagined the kingdom to be strictly an earthly or political entity. Other times man has expected a utopia or perfect outward kingdom” (VOZ, 7/2007).

“With the human mind one may appear to see signs of right faith in many churches. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit reveals one faith and one fellowship of believers” (VOZ, 12/2008).

In a 2010 sermon, Jim Frantti makes a frank admission of the difficulties with the exclusivity doctrine. He tells of Naaman the Syrian taking offense that he had to wash in the lowly Jordan when there were mightier rivers in Syria (2 Ki 5):

“Isn’t that the same kind of reaction we sometimes hear today when we speak about God’s Kingdom? ‘You really think this is the only place where forgiveness is found? Do you really think that you are the only group that is traveling to heaven, the only group of believers? Do you really believe that?’ And of course, to the rational mind it does seem like an awfully simple way to believe, doesn’t it? When we look around us in this world and we see the people and the churches and the deeds that people do and all of these outward things, certainly we can understand that to the carnal mind our faith is so foolish. That’s what Paul found too, when he preached. He said we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, and to the Jews it’s a stumbling block, and to the Greeks it’s foolishness.”

Frantti attempts to defend the doctrine in the face of its incredible implications by invoking Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1:18-23 about the preaching of the cross being foolishness to them that perish. But that is an entirely different subject than sectarian exclusivity. One wonders what Paul, who in the same chapter exhorted the Corinthians to all agree and have no divisions among them, would have thought about the claim that Christ’s suffering and death would become utterly ineffectual in all but one of the tens of thousands of Christian denominations that would emerge over the next 2,000 years.

Biblical Justification

Jesus’ statement to the disciples, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32) is one of the texts used to justify the claim that there is one group of true believers, and that it is a small one:

Jesus “is the Good Shepherd who has a flock, a precious flock of sheep, a sheepfold here on earth, a kingdom of grace, His living church and congregation to which He brings converted souls, to which He has brought each of us when we were gone astray” (Paul Heideman, Greetings of Peace, 6/1954).

In an article entitled with the question, “Can a man be saved outside of God’s Kingdom?”, the SRK preacher Eino Rimpiläinen began by expressing some impatience with the matter: “One might think that in the midst of God’s Kingdom [one] should have so clear [a] conception in this matter that there would be no room for doubts. But Satan is always tempting and leading the child of God to doubt, even in this matter.” His biblical support for the answer began with a general reference to the Old Testament, stating “that no one was saved unless he remained in that flock and believed as they did, where they had God and His saving word.” Then,

“at the beginning of the New Testament[,] God shows the scribes and pharisees that God’s Kingdom has approached them. Even they now had the opportunity to repent and believe the Gospel,” but Christ’s “doctrine and His church became an offence, foolishness, [a] stumbling stone to those who did not believe. And so they were not saved.” In our time, by “the office of the Spirit” and “a foolish preaching in the eyes of men”, “it has pleased God to save those who believe. Salvation is attained through this, and nowhere else. Thus believing according to the will of God, the eyes of the soul are opened, that there is salvation nowhere else, no faith, no true fruits of faith. You realize that God can not be found anywhere else as a merciful and forgiving and healing God than in Israel (2 Ki 5:15). That is in the Kingdom of God (Lk 15:17). Be there questions of churches, denominations, revivals, or any other. Christ is not divided (1 Cor 1:13).” We teach, Rimpiläinen concludes, “that everyone who has broken his covenant of baptism and has fallen into unbelief, must repent and the congregation of the Holy Ghost declares absolution to him” (Greetings of Peace, 3/1957).

Another justification is Paul’s statement that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel of Christ “from faith to faith” (Rom 1:17). The gospel

“moves from one believer to another and it must move from a believer to the unbeliever to be received. Never can an unbeliever bring this gospel to another unbeliever but it is revealed as we heard ‘from faith to faith.’ This also supports and strengthens the teachings of all scripture that the Kingdom of God is a single unity of Spirit and faith, from which fellowship the gospel is proclaimed unto all nations. First there must be a believing and living member of the believing and living fellowship to bring this gospel” (Peter Nevala, Greetings of Peace, 3/1971).

Conservatives usually refer to the “gospel” only in the limited sense of the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, rather than the general good news of Jesus as the resurrected savior. With that limited viewpoint, this passage could indeed be considered relevant to the idea of one coming into faith only via the proclamation of forgiveness from one who is already in it (4.2.5). But even then, the only way it supports the idea of a “single unity of Spirit and faith” is by limiting “the believing and living fellowship” just to those who experience or at least teach the “faith to faith” preaching.

What destroys that argument is the existence of the OALC and FALC. The fact that those “heretics” use pretty much the exact same absolution formula would not persuade Nevala that they are part of the “Kingdom of God.” Thus it has no evidentiary value on that point. If you condemn someone as lost and misguided even though they are practicing some important point of your doctrine, you cannot rely on that point of doctrine as a way to distinguish yourself from the lost and misguided world.

There are some favorite passages that refer to a single spiritual body:

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).

First Clement, dated at around 95 A.D., makes a statement that sounds similar:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ? Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?” [Ch. 46]

Besides having this modicum of scriptural support, the idea of a single true church makes some logical sense. If the “Spirit of truth” Jesus promised to his followers will guide them “into all truth” (John 16:13), it is reasonable to expect that those so guided will not be found in different groups with significantly different teachings. But as my research for this book has made clear, to me at least, there is not particularly impressive consistency even within Conservative Laestadianism, for all its exclusivism and separation from worldly influences. Preachers cannot decide whether God wants everyone to be saved or not, yet speak confidently of both contradictory ideas (4.9.3), certain activities are sinful at one point and widely accepted a few decades later (4.6.1), one of the doctrinal foundations of the church is a mode of conversion that was not employed by its earliest founders (4.1.4), and significant deviations are found from the teachings of one of the most historically prominent members of the church (5.2, 5.4.4). And the bare idea of a single saved group doesn’t give any of the many groups competing for that designation any indication that they are the ones being saved. Also, see the discussion of Romans 10:8-9 in 7.3.

John 6:68 is also a favorite text. When Peter said,

“Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou has the words of eternal life,” he “knew that there is no one else to go to, and no other place to go. The only place one can go to find the Lord Jesus is in His kingdom. We also want to remain like the disciples of Christ, keeping faith and a good conscience” (VOZ, 5/2000).

As in so many other quotes throughout this collection, the quoted writer is injecting words into a Bible passage to narrow its plain meaning into a sectarian interpretation. Peter is talking about his decision to continue following Christ himself (“to whom shall we go”), not any particular group of Christians. Indeed, at the time of Peter’s statement, there was not yet a single group of people calling itself “Christians,” just followers of Christ himself.

The “where else would we go” sentiment, often accompanied by a shrugging of the shoulders, strikes me as a theological version of Winston Churchill’s statement that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others. I find it interesting to see it used in other religious groups in the same way. During Diane Wilson’s time in the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example,

the Society continually impressed on everyone’s mind that “There is nowhere else to go.” Although complaining is forbidden, still many times during my long association with the organization I had heard small groups of Witnesses murmuring their disagreements with the Society; these conversations always had the same ending–frustrated voices would sigh, “But there is nowhere else to go.” So thoroughly indoctrinated were the congregation members with this mindset that no other options existed, that rare was the person who challenged it. [2002, 273]

The writer of the next quote, from the October 2002 Voice of Zion, takes a text that would seem to oppose sectarian exclusivity (Rom 10:13-17) and attempts to qualify its plain meaning:

“The first sentence ‘For whosever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ is often quoted by those in self-righteousness. It is certainly appealing to the mind of man to stop at this point in Paul’s letter. However, the invitation [by Philip to the skeptic of anything good coming out of Nazareth in Jn 1:46] to ‘come and see,’ is essential. As Paul writes [in verse 14], ‘how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?’”

You don’t need to be in “self-righteousness” to see that people cannot believe in something that they’ve never heard of. There’s nothing surprising or spiritual about the “good news” of Jesus being spread by “the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things” (Rom 10:15). Paul’s was an era when words could only be conveyed in the minds of messengers or the few bits of writing they could carry–writing that almost nobody could read. That has nothing to do with the verbal proclamation of forgiveness that the quoted writer has in mind.

During my study of the Bible from cover to cover, which occupied several months of 2009, I came across some passages that seem to extend the scope of God’s attention well beyond just a single sect: Mark 9:38-40, Romans 10:8-9, 10:10-17, 1 John 4:2, 4:15, 5:1. Even the Old Testament with all its focus on God’s chosen people has a universalist passage of sorts, Psalms 145:18-20.

No Compromises

The exclusivist writings of the 1970s were particularly shrill. There was an emphasis not just on being personally within the walls of Zion, but on fully accepting their dimensions as well. Perhaps it was a reaction to the aftermath of the 1973 schism, when most Conservative believers had friends or relatives whom, according to official doctrine, they could no longer consider spiritual brethren.

“The office of the Holy Spirit is only entrusted to those who are in this one and only congregation of Christ here on Earth.” The Apostle Paul describes the church as ”one body, and one Spirit even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord one faith one baptism, one God and Father of all [Eph 4:4-6],” the “house of God which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth [1 Tim 3:15], “the temple of God [1 Cor 3:16-17].” “God in His word does not ever teach that there are many churches where men are saved.” “[I]f any man desire to be saved, he must acknowledge and believe this truth, that the doctrine of the congregation of Christ is one; and that the Lord Jesus has his own children on Earth to whom he has entrusted the word of reconciliation. . . . In this true church of Christ we dear brothers and sisters have been called through God’s grace and love” (VOZ, 5/1974).

“In God’s kingdom there is no ‘beating around the bush’ so to speak. One is either inside of the kingdom or outside of the kingdom. If one has not received the love of the Christians regardless of whatever excuses or alibis, that person is lost and must come unto repentance” (Quentin Ruonavaara, sermon given 1975).

“But if someone in the kingdom of God begins to waver in the doctrine of this one congregation and begins to greet those who are in other churches in the world or in heresies which have left from the living churches of God, and begins to say that there are other churches where men are saved, his condition is also serious. He is not in an acceptable state before God. He needs to come unto repentance of this false and wrong spirit and doctrine into which he has fallen. This is living in spiritual fornication, and no one in this condition shall inherit the kingdom of heaven” (VOZ, 6/1978).

That seems like a local emergency room refusing admission to a dying man until he makes a statement that none of the other hospitals around would be suitable for his treatment. And, to continue the analogy, he is sternly discouraged from investigating the merits of those other hospitals!

It reminds me of the Mormon “testimony” that faithful members bear to each other Sunday after Sunday, which includes the assertion, “I know that the Church is True.” They must, according to one ex-Mormon, “believe that God has one, and only one, true church, which is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Worthy 2008, 33). And he had his investigations likewise limited, having “been taught early on that the only reliable evidence about the Church–in fact the only evidence at all worth looking at–comes from the Church itself. This evidence can be undeniably confirmed, not through logical, deductive reasoning, but by the emotional feelings we were taught from early childhood to recognize as being from the Holy Ghost” (p. 54).

Thirty years later, even though the writings had toned down somewhat, one’s private thoughts on the topic would remain the subject of concern:

“It is no small matter when an individual or group, either secretly or openly, begins to believe that the house of God is not necessarily ‘the pillar and ground of truth’ in all matters of soul and conscience or that there is more than one saving faith” (Walt Lampi, presentation given 2007).

On several occasions, I personally proclaimed the forgiveness of sins to Carl Kulla, a member of the Apostolic Lutheran Federation who became a dear friend. Yet as discussed in 4.1.6, he is officially not to be considered a “believer” because of his failure to “comprehend the doctrine of the kingdom.” His acceptance of the forgiveness of sins, preached from one of the Conservatives, is not enough without repenting of his “heresy” as a member of the Federation.

Privately, a few Conservative friends whom I told of my interactions with Carl said they accept him as a believer based on his acceptance of the preached gospel. They dare not say it too publicly, however. Kathleen Lewis also found that not all of her fellow members of the Christian Convention Church were

convinced of the righteousness or exclusiveness of salvation to this church. They are careful to keep this idea to themselves, however, for they know it isn’t safe to express it to others. Anyone who verbally makes an unacceptable statement like that is immediately suspected of not having “the right Spirit” and they are shunned or avoided and people are encouraged not to spend time with them. [2004, 201]

In private discussions, Conservatives seem similarly unconvinced. To paraphrase one friend who has gotten to know too many “worldly” friends and attended too many of their funerals to remain believing they are all going to hell: We are better individually than our doctrine makes us collectively. But there is the same motivation Lewis noted to keep one’s opinions to oneself.

4.2.2 Which “True Church”?

Does not each religion claim to be the only one? And does not the priest of every religion, with infinite impudence, consign the disciples of all others to eternal fire?

—Robert G. Ingersoll, Lecture on “Which Way?”

Lewis’s former Christian Convention Church also calls itself “the Kingdom of God” (2004, 242), with their main belief being “that their church is the only true church, the only way to heaven, the body of Christ” (p. 1). But it is only one of many contenders for that title. “Tragically, each sect, cult, and denomination seems convinced that it alone is ‘The Truth’ in its entirety. All others are heretics” (Harpur 2003, 99).

It’s as old a phenomenon as Christianity itself. Ehrman says that “believers attacked other believers for their false beliefs” in every early Christian community (Ehrman 2011, 182). “Nothing generated more literary forgeries in the names of the apostles than the internal conflicts among competing Christian groups” (p. 183). Given the simplistic and idealized picture I had from childhood about “the early Church,” it was surprising to me just how ancient and extensive the problem was. The Christians around Clement of Alexandria [c. 200 A.D.], for example, had to field the objection of unbelievers “that they ought not to believe on account of the discord of the sects. For [they say] the truth is warped when some teach one set of dogmas, others another” (Stromata, Book 7, Ch. 15)

No religion wants to be characterized as just one of many, “because that way of understanding any particular faith logically relativizes it” (Price 2006b, 218). The Conservative Laestadian who looks out at the billions of people above the age of accountability on this Earth and condemns all of them but himself and perhaps 60,000 others in “God’s Kingdom” may find it unsettling that millions of others are believing similar things, and condemning him in the process. Jesus’ warning to the self-satisfied in response to the question “Lord, are there few that be saved?” seems appropriate: “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out” (Lk 13:28). If any of these groups are correct–and Conservative Laestadianism is in fact just one of many–everybody else is going to be in for a rude surprise. Don’t be too quick to automatically exempt yourself.

We were confronted by the Iglesia ni Cristo group in the Introduction, and then in 4.1.6 by three Laestadian factions (the OALC, FALC, and IALC) that all believe anyone outside their small boundaries is headed for hell. Some others rendering the same judgment, either officially or by common consent in the pews, are the Churches of Christ, the New Apostolic Church, and an interesting group of Charismatics in the American South. Let’s take a brief look at some similarities between these groups and Conservative Laestadianism before proceeding with the latter’s view of itself versus everybody else. Of course there are many differences, too, but a comprehensive description of each group is not the point of the brief, admittedly one-sided comparison of religions I am doing in this section. Rather, my goal here is to show how Conservative Laestadians have some interesting things in common with other groups who nonetheless are pointing their own bony fingers of condemnation right back.

The Christian Convention Church

Lewis estimates that the Christian Convention Church has about 450,000 people in the United States, with another couple hundred thousand in other parts of the world (2004, 5). Her name for the group is an unofficial one, as it refuses to take a public name. Instead, the church members informally refer to it as “The Truth” or “The Way” (p. 13). Outsiders often call them the “Two by Twos,” referring to the way that the “workers,” a distinct group of lay ministers, would go out preaching in pairs.

The main belief of the Christian Conventionists “is that their church is the only true church, the only way to heaven, the body of Christ” (p. 1). “They believe that only those with the right Spirit can understand the scripture. The right Spirit is only obtained through the workers” (p. 3). “People raised in this church have been taught that this is the only ‘Way,’ that they are the only ones on earth with an understanding of God’s Word” (p. 85).

The workers of the Christian Convention Church “don’t like ‘Christian’ activities,” accusing “those who do charitable works of being in bondage and trying to work their way into heaven” (p. 25). They “encourage people to criticize other church practices, doctrine, histories or failures” (p. 58). On the other hand, the “workers build enthusiasm with effusive glamorizing of the fellowship” (p. 61) within their group.

As with all of these high-demand groups, submission is important. “Anyone who exercises his own viewpoints or logic will be rebuked or looked down on if he verbalizes it” (p. 68).

The Churches of Christ

The Churches of Christ also have an aversion to being designated by a particular name, or even being considered a mere “denomination” of Christianity. Using the plural form when referring to them is appropriate because there is no single organization under which the various congregations operate. Rather, each is a “Church of Christ.” Collectively, they have over a million adherents in the U.S. and at least three times as many worldwide.

Like Conservative Laestadianism, the Churches of Christ have had a “strict emphasis on ‘correct’ Biblical doctrine and disagreements,” with the same result: numerous schisms. Yet “their core group still has the audacity to claim to be the ‘one true church’” (Simpson 2009, 42). Condemning all “mainstream denominational congregations” as unscriptural, the Churches of Christ likewise “do not join in ecumenical events for charitable, educational, counseling, or religious service activities” (p. 6). Simpson found that members

cannot carry on a legitimate conversation about religious matters with members of other faiths because they enter those conversations automatically assuming that the other person is wrong and going to hell. From a religious perspective, theirs is a different kind of friendship with people of other faiths. It’s not about developing a close personal relationship based on mutual interest but rather about exhibiting patience and tolerance until a lost soul can be saved. [p. 87]

The comments on this thread of an ex-Church of Christ discussion forum show there isn’t much “patience and tolerance” for questioning from the inside:

Fear was evident all around us at church. Real questions were usually met with hostility even if the person asking was new to the CoC. Forget about it if you were a lifer. People that questioned the party line were usually kicked/pushed out eventually. It was because of people’s fears of being wrong that so much anger was in all of us. If your whole salvation paradigm revolves around being completely accurate in doing church and in interpreting what God meant . . . , then any inkling that one could be wrong is emotionally devastating. [Toeing] the party line was like a defense mechanism I think.

Another defense is when a church “discourages any exposure to other faiths and allows for no interpretation of Scripture other than the one arbitrarily claimed by it as if it were God’s direct revelation,” which Simpson implies is the case with the “closed society” of the Churches of Christ. Then, he says, it is especially true that anyone “attending church regularly will come to accept the doctrines and beliefs being taught by that church” (2009, 7).

The New Apostolic Church

The New Apostolic Church (no relation to Apostolic Lutherans) has, according to a fact sheet it publishes, over 10 million members. The vast majority are in Africa. There are over 300,000 in America and over 400,000 in Europe. In 2003, ex-member David Stamos gave a considerably lower estimate of its total membership at 1-2 million (Stamos 2003, 338).

According to Stamos, the New Apostolic Church “believes it is the only true and valid church of God today,” which he considers unsurprising, given his belief that the same stance is taken by “most Christian denominations.” (I’m not so sure that such exclusivity is really so commonplace, though of course no denomination feels that it is not “true and valid.”) The NAC holds that “salvation is only open to New Apostolics,” Stamos claims (p. 338), which is in accord with this statement from a paper entitled “The New Apostolic Church”:

It is the belief of the NAC that the true church of Jesus cannot exist apart from the Apostles to whom Jesus gave his authority. Often it is likened to someone having a key to a door. You cannot go through the door unless someone unlocks it, and the Apostles have been entrusted with the keys to God’s Kingdom. In fact, much like the Roman Catholic Church justifies the office of Pope, so does the NAC justify the modern office of Chief Apostle by appealing to Matthew 16:18.1

It also fits with this description from the NAC’s Wikipedia page:

The Apostles of the New Apostolic Church consider themselves as successors of the first Apostles during Early Christianity, who had been sent by Jesus Christ. In their tradition, they act as missionaries, who go to all men to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to prepare them for the Second Coming of Christ and eternal life. According to the NAC, the apostles are the only ones on earth who have the mission to forgive sins and baptise with the Holy Spirit.

However, the Wikipedia page also adds a nuance to this: “Because the Holy Spirit acts in other churches as well, God alone forgives sins, and may find His ‘Children’ without Holy Sealing,” which is the conveyance of the Holy Spirit via prayer and laying on of hands from one of the NAC’s several hundred apostles. Thus the NAC “considers the affiliation of non-members to the Second Coming of Christ to be possible.”

That wasn’t the impression Stamos and his peers were given as children. They were taught to consider themselves “a different species from the rest of this world, that only New Apostolics are children of God, the rest are children of Satan.” He writes of a constant struggle ever since leaving the church “to purge myself from the vestiges of this psychology, the feeling of distance from my fellow man” (p. 341). There was also no shortage of “church taboos” to make that distinction clear: “No long hair on males . . . and no short skirts on females. No jeans, at least at church functions like picnics and gatherings. No going dancing, no going to moves, no going to bars or worldly parties, no premarital sex, no drugs . . . , no joining organized sports or clubs” (p. 340).

After some troubling Bible studies on his own, Stamos started asking questions. He found inconsistencies in church history, which made him suspicious about “why the church was so selective in what it told us of its origin” (p. 339). He challenged some NAC clergy, “since they supposedly had a monopoly on truth, being official bearers of the Holy Spirit, to answer my questions” (p. 343). The few replies he received “ignored my arguments and only tried to make me feel foolish and stupid,” with one lamenting that “they’ve lost me to the world’s philosophies” (p. 344).

More Than Conquerors Faith Church

Price mentions “fringe Pentecostals who claim that anyone who fails to speak in tongues is no real Christian and is headed for the Inferno” (2006b, 88). One such group is the More Than Conquerors Faith Church of Birmingham, Alabama. I had some fascinating correspondence with one of the 3,000 members of the group who is now quite disillusioned with it and no longer attends. Regarding the claim about speaking in tongues, she told me,

Yes, you must show outward signs of emotion during worship. We were taught that Lutheran churches and others like that were Dead, and God does not reside in Death. The Glory of God's Gift of life and Breath is enough to make any true christian exult and shout to the heavens with praise. Also Holy tongues is the language spoken in heaven. How can you go to heaven if you don't know the language?

There is a delicious irony in knowing that Conservative Laestadians, with no shortage of racist attitudes (until recently, at least) and readiness to call other religions “dead faith,” are condemned as “dead” by an obscure Black church in the Deep South.

Conservative Laestadians do not just fall short in the area of charismatic worship, either. To be saved in my correspondent’s old church, one must

have a full immersion Baptism usually around [age] 7-9 or so unless an adult is renewing his faith. Baby baptisms don’t work because a baby cannot understand and confirm its faith. You have to be able to speak the fact that you are a christian and believe in the trinity (we went to a class the Saturday before and they told us what to say) before you can become baptized and also before you become a full member of the church.

There are actually a lot of Christians in the United States who have the same “full immersion” requirement for salvation, including the Churches of Christ discussed above. It seems incredible that a failure to be completely dunked during the sacrament rather than merely sprinkled would result in one’s eternal damnation. But we will see it asserted in 4.2.5 and 4.6.2 that the failure to hear somebody with the right sectarian affiliation proclaiming, “You can believe all your sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood” has the same dire consequences.

The exclusivity is as strong as the theology is weak, according to my correspondent. As “in all charismatic nondenominational churches,” the weak theology allows More Than Conquerors

to say “We are special and divine.” If they had real doctrines they would have to choose between pentecostal or evangelical etc. and give up the special relationship and exclusiveness. As long as it’s not written down they can still claim to be new and unique while flip-flopping through a long list of beliefs. The congregation doesn’t care; they just want the feeling that God knows them more closely and is more protective of them than the other 7 billion people on the planet. It’s a shame that they have to send everyone else to hell for that.

And there’s quite a list of people who are going there:

Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah’s witnesses, Universalists, atheist/agnostics, anyone who didn’t believe that the bible (only the KJV) was the literal word of god, evolutionists, Jews, people who believe in dinosaurs, people who didn’t believe in the healing power of god, people who didn’t believe in the preacher's healing/prophetic word, people who had ill will towards an individual in church or the church as a whole, people who had ill will toward people the church associated with, people who didn’t believe Jesus was born in the 25th of December, killed and raised on Easter, Masons, . . . I must include people possessed by demons.

Although “the rhetoric has been toned down” in the past few years, she remembers that in her time at the church, it “was always us versus someone, or rather everyone, else.” The exclusivity applied to everyday life, too. When my correspondent attended a church-affiliated school, she said “you only hung around other church members.” She added that one of her friends “who recently left the church for a white church” has been shunned as a result.

4.2.3 Inside vs. Outside

Fundamentalists believe that their religion is under mortal threat from the secularism of the modern world, and they are fighting back. They may resist in different ways, but they are all essentially oppositional; they have to have an enemy.

—Peter Herriot, Religious Fundamentalism

When your doctrine makes you reject almost everybody on the planet as hellbound “unbelievers,” it is only natural that you will attempt to separate yourself from those unbelievers both mentally and in your everyday life. It is not just to avoid the influence of their contrary viewpoints, but to protect your worldview from the bare fact of their existence as happy, functioning human beings.

The separation is not just social, but mental. The evil (or at best, misguided) outsiders are labeled and caricatured in church writings, sermons, and everyday conversation among believers. “As soon as people have created a category called us,” write the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson, “they invariably perceive everybody else as not-us” (2008, 58). And once that categorization has been made, attitudes and actions follow: “The very act of thinking that they are not as smart or reasonable as we are makes us feel closer to others who are like us. But, just as crucially, it allows us to justify how we treat them” (p. 59).

Robert M. Price writes about a moment when the “them” and “us” distinction collapsed for him:

I found myself in a Cambridge café having supper with some friends. . . . As I looked at the secular students gathered there, I suddenly thought, “Listen, is there really that much difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’?” I had always accepted the qualitative difference between the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved.’ Until that moment, it was as if I and my fellow seminarians had been sitting in a “no damnation” section of an otherwise “unsaved” restaurant. Then, in a flash, we were all just people. [2003a, 148]

Separation from the World

Mercer describes isolation of members from “worldly influences” as a characteristic of “many fundamentalist churches.” The ideal of such churches is that “the fundamentalist Christian can live his or her life inside a protected cocoon constructed in a form consistent with fundamentalist ideology” (2009, 152). That kind of separation is not unbiblical–we are told not to have friendship with the world (James 4:4), and Jesus speaks approvingly about those who leave their house, brethren, sisters, etc. (Mk 10:29). Paul Heideman refers to Jesus’ statement in a 1938 sermon:

“There are many who at conversion have literally had to give up homes, give up brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, wives and children.” He told of a “beloved old Christian brother” who said he had been “cast out of his home, and his father forbade him to ever return again.” Jesus’ words “are true for everyone who comes to a true conversion and a living faith.” At that time there “comes a parting of the ways with the former, unbelieving friends of the world. Also a parting of the way with unbelieving relatives in this respect that the Christian, the converted and believing soul, when he steps upon the pathway of light to follow in the bloody footsteps of the Good Shepherd, turns his back to the world and to the former sinful ways of the world.” Heideman concluded the sermon with the advice “to young Christians . . . that they might seek the company of Christian people, that they might also find fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters according to the promise of Christ” (from Greetings of Peace, 4/1959).

Nowadays, Conservative Laestadians are more integrated into society (especially in Finland), with careers that entail exposure to a lot of people from the outside. For all the aversion to liberalism and social change, Conservatives have benefited from society’s increased level of tolerance for all different types of people, including members of what can easily be seen as an oddball little sect. The shunning and being shunned by “unbelieving” friends and relatives that Heideman describes doesn’t happen so overtly anymore. Nor does the near-monasticism that Heikki Jussila seems to advocate:

The “Great Teacher” admonishes “His disciples to shun the cares of the world as a sin of the heathens. When He has chosen them so that they might go out to work for the growth of the kingdom of God, He thus shows that to be the highest and noblest goal in the life of man. They do not have time to linger in small matters, when the great building of God’s kingdom is to be prepared. It is a sacrifice of love, to which only the true appreciation of the value of God’s Kingdom can induce. This goal for the life of a man is unknown to the worldly-minded people. They receive their good in this life, and do not think that they need the kingdom of God. But to us, let it be the highest goal of our life. Let us shun the cares of life, the delusion of riches, and the lusts of the world, which have caused the fall of many. It is worth while even for the young to sacrifice their whole life to God and to the service of His kingdom” (Greetings of Peace, 11/1943).

One should make a “confession of faith” by one’s words and actions. “Almost every Evangelical will say they live by example, following their understanding of the Bible’s life instructions, hoping that unsaved neighbors will notice their happiness, remember their faith, infer causation, and come down to the altar” (Welch 2010, 128). But considering how infrequent it is for the unsaved neighbors of Conservative Laestadians to “repent,” I don’t think the confession of faith is really done because of any realistic expectation of that outcome. Even in “worldly” Evangelicalism, with its far greater numbers of conversions, Kevin Henke “saw little interest in fundamentalist Christianity by non-Christians.” That was contrary to what he and his companions at a Christian fellowship on his college campus had been told: Non-Christians, it was claimed, would be curious about their faith, watch their Christian behavior and be drawn towards their peaceful relationship with God (Henke 2003, 249).

Instead, the Conservative believer seems to confess his or her faith more as a matter of conscience (confess Jesus before men so he confesses you before the Father), to avoid self-blame for condemning acquaintances whom one has grown to like and respect (“You can’t say I didn’t warn you!”), and to maintain the desired separation with the world:

“You young people, children of God, do not be ashamed to confess yourselves as believers before the children of this world; you are asked, then there will pour forth the strength of heaven into your souls. Through this confession you become blessed. That is honest before the face of God. . . . Nothing is harder for the believer than when at home, he wishes to speak of faith and grace to an unbeliever and the necessity of conversion. That is very difficult. You often measure yourself, ‘What is the reason I do not know how to speak? I do not have strength, I do not have words.’ That is very noticeable but from this no one is left out. But when God with his love gives words to speak, then you have a thankful prayer to God that He gave you utterance” (Ville Suutari, Greetings of Peace, 9/1954).

“It is hard to remain as a light unto our unbelieving friends, but having to talk to them honestly and openly has perhaps made it easier. When we discuss faith matters with them it puts a space or wall between us and them. When we are not in such close contact with them it is not such a great temptation to join some of their sinful activities” (VOZ, 8/1974).

The separation not only shields one from worldly influences, but provides a “plausibility structure” to reinforce one’s beliefs. “Why is it better for the health of one’s faith to remain within the Camp of the Saints? Because you will be much less inclined to doubt your beliefs while surrounded by others who are constantly affirming them” (Price 2006b, 169). The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a “prohibition of socializing with anyone outside the organization,” which is viewed “as a form of protection for the group. It was a deterrent to being influenced by others; thus, it helped to ensure that the Witnesses would stay within the safe confines of the organization” (Wilson 2002, 29). Conservative Laestadianism doesn’t prohibit outside socializing, but it certainly doesn’t encourage it. And the effect is the same–from childhood on, relationships are primarily within the church:

“In school, at work, or wherever we are, we gladly seek out the fellowship of other children of God. We receive support from each other. The unbelieving wonder at this segregation, but still they cannot for long tolerate the company of the children of God, especially then, if God grants the strength to speak to them of the necessity of repentance” (By Faith, 104-105).

The results of that lifetime of insularity are viewed with awe by Peter Nevala in a 1981 sermon:

“This is one of the peculiar mysteries and gifts of God’s true kingdom, that those who are in this kingdom know one another. We can sense, we can feel the spirit of children in one another. It unites, it blesses.”

It would seem surprising to me if there were not some special bond felt between members of a small group of people who have associated almost exclusively with each other from childhood, refrain from any exposure to the religious experiences of others, and have deeply enmeshed family relations and common ethnicity. And it’s actually not something that is only felt by Conservative Laestadians:

Who, indeed, can describe the pleasure with which the members of Christ’s flock do meet each other face to face? They may have been strangers before; they may have lived apart, and never been in company—but it is wonderful to observe how soon they seem to understand each other, there seems a thorough oneness of opinion, and taste and judgment, so that a man would think they had known each other for years; they seem, indeed, to feel they are servants of one and the same Master, members of the same family, and have been converted by one and the same Spirit; they have one Lord, one faith, one baptism; they have the same trials, the same fears, the same doubts, the same temptations, the same faintings of heart, the same dread of sin, the same sense of unworthiness, the same love of their Savior. Oh—but there is a mystical union between true believers, which they only know who have experienced it; the world cannot understand it—it is all foolishness to them. [“The Character of the True Christian,” by J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), Anglican bishop]

I have made many beloved friends within Conservative Laestadianism after spending some four decades within its narrow boundaries. There have been wonderful times of fellowship, visits between families and weekend camping trips where Ryle’s “mystical union between true believers” was clearly and joyously present. It is a sense of acceptance and belonging that fills a deep social need, one not easily met in the isolation of today’s suburban, technology-driven society. Winell observes that fundamentalist Christians

constitute a full-blown subculture with a common language, belief system, and behavioral code. As with other subcultures, but even more so, it can be very comforting for members to find safety and understanding so widely. Within a denomination particularly, believers can travel to new places and fit into a church community immediately. Evangelicals worldwide share a purpose that unites them. In addition, every church or Bible group can be a social group with all the benefits of a community” (1993, 53).

But there has also been much frustration from a lifetime of wedging myself (and my family) into the insular mini-society of the LLC. Almost all of my peers were raised in happy, loving homes with 8-12 siblings who grew up and have had large families of their own. Their parents themselves have many siblings and have long supplied our peers with truckloads of cousins for their earliest friendships. All those relatives constitute a body of comfortable and familiar companions who share many attitudes–not just about religion but also politics, leisure activities, and education. They are there for Sunday afternoon visiting, holidays, celebrations, employment, babysitting, and weekend outings.

My family doesn’t have such a family social network, unfortunately. To get the attention of our peers beyond just visits over the snack table after services, we needed to compete with the extensive social networks that they have inherited. It gets tiresome. And the claim I’ve so often heard that I have a “true family” in the church convinces me no more than “the ostentatious claim that ‘The brothers and sisters are there for you’” did Diane Wilson when she heard it as a Jehovah’s Witness. To both of us–with a few happy exceptions–it is “really just a fantasy” (2002, 138).

The last time I heard that claim was in the meeting between myself and the local congregation’s Board of Trustees concerning this book’s June 2010 edition. My response was, “I have family in the church! Great! I’ll see you on Thanksgiving, at Christmas, on Easter.” But in the year following that meeting, the number of invitations my wife and I received to socialize with the families of those board members or anyone else in the local LLC congregation can be counted on a single hand.

Most of my friendships within the church are now strained due to my inability to keep my mouth shut about religious matters, a story told in 1.2. Those who still seem comfortable with me personally either don’t know of my questions about the faith (not much chance of that continuing, once this is published) or are not overly intimidated by them. Some just don’t seem to take any of it too seriously or personally, while others are veterans of their own struggles and have learned to live with the difficulties one way or another.

Persecution Complex

There’s a fair amount of persecution against the “believers” by “the world,” at least according to some preachers and writers. Since Christians are no longer being fed to lions or burned like torches to light the streets of Rome, the acts of persecution are limited to the realms of thought and word. That was mostly true even in 1855 when Laestadius delivered his Second Rogation Day Morning sermon lamenting the hatred and persecution that the few elect had to suffer:

“In the text of the morning sermon we read: The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart. But how many such ones are there who have a broken heart? Perhaps one in a hundred or a thousand. The seven thousand in Israel who had not borne hatred, were scarcely one in a hundred, and the three thousand souls who were converted on Pentecost, were hardly one in a hundred, when compared to the great sorrowless flock. From this we can observe that the elect of God have at all times been only a few, and these few have been despised, hated and persecuted by the world. Do you think that any true Christian can live in the world without being ridiculed? Positively not! For that reason there are only a few who can truly claim some comfort to themselves from today’s text” (Fourth Postilla, 96).

Two sermons by Uno Makela paint a grim picture of believers suffering the hatred and intolerance of “the world”:

“We are here in this world for a short while; we are not of the world but we are in the world. We are those peculiar people which the world ridicules and hates. We are the ones that are pointed out as the narrowminded, we are persecuted by the world. We know if we did not receive this persecution and ridicule the world would accept us. For that reason, Jesus Christ, Himself, said, ‘Do not marvel if the world hates you,’ for it hated Him more. So we understand that as long as the world ridicules us, we are still in the kingdom of God. The dangers begin when the world starts accepting us” (1979).

“When we think how many people are upon earth, we are but a few and strangers and hated of all people. It is not a wonder that the world hates us, says Jesus; and they first hated him. We experience daily that the world has nothing to do with us. If we speak of the salvation of our soul, the man of the world does not want to hear it but wants to separate themselves from us. As long as we speak of other matters people can be friendly but they cannot stand it when we speak of the salvation of the soul. In this way, they have hatred towards us, for it disturbs their life and reminds them of the condition of their souls” (1985).

The same kind of paranoia can be seen in the OALC today. When an OALC member posted one judgmental comment after another on the extoots site and didn’t like the pushback it generated, he responded with a lament about how “the world hates us.” I like the way that claim was addressed by several respondents: “The vast majority of the world doesn’t know that the OALC even exists”; “Why do you think ‘the World’ even cares about the OALC? You sound like egocentric children, who think the sun rises and sets on your concerns”; “You condemn people to hell. None of us do to the best of my knowledge. How does that make you the persecuted one, and not the reverse?”

In an interesting twist, Peter Herriot posits that the self-esteem of fundamentalists is actually enhanced by the disapproval of “the world”:

[N]on-believers’ criticisms of fundamentalist beliefs or actions indicate to the believers that they must be doing God’s will. Such criticisms simply confirm fundamentalists in their belief that they are right, since if the Devil assaults us, we must be doing God’s will. Conversely, if they start to be accepted or valued by “the world,” then they must be going against the will of God. Their self-esteem is therefore enhanced, both by the approval of like-minded believers and by the disapproval of “the world.” [2009, 177-78]

Still, two points must be acknowledged. First, there has been some criticism of Conservative Laestadianism that takes on a mocking tone, especially by those who were once in the faith and have left it, and in Finland. There the movement attracts a fair amount of media attention, with nearly as many Conservative Laestadians per capita as there are Mormons per capita in the U.S.2 Second, those leaving their religion are not immune to seeking self-vindication by imagining or exaggerating persecution themselves:

Ironically, I have now carried the persecution complex with me; as an unbeliever, I am in an even smaller minority than I was as an evangelical. This provides the potential to differentiate myself from those around me, especially in the predominantly Christian Dallas, Texas suburb I now call home. I must guard against this tendency to cherish the persecution complex or to consider myself a cut above those who have not “seen the light.” [Daniels 2010, 90-91]

Caricature and Blame

Stereotyping outsiders and blaming them for their unsaved condition began early on in Laestadianism:

“Some have believed and endured in patience, others have been choked by the thorns or by the sorrows of this world’s riches. The blackbirds have pecked the Word of God from the hearts of some. Some have not received the dew or moisture from heaven. But the drought of this world of unbelief has scorched and slain them. Truly God gives the moisture of Heaven to all those who pray, but it is their own fault if they have not receive moisture, when they have not prayed for moisture from the God of Heaven” (Raattamaa, sermon given 1896, from Kulla 1993, 67).

Matti Suo [1861-1927] wrote of the hiddenness of the kingdom, and the various ways the unfortunate outsiders were deluded:

“Much indeed is spoken of God and Jesus, but few know and, it even seems, care to know, how and where God is to be found. The kingdom of God, which should be sought for first (Mt 6:33), is therefore unknown and hidden. But as long as the kingdom of God is secret, it is impossible to know its King. The people grope for the wall like the blind, Isa 59:10. Here is one who in his imagination hovers in the heavens, hoping to receive something therefrom; here one in his chamber with his private prayers; here one at the root of a tree in the wilderness; here one says he bases all in baptism; another in his good works and deep devotion; another who boasts that he looks only to the word, and says he does not believe any man and explains that God does not need or use any middle hands to save the sinner. Thus outside of the kingdom of God there are in respect to the things of salvation ‘as many minds as men.’ The third article of the creed: I believe in the Holy Ghost, etc. is altogether an unknown secret” (from Greetings of Peace, 8/1950).

Whose fault is it that the kingdom is so “unknown and hidden” if God is using “His congregation to assist Him in seeking man,” and “speaks to the unbelieving world” through his children, wishing “that those in the darkness of unbelief could come to the light, repent, and believe the gospel,” as asserted in various quotes in 4.2.4 and 4.9.3?

The religious activities of other Christians have even been attributed to Satan:

“In these last times there are increasingly many who go about crying ‘Lord, Lord,’ professing that they have accepted [Jesus] as their personal Savior. They gather especially on the college campuses to distribute their literature, preach their doctrine and be seen of men. Beware of these people, especially you fellow Christian college students. They are hypocrites and false prophets in sheep’s clothing, inwardly ravening wolves who work iniquity and have their reward. Taking the name of Christ as a banner they have united with Satan in the work of deceit” (VOZ, 10/1974).

Charles Simpson writes about similar statements in the exclusivist Churches of Christ and gives those who talk that way a warning:

If blasphemy is defined as attributing to Satan the works of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, and if the Holy Spirit does indeed manifest Himself in the lives of the [outsiders], some within the Churches of Christ are treading on very dangerous ground in their tirades against these men of God. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven all their sins and all the blasphemies they utter. But whosoever blessings against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk 3:28-29). To deny the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of God’s anointed is to repeat the sin of the Pharisees in Christ’s time. [2009, 116]

In a 1985 sermon, Jon Bloomquist summarized the motives and insecurities of those in the “dead faiths” of this world:

“Those who are in the dead faiths of this world seek to establish their own righteousness. They are unsure of their righteousness and have no security. They have the spirit of fear, but God’s children do not have the spirit of fear, but of power. We can hear and feel the difference between the sermons of those who are in the dead faiths of man and the living Word of God which is not of men but of God.”

As a former Catholic, Bloomquist is one of the rare converts to Conservative Laestadianism, so he has seen at least some of what happens in other religions. But his blanket statements about the “dead faiths of man” still annoy me on several levels. As the following two quotes illustrate, they are unfortunately still representative of what one reads and hears in sermons today:

“Living faith is a precious gift from God. It is a childlike faith. As it was in Jesus’ time, many in this world today also have blinded eyes and hardened hearts. They do not see God’s kingdom through eyes of faith. With their own understanding they examine God’s Word, which may appear too simple, for it disregards their good works” (VOZ, 2/2008).

“People seek for happiness and peace with their own means, only taking them further away from God. A lack of roots and hopelessness increase with those things that numb the mind and from which people try to build their happiness” (VOZ, 4/2008).

First, the charge of self-righteousness and reliance on good works is just another stereotype (also see 4.5.2) from people who choose not to know much about the actual lives and beliefs of outsiders. The fact is that many if not most Christians look to the work of Jesus Christ rather than themselves for their salvation. The statement of Ken Daniels about that aspect of his former Christianity is not at all unusual: “I understood from Paul’s epistles that God’s acceptance of me was based entirely on his love for me, his sacrifice on my behalf, and not at all on any of my personal accomplishments or righteousness” (2010, 19). One of the most compassionate and caring Christians I know is my friend and family physician. His motivation for the work he does–a level of community outreach that few Laestadians will ever bother to undertake–is a simple desire to live out what he sees as a Christian life.

And what about their insecurities and doubts? Does Bloomquist think they are any different than the doubts and intellectual discomfort that are so apparent from the statements in 4.5.4 and 4.5.5? Had Bloomquist ever actually listened to any “dead faith” sermons–beyond the Catholic homilies of his upbringing–to get an accurate assessment of differences between them and “the living Word of God”? Since attending other services has always been nearly unheard of, I doubt it.

Herriot discusses the small-group nature of “fundamentalist movements and organizations” and how they

have been unremitting in their hostility to their out-groups. They have therefore used their small groups to tie adherents in to the [beliefs, values, and norms of behavior] of the movement and to strengthen their social identities as movement members. Movements can then become more differentiated from their out-groups, thereby more effectively providing the self-esteem and certainty that motivate their adherents. The in-group will seek to make itself as different as possible from the out-group. To do so, it will create a stereotype of the out-group. . . . The stereotype is the belief that the out-group consists of people who all share certain characteristics, characteristics that firmly differentiate the out-group from the in-group. [2009, 143]

It’s not just something Conservatives do. Jerry Falwell was often “inventing a cabal of secularists where there was none, providing his congregation with something to define itself and unite against” (Welch 2009, 123). Once a group has differentiated itself from others, real or imagined, “[i]n-group conformity and cohesion, and stereotyping and discrimination against perceived out-groups, often follow. Oneself and others are depersonalised: perceived primarily as prototypical or stereotypical exemplars of categories rather than as individuals” (Herriot 2009, 282).

Ed Babinski offers another explanation for the bad-mouthing of outsiders. The believer is psychologically projecting what he knows is worst about himself onto them while blinding himself to the existence of genuine goodness in them. Because those outsiders are all going to hell, “there must be something essentially wrong with ‘them’ (otherwise they would not be ‘eternally damned,’ which they ‘obviously’ are–just look at what they believe)” (2003, 49).


For a church that writes off the 99.998% of the world’s people who are outside its boundaries as being destined to hell, Conservative Laestadianism seems ironically sensitive to the label of narrow-mindedness. And as we’ve seen, it certainly hasn’t hesitated to apply labels to those outsiders. Matti Suo did so in a defensive-sounding writing that indirectly addressed the church’s black-and-white thinking:

“[I]f a christian should mention something of wrong doctrine, it is considered horror to some ears. Wrong doctrine, self-righteousness etc. should not be mentioned. It is stamped partiality, unjust, and a christian should not be partial. But if spiritual things are thus understood, then the Holy Bible can be a discarded book. What then can be the background for preaching if the Bible is forsaken which mostly teaches of right and wrong doctrine. Wrong doctrine, with other sins causes its followers condemnation. Christ’s doctrine brings its followers to the joys of Paradise. . . . But some have begun to broaden in their conception. God has become so merciful that all divisionals, be their trend of opinion anything, as long as some form of godliness is pursued, are suitable to be in the same stall. They should not be called divisionals, for fear that tender feelings of love are severed. Showing partiality is evidence of uncivilness, etc.” (Matti Suo [1861-1927], from Greetings of Peace, 9/1954).

Two more recent writings deal with the “narrow-mindedness” label directly, again seeming a bit touchy about it:

“Like the disciples, we also often doubt whether we truly believe in Him correctly, or wonder about the destination of faith. The world wishes to cast doubt, saying Laestadian believers are so narrow-minded to think they are the only ones who are believing correctly” (VOZ, 5/2004).

“There has always been a division in this world between God’s kingdom and those outside of its walls. Throughout history, this division has been apparent. A continual warfare between Satan and God’s children has been taking place. Today Satan is combining the forces of various faiths into one ecumenical group. The ‘broad-minded’ ones see believers to be narrow-minded and judgmental” (VOZ, 11/2004).

I wonder if those writers would consider Luther one of the “broad-minded” ones, given his criticism of “every judgment which attempts to establish who are Christians and the people of God and who are not” (from Althaus 1963, 292). Still, despite having a broader view of the church and more reluctance to define its boundaries than Conservative Laestadians, Luther was by no means a champion of ecumenism and tolerance. Even though he wrote that “the Holy Church is not bound to Rome, but is as wide as the world, the assembly of those of one faith” (PE 1, 361), it was still his belief “that no one can be saved who is not part of this community and does not live in harmony with it in one faith, word, sacrament, hope, and love” (from Althaus 1936, 291).

Unfortunately, whether the boundaries are drawn around one particular sect or not, there is no way for Christianity to avoid Sam Harris’s observation that “‘respect’ for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses.” He continues, “While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed” (Harris 2005, 13).


“In the fundamentalist view,” Winell writes, “unbelievers have only two relevant attributes. They are potential converts and sources of temptation” (1993, 76). Similarly, Welch criticizes “the simple-minded attitude that the only redemptive quality in others was their ability to become more like her,” referring to an evangelical Christian she spent time with (2010, 145). The following quote reflects that attitude, though at least it leaves open the possibility of outside friendships:

“Can a believer then have an unbelieving friend? Even an unbeliever needs a person to whom he can speak about his troubles. I think this kind of friendship does not need to be terminated. Many times school and work friends can even become close friends so that discussion can be trusting and open. It can be so that we are the only trustworthy person to that unbeliever. Maybe he or she will come to comprehend the grace of repentance when we tell about it to the person” (Siionin Kevat [1988], from VOZ, 3/1990).

At this point, it will not come as a surprise that the church has done little outreach toward the society in which it resides. The following is an exception to that, a welcome one in my view:

“[A]ll we have is from God and God has certainly blessed believers. Even in today’s prosperous economy, however, there are those who suffer from want and are in great need, greater than our own. We frequently think only of our own wants and forget others to whom we could give so much. For what we do for others we are also doing for God. . . . There are many ways in which we can serve the poor in our own communities. There are soup kitchens, food and clothing drives, giving money or time to charity, or various other community services” (VOZ, 7/2000).

In a 2002 presentation during his pastorate at an LLC congregation, Matti Kontkanen allowed that there is sometimes “room for criticism” about Conservative Laestadianism’s approach to “the people of the world”:

“For the most part, we see how the congregation approaches unbelievers only with the word of God. We really have not become accustomed to the idea that the congregation would direct its activity toward the unbelievers in any other manner, for example: by taking collections for unbelievers, for founding hospitals or schools for them, or by taking stands on political issues. But individual Christians need not look at this restraint by the congregation as a whole as an example for their personal involvement. Even so, it may be that this example is duplicated to some degree in our individual lives as well.”

That presentation was given a year after the 9/11 attacks. It was on the Sunday after those attacks that I saw the only instance of outside charity during my lifetime in the church before or since, a collection for the Red Cross.

One explanation for the lack of outreach, besides the movement’s insular nature, is provided by Welch’s observations about her evangelical companions: “There wasn’t much point in helping the needy if they were just going to end up in hell anyway. Focusing on corporeal problems made as much sense to Christians as offering people pool floaties in the middle of the ocean; getting them saved would allow them to live underwater” (2009, 140).

The following quote at least acknowledges the tragic nature of a nearly empty heaven, and that God has some purpose for the existence of the unbeliever:

“It seems tragic to think that only we will get to heaven. But we haven’t come here to judge. We can always hope and pray. [An unbelieving brother] is not here in vain. Surely God has given him a purpose” (VOZ, 6/2004).

But the vicious beast of predestination lurks in the tall grass of that seemingly kind sentiment. Jason Long, as usual, does not mince words in his critique of the God he no longer believes in:

God brings people into this world without a choice in the matter and expects us to do certain things, otherwise he’ll punish us severely without rest for an eternity. God’s omniscience must necessarily allow him to know which names will not be included in his book of life. Therefore, we can only conclude that he purposely brings people into the world with zero chance of avoiding Hell. Any deviation from this predetermined course would make God wrong, but since God cannot possibly be wrong, it’s impossible for us to deviate from the absolutely unalterable plan that he has already envisioned. Thus, Christians can only logically claim that we are exclusively involuntary pawns at the mercy of God’s whimsical decisions as to where we will spend our ultimate eternal destinations. This heartless exercise of brutality can only be the single most hateful crime any being could ever commit. [2005, 105, emphasis added]

Recently, the church has encountered an unexpected and unwanted form of “outreach” in the form of discussions and criticism on social networking sites, blogs, and discussion forums. Having some of its members airing their grievances and doubts to each other and outsiders is an uncomfortable new reality for both the SRK and the LLC. “According to [SRK chairman Olavi] Voittonen, it is natural that young people want to question, but he would like to restrain the discussion taking place via blogs and social media.” Rather, “the right place for discussion is a local [SRK meeting house]. There the writers of confusing texts can be also guided to repent” (Pulkkinen 2011).

The church is very sensitive to having itself discussed in anything but an officially sanctioned, devotional manner, on the Internet or otherwise. As I experienced from the hysterical reaction to my limited distribution of this book’s June 2010 edition–which had far less commentary than is present here–the consequences of individual, public critique are severe enough to make it practically unheard of. Thus the Internet discussions are mostly found in private, restricted groups or on blogs and forums where both the postings and comments can be made anonymously. That hasn’t found favor officially, either, with the SRK’s previous secretary-general Aimo Hautamäki concluding that “anonymous discussion is worthless discussion and worthless knowledge” (Ijäs 2010).

It turns out that even utterly orthodox, devotional writing on the part of individual believers has been a source of concern. If you draw from your experience and education to publish Sunday school lesson plans on your own, for example, you can expect to be the subject of inquiry. And, on a social networking website,

it “is good to consider that our messages and comments can be viewed by all who have access to the site. A personal, loving message, even one calling to God’s kingdom, reaches beyond the intended recipient. The love for the undying soul expressed in such messages is understood by believers, but may seem insensitive or harsh to some. A personal card, letter, e-mail, conversation, or thoughts relayed through a close family member may be more appropriate” (VOZ, 7/2009).

Here is a good example of such a “personal, loving message” e-mailed to a friend of mine who left the LLC:

You have said it [has] always been your desire to believe. If so then by all means you can. It requires one to acknowledge [you’re] in the wrong. It requires penitence over sin and even wrong understanding and unbelief. I would sincerely say to you that the mercy of the heavenly father is immeasurable and if it is your desire to believe then you can [be] free [to] do so and put away your unbelief. I would also like to add that there is nothing humble about denouncing the existence of god. I know it is fashionable in many universities to call ones self an atheist. Many people find a sense of broad understanding and a high intellect by having this view that athiesm [sic.] is the new and modern type of intellect. The devil doesn’t need to attack you any longer. The uneasiness and lack of peace in your heart is put there by god. Your conscience is telling you that something isn’t right with you. It isn’t the devil who is tormenting you. It is your knowledge that you are not currently a child of god. I am not “preaching” to serve myself . . . but because I care about your undying soul and would like to call you a brother in faith. I did not want to continue this conversation because of the evil research and beliefs you presented me and your attempt to dissuade me of my faith. If you would like to continue to speak about matters of faith I would be happy to continue. But I will not delve into works of evil men and look at articles referring to the bible being evil. It is your desire to believe . . . and I would encourage you to put away your doubts and unbelief. It is a joy being a child of god and it is said that when a lost sheep is found and gathered back to the flock that even the angels in heaven rejoice. You don’t need to continue on the path to destruction but your time of visitation is open yet and you can believe.

It is completely in accord with Conservative Laestadian doctrine and was no doubt motivated by genuine concern. But even clean underwear is an awkward thing to see out in public.

The issue of social networking was addressed at the July 2011 annual meeting of the LLC, but from the perspective of danger to the believer’s faith rather than as a turn-off to outsiders. Item 10.3 of the meeting minutes states, “Concern was expressed about the use of social media websites. It is dangerous to our faith to seek answers about religion and faith from this type of media. These sites answer to our flesh and mind, but not our faith.” Whoever said that would agree with Ingersoll’s conclusion, though certainly not his sentiment: “The church never doubts–never inquires. To doubt is heresy–to inquire is to admit that you do not know–the church does neither” (Lecture on Thomas Paine [1880]).

4.2.4 The Call to the Kingdom

All fundamentalists believed in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, but the old guard had put so much energy into doctrinal and ethical purity that it left little time and room for effective evangelistic efforts.

–Calvin Mercer, Slaves to Faith

Conservative Laestadianism has traditionally been quite hesitant to undertake any missionary activities. The LLC’s ongoing efforts in Ecuador and West Africa are the result of people in those places coming into contact with individual believers, being converted, and then spreading the word. Other conversions followed, and the new believers expressed a desire for services to be held in their localities. At that point, it was felt that a sufficient call was being heard from God to send preachers, perhaps for the first time in the history of the LLC or its predecessors going back to Laestadius, to places where most of the listeners would not be already in the fold.

The work is driven by a genuine spiritual hunger by those out in remote areas who want to hear the preaching for themselves or share it with their friends and loved ones. Conservative Laestadianism is too restrained to impose itself much on disinterested strangers. That makes the mission work it does carry out genuine and unforced, welcomed by those receiving it. But it also limits the reach of the message.

For the past 20 years or so, there have also been broadcasts of sermons on local radio stations, especially during large, national service events. More recently, live and archived recordings of sermons have been made available on the Internet. In all of these cases, the forum for evangelism is the service led by a preacher. His words, once enclosed within the sanctifying wrapping of an opening prayer and a closing prayer (preferably also with some singing by the assembled listeners) become God’s Word.

Back when the following two statements were made in sermons, any outsider hearing them would have physically made his way into the church by invitation or accident:

“God desires to enlighten to you that without the preaching of the gospel from God’s kingdom you will perish. Here God offers this grace gospel, and you need not perish in your sins. This is the greatest love for you, that you would be free from a bad conscience and receive your sins forgiven in the name and blood of the Lord Jesus” (Alajoki [1981], 141).

“[I]f one would have come to the services here who feels he is not part of this living kingdom of God, God is calling you, dear friend, this afternoon. We can even say this that through your own power you have not been able to come to the services. God in His love has called and led you here and desires also to make known unto you His love” (Wesley Hillukka, sermon given 1985).

It was, and remains, a pretty limited and haphazard call. Yet, nearly invisible and devoid of results though it seems to be, it is how God chooses to do what surely should be the most important work imaginable, given the supposedly eternal stakes:

“The work of the Spirit is to call sinners to repentance. Through the children of God, the Spirit speaks to the unbelieving world. God wishes that those in the darkness of unbelief could come to the light, repent, and believe the gospel. However, Jesus himself has revealed . . . ‘that men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ [John 3:19] . . . We understand that the Holy Spirit of God continues to function here on Earth until the work day is ended and it is no longer possible to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom” (VOZ, 7/1998).

“God uses His congregation to assist Him in seeking man” (Uljas 2000, 13).

One attempt to explain the undeniable and disturbing limitations of God’s call has been that there are “times of visitation” in which God supposedly favors certain localities with the presence of his Kingdom. I’ve often heard Luther’s warning To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany cited: “God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been” (Lull 2005, 463). It was with the Jews, and in Greece, and in Rome, and then in Luther’s Germany. And then, apparently, the “elect people of God” wound up being found in a few hundred congregations scattered across Finland and a few locations in North America:

“The time of visitation is not a matter that affects only one person, but an entire nation or community. Scriptures recount how the elect people of God had a time of visitation during the Old Covenant and even at the beginning of the New Covenant. The living congregation of God was in their midst. . . . History indicates that God has given different nations a time of visitation at different times” (Uljas 2000, 15).

“[W]hen the children of Israel, for the most part, rejected the grace of the caller the invitation was then directed to the Gentile nations. In our time of visitation the same invitation is extended to those on the outside through the servants of God, His children. The same kinds of excuses are heard today as in Jesus’ time. One co-worker said to me that he could not ‘join our church’ because he would have to give up too many things that he enjoys in his life. In North America we have noted that few from the outside accept the invitation to come and hear the Word of God, even though God’s children, in many localities across this continent, have preached repentance for many generations. The fault has not been with the caller, but those who have been invited ‘began to make excuses’ (Luke 14:18)” (VOZ, 10/2002).

Luke 14:16-24 is, as the quote indicates, a parable about the Jews being invited to the “great supper” but making excuses not to attend, at which point the Gentiles were invited. The quoted writer extends that parable in an effort to address the fact that so few of those invited to the Conservative Laestadian version of the “great supper” feel any inclination to attend. It’s bad enough that only a tiny fraction of the world ever gets the invitation. How do we explain the overwhelming lack of interest on the part of those who do?

Usually, a person’s decision to remain outside (or leave) Conservative Laestadianism is attributed to an unwillingness to give up “worldly pleasures,” which avoids the need to acknowledge that the doctrine might have been found flawed, untrue, or unconvincing. But what sane person could possibly reject the faith for long–no matter what the cost–while maintaining a sincere belief that doing so is going to send him or her to eternal, unimaginable torment?

The reality is that, in all but a few cases, people who haven’t grown up in the church just aren’t interested in what it is offering. Daniel Everett encountered this “challenge of the missionary” in his own efforts at Christian evangelism in the Amazon jungle. (Conservatives would consider his work nothing more than sadly misguided peddling of “dead faith,” but try telling that to Everett or the people he worked with.) The goal of his dedicated efforts over many years with the Pirahã Indians of Brazil was “to convince a happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior” (2008, 266).

What he found, after undertaking the formidable task of learning their very different language and culture, was that his two-thousand year old story about Jesus had absolutely no impact on the Pirahã people. After listening, unimpressed, to an audio recording of a fellow Pirahã reading the Gospel of Mark in their language, they said, “Well, he has never seen Jesus. He told us that he doesn’t know Jesus and that he doesn’t want Jesus.” And with that simple observation, the Pirahãs signaled that Everett’s recordings of Bible readings “would have little or no spiritual influence” (p. 269).

Instead of Everett converting these “primitive” Amazonians, they wound up de-converting him. He lost “confidence in the universal appeal of the spiritual message” he was bringing. “The Pirahãs were not in the market for a new worldview. And they could defend their own just fine” (p. 269). He came to greatly admire the Pirahãs, including their hard-headed skepticism:

They were a sovereign people. And they were in effect telling me to peddle my goods elsewhere. They were telling me that my message had no purchase among them. All the doctrines and faith I had held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture. They were superstition to the Pirahãs. And they began to seem more and more like superstition to me. [p. 270]

In the 1990s, with much fanfare, conversions to Conservative Laestadianism finally began taking place in some numbers. There was a wave of interest in Russia after the fall of Gorbachev, then in Togo and Ecuador:

“God has given us a precious time of visitation. For over 100 years in many localities in the United States and Canada, God has been with us. Scripture says that if God be for us, who can be against us. In our time, God has given a special time of visitation to the people of Togo, Ecuador, Russia, and other countries. . . . In times of visitation, God especially offers His grace” (VOZ, 8/2004).

The “other countries” mostly refers to places where Finns have wound up going for work and have formed congregations, with a few conversions from the surrounding community. Even the Swedish association of Conservative Laestadians, the SFC, is made up primarily of expatriate Finns. There have been some conversions in Estonia, but only a few dozen of the converts remain (Palola 2010).

I remember being fascinated along with everybody else in church by the stories about African and South American Laestadians. And it was captivating to hear some of the new converts from Togo talking about their newfound faith, as two of them did during a tour of North American congregations. In addition to the novelty of an inward-looking bunch of Finns being exposed to an entirely different culture, there was a genuine feeling of joy at the salvation of souls. The presence of Laestadians in faraway places provided an emotional comfort–certainly not a rational one, given the tiny numbers involved–that God’s call was not quite so provincial and limited as we had thought. And, as Dennis MacDonald notes, conversions to one’s worldview provide a way of proving it correct: “We can’t be wrong if so many believe what we do. Never mind that so many who once found now have lost it” (2003, 114).

The reality of MacDonald’s “never mind” comment is evident, too, in how the LLC publicly discusses its mission work. As discussed in 4.2.1, the attention quickly fades about things that aren’t going well. Russians, what about them? There are believers in Turkey now! The Voice of Zion continues to feature articles about mission work in Ecuador–it is visited by LLC preachers several times per year–but makes no mention of how significantly the numbers there have dwindled. The sunny, upbeat nature of its reporting is understandable for a devotional newspaper, but it doesn’t provide an accurate view of the situation. One example is best illustrated with a photo appearing on the front page of the March 2011 issue:

The accompanying article stated that “many young people and a number of adults from the Quito, Riobamba, and La Merced areas gathered at the Hacienda la Merced for a weekend of instruction, fellowship, and fun . . .” I count ten Ecuadorian young people in that picture.

During my research for this book, I was surprised to come across a letter from Oswald Koivisto in the March 1949 Greetings of Peace that told of an attempt at mission work in China during the aftermath of World War II. The letter, addressed to Paul and Eva Heideman from “Lutheran Mission, Pakhoi, Kwangtung, China,” told of difficulties encountered in attempting to “be the ‘voice shouting’ in this dark wilderness of heathenism”:

It is true, that even the Chinese will learn something of Christianity. But if it is difficult for every one to confess his sins and humble himself to repentance for his sins, yet this is especially difficult for the Chinese. For he is very careful to not “loose [sic.] face.” And the confessing of sins and begging forgiveness, means the loss of honor to the Chinese. And this he dreads more than death. And because of this attitude on the matter of confessing sins, which is so important in true and living Christianity, the work for God’s kingdom is extremely difficult. We have spoken of this matter with our Chinese pastor, but even he does not seem to understand anything about it. Other missionaries here have complained about the same matter. But we still can not leave the work where it seems difficult for the work is the Lord’s. And He is powerful to break down even the hard heart.

Koivisto’s activities never enjoyed the approval of the Conservative Laestadian leadership in either America or Finland. Uljas acknowledges that forty years before his writing (i.e., in the 1960s) foreign mission work had risen as a topic of dissension.” The problem was the ecumenical nature of the effort (Uljas 2000, 117). Conservatives are in the same position as the similarly exclusivist Churches of Christ–they “are taught that they are right and that all other Christians are wrong, [so] they simply do not have the ability to understand, accept, or interact with other Christian faiths on spiritual matters” (Simpson 2009, 9). And so,

Conservative Laestadians turned down the offer for mutual work, but agreed on the importance of mission work and remained waiting for the time when God would provide opportunity for their own mission work. This position was held in spite of accusations and criticism. God’s time came thirty years later. [Uljas 2000, 117]

It’s certainly convenient to be able to refer to “God’s time” whenever there is an otherwise unexplainable resistance to taking action. For some reason, God decided to let the “dead faith” Christians of Finland go off and preach supposedly empty words in foreign countries for several decades. Meanwhile his true believers sat around preaching to each other and awaiting some sort of divine inspiration to undertake any missionary efforts of their own.

The movement was so allergic to either change or outreach that most of the sermons in the United States were delivered in Finnish until the 1960s. There was a hide-bound tradition of retaining what had become almost a sacred language in this second- and third-generation immigrant community. When the youth finally started learning English as their first language, that tradition was, for about a decade, more important than ensuring that those young people were able to fully understand what was being said in their parents’ own churches. In that environment, the problem of outsiders failing to adequately comprehend “the call to the Kingdom” could not have been the subject of much concern.

The following quote about offering the gift of faith is entirely sensible and biblical, but it does not begin to describe the massive responsibility for evangelism that rests on the shoulders of each Conservative Laestadian:

“The gift of faith should be offered to all. It cannot be given if it is not offered. We should preach the word in season and out of season” (VOZ, 11/2004).

If you believe that your contact with someone at your workplace, school, gym, barbershop, etc. is likely to be the only means by which God offers him or her the gift of eternal life, of avoiding perpetual, unimaginable torment in hell, one would think that you would indeed feel compelled to “preach the word in season and out of season,” using every opportunity to convince that person to accept this incredibly valuable offer. Yet how much does this actually happen? How many worldly acquaintances are even invited to services?

Let me be blunt: You certainly wouldn’t hesitate to interrupt some activity or risk being considered rude if you thought your worldly acquaintance was just about to eat some food tainted with E. coli, or even had an untied shoelace. So what does your reluctance to “offer the gift of faith” say about your belief that you are indeed the only means by which such a priceless gift can be offered? A certain quote, repeated in various forms and difficult to attribute, comes to mind: “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me what you do, and I’ll tell you what you believe.”

The responsibility is evaded by appealing to God’s sovereignty:

“[M]an, on his own, cannot find God. He cannot consciously decide that he would like to have God in his life. We do not have the wisdom or means to bring ourselves to Him. Rather, it is God who reveals himself to us. He instills in us a troubled conscience and a desire to find peace. . . . God controls the search for peace. He leads a searching person to His kingdom where His word is found. . . . God has chosen to reveal His kingdom unto babes–those who feel unworthy to come to God. Their feelings of unworthiness cause shame and leave one begging for mercy from the Father” (VOZ, 6/2005).

“Man cannot approach God or come to the Lord Jesus unless God calls him. . . . One cannot be self-invited. Through God’s kingdom the message of salvation is made known through the preaching and teaching of pardoned sinners. . . . The invitation to come into God’s kingdom is still being made through His servants around the world. The search continues for those individuals who seek a gracious God. ‘Yet there is room’ in God’s house for the sin weary, the conscience stricken, and those who labor under sin burdens. One day, however, the invitation will end. Enough guests will have been found to fill God’s house” (VOZ, 6/2005).

“Each person has a day of visitation in his or her life. The most important matter is that one would not reject that opportunity to make repentance and believe the gospel when God’s kingdom approaches” (VOZ, 12/2005).

Again, we are back to the problem of predestination (4.9.3). Conservative Laestadianism considers its own congregations to be the only place where God’s kingdom has been present for the past century and a half. In that time, there have been perhaps 200,000 members of those congregations, the vast majority of them in Finland. Almost all of humanity has lived and died, and will die, without ever even hearing about Conservative Laestadianism, much less having any “opportunity to make repentance” into it. It might seem nice and fair to assert that “each person has a day of visitation in his or her life,” but it is manifestly untrue.

Some anxiety about that is evident in the following quote from the June 2008 Voice of Zion:

“It’s not unusual that we, with our own minds, can wonder why God’s kingdom is not presently offered to certain cultures or peoples. We might wonder why we don’t start mission work in this place or that, or perhaps with those people or that culture. These thoughts can be prayerful and with hope. We’ve marveled, however, how God in His remarkable way has opened the door in His time. The work of the kingdom does not progress with man’s efforts and aims, but with God’s.”

But man’s efforts are obviously required, since people cannot find the kingdom on their own. So we have the most important matter in the life of any person alive being dependent on the highly unlikely possibility of personal contact with a Conservative Laestadian. And not just any contact, but the rare case where it is spelled out for the unbeliever just what is at stake and what must be done:

“You who are not a partaker of grace, hurry and take care of your matters with the living God! Pray that He would have mercy on you by sending a believer to you. They bear with them the words of grace and forgiveness. God likes to hear such a prayer” (VOZ, 7/2009).

What about all the sincere prayers for salvation that are said by people who have no clue about any of this? You must feel a need to depart from the spiritual (or atheist) worldview that you inherited from your parents, something never done by the vast majority of people in the thousands of varieties of religion and culture around the world. Somehow, that dissatisfaction must lead you to pray for an encounter whose nature is entirely foreign to your current beliefs, with a person from a tiny sect you’ve never heard of. Then, that encounter must convince you–which it almost never does–that you need to renounce your previous self as a damned sinner and accept the “words of grace and forgiveness” along with the requirement for membership in this sect. This is how God carries out his desire for all men to be saved?

4.2.5 Conversion

The evidence of conversion existed in the various and immediate physical and emotional expressions of the converted. Fast conversions, accompanied with vivid evidence, led to an emotionally charged form of religiosity with almost no intellectual or deep theological content.

—Calvin Mercer, Slaves to Faith

An article in the December 2005 Voice of Zion provides a good introduction to the Conservative Laestadian view of conversion, which is also often referred to as “repentance”:

“By faith we understand that true repentance contains three interrelated parts. First is sorrow over sin, the second is forgiveness for sins or absolution, and the third is a change of heart and mind, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘amendment of life.’ The depth of the feelings of sorrow is not the basis for repentance. It is sufficient to know that one is a sinner and is in need of God’s grace in order to be saved. In true repentance, righteousness or amendment of life is the result of the righteousness of faith. It does not precede the righteousness that comes by faith.”

The article downplays the importance of feelings of sorrow, but Laestadius greatly emphasized the need for sorrow over sin. Indeed one of his favorite terms for unbelievers was “the sorrowless.” For them to convert, a “great change must come . . . not only that they must first walk in hell and be in tribulation of conscience as was David, but they must cry from the depths unto the heights even as David has cried” (Fourth Rogation Day sermon [1856]; Fourth Postilla, 227).

It’s understandable that there might be a difference in emphasis about personal feelings associated with conversion. Claims about “unchanging faith” aside, there is a vast difference between the deep and fiery Pietism of Laestadius’s time and the subdued Christianity of current-day Conservative Laestadianism. And Luther was a bit confused about the role of human emotion–specifically the sense of humility–in his early writings, with contradictory statements about whether humility preceded or followed conversion (Harran 1983, 57-59).

What Conservative Laestadianism has always shared with Laestadius (and Luther) is the importance of the great change of conversion. It’s not a surprising attitude for what is referred to in Finland as a revival movement (herätysliike). Conversion is closely linked with the forgiveness of sins, which is also of great importance and a prominent topic of discussion (4.6.2). The forgiveness of sins not only begins a new believer’s life of faith, but sustains it.

In view of all that, I found the following a very disturbing fact to learn about the Bible: With one possible exception that I will discuss shortly (2 Cor 2:10), it contains no teaching or examples of people being converted to or sustained in Christianity by hearing the proclamation of the forgiveness of their sins. Even in the case where such an example would seem most instructive–Peter’s denial of Christ–there is no description of conversion or repentance at all. In Mt 26:69-75, the

“words and actions of Peter were a complete denial of his faith. The Bible does not record the actual account of Peter’s repentance, but the words of [John 21:15-19, ‘feed my sheep’] assuredly testify that Peter did receive grace to repent and return to God’s kingdom” (VOZ, 4/2008).

The Gospels tell us about a wilting fig tree and a coin in a fish’s mouth, but nothing at all about the repentance of Jesus’ primary disciple from a complete denial of his faith?

An important conversion that is described–in Acts, a continuation of the gospel of Luke–is the conversion of Paul. That is a favorite text for explaining how one needs to interact with another believer in order to be converted. When Paul (or, to use his pre-conversion name Saul of Tarsus) had been struck down by a light from heaven and asked what he should do,

“Jesus told Saul to go into the city and it would be told to him what he must do. Saul needed to be led into Damascus, as he had lost his sight. God then sent a believing man, Ananias, to Saul. Ananias laid his hands on Saul and preached the gospel, and Saul was immediately filled with the Holy Ghost and received his sight. Not only did Saul receive his physical sight, but he also received spiritual sight” (VOZ, 1/2009).

But there are issues here, too. As discussed in 7.2, none of the accounts of the event in Acts say that Ananias “preached the gospel.” In the letters attributed to him, Paul denies that the gospel is something he received from man or was taught.

Paul does make one intriguing statement about forgiveness in 2 Corinthians concerning an unnamed offender who had been duly punished for some unspecified offense. Paul expressed concern that his readers “should rather forgive and comfort” the offender, “otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2:7, NASB). He urges them to reaffirm their love for him, and says, “[O]ne whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ” (2:10, NASB). Robert M. Price, skeptical of the book’s Pauline authorship as he is about most all of the epistles, says “that the writer is using Paul’s persona to tell them how to deal with offenders in their own time” (Price 2006a, 385).

In his apologetic history of confession and absolution, the Catholic theologian Thomas J. Capel does not hesitate to read Paul’s statement as evidence of “an agency of reconciliation” (Capel 1884, 13). In his view, a “clearer case of retaining and remitting is unnecessary” (p. 16). Price is certainly no apologist for absolution or indeed Christianity in general, but he also notes a connection to the “keys of the kingdom” passages of Mt 16:19; 18:18, and Jn 20:23: “Here Paul is made to bequeath judicial authority to his successors. He is the vicar of Christ and, more to the point, so are they” (Price 2006a, 385).

The Proclamation of Absolution

The idea that conversion can only take place by hearing the forgiveness of sins–as proclaimed by someone who is already a believer–is a central point of Conservative Laestadian doctrine. Here is one of a very few passages I have found in Laestadius’s teachings suggesting it:

“If Thomas abides alone and seeks Christ in solitude, will Christ come to seek him there? I think, Thomas, that you must first come to the Christians’ meetings before Christ will come to show His wounds. You will not, in any case, become a partaker of the grace of resurrection before you come into the congregation. No matter how you would read the Book in solitude and keep prayers at home, you will surely not become a Christian there. But come first to the Christian meetings and seek first the congregation before you will find Christ” (Laestadius, Fourth Sunday after Easter sermon, 1859).

Laestadius’s near-silence on the topic is troubling, as is his description of the solitary conversion of John Raattamaa’s brother Peter, discussed in 4.1.4. And John Raattamaa was less than clear about it, too. In a sermon printed in the May 1897 Sanomia Siionista, he said,

There has been a dispute in Finland about whether the written word has the effect that one can be led to living faith through it; and this we have answered, that both the written and preached word bring one unto salvation. Peter’s words had the effect that those who heard them received the Holy Spirit. [p. 83]3

That quote came to my attention recently, and wasn’t part of my sample of Conservative writings and sermons. Neither was an early story of conversion by personal absolution from a 1912 issue of Siionin Lähetyslehti that I feel must also be mentioned.

A resident of Atlantic Mine, Michigan accompanied his wife to the Conservative services instead of staying home as he usually did. He arrived to the sound of rejoicing, and asked “if grace really belonged to such a great sinner as he was, and if so, he was ready to accept it. The Christians blessed him, and his own Christian wife was the first to bless him with the forgiveness of sins in the name and blood of Jesus, and so he was added to the number of newly converted that evening” (from Kulla 2004, 58). It is a remarkable testament to the endurance of the doctrine of conversion by personal absolution. There’s nothing about the story that would be any different for a conversion to Conservative Laestadianism today, a century later.

The earliest quote from my actual sample that provides a real articulation of that conversion process is from a January 1950 Greetings of Peace article by Arvi Hintsala:

“[W]here God is given to begin His work, to effect awakening, there sin begins to cause grief and trouble. The love and enjoyment of sin ceases. And the only question comes up[, ‘]What must I do that I might be saved? God, help, I perish!’. . . In [the] awakened state, man is helpless. It is not God’s intention to only awaken man, and then let him wait [for] what God does in heaven. No, but God is near to the awakened, is near in the word of the gospel. To the awakened the gospel brings the very heart of God, the love which He has shown when He gave His only son, the Lord Jesus, to repair the poor matters of the prodigal son, who had lost everything. . . . The consoling sweet word of the gospel releases the awakened soul from his feeling of worthlessness and leads him to behold the Sacrifice and to see the Father’s heart and the precious redemption-blood of the Lamb, how it is sprinkled in the gospel word. And what wonderful power there is in the sprinkling of the blood to the distressed sinner. It cleanses the soul, heals the wounds and brings about the miracle of life, which is called the new birth. The awakened soul experiences the great miracle of forgiveness, and God testifies to it by pouring the Holy Ghost into the heart.”

There’s never been any change in the position that conversion occurs by personal absolution and nothing else:

“The fires of living faith can kindle only where recipients of the Holy Ghost, God’s own, have preached to a penitent sinner, by the command of Christ, all sins forgiven in His name and atonement blood.” Jesus did not forgive Saul’s “sins straight from heaven, even though He spoke to the man” because “the authority to forgive sins was already left upon the earth and God would not change His grace-order even toward the highly learned Saul. God surely took care of his matters and sent an ambassador of His kingdom to the blind and praying man, and by his proclaimed gospel the scales fell from the eyes of Saul and he regained his sight and was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Taskila 1961, 19-20).

“True repentance is not possible without God’s kingdom and its preaching of remission coming from hearing distance” (Uljas 2000, 47).

Despite the doctrinal focus on repentance and conversion, the fact is that very few Conservative Laestadians are converts. The overwhelming majority were “born into a Christian home,” with ties to the faith going back several generations in most cases. Inheritance of religion is actually a common phenomenon, as Richard Dawkins notes with some disdain:

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happens to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one. . . . The religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography. [from Loftus 2008, loc. 1070-75]

According to Schimmel, most people acquire their religious beliefs “through a process of socialization that begins at birth, in one’s family and in the religious community into which one is born. The individual embodies the ideas, beliefs, values, sights, sounds, touches, and fragrances of the religion, and one practices its rituals for many years, long before he has sufficient cognitive ability to think about them critically” (2008, 168).

What sustains Conservative Laestadianism is not persuasion, but reproduction. The SRK historian Seppo Lohi acknowledged as much, saying that a change in the movement’s position regarding contraception (4.7.5) would result in its slow death.4 As it stands, the large families in the movement have provided it with an ample supply of new members, indoctrinated from earliest childhood. This has freed Conservative Laestadianism from much emphasis on recruiting outsiders and promotes a sort of social evolution that helps preserve its fundamentalist nature.

Personal Experiences

By relating their own conversion experiences, numerous preachers and lay members have attested to the “personal proclamation” doctrine in a very personal and emotionally powerful way. Sometime in the 1950s, Gust Wisuri gave a sermon in which he described his own conversion by hearing the preaching of forgiveness:

“God showed his mercy to me. And led by two men, I sat down at the end of a table where they were just finishing their meal. And when the gospel was preached to me, the forgiveness of sins in the name and blood of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, a weight was lifted off of me like a ton rock. I shall never forget that moment.”

My grandmother Sophia Suominen had a conversion experience of her own, probably sometime around 1910. She recalls it in an article in the January 1968 Greetings of Peace:

“I spent my childhood and the days of my youth in an environment where there was spiritual darkness. They were two of us schoolgirls who had an inward restlessness, and a longing to find peace for our souls, and the hope of salvation, but we didn’t know how. We went to the pastor and asked his advice; it was evening, and the shades of night were falling. The pastor was reclining on the sofa, when we came into the parsonage. When we said we wanted to talk with him, he received us very cordially. We related to him of our inward restlessness, and a longing to find peace for our souls, and the hope of salvation. Not knowing where these feelings came about, he asked a few questions, and together with us read the Lord’s Prayer, and that was all. We returned to our homes just as empty as when we left, and just as forlorn with our burdened conscience. We then began to partake of sinful pleasures, but even that was difficult to do with our awakened conscience. Then at 19 years of age, I came to America [from Finland], and God miraculously brought me into contact with His children. It was through them that I found what my soul was longing for. They preached the forgiveness of sins to me, and how blessed I was, then, and am still blessed now, even though in myself I have not become any better. Even yet all I have is through His grace, and I need to be blest again and again by the children of God.”

Another example was given by Hannes Kamula in a 1978 sermon:

“I remember that marvelous day in my life when I stood before this mercy seat. One child of God was the spokesman there. I knew that the Lord Jesus was speaking through his mouth and for that reason I pledged on the knees of my heart before this altar to hear what is said unto a big sinner. And what did he say? ‘Your sins are forgiven unto you in Jesus’ name and blood for the peace and freedom of your soul.’”

In a “Personal Experiences” article in the October 2000 Voice of Zion, a convert from Catholicism wrote a detailed account of his conversion experience. He said he had distress of conscience already in his youth, when he would receive absolution from a priest and feel better,

“but only for a little while. Shortly after doing my penance, my conscience would again start pointing out things until I felt I needed absolution every minute of the day.” He wrote of despairing of ever reaching heaven and knowing that the works of his hands would never earn him salvation. Then he “met a believer. After visiting some time, this believer made a comment that struck a chord within me. She told me, ‘I wish I could tell you how I believe.’ I asked her to tell me and in the next couple of weeks, she proceeded, along with other believers, to explain living faith.” After overcoming two remaining issues he found hard to accept–the thought that it was “belittling to God that even a child could be God’s mouthpiece in speaking the words of absolution” and how much his conversion would hurt his father–the “grace fountain flowed and I was reassured that I was now in living faith, that my unbelief and all my sins from that unbelief were forgiven in the name and blood of Jesus. The understanding of a child of God came quietly over the next few days. Many things that I used to think, say, and do, I no longer wanted. I had found a treasure in a field–living faith in God’s kingdom.”

The emotional impact of these conversion experiences is undeniable, but before allowing them to draw us to any conclusions about the unique validity of Conservative Laestadianism, we should consider how widespread and profound such experiences are in the religious realm generally. Consider the following testimonials, all by different people in different religious settings, from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James:

I halted but a moment, and then, with a breaking heart, I said, “Dear Jesus, can you help me?” Never with mortal tongue can I describe that moment. Although up to that moment my soul had been filled with indescribable gloom, I felt the glorious brightness of the noonday sun shine into my heart. I felt I was a free man. Oh, the precious feeling of safety, of freedom, of resting on Jesus! I felt that Christ with all his brightness and power had come into my life; that, indeed, old things had passed away and all things had become new. [Lecture 9]

I felt myself in a new world, and everything about me appeared with a different aspect from what it was wont to do. At this time, the way of salvation opened to me with such infinite wisdom, suitableness, and excellency, that I wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation; was amazed that I had not dropped my own contrivances, and complied with this lovely, blessed, and excellent way before. If I could have been saved by my own duties or any other way that I had formerly contrived, my whole soul would now have refused it. I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ. [Lecture 9]

At that instant of time when I gave all up to him to do with me as he pleased, and was willing that God should rule over me at his pleasure, redeeming love broke into my soul with repeated scriptures, with such power that my whole soul seemed to be melted down with love, the burden of guilt and condemnation was gone, darkness was expelled, my heart humbled and filled with gratitude, and my whole soul, that was a few minutes ago groaning under mountains of death, and crying to an unknown God for help, was now filled with immortal love, soaring on the wings of faith, freed from the chains of death and darkness, and crying out, My Lord and my God; thou art my rock and my fortress, my shield and my high tower, my life, my joy, my present and my everlasting portion. [Lecture 10]

I felt something solemn and sacred within me which made me ask for a priest. I was led to one; and there alone, after he had given me the positive order, I spoke as best I could, kneeling, and with my heart still trembling. I could give no account to myself of the truth of which I had acquired a knowledge and a faith. All that I can say is that in an instant the bandage had fallen from my eyes, and not one bandage only, but the whole manifold of bandages in which I had been brought up. One after another they rapidly disappeared, even as the mud and ice disappear under the rays of the burning sun. I came out as from a sepulchre, from an abyss of darkness; and I was living, perfectly living. [Lecture 10]

So I made one final struggle to call on God for mercy, with the same choking and strangling, determined to finish the sentence of prayer for Mercy, if I did strangle and die, and the last I remember that time was falling back on the ground with the same unseen hand on my throat. I don’t know how long I lay there or what was going on. None of my folks were present. When I came to myself, there were a crowd around me praising God. The very heavens seemed to open and pour down rays of light and glory. Not for a moment only, but all day and night, floods of light and glory seemed to pour through my soul, and oh, how I was changed, and everything became new. [Lecture 10]

I had attended a series of revival services for about two weeks off and on. Had been invited to the altar several times, all the time becoming more deeply impressed, when finally I decided I must do this, or I should be lost. Realization of conversion was very vivid, like a ton’s weight being lifted from my heart; a strange light which seemed to light up the whole room (for it was dark); a conscious supreme bliss which caused me to repeat “Glory to God” for a long time. [Lecture 10]

Even the everyday absolution of the already converted has emotional impact for the “worldly” and Conservative Laestadian Christian alike. Here’s the effusive testimony of Cardinal Newman in that well-known religion condemned by Luther and Laestadians:

If there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church, looking at it simply as an idea–surely, next after the Blessed Sacrament, confession is such. . . . Oh, what a soothing charm is there which the world can neither give nor take away! Oh, what piercing heart-subduing tranquility, provoking tears of joy, is poured almost substantially and physically upon the soul–the oil of gladness, as Scripture calls it–when the penitent at length rises, his God reconciled to him, his sins rolled away forever! [from Capel 1884, 40]

4.2.6 Obedience and Humility

The highly authoritarian individual is submissive to authority, aggressive towards out-groups, and holds tight to conventional values and norms of behaviour. Psychometric measures of authoritarianism are found to be highly correlated with measures of religious fundamentalism.

—Peter Herriot, Religious Fundamentalism

From early on, there has been an emphasis on “childlike faith,” a simple and submissive acceptance that one’s own thoughts and ideas are to be subjugated to those of the group:

“What then is the reason, why so many salvation seekers, do not accept the Kingdom of Heaven? The reason is, because he does not desire to lower himself to become a child, to forsake his own wisdom, and to become foolish before God and His Kingdom. He does not want to forsake his own righteousness, and become naked. And the gate is so narrow, that one cannot enter it as rich and great into the Kingdom of Heaven. Into this Kingdom one does not enter as great, and as a wise adviser, but as a small child, who is in need of aid and advice” (Leonard Typpö [1868-1922], from Greetings of Peace, 9/1956).

The scriptural basis for that is Jesus’ statement that one must become as a little child (Mt 18:3). There’s also support in Eph 5:1, “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children.” But as Rachel Held Evans writes, “Those who say that having childlike faith means not asking questions haven’t met too many children. Anyone who has kids or loves kids or has spent more than five minutes with kids knows that kids ask a lot of questions” (Evans 2010, 225). And, as with so many topics, the Bible contains contradictory passages: Heb 6:1, 1 Cor 13:11 and 14:20.

The submissive attitude is not just for the spiritual well-being of the individual, but for the unity of the flock:

“Different mindedness scatters the flock, but unity strengthens. Godly love builds up. Therefore harmony and unity in this wearisome land is strength, namely, when by faith we are struggling in united love against evil” (Matti Suo, Siionin Lähetyslehti [1923], from Kulla 1993, 151-52).

“God’s grace-work has been great and wonderful in our behalf, but we have been disobedient children. We have rewarded the Heavenly Father’s patience and mercy with our unthankfulness and disobedience. We cannot boastfully expand our chest above others. With reluctance we must admit contrary to our proud nature that, ‘I am the greatest of the world’s sinners’” (Havas [1938], 72).

“Harmony and like-mindedness brings joy, over which the weak rejoice and become strengthened. Strife and dissension bring grievous temptations. When those who are weak in faith come to meetings to receive consolation, and the like-minded with psalms and hymns of praise teach and admonish one another, the weak are given to rise up from beneath temptations with new power and new resolutions, even with one mouth to praise the Father and the Lamb (Rom 15:6). When the weak one has been taken care of with the love of Christ, this does not make him dissentious, but unites him with the bond of love. In the knowledge of the love of Christ he sees his own preciousness and the preciousness of all other [of] God’s children and he has a thankful mind for the care he has received” (Heikki Jussila, Greetings of Peace, 2/1950).

A defender of the New Awakening (4.1.6) said its “sacred heritage . . . is that the sacrifice of Jesus becomes a living reality” (from Kulla 2010, 132). It was important to have “a deeper awakening and a closer communion with the Redeemer and the walking in the light” (p. 129). Consider how much these two quotes from Conservatives–who reject the New Awakening as a legalistic heresy–put an emphasis on lowering oneself, even to the point of taking part in Jesus’ humiliation:

“Be of good cheer, you who do not yet see your own fruits of faith nor the merits of your life, but find yourself in the position of the unworthy servant. From just that position, you can still believe your sins forgiven in the name and holy blood of the Lord Jesus. And you whose merits have grown so great, so that you find yourself a laborer who has worked since morning and you have been wronged in the payment of wages, pray that a lean year might come and a longing for the children’s kingdom to receive gold tried in fire. Pray that you might become rich and receive the white robes that your nakedness might not be seen. Come to get some eye-salve to anoint your blind eyes, that you might still see the beautiful dwelling place of God, which shall never be taken away” (Lauri Taskila, Greetings of Peace, 5/1963).

“We must become partakers of [Jesus’] humiliation if we desire to get to heaven. For this way of heaven is the way of humiliation and the way of the cross. The Apostle says . . . ‘Humble yourselves beneath the mighty hand of God, that He might exalt you.’ There are slaves and prisoners of unbelief, who feel pain and distress in their soul because they are slaves of the Prince of this world. They feel that they should start out on that way of humility so that they would become participants of eternal life, but the enemy of the soul preaches on the other hand: How could you, who are a person who is considered honorable, so lower yourself, so that you begin to confess before God and men, that I am altogether without honor and glory of God” (Lauri Hakso, Greetings of Peace, 5/1965).

Statements from the tumultuous 1970s emphasized the importance of obedience as much as self-abnegation:

“Certainly, we would not willfully be in contempt of the Spirit and love of the Christians, for again our humble prayer to God in all meekness is that His will be done and not our own. In no way would we want to hinder the work of God in His church or cause the Holy Spirit in us or in the hearts of other Christians to be grieved” (Alajoki [1970], 173-74).

“But if the trumpet has a foreign sound, that is of the flesh. Brothers and sisters, it’s time for the congregation and its saints to take heed. And that is exactly what has happened, and let it continue in this way. We are told to hear what the spirit has to say unto the congregation. And that spirit does not lie. It’s God speaking, that is his mouth. We can believe this” (Peter Nordstrom, sermon given 1972).

“We do not live like the world lives or participate in ungodly activities. If we strive to remain in faith and to keep a good conscience, we try to be obedient to the word of God. Even if we do not always understand the reason why something is preached as sin, we still strive to live in obedience. The word of God and the voice of the Holy Spirit in the congregation are above our consciences. God’s word is correct even then when it testifies other than what our consciences tell us” (VOZ, 11/1974).

All that would sound familiar to someone asking questions among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where

the questioner is all too often told that he or she is to accept whatever the Society teaches and is not to “reason” about it, but must blindly and dogmatically fully accept whatever is taught. The individual’s reason, they stress, is “human reasoning,” but the Watchtower’s reasoning is “God’s reasoning.” If one does not blindly accept all that is taught–however foolish–often their spirituality is impugned, even for sincere and honest questions. One then learns that questions are not to be voiced. [Wilson 2002, 293]

Terrible things have been done throughout history when the individual’s sense of right and wrong is subjugated to that of a group. And it is very difficult to resist in the face of a group claiming such imposing authority as God’s Kingdom on this earth. During the “caretaking meetings” I witnessed in the early 80s, I often heard not a single voice dare to call out of the collective silence to proclaim forgiveness to individuals requesting it. If you took the initiative and did so (and I certainly never did), and the right people did not join you or lead the way, you might be the one sitting up there behind the examination table at the next meeting.

Some church members in a wrong soul-condition and under rebuke failed to

“discern that the Bridegroom of their soul, through His own disciples, has come to care for the fallen. The love of God constrains the believers to urge, that, make repentance dear brother or sister, of that error. The reproached have no thought even, that the power of the Lord is in those people. They just want to claim that such and such pointing out as being sin is the decision of only a certain few babbling old men. To anyone in that sort of condition there is a danger of becoming a blasphemer of the Holy Spirit. That is sin which is not forgiven in this or the coming life, since the grace of repentance does not come to one who has blasphemed the Spirit of Grace. The eyes are once and for all blinded from seeing that man without the Holy Spirit in the ‘old portion’ is altogether wretched and miserable, poor, blind and naked [Rev 3:17]. Such a man’s lot is truly among the hypocrites. The door is closed. The Lord no longer knows him as His own” (VOZ, 6/1979).

Well, I will go on the record and call it “the decision of only a certain few babbling old men” to condemn as sin the reading of novels and the use of “instructional films in any form in elementary school teaching functions,” as was done thirty years ago (4.6.1). And I will also call it arrogant to label your voice as that of the Holy Spirit to make yourself immune from criticism when you say such things.

A healthy dose of humility was expected of preachers in one sense, at least:

“[M]uch evil has resulted when believers–preachers or others–have become puffed up in themselves and have begun to seek carnally a state of preeminence in the Kingdom, in the congregation” (Peter Nevala, sermon given 1981).

Preachers and elders do not accumulate any of the outward trappings of privilege and power that so many leaders of religious movements seem to covet. But in the mind of some at least, it was

“very important for all of us to show obedience, respect and honor to the servants that God has chosen to serve in the administration of the house and church of God [1 Tim 3:15, Heb 13:17-18 cited]. If someone in the living church of God rises against the teachings, instruction and decisions of the Holy Spirit that God has spoken in the church through the mouths of His children, then that person has fallen into disobedience in his life of faith to the word and spirit of God” (Elmer Alajoki, presentation given 1995).

For the most part, the emphasis was and remains on obedience to the congregation rather than elders or preachers. For example, regarding the Internet, video, and video games,

“We want to journey in obedience to God’s Word. If we have a different understanding of these issues than another family, we need to ask ourselves if we understand this matter as the Holy Spirit teaches in God’s congregation. There are not two different understandings of matters in God’s kingdom” (VOZ, 12/2005).

Everything is sacrificed on the altar of unity, as one friend put it. The individual conscience is entirely subjugated:

“Someone may think that some matter is not sin to him, since his own conscience does not consider it wrong. Where, then, can the love between believers be seen?” (VOZ, 3/2006)

“Through faith we understand to abandon individual understanding and reason when it does not agree with the Holy Spirit in God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom we have one understanding and one spirit as it must be in the living congregation of God” (VOZ, 8/2007).

The mindset at work here, on the part of both leaders and follows, is authoritarianism. It is discussed in 4.6.1 as one of the motives behind Conservative Laestadianism’s seemingly endless behavioral norms.

Calling it “a great pity,” Karen Armstrong notes the irony that “religious institutions often insist on this type of conformity, which is far from the spirit of their founders, who all, in one way or another, rebelled against the status quo.” Luther and Laestadius were certainly not exceptions. “Blind obedience and unthinking acceptance of authority figures may make an institution work more smoothly, but the people who live under such a regime will remain in an infantile, dependent state” (2007, 271). It’s hard not to when we are told that doing otherwise is “falling into traps of the devil”:

“Human reasoning can begin to prevail and accuse those who faithfully serve with their God-given gifts. One might begin to criticize those who have served in the role of caretaking, saying that the caretaking methods were not conducted correctly. We want to pray that we don’t fall into these various traps of the devil and instead, place our gifts to be used where God desires to use them. God promises to care for those who travel as obedient grace beggars in His kingdom” (VOZ, 7/2008).

Now, just a few years after that statement was published, the SRK has apologized for the way those “God-given gifts” were used. It has finally acknowledged that the caretaking methods were not in fact conducted correctly (4.10.2). Neither the 1970s caretakers nor those who continue to advocate obedience and acceptance today has “perfect understanding,” and in that respect the following quote is ironically correct:

“It is very important that we gather with the children of God at services and in our homes. We are a level-headed flock, where there is no person with perfect understanding. We all live by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who atoned for our sins. We all need to hear, again and again, the reassuring words of the gospel” (VOZ, 5/2008).

When I was being grilled by the local board about the June 2010 edition of this book (1.2), one of the board members waved off my research into the conflicts between some of Luther’s teachings and those of “God’s Kingdom” by saying that Luther “was just a man.” My reply: “Yes, and so are we, right here, right now, in this room.” None of us has perfect understanding. Those who claim to speak on behalf of the Kingdom of God in all its supposed “unity” should keep that in mind.

I’m just a nobody who has relentlessly investigated the difficult questions that have troubled me. But it seems to me that God might take better care in giving understanding to those whom he has chosen as leaders of his church throughout history. The fact is that, even at the highest levels of the church today, there has been and continues to be division about some important issues.

The theological education of my fellow nobodies who sat across the table from me at that board meeting consists largely of a lifetime of church indoctrination and dogmatically blinkered, selective Bible reading. Armed with that and a reluctant perusal of a book they wanted to ban, they casually passed judgment on the single most prominent member of “God’s Kingdom” in post-medieval history, the doctor of theology at Wittenberg whose writings encompass over a hundred volumes. Sorry, but it strikes me as laughable arrogance. I criticize Luther, too. But I don’t claim to have the true doctrine that Luther sadly failed to comprehend in significant respects while somehow maintaining that he was still a chosen leader of the church out of the darkness of 16th century Catholicism.

One aspect of the “level-headed flock” attitude that I find positive is the way preachers are included along with everybody else. At least in the LLC, nobody stands above the congregation–not preachers, local board members, or even officers of the national organization. A longtime friendship with one preacher who is a member of the LLC board has made that abundantly clear to me. He approaches his duties with genuine humility and feels the need for grace as much as anybody else in the church. As the author of First Clement wrote around the turn of the second century, “Christ is of those who are humble-minded, and not of those who exalt themselves over His flock” (Ch. 16).

4.2.7 Servants of the Word

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

The First Epistle to the Corinthians

The sermons have long been delivered extemporaneously, with the prayer that God would offer his “service blessing” and provide words to the preacher:

“In interpreting the word, preachers and Christianity have usually sat behind a table. One has read the text and the other has spoken of that text, as the Lord has seen expedient to reveal at that time to the hearers as well as to the preacher himself. The main principle in proclaiming the word, is this, that every preacher speak the pure word of God; that is, solidly stay in the Bible. He who speaketh, let him speak the words of God! In this portion, the servants of the Congregation of Christ have always had humble timidity. They have not dared to open the mouth to preach without the Holy Scripture” (Havas [1933], 35).

I remember being somewhat awestruck in my youth at how the preachers could just go up to the pulpit and start talking without any notes. It was often touted as evidence that the Holy Spirit was working in them. (In the last decade or so, however, they have been encouraged to do some study and mental preparation beforehand.) The problem is that other preachers who supposedly lack the Holy Spirit do the same thing, with the same claim:

In some mountain churches not only was education regarded with disdain, but also the practice of the preacher was not to prepare his sermons. Instead, he stepped up to the pulpit, opened the Bible, read aloud whatever passage his eyes landed on, and preached from that text, relying on the Holy Spirit to tell him what to say. [Teeple 2003, 352]

[S]ermons aren’t supposed to be “prepared” or eloquent. They are supposed to be spoken by the Spirit on the spot. At least that is what the older workers used to claim. [Lewis 2004, 259-60]

No notes are allowed to be used. No sermons are written in advance. For three hours the [Swartzentruber Amish] minister preaches from memory and out of devotion. [Mackall 2007, 115]

The two OALC sermons I’ve observed certainly involved a lot of sighing about lack of words and reaching up for God’s inspiration. An anonymous poster at the extoots site was told by the OALC preachers each Sunday morning “that nothing had been prepared ahead of time so that ‘the intellect’ would not interfere with God’s words.”

There has long been an aversion–a healthy one, I think–to selecting those who have particular ambitions for the office:

“Always the goal in the work of the Lord is the glory of God, the salvation of the souls of men and building the Congregation of Christ. From all effectiveness of the word, the Lord alone receives praise. It is sickening to hear someone of us preachers, as if boasting, relate of large crowds of listeners who have come to his services; tens of converts whom he has blessed; and songs of praise which that in that minister has given of his sermons, etc.” (Havas [1933], 36).

The usual custom is “that no congregation puts to preach such a one who especially desires this responsible office” (Havas [1939], 42).

It “is always most necessary, in the matter of feeding the sheep, that the shepherd has a feeling of his own sinfulness. ‘Good’ shepherds, those who themselves never feel that they have also stumbled neither in doctrine or life, but who boast of their good Christianity, such shepherds do not feed the sheep. They preach more of their own selves than of Jesus Christ. . . . But the poor shepherds, who together with the sheep weep over their own sinfulness, are themselves hungry and gladly lead the sheep, faulty and sinful, even those who are in need of special guidance, to the green pasture, where the good-speaking blood drops of Jesus feed the hungry soul with the forgiveness of all sins” (Arvi Hintsala, Greetings of Peace, 11/1949).

“There is yet a certain danger of the sin of pride of which we should be reminded. It is the swelling of the heart by pride over spiritual gifts. God grant that He would protect the workers of Zion from this sin, for it can bring about much offense” (Reinikainen 1969, 50).

Jon Bloomquist, who has been entrusted with positions of considerable trust and prominence in the LLC for most of his life, put the matter into memorable words that I haven’t forgotten in the more than ten years since hearing them: God’s Kingdom is not a forum for the fulfillment of personal ambition. Luther would have agreed: “Ambition is the rankest poison to the church, when it possesses preachers. It is a consuming fire” (Table Talk §414).

Luther also diminished the role of clergy with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. “Since forgiveness rests on faith, not on the powers of the priest in his special office, it is not surprising to find Luther advocating that in times of need one Christian may absolve another of his sins” (Harran 1983, 168). As Ronald Rittgers says in his exhaustive book about the use of the keys at the time of the Reformation, “The priest no longer possessed divine authority by virtue of his office to remit sins. Authority resided in God’s Word, not in a human being” (2004, 55). In Conservative Laestadianism, the priest has become a “servant of the word” or preacher, which follows Luther’s thinking (Althaus 1963, 328) and reflects the emphasis on proclaiming the word to the faithful rather than interceding for them:

“Every Christian, whether man or woman, who is a partaker of the Holy Spirit, is this kind of a royal priest who can proclaim the gospel, absolution from sin in Jesus’ name and atonement blood [John 20:21-23]. . . . Although every Christian, in this sense, is a priest, yet God has especially called and installed specific persons to perform the preaching office in His congregation” (Päivämies No. 42, 1978).

The selection of preachers is done very carefully, since it is usually a lifetime position:

The congregation’s board discusses a potential new preacher when the brother “is not present. When the board unanimously discerns the matter to be so, that he can be recommended to the congregation, then the matter can be presented to the congregation . . . It has always been considered embarrassing and strange in the kingdom of God if some have much eagerness to be preaching. It is often so, that it is with difficult persuasion and much encouragement with God’s Word, that the one who is weak in himself has been escorted to the place of speaking” (Päivämies No. 42, 1978).

“We hope that there would always be a feeling of poorness and also the mind of a child so that one would only, as a weak servant, serve the Lord Jesus, that there would truly be this purpose, the feeding and tending of the Lord’s Zion, the children of God” (Alajoki [1983], 134).

The desire for a sense of reluctance and humility on the part of the selected preacher is consistent with Luther’s teaching that, “When the Christian is in a place where there are Christians, who have the same power and right as he, he should not thrust himself forward, but should rather let himself be called and drawn forth to preach and teach in the stead and by the commission of the rest” (Right and Power of a Christian Congregation [1523]; PE 4, 80-81). “God very wonderfully entrusts his highest office to preachers that are themselves poor sinners who, while teaching it, very weakly follow it” (Table Talk §73). I also find it a refreshing contrast with the naked ambition shown by so many Evangelical preachers of prominence today, and well in accord with Paul’s own sentiment expressed in 1 Cor 2:1-2 and quoted in the epigraph to this section.

“It is marvelous when in openness and unity of Spirit the matter of calling servants [preachers] is pondered in the congregation among its members and board of trustees with prayerful hearts that God’s will would be done” (VOZ, 9/2009).

The selection entails a good deal of drama, and it is felt especially keenly among men who are whispered about as candidates. They are generally not overjoyed at the prospect of being thrust in front of the congregation as both “ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:3) and mouthpieces for its doctrine. To struggle with doubts as just another member of the flock is one thing, but to do so as a preacher is another: “But now I’ve got to preach this stuff!” The time commitments add up, too, especially when they start getting sent on preaching trips. Their wives (all preachers are men), wind up sacrificing a great deal as well. All in all, there is a lot of similarity to what Mackall saw happening with his unlikely Amish friend:

Unlike non-Amish ministers, who choose their calling, most Amish men–at least the Amish men I know best–hope beyond hope they will not be called, that the lot will not fall on them. If it does, the minister is a minister for life. The job comes without pay but with many responsibilities, serious ones. All the preparation that goes into the position is done on top of farming and family. The last thing Samuel wanted was to become minister, but he was chosen, so he has to serve. [2007, 115]

The preacher’s role in the service is by far the most prominent one, but there are other aspects of Conservative Laestadian worship that should also be mentioned. The basic format, instituted by John Takkinen at the turn of the 20th century, is as follows. There is congregational singing, an opening prayer, reading of the text, and the preacher’s extemporaneous sermon based on the text. The service closes with another prayer and more congregational singing. The words of the songs are viewed as instructional and edifying in themselves, which I find ironic since about half of them were written by “unbelieving” outsiders.5 The group singing is also part of what Winell calls a “ritualized group process” of church services:

Music, prayers, and a mesmerizing preaching style can create a state of relaxation and suggestibility. When a congregation proceeds to sing and pray aloud together with enthusiasm and speaking in tongues, an individual can easily conform. The aroused emotions and the group consensus about reality are convincing enough to inspire a response to get saved, “rededicated,” or “filled with the Spirit.” [1993, 72]

There is indeed something warm and comforting about sitting in the pews with your voice joining the singing of your “brothers and sisters in faith.” You see the familiar faces, old friends whose children are sometimes sitting intermingled with yours, in a safe and trusted environment that you have known since you were one of those children yourself. You see your spouse sitting there beside you, singing away and–to all appearances–fully part of the unquestioning throng. It all makes you desperately want to just believe and accept whatever is about to be said.

1 A PDF file of the article is available at acfar.org/pdflibrary/AJET_article_on_New_Apostolic_Church.pdf. It says the article “originally appeared in the Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology (AJET), Volume 24.1, 2005, pp. 63-79.”

2 Based on an estimate of 40,000 adult SRK members (Hurtig 2011), Finland’s population at around 5,200,000 in 2000, about 2,700,000 adult Mormons in the U.S., and a U.S. population of about 271,000,000 in 2000.

There is a significant issue with the usual estimate of 100,000 Conservative Laestadians in Finland, a figure that I cite elsewhere in this book myself. Most of those are children who have not even reached the age of accountability for their own religious beliefs. If we were to count innocent children as being part of one particular sect, its membership numbers would skyrocket to over a billion.

3 Author translation after a draft provided by Antti Kaunisto. The original is as follows: “On Suomessa ollut tinka sen päältä, vaikuttaako luettu sana, että ihminen voi sen kautta tulla elävään uskoon saatetuksi, ja siihen olemme vastanneet, että sekä luetun että saarnatun sanan kautta autuaaksi tullaan. Pietarin sanat vaikuttivat, että ne, jotka sen kuulivat, saivat Pyhän Hengen.” A facsimile of the article was obtained from digi.kansalliskirjasto.fi/index.html.

4 Lohi’s statement was reported in a Finnish local newspaper Kalajokilaakso: “Seppo Lohen mukaan ketään ei asiassa painosteta eikä makuuhuoneisiin kurkistella, mutta hän pitää ehkäisykantaa koko liikkeen kannalta olennaisen tärkeänä. –Jos tässä asiassa kanta muuttuu, kuolema on lestadiolaisen liikkeen padassa, ja liike sammuu.”

5 For any fellow detail-obsessed math lovers reading this, I base the “about half of them” statement on a sample of 20 random selections from the 604 songs found in the LLC’s Hymns and Songs of Zion, 2008 edition. Eleven of those were written by people who were not associated with Laestadianism at all. The 95% confidence interval for the proportion of songs written by “unbelievers” is 33-77%.