“Free Thought and Secularism in the Finnish Diaspora”
FinnFest 2008 | University of Minnesota at Duluth
July 24, 2008
With the extremely pervasive political and cultural influence of the fundamentalist Christian religious right in the United States in recent decades that has partially melted down Thomas Jefferson’s “firewall” of Constitutional church-state separation, a vigorous intellectual reaction has recently risen to counter it. In the past few years, books by prominent free thought and atheist critics have appeared near the top of non-fiction best seller lists for months at a time.
The most influential of these books has been prominent British scientist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion which has created the most discussion and controversy. Others have included scholar Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation and writer Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, which he edited.
Not only have these and other critics indicated their civil libertarian concerns for the separation of church and state but have challenged the very validity of religion itself and the belief in the existence of a supreme deity. They have raised the historic argument of faith versus reason to a new level. So far, the influence of these contemporary critics has primarily rung a responsive note among educated middle class intellectuals, contrasted to the eloquent 19th century American agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll, whose popular oratory and pamphlets reached deep into the ranks of the working class and small farmers.
But this new criticism of religious fundamentalism is not all that new in itself. Back in the late 19th and early 20th Century we can go to our ancestral Finland and find a similar revolt against the doctrines and practices of a then-very conservative Lutheran Church which had much greater power in the life of Finland than the American religious right has yet to achieve here. There was no such thing as church-state separation in the country, then a Grand Duchy of czarist Russia, and this separation does not exist even today in a democratic independent and much more liberal Finland.
HOW IT WAS IN 19th AND TURN-OF-CENTURY FINLAND
In the latter part of the 19th century, the church was a state-sanctioned dominant force in the lives of the Finnish people. Everyone had to belong to the official state churches, the Lutheran or Orthodox. There was no freedom to resign. However, in 1889 a “freedom of religion act” was passed that allowed dissenters to affiliate only with other Protestant churches outside the state churches, but not to leave religion altogether. It was not until 1923 before a non-believer could resign from organized religion and enter the civil register. The structure of the church was patriarchal (no female clergy then) and authoritarian. The church and state held that in the family, the father ruled and money and property disposal was in his hands. The church was a conservative upholder of the status quo advising its parishioners to obey authority and be dutiful to employers. There may be hardships in this life, but if one accepted Jesus Christ as savior, and tried to live a dutiful sin-free life, there was possibility of heavenly rewards in life after death. The church did play a positive role in mandating that schooling was needed to promote literacy, a condition for marriage. So that in contrast to many other European countries, the illiteracy rate was low. But at first, all education was through the church until the 1860s, when with the growth of a strong nationalist movement, public grammar school education was established. Johan Snellman, the leading advocate of the surging Finnish nationalism said that a developing society needed “other teaching than the ordinary religious instruction given by the church….” Even then religious education was mandated within the school program, which, with recent modifications, persists to this day. Tithing was heavy and levied against a poor peasantry barely able to sustain itself. There was no universal franchise and any attempt to ameliorate living conditions such as organizing trade unions was met with stiff resistance by the authorities with the support of the church hierarchy. Nothing was to disturb the governing social order. Civil marriage ceremonies were outside the pale, only church marriages were recognized then.
But social change was advancing everywhere in Europe and could not escape Finland, either. The growth of the political and cultural freedoms of the Enlightenment, scientific discoveries, new ideas in philosophy, Charles Darwin’s theses of evolution, the development of Marxian and other forms of socialism, liberal challenges to the prevailing religion, and the modern literary trends of the Ibsens, Strindbergs, Tolstoys, and Chekhovs were reaching Finnish intellectual circles and public.
One of the most important expressions of this restiveness came from the remarkable Finnish feminist and social reformer, the writer Minna Canth (1844-1897). An omnivorous reader and a prolific writer, she devoured the ideas of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Darwin, and other innovative thinkers, which drew her into inevitable opposition to the church. Although profoundly religious in a Tolstoyan sense, she became one of the most influential critics of the dogma and hierarchy of the church. In her powerful agit-prop stage play Työmiehen vaimo (Worker’s Wife) (1885), she attacked not only alcoholism, labor injustice and racism (against the Roma minority), but the subordinate role of women in the family, in strict obedience to the husband who had the right to do whatever he wished with her inheritance and their common property. The play aroused a storm, but shortly after its first showing as a result, the property laws were changed to reflect women’s rights, too. Her play Papin perhe (The Pastor’s Family) (1891) dealt with a rigidly doctrinaire pastor who tried to deny his daughters the right to be independent and choose their professions and clashed with his free-thinking son. She wrote numerous essays and polemics which drew bitter attacks from the conservative clergy. Canth was contemporary with people like Tolstoyan pacifist and social reform writer Arvid Järnefelt, and with the younger labor newspaper editors Matti Kurikka and A.B. (August Bernhard) Mäkelä who became part of her discussion salon of young intellectuals. Mäkelä and she for awhile co-edited a discussion periodical Vapaita Aatteita (Free Ideas) which took up every new subject under the sun. Kurikka became a controversial utopian socialist, Tolstoyan, theosophist, and Kalevala admirer, who along with Mäkelä were founders of the famous utopian communal settlement of Sointula on Malcolm Island in British Columbia in 1901. Canth’s writings and plays became enormously popular within the Finnish working class, arousing its political consciousness.
In contrast and later bitter opposition to Kurikka’s utopian socialism, the Continental winds of Marxism reached the Finnish working class in the late 19th century, influenced in Finland by the thinking of German Social Democratic Party theorist Karl Kautsky. The young growing working class in the early stages of Finnish industrialization identified with the Marxian class analysis and saw itself as being oppressed by a harsh and exploitative industrial capitalism. The workers also concluded that the church was hostile to their new thinking, that it aligned itself with the ruling class. So while large numbers still identified with Lutheran belief they condemned the church hierarchy many becoming anti-clerical. Thousands of others became familiar with the materialist concepts of Marxist socialism and rejected religion altogether and became atheists. My maternal grandfather, stonecutter Paavo Saikkonen from the Karelian Isthmus became an early Marxist and atheist. My mother Hanna (Saikkonen) Siitonen who worked in hard labor, low income jobs in Finland, identified with her father’s views early on and became a life-long non-believer and a democratic socialist. On my father’s side, my widowed grandmother Cecilia (Simpura) Siitonen raised her brood of eight young children almost by herself in poverty in Finnish Karelia. She was a devout Christian but all five of her sons became atheists and four, including my father Antti, became active working class socialists.
Also, many thousands of members of the rural work force were called torpparit (crofters) who farmed and lived on lands legally owned by wealthier landowners also identified with the industrial workers as they were forced to do sweat labor to their landlords in payment as a form of rent. They wanted legal possession of the lands for themselves to rid themselves of the onerous material tribute they had to pay annually to their landlords. They received scant support for their demands from the church hierarchy and parish clergy.
In 1899, Finnish socialists founded a Labor Party to start the ball rolling politically. In 1903 this morphed into the Social Democratic Party of Finland at a historic convention in Forssa. While the founders were mostly ideological Marxists, their Forssa Program was not all that revolutionary but reflected the demands of a pragmatic bread and butter socialism. Much like that of their German mentors who talked of social revolution in theory but were quite reformist and parliamentary. Not surprisingly the Forssa Progam called for a separation of church and state. But although significant inroads to secularization have taken place in Finland, to this day there is no complete separation of church and state, although the SDP has often led the government in a majority coalition. The only time this happened was in the Finnish Civil War of 1918, when the Red side in the war controlled southern Finland, where the socialist Peoples Commission (Kansanvaltuuskunta) declared a complete church-state separation. But a White military victory shortly thereafter brought that to a sudden end.
The SDP grew rapidly and was a key factor in the 1905 Finnish General Strike, which besides increasing the strength of the labor movement brought about Parliamentary reform which featured universal franchise that gave women the right to vote, the second country in the world to do so. In the first fully democratic Parliamentary election in 1907. to everyone’s surprise, the SDP became the largest party in the Diet with eighty members. This became an important factor in accelerating the secularization process. But there was plenty of poverty and joblessness which created a huge immigration exodus between 1880 and 1920 to North America of workers and disinherited farm folks who were proletarianized, only with no work in sight.
Let’s now back up to the 1880s and see what happened in the immigration of Finns to the United States and Canada.
FINNISH IMMIGRATION TO NORTH AMERICA
The main immigration began about 1880, and initially consisted mostly of single men who ended up working in the woods, mines, and anywhere hard labor was needed. The Evangelical Lutheran Church was not happy about the emigration, since on that strange continent the Finnish religious institutions would have no control over them. They were accused of betraying country, family, and religion. Immorality, sin and depravity would be their lot when the churches had no control over them. Of course, in the United States there was no state church and separation of church and state prevailed. For many of these workers both state and church in the old country were seen as instruments of repression and authoritarian control over their lives. So they felt a powerful sense of freedom from it, and the majority of the Finns who immigrated joined no church at all. There were many devout among these Finns, too, some who were attracted to revivalist and apostolic Finnish religions like the Laestadians in which the congregation rather than a formal hierarchy was the pattern. From 1876 on, the Finnish state church established its counterpart in the Suomi Synod, or the American Finnish Lutheran Church, organizing formally in 1890 on U.S. soil, in Hancock, MI, of which many of the immigrants were suspicious because of their negative experiences with it back home.
Other Lutherans objected to the Synod, as well for what they saw as its rigid conservatism and founded a somewhat more liberal Finnish American National Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1898. All of them, the Synod, Apostolic and National Lutherans were bitter rivals in competing for adherents.
There wasn’t much in the way of social gospel for community reform among these institutions as is true of many US Protestant denominations today, as well as in the strong undercurrent of “liberation theology” in the Catholic Church. Perhaps as something of an anomaly at the time, a Unitarian community was founded on the Minnesota Iron Range in 1911 by Finnish humanists and Unitarian ministers Milma Tikkanen Latvala, and her husband Risto Latvala. This liberal, non-dogmatic denomination had a good localized following among the Finns for many years.
But for the Synod in particular, its community work beyond the church itself was focused on the temperance movement. A huge, disheartening problem among these lonely immigrant workers was the desperation of their lives in their oppressive working and living conditions and poverty, so their primary form of association was often the saloon, which brought on drunkenness, fighting, and prostitutes to relieve their intense loneliness. So the Synod, hoping to rescue these sinners from their degradation, founded the Finnish National Temperance Brotherhood in 1888. It provided a sober social alternative and a stable social environment.
However a good many of these immigrant workers chafed and rebelled against the strict religious aura of these temperance halls. Everything was prayer and Bible-oriented for the saving of souls as the way to be weaned off John Barleycorn. By this time many young women were immigrating from Finland to work as domestics and in factory and other work, and young people wanted their share of secular recreational joy. The original Synod temperance halls were dead set against dancing, card playing, and stage plays as dangerous pastimes to lure the young.
So dissident elements broke away or were expelled by the Brotherhood and formed the Finnish Friends of Temperance as a rival organization. Prayer was no longer the focus, and secular activities which later became so popular in Finnish America began to develop. Reading tastes began to diversify into modern cosmopolitan directions and the immigrants began to yearn for political and other associative approaches with which to improve their lives in the here and now, instead of waiting for the illusory bounties of an afterlife. This led to the coming of the historic Finnish-American labor movement....
The earliest version of Finnish immigrant socialism was that of the colorful visionary Matti Kurikka, we saw earlier as a protégé of Minna Canth. He had left Finland to establish a utopian communal settlement in Australia in 1900 to set an example to the world of how people could live together in peace, harmony and cooperation in contrast to the harsh predation of the rising industrial capitalism. But he got nowhere. About that time a group of Finnish miners on Vancouver Island, working under the most miserable conditions, thought of founding a settlement where they could fish, farm, log and live cooperatively away from the harsh conditions of their lives under the prevailing system. Someone showed them some pamphlets written by Kurikka extolling the possibility of his vision for a new society. Since these miners had few organizational skills to actualize such a project, they write to Australia to Kurikka to help found such a community and paid his way to come to Canada. The always enthusiastic dreamer Kurikka came and they were able to secure a grant to farm on Malcolm Island, just off the north coast of Vancouver Island, a homesteading project granted by the British Crown. They called it Sointula, a “Place of Harmony”, which officially was founded in 1901. Kurikka enlisted his old Finnish comrade A.B. Mäkelä to come from Finland to join him at Sointula, as the more Marxist Mäkelä was more level-headed on practical things than the mercurial over-the-top Kurikka, who recognized his own weaknesses here.
Kurikka traveled all over the United States on a speaking tour to fire up support and settlers to come to Sointula to help build this new ideal community that would set an example for the whole world as the way forward for a just society. He was able to arouse a lot of excitement for the ideals of socialism itself, although many shook their heads at his bizarre ideas on theosophy, and of Sointula being the new land of Kaleva that Elias Lönnrot wrote about. Although an admirer in Jesus and believer in the Golden Rule, Kurikka’s anti-clerical condemnation of the established church, and his reputation from his days in Finland, aroused angry attacks from the church who saw him as the worst heretic and an anti-Christ. His Marxist opponents in Finland had also condemned him as a preposterous, impractical dreamer and a fool who didn’t understand Marxist class analysis. But his tour did fire up a lot of enthusiasm among the immigrant workers that “another world is possible”, to borrow from today’s anti-corporate globalization movement.
The original Kalevan Kansa commune only lasted as a legal entity for about three years, due to bad luck, inexperience, factionalism and the follies of Kurikka in securing a bridge building contract for the Sointulans as a low bidder, which presaged an economic disaster for the collective. Kurikka also preached that the institution of marriage was a patriarchal prison, and that people should just follow their hearts and live in love and free union without benediction of church or state. So “free love” became an issue that divided the commune. Kurikka and Mäkelä became bitter enemies and the perennial visionary and his followers left the island. The commune was disbanded as a legal entity, but about half of the people stayed to farm their own individual plots but the community has thrived in the spirit of cooperation to this day, through consumer cooperatives , mutual aid, and the fisherman’s union. The more practical dreamers saved the day. But its negativity toward churches continued and no church was built on the island until the 1950s when a number of more conservative post-World War II Finns moved to Sointula from the old country. Religion still doesn’t play a major role.
Matti Kurikka had always denounced the “bread socialism” of his Finnish Marxist opponents as a threat to his vision of a beautiful Tolstoyan world embodying the values of the mythic Land of Kaleva. But the more materialist class-oriented socialism drew the support of the vast majority of the Finnish immigrant labor movement that impressively sprang to life after the turn of the 20th century.
In the 1890s several reformist labor societies with a temperance bent were organized like the Saima Society of Fitchburg, Mass., and Imatra Society in Brooklyn, NY, which stressed self-improvement among workers. But then an émigré Finnish intellectual Antero F. Tanner arrived on the scene in 1899 and started a lecture series at a Finnish temperance hall in Rockport, Mass. discussing geology, astrology, chemistry and Darwinian evolution, as well as introducing his listeners to socialist ideas. The local Synod pastor denounced his talks as unchristian. But Tanner continued and soon the first Finnish immigrant socialist local in the U.S. was formed at Rockport, initially affiliating with the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel DeLeon. Tanner was soon joined by Martin Hendrickson, who became an early popular apostle of an American Finnish socialism. Together in 1900 they established the first Finnish language labor newspaper, Amerikan Työmies (American Worker) in Brooklyn, NY. Stressing labor education, the periodical was critical of religious leaders who obstructed progress of the workers’ cause, but one writer said that “any religion which inspired workers to seek true freedom was compatible with their aspirations.” Amerikan Työmies folded in less than a year, but it helped spark the growth of a movement.
Hendrickson went on a speaking tour around the country which fired up Finnish workers in the cause and local organizations began to be formed. Hendrickson’s presence alarmed the conservative clergy which attacked him and warned workers not to listen to him. After a talk in one town in the Upper Midwest, some people swept the ground where he had walked on with brooms to exorcise this agent of the devil who had befouled their community. But “Matti Setä” (Uncle Matti) energized thousands of devotees in his wake with his secular evangelism.
But it wasn’t long before other labor papers again begin to emerge. Työmies (The Worker) was established in Worcester, MA in 1903 as a non-profit explicitly socialist newspaper. It soon moved to Hancock, MI, and later to Superior, Wisconsin, where it continued a long life, lasting until the 1990s, as Työmies-Eteenpäin (Worker-Forward). It was followed in 1905 by Raivaaja (The Pioneer) inspired by another prominent émigré socialist Taavi Tainio, which became the primary organ of Finnish-American social democracy for many years, and still exists today as the oldest of the immigrant-founded papers, though it’s no longer ideologically partisan. Founded in 1907 in Astoria, OR, the newspaper Toveri (Comrade) carried the banner of labor until 1930. All of them were secular papers and for years engaged in a war of words with the more conservative, non-socialist Finnish-American press, which was backed by much of the clergy.
All of this culminated in the founding of the Finnish Socialist Federation (Suomalainen Sosialistijärjestö) in 1906 at Hibbing, Minnesota, which grew at an astounding rate around the country to reach a height in membership of 15,500 members in its various Locals in April, 1914. Soon after its founding, the Federation affiliated as the first foreign language federation of the Socialist Party of America. Some of its early leaders were already prominent in Finnish politics, having fled here from political persecution. Some like the gifted Santeri Nuorteva were well educated, while most were blue collar workers who were self-educated. The literacy that the Finnish church had insisted on for its parishioners enabled these emerging socialists to read and study far beyond what the church would have desired, to discover Canth, Darwin, Marx, Kautsky and German Marxist August Bebel among others.
The FSF inspired a vibrant new movement, not only in its politics, but this “hall socialism” was rich in culture, offering theater, poetry readings, choruses, bands, dances, libraries, children’s and youth activities and athletics for the participation of its members. Subsidiary journals were founded like Säkeniä, (Sparks) the theoretical magazine published by Raivaaja. Women felt more empowered in this new political culture and pushed for their own voice and activity which met resistance from some of the more culturally conservative men, for whom overcoming a patriarchal legacy was difficult even as convinced socialists. Finnish feminist Minna Canth’s plays were highly popular on Finn Hall stages. These strong pioneer women founded their own radical publications like Toveritar (Woman Comrade) and Naisten Viiri (Women’s Banner), and they insisted on total equality in Federation councils and assemblies.
This was the milieu my parents entered when they came to the United States in 1915, both already convinced socialists and secularists. They met at the socialist Veli (Brother) Hall in Quincy, Massachusetts, my father Antti Siitonen was working as baker for his brother August, also a Veli Hall socialist, and my mother Hanna Saikkonen as a maid for the mayor of Quincy. My father was active in the hall as an actor on the stage, and a wrestler and gymnast for its own Karhu (Bear) Athletic Club, and my mother as a gymnast for Karhu. They married in 1917, and the socialist hall was central to their lives outside of work. That was the environment to which I was born much later and brought up in, the halls of the Finnish-American labor movement.
Raivaaja, Työmies and Toveri all established their own book publishing operations (union label, of course) and printed dozens of books, many by Finnish-American authors and books in translation. American Socialist authors like Upton Sinclair and Jack London were popular. My father’s favorite book was Mark Twain’s Luotsina Mississipillä (Life on the Mississippi), which I first read myself from his tattered copy in Finnish translation. But since out lecture topic is on secularism in this early community, I want to list some of the books published along these lines by these presses.
Both Raivaaja and Työmies printed books translated from the writings of the famous American agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll, which were also popular in Finland during this period, with their own Finnish publishers. By the way, Ingersoll was a leading member of the American Republican Party, at one time promoted as its presidential candidate, and was one of the greatest orators in US history. Compare that to today’s Republican Party which the fundamentalist Religious Right nearly controls.
I found several of these books which had been donated to our Berkeley Kaleva hall library by members decades ago. One was Ingersoll’s Skulls (Pääkallot) and God in the Constitution (Jumala perustuslaissa), issued by the Raivaaja Publishing Co., in 1907. Another Raivaaja book was Helen H. Gardener’s Men, Women and Gods (Miehet, naiset ja jumalat), 1885, translated by Hanna Kunnas as a Raivaaja book sometime before 1910.
Gardener (1853-1925), was a noted American free thinker and suffragette, contemporary and friends with Ingersoll and sister feminist and free thinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The following statement by Helen Gardener pretty well sums up the essential thinking of our non-believer labor forebears: “I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones ….. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. I do know that women make skirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity in this world are infinite, unending, constant and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength and love, and our thoughts, and our work here will be only then begun.”
Another Raivaaja book was Herbert N. Casson’s Against Superstition (Taikauskoa vastaan). translated by Eliof Christianson and published in 1907. Casson (1869-1951) was a Methodist minister who was tried for heresy and became a non-believer.
Another book, Toward the Light (Valoa kohti), by Pekka Ervast was published by the newspaper Pohjan Tähti (The North Star), which was Raivaaja’s conservative competitor in Fitchburg. Ervast was a famous Finnish theosophist and Rosicrucian, so that the spirit of the eclecticist Matti Kurikka also paid a visit to Fitchburg!
A.B. Mäkelä tried his hand at translation of the selected writings of German philologist and Orientalist F. Max`Muller (1827-1900). Mäkelä, who wrote this translation under an anglicized name he often used in Sointula, Austin McKela, which he entitled: Luonollinen uskonto: Otteita F. Max Mullerin luennoista (Natural Religion: Selections from F. Max Muller’s Lectures), which was published in 1904 by the Kalevan Kansa Press in Sointula. Muller’s attempt was to establish a natural religion by synthesizing the best of many comparative historic religions. Mäkelä, a reputed Marxist, must have still been under the influence of Kurikka and his eclectic approach at the time he did this translation.
Most of the immigrant workers had little formal schooling in Finland so they wanted to learn useful skills and study both English and Finnish, bookkeeping, history and many other subjects., including economic and socialist theory and education about the labor movement. In 1896 in Hancock the Synod had established its own school Suomi-Opisto which became the famous Suomi College, now known as Finlandia University. It was religiously oriented and was for years a seminary for training clergy for the Synod, so this did not appeal to the secular Finns who had become alienated from religion.
But in 1903 the more liberal National Lutherans, who looked more kindly upon the socialists as people of good will, established the Kansan Opisto (Peoples School) initially in Minneapolis which would not only serve its own congregation but Finnish immigrants generally and was willing to work with socialists in developing it. So it hired Alex Halonen a socialist editor, as its fundraiser who recruited other socialists to buy shares in it. Moving the school to Smithville near Duluth, the socialists became the majority shareholders who were dissatisfied with the original format of the school and wanted to make it more amenable to working class priorities. So it passed into socialist hands and was renamed Työväen Opisto (Work Peoples College) . Many of the National Lutherans became embittered toward the socialists and became hostile to their struggles from then on. This split was not surprising and Halonen, who at first was more conciliatory to his religious allies, mainly criticizing the clergy for not being progressive enough in supporting the needs of labor and temperance, hardened his outlook toward organized churches. In 1928 he declared: “Socialism which is entirely a cultural movement and represents the economic and spiritual freedom of all mankind, cannot endorse a class religion, which is used to enslave people.” This Marxian “opiate of the masses” view was shared by many of his comrades. Work Peoples College thus became an official institution initially of the Finnish Socialist Federation.
WPC offered classes in English, Finnish, History, Economics, Sociology, Geography, Bookkeeping, History of Socialism and Darwinian Evolution. Later it trained potential staff people for the burgeoning consumer cooperative movement which was an important arena of activity for the Finnish socialists, as well as labor movement organizers. It employed teachers from Finland like Yrjö Sirola and Leo Laukki. Particularly with Laukki, the school took a radical direction toward the revolutionary industrial unionism espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in Chicago in 1905. Thousands of radicalized Finnish immigrants were attracted to the IWW’s militancy as a labor organization and became involved in it, with Laukki a leading spokesman for it in the Federation. In the first great schism in Finnish-American radicalism Work Peoples College went with the Finnish Wobblies and remained its labor college until 1940 when it dissolved.
In Socialist Locals (Osastot), educational programs were also a high priority. There were libraries, speakers, discussion groups and debates. Most of the immigrants were young adults and had families and children. The Finnish community as a whole wanted its children to appreciate their Finnish heritage and thus significant attention was paid to their education, particularly literacy in the Finnish language. The churches had a sophisticated system of Sunday schools, in which the learning of Finnish, was done as part of Bible study, as the main emphasis was on religious education.
The socialists had their own children’s Sunday school organized as the Ihanneliittos (Idealistic Leagues). Instead of Finnish Bible studies, they utilized a Työväen Aapinen (Workers’ Primer) in which the Finnish lessons were based on socialist themes. My cousin Lempi Siitonen, who was born in 1911 went to the Ihanneliitto Sundays when she was a little girl at the socialist Veli Hall in Quincy. So she passed her Aapinen and other items on to me. I was born in 1926 and the days of the Idealistic Leagues were over and done with when I got to the right age. But appreciated the book with its illustrations which told of workers being unemployed and wife and children hungry, with smoke stack factories belching their black issue outside of the window of their meager tenement housing. I used to read the text out loud.
IMPACT OF LABOR STRIFE
Although after 1909, the official position of the FSF was that “a person’s religious outlook was a private matter”, there was a lot of contention against the churches and clergy in the Finnish labor press, answered in the same measure and as angrily by the conservative pro-church publications. This was exacerbated mightily by the Minnesota Mesabi Range Strike of 1907.
Iron miners worked under horrific conditions and death and injury rates on the job were high. It was the Mesabi version of the “satanic mills” of early industrial England. So when the Western Federation of Miners union began an organizing campaign on the Range, thousands joined, led by the Finns. The plans were to make demands on the Oliver Iron Mining Division of US Steel when the union had fifty per cent of the miners signed up. But they were forced to act prematurely when wildcat strikes on the Duluth and Superior docks triggered a wholesale strike on the Range. The Finns were the most militant contingent for the union, with the overall direction of the strike led by two young Finnish WFM organizers John Mäki and John Kolu.
After a violent two-month strike involving special deputies and strikebreakers, the strike was lost. Then the wrath of the business community came down on the strikers, particularly the Finnish socialists. Newspapers on the Range led the xenophobic rage, saying “fully ninety per cent of those on the line were Finlanders — fiery followers of the Red Flag.…” The Eveleth News attacked the young Finns in the strike, “imbued with the nihilistic spirit and are nihilists and anarchists instead of the socialists they claim … The Finns that compose this class are not fit to become citizens.” Many of the Finns were blacklisted and were forced to leave the area or survive by hard-scrabble farming. This all served to radicalize the Finnish workers like nothing else could.
In contrast, the conservative Finnish community was ashamed of its radical brethren, and countered with a campaign of its own deploring these “troublemakers” and “agitators”, and to indicate they and the majority of Finns were good loyal Americans who worked hard and were team players for their employers and lived as decent God-fearing citizens. Members of the Suomi Synod formed a “Citizens’ Committee” which condemned socialism as “Eastern-Asian barbarianism.” The Committee issued a statement which read: “We abhor and condemn the actions of the Socialists in their past acts and inflammatory speeches disgracing the Christian religion and civilization, tending to destroy the moral and chaste welfare of home and society, laying the foundations for atheism, corruption and anarchy … Therefore, let it be resolved that on behalf of the majority of Finns, that we can no longer silently bear the loss of the employers’ confidence which has been caused by the instigation of the Socialists, and on the returning of that confidence depends the success and welfare of our homes.”
Imagine the polarization this amplified between the “Red Hall Finns” and the “Church Finns”! This example repeated itself in the Copper Country strike of 1913 in the Hancock-Houghton area of Michigan and again in the 1916 Mesabi Range strike led by the Industrial Workers of the World, both in which Finnish socialists and workers were heavily involved. Similar outcries against “socialist agitators” came from the conservative Finns, businessmen and clergy. If only these agitators weren’t around to mislead the workers, everything would be more peaceful and orderly. But as the late Finnish-American historian Michael Karni pointed out, that these miners were educated “in the school of Morgan and Rockefeller” and needed no “outsiders” to tell them how they should think about their difficult lives and why they shouldn’t fight to improve them through labor solidarity. These great labor struggles left bloody scars between these two sides of the Finnish community which took many decades to heal.
LABOR MOVEMENT SCHISMS
Despite the forgoing setbacks and ensuing hardships the Finnish radicals endured, their socialist movement grew. But then ideological schisms arose, as they did with the churches. The first of them occurred in the Socialist Party of America as well as in the FSF, over the issue of industrial unionism versus electoral. The IWW was a strong element in both the SPA and FSF. But the Wobblies believed more in the efficacy of anarcho-syndicalist direct action on the job, than in running candidates for political office, whereas the electoral-minded political socialists advocated the latter. This all came to head of the SP’s 1912 convention when IWW labor leader Big Bill Haywood was removed from the Party’s national committee, with the admonition that an anti-electoral position was antithetical to Party membership.
As it was, Wobblies left the SP in droves as they felt they were not wanted, as well as from the FSF. Several thousand Finns thus left the SP and took their Locals with them, mostly in the Midwest and the West Coast, along with their halls and with Work Peoples‘ College which was under the control of the industrial unionists. Of course, this weakened the FSF considerably. World War I subjected both the SP and IWW to further hammering for their anti-war positions. The revered SP presidential candidate Eugene Victor Debs went to jail for his stand against the war as did a number of his comrades. The SPA was one of the few socialist parties in the world which declared its opposition to the war at its St. Louis convention. But the IWW, which took no official position on the war, was attacked mercilessly by the Woodrow Wilson Administration as subversive. Union headquarters were raided and trashed and at least 166 IWW leaders from around the country were arrested and jailed and found guilty. Four of these arrested were Finns, including Leo Laukki and Fred Jaakkola of Work Peoples College. This persecution almost destroyed the IWW.
The Second Schism played even greater havoc with the FSF. This came as an aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, particularly its October phase which brought the Bolsheviks to exclusive state power.
At first, much of the democratic world rejoiced in the overthrow of the Czar, including the ranks of the SPA and the FSF Finns. But then divisions arose. Those who supported the Revolution wholly and uncritically left the SPA and formed the Workers Party, and later the Communist party-USA, while those who supported the Socialist Party which began to be critical of the Bolshevik regime as it dictatorially banished and eventually outlawed the other left organizations in Russia, including the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists and others. A similar bitter split took place in the FSF. The pro-Bolsheviks won over the majority of the FSF, departed the Socialist Party, and functioned as the FSF until it affiliated with the 1920s Workers’ Party which eventually morphed into the CP-USA. By far not all of the pro-Soviet Finns joined the CP, so the Finnish Workers Federation was created to encompass all of the pro-Soviet Finns in the 1920s. The more social democratic Finns who became critical of the new Russia for its undemocratic rule, regrouped as a new Federation and retained its affiliation with the SPA.
So now there were three disparate currents to the Finnish-American labor movement. The IWW Finns with their newspaper Industrialisti, the pro-CP Finns who took possession of the newspapers Työmies and Toveri in the split, and the SP Finns who managed to salvage Raivaaja as their organ. Each had their own halls, the possession of which involved bitter legal and even physical battles over who would control them.
Thousands of radicals were deported after World War I to their home countries from the United States, including some Finns. And with a wave of anti-foreign hysteria pervading the atmosphere, immigration laws were enacted which reduced newcomers to these shores to a trickle. So the mass migration of Finns here was ended, which also brought about the gradual decline of Finnish organizations in this country, whether radical, conservative or in between, or whether religious or secular.
With all the preceding factors presaging its inevitable decline, activities of all these groups still continued at a vigorous pace through the 1920s and well into the thirties. During my own childhood and youth in the 1930s and early 1940s, the hall activities in which I grew up were still lively and fulfilling. But most of the second generation Finns did not see that much relevance by and large in their parents’ radicalism, as they became part of the American popular culture, and often were ashamed of it. But we did have our “Red Diaper Babies” in all the competing left political currents. I’m not sure when the Idealistic Leagues faded out for good, probably sometime in the 1920s. But I know that in the case of the 1920s Socialist Party Finns, several hundred second generation Finnish youths joined the Young Peoples’ Socialist League, the historic “Yipsel”, to form its New England clubs, according to Raivaaja editor F. J. Syrjälä.
The second generation pro-CP youths went to the Communists’ Pioneer camps, largely in the Midwest when they were kids. Later US. Communist Party chief, the late Gus Hall, was a product of Finnish run Pioneer camps in Minnesota, according to the late Mayme Sevander. Teen-agers from that orientation often went on to join the Young Communist League, YCL.
The IWW Finns were not remiss in regard to their youth. Summer schools were held at Smithville‘s Work Peoples College to attract their progeny to industrial unionism and the cause of labor. While the IWW Finns weren’t too prominent on the East Coast, they did have a hall in Brooklyn, CT, where they held a summer school for Junior Wobblies, the IWW’s youth group.
The old confrontations between the secularist socialists and religious Finns lost their sharp edge in these ensuing years. They were never a major factor in the main Socialist Party, which had a social gospel wing, with considerable numbers of clergymen as members. Several times SP Presidential candidate Norman Thomas was a former Protestant clergymen. The SP Finns left the Party about 1937 during the Roosevelt era, due to bitter internal turmoil caused by the entry of American Trotskyites into the Party which almost ruined it before they left. But trying to relive an experience I had earlier missed, I joined the Yipsels and SP in 1952 in Chicago. That year I went to Cleveland to the SP-USA’s National Convention. There I saw a number of ministers and divinity students as delegates, along with expected secularists, something that was foreign to my Finnish community experience. A carload of us drove back to Chicago afterwards, driven by John McCartney, a Methodist minister in some small town Kansas church, accompanied by a Unitarian theology student from the University of Chicago, besides us three atheist Marxists. To pass the time, we all joined in singing some boisterous socialist and labor songs. When we sang “The Internationale”, the Reverend John belted it out as loud as the rest of us. And we all called each other “Comrade”.
In the Finnish community, the old secular-religion argument became less of an issue. It wasn’t important to those young who remained politically active on the Left. There were enough hot button political issues to address during the Depression and the coming of fascism and WWII. Some of the now slowly-dying First Generation secular Finns and some of the Second Generation did join a church, but according to the recently-deceased Finnish-American historian A. William Hoglund, two thirds of these Finns remained unaffiliated, Among the second generation Left Finns, those who did join a church were not necessarily attracted to the Lutheran Church of their parents or grandparents. I’ve personally known several who have joined the Unitarians, another who is a Quaker, and one who is a Buddhist.
In looking back at the rich and complex history of the secular immigrant Finns, its record seems clear, which pretty much dispels the fundamentalists’ argument, that if one doesn’t believe in God and has no religious faith, not only is s/he destined to end up in eternal torment in a place called Hell, but they’ll be devoid of morals, unable to distinguish good from evil, lead a dissolute life, become a social scourge and descend into total nihilism. But let’s look at what these working class socialists did during their history: They worked to develop a positive community through the values of mutual aid, cooperation, equality and democracy through their Socialist osastos and halls, organized major consumer and family farmers’ cooperatives, were active in organizing and supporting labor unions to improve their working conditions and bring dignity to their lives on the job through worker solidarity expressed in the IWW-created watchword: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” They raised the cultural level of the community through music, song, literature, theatre, poetry, dance and athletics as well as published newspapers and books for their self-education and enlightenment. They sacrificed and labored for the education of their children so they wouldn’t have to spend their lives doing the hard, dirty and backbreaking work to which the parents had been subjected. And above all they projected the values of a future society in which there would be no exploitation, inequality, hatred or war, in which democracy and respect for human dignity and critical inquiry would be encouraged.
RECONCILIATION — OF A SORT...
Although the basics of faith versus secularism will never be resolved, mutual respect has reduced the polarization that marked the Finnish community in those earlier years. The first big breakthrough for cooperation across the board came in the planning for and execution of the Tercentennial Delaware Celebrations in 1938, of the time when the Finns of all persuasions all over the country came to together to honor the Finnish and Swedish pioneers who 300 hundred years before landed and settled in what later became the state of Delaware. Thus all the church denominations, temperance and co-op folks, socialists, communists, and IWWs all came together to make the Tercentennial a huge success. Speaking terms were established, between some for the first time, seeing each other as good people of the same ancestry.
The second event the very next year, tragic in contrast, brought most all these elements together again to help their brethren in Finland during the Russian-Finnish Winter War of late 1939, early 1940. That was when the Soviet Union suddenly attacked Finland militarily in the middle of negotiations to Russian demands to change the border configurations of the two countries, arguably for Finland to cede some of its turf to shore up the defenses of the Leningrad area.
Hundreds of benefits were held around the country to send relief packages and supplies to the people of the besieged Finland during that war and its aftermath. Again the socialists, co-opers, the anti-authoritarian IWWs, churches, conservatives and business Finns came together to help and raise funds and goods for their ethnic kin. However, left out of this equation were most of the pro-communist Finns, who were so much in denial about the Gulag that their beloved Soviet Union had become in the Stalin era that they believed Finland had started the war. They supported the USSR in the conflict. They were as dogmatic in their convictions as are the fundamentalist Christians who believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and church dogma, despite their inconsistencies and contradictions and totally refuse to subject their beliefs to critical examination. The late working class philosopher Eric Hoffer called both such religious and political dogmatists as “True Believers”. These mindsets can often be found in highly intelligent, sincere, and decent human beings. Critical doubt and skepticism are powerful tools, the value of which can never be underestimated.
In our time, with the continual shrinking of Finnish America, much of the aforementioned has disappeared into the mists of history. The old Finnish radical political organizations have long vanished. The uniquely Finnish co-ops are also gone. Many Finnish churches have closed their doors and the Suomi Synod and the National Lutherans have folded into larger American religious federations. Finn halls are far and few between. Some of the churches have become less conservative, and as they aged some of he Finnish radicals moderated their views. In fact, my mother had a cousin in Oregon who was a member of the IWW in the 1910s,; in 1948 he voted Republican because he thought “labor was getting too strong.” And who would have thought that originally Suomi Synod-descended Finlandia University has taken under its sponsorship the Finnish-American Reporter monthly which was founded as an English-only project of the Työmies-Eteenpain school of leftism? And that Raivaaja now periodically runs a religious column? Yet all these world problems that excited and concerned our ancestral forebears are as much on the scene today as in their time, but only in different and greater dimension. The daily news don’t provide a pretty picture. We hope that our Finnish-American contemporaries will involve themselves organizationally in whatever way they can in the larger existing American movements concerned with these problems. Our forebears did their share.
But I’m glad to see that we still have our annual FinnFests, as well as regional celebrations to keep us together as a community today and for the foreseeable future. In all our diversity. there’s something to interest us all in these gatherings.
POST-SCRIPT: TODAY’S FINLAND
The Finland our forebears left in the last century and earlier is now an entirely different place as all of us who have visited there can testify. The country is free, independent, and modern, with a highly educated population. The stability of the country is underwritten with a modern Western European welfare state, so hunger and homelessness are minimal, and with high quality medical care with a public universal health care program. Finland’s social safety net is superior to ours. There’s a strong labor movement, and it’s respectable to be called a socialist.
The Lutheran church has become much liberalized from the days of Minna Canth. It’s very much in support of the Scandinavian welfare state to provide for social needs, which Finnish socialists pioneered in the earlier 20th Century. My late friend Reino Hannula, publisher of the Finn Heritage quarterly, now also regrettably defunct, thought the Finnish churches were more socialistic than today’s Social Democratic Party. In its coalition government association with the Conservative and Center parties the SDP has been party to whittling down some of the welfare state benefits as it is more and more involved with the neo-liberal economics of the European Union, and the most ardent defense to retain those benefits came and often comes from the mainstream Lutheran Church along with the Left Alliance, a party slightly to the left of the SDP, which has representation in Parliament.
In the 1980s the church allowed the ordination of women clergy against the stiff resistance of its traditionalist wing. So now a majority of theology students are women and about the third of the practicing clergy are women. When domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians were voted by Parliament, as I recall in the earlier 1990s, it wasn’t looked on all that favorably by the church. As the last of the Scandinavian countries to adopt such legislation, its main support came from the SDP, Left Alliance, Greens, and part of the Center Party. The conservative National Coalition Party and the small fundamentalist Christian Democrat bloc opposed it. But just now I read that a European Forum of Christian sexual and gender minorities is to be held in Hämeenlinna next year that will support their concerns, with blessings from a mainstream bishop as well as the Orthodox metropolitan of Helsinki!
Civil marriages have long been possible, and birth records are no longer handled by the church but by public agencies. But now free unions, called avoliittos, have become popular among younger Finns, so much so that perhaps about one third of permanent domestic relationships are in that category. Even around 1918, an unmarried couple living together was called a susipari, or “wolf pair”, and their child would be called an äpärä (bastard). But there is no such stigma anymore. Probably the church doesn’t care for this, but it’s hard to buck trends. So Matti Kurikka and his “free love” theory has come into popular play more than a century after his advocacy. World javelin champion Tero Pitkämäki and top heptathlete Niina Kelo are popular sports heroes and are proudly involved in an avoliitto, are quite happy, and no one seems to mind.
While until five years ago, about 85% of the Finns officially belonged to the Lutheran Church, only about three per cent of the population regularly attends church. Compare that to 51% in the United States. This secularization trend is common in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in the Low Countries, France and England. Religion isn’t taken that seriously any more by large numbers of the population.
Still there is no separation of church and state as no political party wants to potentially risk its voting capital on the issue, whether left, right or center. The strongest advocate of church-state separation is the Finnish Vapaa-ajattelijain Liitto, or the Finnish Union of Free Thinkers, an umbrella organization for Finnish atheists, agnostics, skeptics and humanists, founded in 1937. The Free Thinkers have worked arduously to popularize their secularist ideas and also to lobby for changes in the law for more church-state separation. They have had some important successes.
1. In terms of the school system, although compulsory religious education still exists in the classroom, the Free Thinkers have been able to change the education code, so that students from nonreligious families who want to opt out of religion classes can do so, and take a secular course instead, called Elämänkatsomustiede, (Philosophy of Life Science), which would not have a religious content, and which is part of the official public school curriculum.
2. Laws prohibit discrimination against persons of any religious belief or non-belief.
3. Free Thinkers have developed a popular summer youth program of secular Prometheus Camps as an alternative to Bible study camps.
4. Free Thinkers have lobbied for the municipalization of the cemetery system which is now administered by the churches on behalf of the state with taxpayer money. Although they haven’t been successful in this, they have built a number of cemeteries for free thinkers around the country which have no religious connection in rites or symbolism.
5. The Free Thinkers have succeeded in simplifying the laws enabling people to resign from the church by simply sending a postcard or an email message to the church. There was a time when one would have to appear before the parish pastor in person to do so, and give his/her reasons for it. The pastor in turn would try to dissuade the parishioner from resigning, often trying to play to a sense of guilt or shame. Or to the point of predicting the fire and brimstone to come.
And the ease with which one can resign has brought about an increase in resignations. But the Tampere chapter of the Free Thinkers has gone a step further which has opened up the floodgates. A number of bright young IT students from the Tampere Technological College have joined the chapter and have developed a Website which makes the resignation process just about automatic with a couple of clicks of the mouse, and it’s free of charge. It’s named http.eroakirkosta.fi (leave the church.fi). It’s been in operation since 2003, and about 100,000 Finns have resigned from the church ever since over the Internet through 2007, according to the web edition of Helsingin Sanomat. Which means the percentage of Finns affiliated with the Lutheran Church has fallen to 81%. Which means religion for many thousands of Finns is about a mile wide and an inch deep. One of the material benefits of the resignations has been that no more church fees are deducted in taxes by the state from the resignees. The church, of course, is extremely worried as this all means a considerable drop in income for it, and is planning to create its own Website this fall trying to spell out the advantages of belonging to the church to attract more members.
But all this is part of the secularization process of Northern Europeans as a whole over the past decades. However, many critical issues have arisen with the immigration to several of these countries by a strong, vigorous Muslim influx of refugees as well as workers to relieve labor shortages. We’ve all heard about the violent clashes resulting from the Danish cartoons and the murder of Theo van Gogh in the liberal Netherlands who filmed the story of Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who broke with the Muslim faith. Finland also has an increasing Muslim population and even has its first mosque, although there have been relatively few incidents except those promulgated by Finnish racists. I’m not into the “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but there are critical years to come in this war and violence-racked world that we need to be concerned about. However, such speculation is outside the scope of this paper.
— By Harry Siitonen Berkeley, CA, July, 2008.