Altarpiece in Jukkasjärvi church
A section of Jukkasjärvi church's altarpiece. Photo: Marie Enoksson.

Lars Levi Laestadius and the Sami

One man who once had a major influence on the religious practice of the Sami was the priest Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861). The destiny of the Sami changed during his lifetime. Without him and the religious revival to which he gave rise in the middle of the 19th century, many Sami would probably have perished. The liquor trade was pushing Sami society towards financial disaster, and social destitution was on the increase.

Lars Levi was born on 10 January 1800 into a very poor home near Arjeplog. His little brother, Petrus, was born a couple of years later. His father came from a family of priests, but lived a completely different type of life. He was often absent, and he could become violent when he drank. For a while, Lars Levi and Petrus lived in Kvikkjokk with his half-brother, who was training to become a priest. Thanks to him, the brothers eventually applied to Härnösand and then Uppsala in order to study. Unfortunately their half-brother died, which is why Lars Levi and Petrus were constantly short of money throughout their years of study. Lars Levi dreamed of becoming a botanist, but in the end both boys entered the priesthood. Throughout his life, however, Lars Levi never lost his great interest in botany.

Lapp missionary with Sami ancestry
Lars Levi Laestadius was the first Lapp missionary in Pite Lappmark. As he had Sami ancestry and was able to speak Sami, he was given the job of teaching the Sami about Christian scripture. In 1826, the Bishop of Härnösand appointed him pastor of Karesuando, and at the age of 26, Lars Levi had no option other than to move alone to Sweden's most northerly parish. A year later he married a settler's daughter called Brita Cajsa Allstadius, a childhood friend from Kvikkjokk. They would go on to have fifteen children. The majority of the population in Karesuando were nomadic Sami. Lars Levi learned a new Sami dialect and Finnish, and was soon able to preach in Swedish, Sami and Finnish. One religious holiday happened to coincide with the market in Karesuando. Tradesmen from Norway and the Swedish coast of the Gulf of Bothnia arrived with fabric, sewing thread, salt, nails and, of course, liquor. They both sold and gave away alcohol. By offering a drink, they were able to obtain a reduction in the price of the reindeer carcasses. However, it was not only the tradesmen who earned money from the liquor.

Irritating drunkenness
The Sami enjoyed a tipple, and during church services almost all the men and many women were half-drunk. All of these drinking habits irritated Lars Levi, who saw how badly the children were doing and the destitution that was spreading due to the widespread abuse of liquor. Even the reindeer were allowed to drift aimlessly, and were often attacked by wolves while the Sami lay drunk in their huts. His angry sermons did not help, however, nor his attempts to have a law introduced that banned the sale of alcohol to the Sami.

Severe crisis, tired and in despair
In the 1840s Lars Levi experienced a severe crisis. He was tired and in despair. He became extremely ill with typhoid fever, but recovered. Then his youngest son died of a common childhood illness. Shortly after, his brother Petrus also died, just 39 years old. Lars Levi became sick again, this time with pulmonary tuberculosis. He was tormented by anxiety and feelings of guilt. When he recovered, he travelled to Härnösand to takes his pastor's exam, which he had not had time for until then. After this, the Bishop appointed him Visitator for all the northern Lapp parishes.

During his first journey as Visitator, he travelled to Åsele and preached in the church there. One of the members of the congregation was a young Sami girl called Maria. Her face shone with serenity. After the service she wanted to talk with the priest. That conversation was a turning point for Lars Levi, who later stated that the young girl had understood the truth of grace in a way that he had not yet managed. Maria herself probably never knew how much that conversation came to mean for Lars Levi.

A noticeable change
Back in Karesuando, the Sami began to notice that Lars Levi Laestadius had changed. His sermons were filled with vivid metaphors from the lives of the Sami that they could understand. He preached about a God who cared about the lives of the people. He attacked priests and traders who lined their pockets at the expense of others. More and more Sami came to the church. Afterwards they sometimes went to the parsonage, which at the time was a simple timber cabin, to receive advice. After twenty years, something new had begun to happen between the pastor and his parishioners. Young and old alike wanted to learn to read. There was also a bustle and energy in the church, with people confessing their sins, crying and praying for forgiveness (within Laestadianism this was known as liikutuksia, a kind of ecstasy). Not everybody liked it, of course. Some were upset about Lars Levi's radical sermons and because there was so much energy in the church. Those who had previously earned a lot of money through the sale of liquor saw their incomes disappear and derided the new morals. A number of priests were strong opponents of Laestadius. Yet despite all this, the revival spread, particularly among the Sami. Drunkenness and the theft of reindeer diminished, which had a positive influence on the Sami's relationships, finances and family life.

At times the revival had fanatical overtones, such as on 8 November 1852 when a number of Sami in Kautokeino in Norway wanted to stop the liquor trade by force. They travelled there and killed both the county sheriff and the trader. The priest and several other Sami and Norwegians were whipped and mistreated. However, the troublemakers were overpowered by Sami from a neighbouring village and put in prison. Two years later, two of the ringleaders were executed. Fourteen others were sentenced to life in prison and their possessions were sold at auction. Researchers have argued about what actually caused the uprising. Was it personal revenge or religious delusion? Was it a social protest? Did Laestadianism in Kautokeino become revolutionary due to the Norwegian priests' harsh resistance to the revival? We know that there were many injustices in society at that time and many reasons to protest. Unfortunately the uprising had the opposite effect, and the power of initiative of the Sami in Kautokeino was paralysed for a long time.

Part of the Swedish Church
Since the 19th century, Laestadianism has been a well-known religious movement in northern Sweden, Finland and Norway. Nowadays it can be characterised as a conservative movement that is still part of the Swedish Church, despite being a strong critic of many modern phenomena in the Swedish Church today.

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