8 Epilogue

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.

No Cheating

If you have skipped or been directed to this section of the book without having read the hundreds of pages that precede it, I ask you to stop right now. Please head back to wherever you left off–all the way to the Introduction if you haven’t been through even that, or at least to Section 4 where the substantive discussion begins. This Epilogue is as close as I will come to offering summary conclusions about what I have tried to objectively examine in the other 99% of this book. Coming to such conclusions is not something I take lightly, nor should you. Accepting or rejecting any religion, in whole or in part, is a very important personal decision of each individual human being, and it is not something you can delegate to anyone else. Not to preachers of any sect or creed, not to family or friends, and certainly not to me.

Of course you will probably decide not to spend thousands of hours researching seemingly every aspect of Conservative Laestadian history, doctrine, and practice, plus Christianity in general, plus the Bible and the very nature of God. To do so and write about it in over 500 pages of painstakingly referenced text required both a good deal of time and a level of interest bordering on obsession. For me it has been a labor driven by love, but also by the mental anguish of being unable to avoid questioning a doctrinal system that demands firm confession of belief, on pain of eternal damnation. When I found little basis for the required convictions beyond the unsupported assertions of others, I looked ever closer, and the project went on and on. Examining this pearl of Conservative Laestadianism was in some sense to cherish and value it. But I also had a very personal need to confront it, to stare down its threats and dismantle–to my own satisfaction at least–its most outrageous claims.

Can you do the same by reading this book? I will dare to claim that in some sense you can. Certainly, you can learn more about Conservative Laestadianism–or Christianity–than it cares to tell you itself. By all means doubt what you read in it. Unlike the God portrayed in Christian sermons, honest authors are not offended by anyone’s doubts about what they say, so long as it has actually been read and honestly considered.

So read carefully. Click around and evaluate the related material that I link throughout the book. Use the extensive index as a way to survey particular topics of interest. Check out some of the 180 or so cited references. Read the Bible–entire books of it and not just isolated passages–for yourself, preferably in a faithful but also readable translation like the NASB or RSV that won’t put you to sleep after the first page. Get to know some of the people you may have heard caricatured as “blind,” “deceived,” or “worldly,” and see for yourself what they believe and how they live.

I won’t presume to tell you what to think. But I will suggest that you do think, for yourself, with all the tools that are now available to the inquisitive mind.

Pre-Publication Correspondence

Before publication, I sent a draft of this book to the most prominent representatives of the LLC and the SRK. I enclosed the draft with my wishes that they would seriously review it and correct any factual errors or mischaracterizations that it might contain. I recognized that I would be accused of many things, but didn’t want inaccuracy or unfairness to be among them if at all possible.

In an effort to head off what I felt was an inevitable part of any response, I noted up front that it is almost impossible for anyone in this faith to undertake a critical review of it without himself being subject to personal scrutiny. My request was this, if they chose to address my spiritual condition in addition to offering substantive comments about the book: “Please read this book and tell me which of its observations are incompatible with your faith. Then tell me how those observations are wrong.” I also borrowed a line from the SRK’s recent Päivämies article apologizing for the excesses of the 1970s: “There must be the ability to encounter facts with openness and honesty, even when the facts are not pleasing to us” (4.10.2).

There was a polite initial response that expressed concern about the book’s content but also appreciation for my “offering the opportunity for us to review it prior to publication.” It also indicated a need to visit with me in person about the book’s “general message” and my own struggles in faith. I declined in view of the experience I had already undergone with such a “visit,” described in the Introduction (1.2). Unfortunately, the church’s preferred forum of a face-to-face meeting with elders–wrapped in all the somber sanctity of opening and closing songs and prayer–seems to me like more of a coercive tool for dealing with troublemakers than an opportunity for the objective evaluation of issues.

I asked again that the focus stay on specifics, even though I didn’t expect that the LLC and SRK would feel the need to question anything about their doctrine that has been pointed out by some ordinary person, believer or not: “That’s not how things are supposed to work, is it? The organization is ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and it is the one that does the instructing, from a position of inerrancy and divine inspiration.” But those specifics were

the whole point of this pre-publication review I am offering. Do I unfairly characterize the LLC or SRK’s position about some issue? Does my admittedly imperfect effort to sample the sermons and writings leave out some important aspect of the teachings? Is my comment about some specific statement unnecessarily harsh, where I might make the same point in a more respectful tone?


Two weeks later, I received a response that was thoughtfully written and conveys a deep sense of concern and patient Christian love. It also seems like the end of the road for dialogue with the church about this book, and so I quote it in full with my thoughts interspersed:

Dear Ed,

On Thursday, January 5, several of us had the opportunity to discuss your e-mail messages and the manuscript of your book. I don’t think that anyone has had the opportunity to read the entire manuscript, but all of us did at least read portions of it. [Various brothers] have also seen your e-mails and the manuscript and were involved in the discussion. I am writing to try to convey our thoughts to you.

As I mentioned in my earlier message, the contents of your book are very troubling to us. You have asked for feedback with regard to inaccuracies and unfair characterizations. We have found such, even with just a partial reading. However, we feel that we are in a situation where we do not have a common ground from which to begin. It seems pointless to address your request given the lack of common ground. It feels a bit like chewing at gnats and swallowing camels.

The contents of this book were troubling to me, too, as they will be to anyone professing a “simple, childlike faith” that turns out to have so many complications. Is part of the problem the way I identify and discuss those complications? If so, I’m left with only the vaguest of assertions and a protest about a lack of “common ground,” which is used as an excuse not to provide any details. Yes, even in just the “partial reading” (all that they could manage collectively over the course of three weeks), they found inaccuracies and unfair characterizations. But it “seems pointless” to tell me what they are.

One of the claims that we have encountered time and again throughout this book is that some Very Important Thing is hidden, but you’d better believe it’s really there. God’s stamp of workmanship in creation is so well hidden that completely naturalistic explanations for everything from the Big Bang onward are no longer in serious dispute. God himself went into hiding shortly after he retired from directly conducting the Israelites’ military campaigns, thereafter making himself heard only through the voices of those who claimed to speak on his behalf. The Egyptian plagues and the subsequent Exodus, impossibly, left no trace in either the records of the Egyptian scribes or the sands of Sinai. The supposed “believers in the promise” left no trace of proto-Christianity in the pages of the Old Testament, either, with problems plaguing each and every one of the supposed messianic prophecies. Jesus was well hidden, too, with no historical evidence whatsoever of his existence, no records of the astounding miracles that are claimed to have occurred during his life. All we have are a few mutually dependent yet often inconsistent accounts written by devotees decades after the fact.

As we move beyond the Bible, the hide-and-seek game of faith “in things not seen” continues unabated. Christians teaching or practicing absolution? Not until the third century, and then in a sacramental, penitential form that Conservatives would find utterly alien until Luther came along more than a thousand years later. “God’s Kingdom” as a distinct sectarian entity? That was something Luther explicitly argued against. No such entity that would meet Conservative Laestadian requirements–with its keys to the kingdom busily opening and re-opening the locks of consciences at every turn–materialized until after the conversion of the Laestadian founders.

How about the present day? “God’s Kingdom” is still almost entirely hidden, with only the tiniest sliver of the humanity that God supposedly wants saved having the slightest awareness of it. Even within the Kingdom, the infallible “Mother” Congregation failed to materialize and stop the 1970s activities that even the SRK now recognizes as having been a mistake. She didn’t seem to show up at the initial meetings about child sexual abuse in recent years, either.

Now my alleged errors that were the very purpose of offering a pre-publication review have joined this extensive list of hidden things known only to the theologians. I’m not impressed.

To us, God’s Word is our foundation and highest authority, and we examine everything in its light. As Apostle Peter wrote, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:19-21) Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus that they “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph. 2:20) You would like to examine “the pearl” with the light of reason. We must examine it by the light of God’s Word.

The foundation and authority is “God’s Word,” presumably referring to the King James (or Finnish 1776) Bible, which goes largely unread except for familiar passages that serve as a latticework on which sectarian doctrine has grown and grown. And the church demands to be examined, not “with the light of reason” but by the light of what it has claimed as its foundation and authority! The only thing that such an examination could possibly accomplish is demonstrate how closely the chosen authority is being adhered to.

But when your foundation and authority has as many contradictions as the Bible, such adherence is impossible. To follow one passage, you must deviate from its contradictory counterpart. And as this book has amply demonstrated, Conservative Laestadianism encounters doctrinal landmines with even straightforward, uncontroversial passages like Paul’s assertion that you will be saved if you merely confess the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead (Rom 10:8-9).

The quotation of 2 Peter as the work of the “Apostle Peter” showcases a lack of regard for biblical scholarship at the movement’s highest levels: “There is less debate among scholars of the New Testament about the authorship of 2 Peter than for any of the other books sometimes considered forgeries. Whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter” (Ehrman 2011, 68). It is quite ironic to see a forged portion of the Holy Book cited to show the importance of it as an unquestionable authority.

It feels that the overriding message in your book brings into question the accuracy and validity of God’s Word. Some of the issues you raise may be answered or refuted by reason. Others cannot be, and they cannot be understood by reason. They require faith, because in the end we cannot know or understand God or the things of God without faith. It seems to us that if we begin down this path, there is no end. Reason cannot be satisfied. So we do not know where to begin. For that reason, we humbly ask that you relieve us from the task of reviewing your book or offering commentary on it. We also respect your time and feel that this would not work.

Yes, I certainly do question the sixty-six flawed, discrepant books that Christianity has imperfectly translated, creatively edited, bound together in a somber leather cover after centuries of argument about what should be included in it, and labeled as the Word of God. How anyone could read the Bible, or even the summaries of its Old and New Testaments I have provided here, and not question it, is entirely beyond my capability to understand. Perhaps the real meaning of its outrages, inaccuracies, and contradictions is yet another Very Important Thing that, alas, must remain hidden from my questioning mind.

Or perhaps, to follow the–ahem–reasoning of the response, that real meaning is something we cannot understand by reason. It is the basis for almost every other issue we ever consider, but in deciding the most important matter of our lives, reason is expected to remain silent. I’ve addressed this in the book (see 4.5.4), and will not repeat the discussion here except to respond to the next point: Yes, reason can be satisfied. It is satisfied in every case where there is sufficient evidence to back up assertions of belief. To claim otherwise seems like an excuse not to shine the light of reason on that which would, embarrasingly, seem all too unreasonable.

Yet, we carry you as a brother in faith and do not want to leave the matter there. We also feel that you do not want to sever this connection.

No, I do not want to sever this connection with most of the closest friends I have ever known, with the promises of heaven that I have heard repeated Sunday after Sunday since my earliest childhood. I do not want to sit alone with my thoughts in the darkness of sleepless nights, wondering how things could have come to this. An unpopular truth is a cold companion. But it cannot be anything other than truth, no matter how hard we try to persuade it otherwise.

We sincerely think that the best avenue is an in-person visit. It seems to us that it would allow us to visit openly and freely and to find common ground to approach this matter. In God’s Kingdom, we need each other. The love of Christ constrains us to help one another. We all want to be enclosed in the unity and love of God’s children. I hope that you, dear brother, could consider this request and that we could work together to find an opportunity for such a visit.

Visiting openly and freely is, unfortunately, the exact opposite of what would occur. I would be sat down in a room full of somber piety with the only two exits being submission and damnation. The unity and love is enclosing, all right, thick enough to squeeze the last gasp of intellectual integrity right out of your mind. Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

We understand that you felt the need to examine some of the things that were weighing on your mind and heart. However, once this manuscript is distributed, it cannot be recalled. Are you really sure that is what you want to do?

Yes, with the same sense of grim conviction that motivated the Gnostic monks of Nag Hammadi to bury their library of irreplacable works out of reach from the heresy hunters’ torches. Knowledge for its own sake, come what may. Yes.

One other thought that I offer for your consideration is in regard to the use in your manuscript of quotations from sermons. Many of these quotations are lifted out of context from extemporaneous speeches and are then analyzed or characterized in a way that seems unfair. Our speakers recognize and feel the truth of Apostle Paul’s words when he wrote to the Corinthians that he did not come to them “with excellency of speech or of wisdom” and that he was with them “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” (1 Cor. 2:1,3) Our words are often weak, especially then when we are speaking extemporaneously. We all must confess that we understand only in part and see things as if through a dark glass. (1 Cor 13:9,12) We rely on the love and grace and care of God’s children when we must serve the congregation in this way.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t 2 Peter just quoted as reserving biblical interpretation for “holy men of God” who are moved by the Holy Ghost? (A viewpoint contrary to Luther’s, by the way.) And now extemporaneous sermons–the very occasions where the Holy Ghost is appealed to directly, without the editing and reconsidering hand of man–are deemed unworthy of quotation and analysis? The church itself saw fit to transcribe most of the sermons from which I quoted, publishing them alongside its regular articles and as collections in the back of Voice of Zion annual editions from the 1970s through the 1990s.

The charge of quoting out of context I simply reject. If the painstaking care and scrutiny I devoted to making this book accurate (with no help from the church’s response, I might add) is not self-evident to the reader, then nothing I say will persuade otherwise. And if preachers don’t like having certain things quoted, then they should just stop saying them.

Dear brother, I find it difficult to convey the thoughts of those of us involved in the discussion of your request. All of the brothers expressed their hope that we could convey to you that we carry you in brotherly love and hope for the opportunity to visit with you in the near future.

“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20,21).

God’s Peace.

Thus the LLC graciously concludes, offering carefully chosen words about extending brotherly love while still hoping for the opportunity for that pastoral “visit,” a Bible passage that gently hints at the importance of doing the right thing, and–generously–the Laestadian “spiritual acceptance” greeting of “God’s Peace.” I certainly appreciate the patience and love that these men have shown in the face of what has to be a difficult and perplexing matter for them and the institution they must defend at all costs.

I have a Bible passage of my own to quote in closing, too, from Phillipians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

These are things on which I have thought for a long time indeed. I’ve pondered what is true–disturbingly but irrefutably true–about the origins of humankind and the flawed nature of the Bible. I’ve agonized about honesty when coming across a seemingly unending parade of doctrinal and scriptural contradictions, of distortions in biblical passages, history, and the beliefs of others. I’ve searched for a sense of justice in the outrages carried out by the cruel, vindictive tribal God of the Old Testament and the eternal torturer God of the New. I’ve wondered what is pure about a doctrine whose single-minded focus on absolution disregards the Laestadian founders who converted without it, Luther who placed it merely alongside the sacraments, his fellow believers who seemed to require it but a few times a year, and the earliest Christians who ignored it entirely. I’ve found little that is lovely in an exclusivism that condemns all but the tiniest sliver of the earth’s thoughtful, sincere people of faith to the horrors of damnation, no matter what their creed or the impossibility of their finding the One True alternative. I’ve seen the report on slow and confused responses to child sexual abuse and the 1970s witch hunts, and the grade seems not a good one at all. I’ve seen more virtue and reason for praise in individuals who have dared to question the institution–sometimes to the point of personal attack or walking away from a once-cherished faith, or both–than in those who drone on with mindless and endless defenses.

It is impossible to “think on these things” freely and objectively without seeing a crack in the pearl that Conservative Laestadianism proffers as “God’s Kingdom.” I have dithered at the market stall long enough, stared at the pearl in the eager seller’s hand closely enough, listened to his fervent entreaties tolerantly enough. His explanations for the crack are unsatisfactory and, deep down, he knows it. The whole market is littered with pearls of allegedly incomparable value whose flaws are evident to everyone but the equally persuasive sellers of each. What choice is there, finally, but to shake one’s head, decline the flawed merchandise with an apologetic smile, and move on? And when one does move on–away from the indignant seller whose offering was declined, past the other stalls and their assembled hawkers and gawkers who haggle and cajole oblivious to everyone else in the market except with sneers and slander, out into the open spaces of one’s honest, unforced conclusions–the shouting still rings out in the distance for miles and miles.