Skip to main content

The Finnish Reformer was a student of Luther – and Finland's educator

Bust of Mikael Agricola at his birthplace Pernaja (Finland).
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

They are something like his great-great-grandchildren: the Finnish authors who are the guests of honour at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Their ancestor is Mikael Agricola (ca. 1509-1557), Finland's Reformer.

Not only did he bring the Protestant faith to Finland, he also was the founder of Finnish as a language of literature. Mikael Agricola studied in Wittenberg with Martin Luther. He was inspired to share the principle of the Reformation that everybody ought to get to know and understand the Word of God in his or her mother tongue

In 1521, at the Wartburg, his teacher Luther had translated the New Testament into German, and later the Old Testament. Around twenty years later, Agricola imitated him. He translated the New Testament and the Psalms into Finnish.

Finnish Bible and Finnish spelling book

But many of his compatriots were illiterate. What use has the best translation of the Bible if no-one is able to read it? Thus, after the first Finnish Bible, Agricola wrote the first Finnish spelling book as well. In the 16th and 17th century it enabled all of Finland to learn how to read and write.

Even before the Reformation, the Humanists were aware of reading being a key qualification. Agricola and Luther, as well as all the other Reformers, added a fundamental motif: Reading is a key qualification of faith! The Bible was to be available to everybody as a source of faith. And therefore all had to know how to read and write. Clerics and a small number of privileged people already managed this skill. This meant, however, that reading and writing was a hegemonic knowledge. Most people were excluded from it.

The Reformation put a consistent emphasis on education, as Martin Luther had always demanded: “That the children shall be sent to school.” Similar reformative Catholic endeavours were launched later. However, it was a long road to modern education.

The PISA study confirms that Finnish children have a high score of reading literacy

It took a long time until, in practice, all were able to read and to go to school, including the girls and those who were poor. It took a long time until all had a library nearby, or were able to afford to buy books. Until workers had fought for sufficient free time for reading and continuing education. Only a few generations ago, servants had to fight hard to have a free Sunday every two weeks. Significantly, it had been the Bible Societies that supported their cause.

Even today, not all is well. Only four weeks ago, the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, stated that, in Germany, young peoples' success in education depends largely on the social background of their parents. Still. More than in most of the other industrial nations. Consequently, there is still a lot to do. It is worth looking at Finland to assess what can be improved, and how. The Finns are still successful in continuing to develop what has emerged from Mikael Agricola's ground-breaking work. They are so successful that their children's reading and understanding skills have repeatedly reached high levels. And they always gain the highest ranks in the international comparison of achievements at school, the PISA study.

Finnish literature is worth to have a look at. It can be discovered in Frankfurt at the current Book Fair, or in the library or book shop next door.


This text was broadcast by the Deutschlandfunk on October 8th, 2014, as a morning attunement.