The Two Fronts of the Reformation

In Turku, the most important city and the ecclesiastical capital of the eastern region of the Kingdom of Sweden, the Reformation advanced on two fronts. On the one hand, King Gustav Vasa was interested in the ideas of Luther and his supporters. These new ideas provided princes with an opportunity to use their power within the Church. On the other hand, the Reformation could be seen within the Church in the rise of a new theological movement and in the preaching of the Evangelical doctrine. After the proclamation of Sweden as a Lutheran kingdom in Västerås in 1527, the message of the Reformation could be freely proclaimed in Sweden. The parliamentary session in Västerås did not, however, take sides either with the Evangelicals or against the Catholics. Nevertheless, amongst the clergy many were interested in the Reformation and maintained contacts with Central Europe, acquiring literature and promoting the message of the Reformation in their own work.

Petrus Särkilahti: Establishing the Groundwork for the Reformation in Turku

In Turku, the Reformation was at first more apparent in doctrinal ideas and as discussions within the Church. These discussions reached the clergy from Stockholm and from their original source in Germany. In 1523 Petrus Särkilahti returned to Turku from his studies in Central Europe. It is not known whether Petrus had actually studied in Wittenberg. Nevertheless, he had been introduced to humanistic and reformatory ideas. Records show that he was enrolled at the Universities of Rostock and Leuven. Petrus Särkilahti returned to Turku together with Margareta the daughter of Cornelius. Petrus mentioned Margareta in his will and he was publicly considered to be Petrus’ wife. He is thought to be the first Swedish priest to have married.

Even though it seems that Petrus had not completed a master’s degree in any university before his return, he had, however, imbibed many of the main ideas of the Reformation. In line with an old custom, as the most recent student arriving from abroad, he was responsible for teaching at Turku Cathedral School. After his return, no Finns were sent to study in Europe until the beginning of the 1530s. The most likely reason for this was a general caution with all new doctrine. However, Petrus established the groundwork for the Reformation in Turku as a teacher and also by living openly with a family, thus carrying the message of the Reformation in a very concrete fashion.

Contact with Wittenberg

After a short hiatus in educational travels, students from Finland habitually travelled to study in Wittenberg. This indicates that Turku had settled under the church politics of the king. Gustav Vasa wished to place those that had imbibed the Evangelical doctrine to lead the Church. He even personally sent some Swedes to study at the University of Wittenberg.

Most of the Finns headed for Wittenberg had studied under Petrus Särkilahti. Hence, the central message of the Reformation was familiar to them. A direct link between Wittenberg, the main City of the Reformation, and Turku was established in mid-1530s, when the first students from Luther’s university came back home. The first one to return was Thomas Francisci Keijoi in 1535. Upon his arrival, he was appointed as the rector of Turku Cathedral School. Canatus Johannis returned a year later and was appointed as the vicar of Turku and later in 1541 as a member of the chapter.


Luther’s family home in Wittenberg. Foreign students were also welcomed there to spend the evening.

Agricola as the Key Figure


Mikael Agricola, known as the father of written Finnish, took upon his educational journey to Wittenberg in 1536. First contact with the Evangelical doctrine he had made during his studies in Vyborg and also as the bishop’s clerk and later as the chancellor in Turku from the year 1529 onwards. Agricola is known to have acquired a large collection of Luther’s sermons already in 1531, in order to prepare his own sermons. Hence, Luther’s influence was felt concretely amongst the parishioners. It is also assumed that Agricola travelled to Wittenberg with the goal of translating the New Testament into Finnish, and in this way advancing the Reformation in the eastern region of Sweden.

Agricola returned to Turku as a Master only three years later and took upon the position of the rector at Turku Cathedral School, thus allowing Keijoi to return to his studies. The translation of the New Testament had already begun at this point. Aiding Agricola in the translation was most likely his childhood friend and fellow student Martinus Teit and possibly other Finnish students who had studied in Wittenberg. The first ever printed book in Finnish was Agricola’s ABC-book, thought to have been published in 1543.

When Paulus Juusten, who was ten years younger than Agricola, returned from his studies, the king ordered Agricola to hand over his position as the teacher and as the rector at Turku Cathedral School in 1548. This did not please Agricola, but it did further his literary production. His translation of the New Testament was published in the same year. In the next year he published translations of the orders of church services. These texts formed the basis for a common Finnish ritual to be spread to all regions of the country.

By the time Agricola returned home, there had been a significant reform within the Church. In 1537, the local vernacular had been established as the liturgical language in all cathedrals and, where possible, in smaller parishes as well. Turku Cathedral was most likely the place where the first Finnish language mass was delivered. However, the formation of a uniform style of worship and the spread of the Reformation across all parishes were not made possible until the publication of church service books in Finnish.


Turku as the City of the Reformation


The importance of Turku as the city of the Reformation was largely built upon its role as the ecclesiastical center and as the educational town of the region. Since the 1520s, the teachers of Turku Cathedral School were men who supported the Reformation and had studied in Europe. Under their guidance, the clergy of the country was educated on the basis of the Evangelical doctrine. Changes in church customs and services also came first into effect in Turku, although these changes were slow. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Isaacus Rothovius, the Bishop of Turku, complained that doctrinal orthodoxy was not fully followed in Turku Cathedral. It is likely that the required observance of the new customs was monitored most strictly in Turku. The masses in Turku Cathedral and the rearrangement of the church interior with uniform pews, worked as an example for new priests who also instituted the new practices in their own parishes.

Those working in the region of Turku Diocesan Chapter created the foundation for written Finnish, which spread further with the publication of books. The reading of written Finnish during the mass was first introduced into parishes by the priests who used these new printed texts. In the beginning, it appeared perhaps as a slightly peculiar practice, but gradually this custom formed to be an integral part of the congregation’s understanding of God and the sacred.

Text: Dr Meri Heinonen, University of Turku