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Læstadianism and Its Role in the Loss of

the Traditional Sámi Worldview

By Viktor 'Vulle' Cornell


In January of 1844, a minister named Lars Levi Læstadius met a woman named Milla Clementsdotter in the Åsele church in central Sweden.  He would go on to become known as the Lapplandic apostle and she would become known as Maria of Lappland.  Their meeting would launch a religious movement that some would say drove the final nail into the coffin of the traditional Sámi worldview.

            This paper is about that movement, Laestadianism, named for its founder.  First, we will examine the traditional worldview of the Sámi and the historical background of Christianity among them.  Next, we will look into the lives of Læstadius and Clementsdotter, as well as the followers who built the movement into what it is today.  We will then be in a position to discuss why Laestadianism had such a profound effect on the Sámi and why it was able to “run like heather fires through the land,” [1] as well as what its spread meant to the old worldview.  Finally, we will look at Laestadianism as it is today, and see how the traditional worldview is faring.

Lars Levi Læstadius

                                                    Lars Levi Læstadius

Traditional Worldview

The Sámi practiced their pre-Christian traditional religion openly in parts of Sápmi, or Sámiland, (the Sámi ancestral lands) until the 18th century, despite the presence of Christianity and churches in the area since the 11th century. [2]   This traditional nature-based religion had elements of animism and shamanism.  It was totemic, ancestral, sacrificial and polytheistic.  It was also comprised of many levels, including general Arctic, ancient Scandinavian, distinctly Sámi, and even Christian beliefs, as well as reflecting the lifestyles of hunter-gatherer and nomadic cultures. [3]   This is all complicated even more by the notable differences in beliefs between the main groups, coastal Sámi, mountain Sámi, and forest Sámi.  Because of this enormous complexity and because these beliefs were not a separate, compartmentalized segment of Sámi life, it is more accurate to speak of the traditional Sámi worldview, rather than their religion.  Unfortunately, tainting much of what we know about this worldview is the fact that it comes to us through the writings of early missionaries, who possessed an obvious bias against it.  Further limiting our knowledge is the fact that the Sámi are historically reluctant to share with outsiders, especially their religious knowledge with priests and missionaries. [4]

            The animistic elements of the traditional worldview are apparent in the belief that all natural objects have souls.  This includes not only people and animals, but trees and stones as well.  In fact, according to the tradition, all these inanimate things have only recently lost the power of speech and they retain the ability to hear and understand, so people must treat them well, as if they were living beings. [5]  

The role of the noaide manifests the shamanistic elements of the traditional worldview.  The noaide served as healer, protector and prophesier for the siida, the basic Sámi social unit, comprised of multiple extended families living and working together.  The noaide also served as mediator between the multiple worlds that exist in the traditional worldview.  These worlds obviously include this one, the one we currently live in.  However, in the Sámi view, there are many creatures and gods living in this world alongside us.  These unseen beings are, for the most part, helpful to the Sámi people, such as Gieddegæš-galggo, a meadow dwelling spirit that is always friendly and gives advice to those who ask, [6] and the Leib Olmai, forest sprites that brought good luck in hunting and trapping. [7]   Other worlds that the noaide had access to include Jabma Aimo, the world of the deceased under the earth (a sort of Sámi Valhalla), and Saiwo Aimo, the world of underground beings.  Saiwo Aimo is populated by creatures both beneficial, such as Uldas who take care of reindeer herds so long as they are paid a toll, [8] and harmful, such as the Stallos, half-human half-troll creatures that hate mankind and eat people. [9]   Bear in mind that the worlds, deities and creatures listed here are merely a sampling, not an exhaustive list.  From this small sampling, the polytheistic nature of the traditional worldview is apparent.

            The noaide is capable of traveling between all these worlds because of the differentiation between the “free soul” and the “body soul”.  According to Lehtola in his article Culture – World View, “in the same way that the world is divided into the visible and the invisible, the tangible and the intangible, people are divided into two parts: the body-soul and the free soul.  In a non-active state - in a dream, trance, or coma - the free soul can leave the body and assume a new form outside a person.” [10]   The main tool that the noaide used for this out-of-body travel was the govadas, a magic image drum.  The drums were made of reindeer hide and wood, usually birch, which is the most spiritually significant tree for the Sámi people as it is capable of surviving in the same extreme conditions to which they are accustomed.  The hammer of the drum was made of either copper or reindeer antler.  These drums served as cognitive maps of the multiple worlds, with the symbols and figures drawn on them serving as representations of elements and inhabitants of the other worlds. [11]   The noaide used the drum to induce the trance state, or jamalgai, [12] required to call up the free soul.  With the addition of a circular or triangular bit of paraphernalia, made of copper or bone and called an arpa, the drums could also be used for divination.  The arpa, when placed atop the drum would bounce about with each beat of the hammer.  Where it landed would signify something to the noaide, as good or bad omens, depending upon which figure or symbol it either landed on or was closest to. [13]   The noaides also used the drums to seek counsel from the spirits.  Exemplifying this function is the belief in the saiwo-vuoign.  Each noaide had access to three spirit creatures dwelling in the Saiwo (underground) world that he could call upon for assistance.  One was a bird, the saiwo-lodde, another was a fish or snake called the saiwo-guolle and the third was a reindeer called the saiwo-sarva.  The collective name for these creatures was the saiwo-vuoign and they served the noaide in a number of different ways. [14]   Note that use of these image drums was not solely for noaides, many families and non-shaman individuals owning and using them on their own.

            Another vital element of the astral traveling of the noaide is the yoik.  The yoik is a traditional Sámi song, not unlike Native American chants, that serves multiple purposes.  On one level, the noaide and other members of the siida would sometimes chant a particular yoik to enter into the trance state in preparation for out-of-body travel.  Then, after returning, the noaide could improvise another yoik to describe for the people what he had seen on his journey.  On another level, a yoik served as a way to reify or call up someone or something, a yoik not being about someone, rather literally being that person. [15]   On yet another level, the yoik used multiple layers of communication and ironic ambiguities to convey different messages, one for any outsiders listening and a different, hidden one for the Sámi audience. [16]   Because of their obvious and powerful symbolism of the traditional worldview of the Sámi, it is not surprising that the early Christian missionaries and the Laestadians singled out the noaides, as well as their drums and yoiks in general for destruction, as we shall soon see.

            The only other important element of the traditional worldview that needs mentioning here is the belief in seites, which reflects some of the totemic, ancestral and sacrificial aspects of the old worldview.  Seites are wooden or stone idols, with the areas surrounding them sometimes fenced in and referred to as passe. [17]   Note that some of these sacred places, passe, did not have seites, and some seites were not associated with a particular passe.  These sacred objects and areas served as both contact points with the siawo world and as locations for offering sacrifices to the beings that dwelt there.  The sacrificial rituals that the Sámi used were elaborate and quite specific. [18]   Sacrifices could consist of anything from particular animal parts, such as reindeer bones or antlers, to the entire living animal, or even human children, according to some legends. [19]   These sacrifices were either for individual deities and other world creatures or ancestral spirits, depending on the desired outcome and what the noaide said was required.  The locations of both seites and passes were closely guarded secrets, passed from generation to generation, with some of them belonging to and being worshipped by individuals or families, while others were for the use of entire siidas, or even whole districts. [20]       

            Now that we are more familiar with some of the beliefs of the traditional Sámi worldview, we can look at the history of the interactions and conflicts between this worldview and Christianity.

History of Christian Contact

Missionaries had been conducting work among the Sámi as early as the 1300s, but due to the isolated nature of Sápmi and its people, the effects of this early contact were superficial at best. [21]   There were forty Norwegian churches built along the Finnmark coast by 1589, [22] but missionary activity did not really intensify until the 1600s, when King Karl IX of Sweden started supporting it, with the proclamation that “all unused lands belong to us, God and the crown.” [23]   With this proclamation, the spread of Christianity, particularly Pietism and Evangelism, [24] along with elements of the Protestant Reformation, now started going hand in hand with colonialism, with royal colonization decrees, called placards, issued in 1673 and 1695. [25]   Religious missions had the obvious purpose of converting the people to Christianity, but they often simultaneously had the goals of encouraging settlement, developing local trade and, perhaps most importantly, isolating converts from their pagan roots.  Because of this manifold purpose of the Christian missions, conversion often became more about gaining access to trade and material wealth, or as a means of improving one’s social status, rather than an end in itself. [26]  

During these early years of exposure to Christianity, the Sámi were able to simply absorb elements of Christianity into their traditional worldview.  The notion of a personified god was not anathema to them, as they already accepted that a number of different gods could help them in different ways.  Some Sámi were quite willing to accept Christianity, so long as it did not interfere with or involve restrictions on their traditional way of life. [27]   With this condition met, it was easy for some Sámi to integrate elements of Christianity into their own indigenous religious beliefs.  Demonstrating this absorption of Christian elements is the late addition of the Radien complex of gods to the Sámi pantheon. [28]   This complex is comprised of Radien Atzhie, considered by some Sámi to be the highest god, and his son, Radien Kiedde, who served as his messenger and through whom Radien Atzhie acted.  As Læstadius says in his Fragments of Lappish Mythology, “…the story of Radien Atzhie reveals too much familiarity with the first chapter of the gospel of John.” [29]   Also demonstrating this Sámi ability to assimilate other beliefs are the drawings of crosses and buildings topped with crosses on some of the confiscated drumheads. [30]   Unfortunately, this acceptance of other beliefs was not an attitude shared by the missionaries.    

The missionary movement among the Sámi in Sweden and Norway began to take a more active, and ugly, turn in the decades surrounding 1700, the period of time known by the Lule Sámi as the end of drum time, goabdesájgge. [31]   One of the first well-known missionaries, Pietist Thomas von Westen, was a part of this turn of events and is representative of the growing opposition to the traditional worldview.  Chosen by the College of Missions in Copenhagen in 1716 to lead missionary work among the Sámi, he preached throughout Norway Sápmi until 1727, [32] and eventually became known as the “Apostle of the Sámi.” [33]   Violently opposed to Sámi shamanistic practices, he demonstrated the growing disdain with which outsiders viewed the Sámi.  Driven to stamp out the paganism that he felt was running rampant through Sápmi, he confiscated and burned image drums, compelled noaides, through threats and actual torture, to renounce their own religious practices and curse indigenous divinities, and burnt or otherwise destroyed seites and passes.  Note however, that he was far from successful in his attempt.  His knowledge of the Sámi language was poor enough that some noaides could get away with simply replacing names of Sámi gods with words that were nearly homonymous, thereby cursing unimportant phenomena, rather than their gods. [34]   Also serving as testimony of Sámi cunningness was the fact that they themselves allowed destruction of drums and sacred places within the framework of their own indigenous religion.  Therefore, it is entirely possible that a number of the drums and seites turned in to and destroyed by von Westen simply did not work anymore or were due to be replaced and were slated for destruction anyway. [35]   Von Westen was also instrumental in driving a wedge between the converted Sámi and those that hung on to their traditions by suggesting that anyone who revealed something about idolatry should be rewarded. [36]   This led to a system of paid informers turning in their fellow Sámi and giving evidence against them at trials, with Christians afraid of retaliation from traditionalists and traditionalists distrusting Christians. [37]   Interestingly, among all this damage done, von Westen was at the same time responsible for encouraging missionaries and clergy to use the Sámi language in an effort to better reach potential converts, thereby helping to spread and preserve the Sámi language.


Lars Levi Læstadius

Læstadius was born January 10, 1800 in Jäkkvik, a city in the Arjeplog parish of Piteå Sápmi, in Northern Sweden. [38]   His father, Karl Læstadius, was an alcoholic Swedish settler who had formerly been a mine bailiff and supported the family by working the land, hunting and trapping.  His mother was a Christian from Gausträsk.  She was also one of the Southern Sámi.  This Sámi group converted relatively late, some of them remaining openly faithful to the traditional worldview into the beginning of the nineteenth century.  At home, he learned both the Swedish and the Southern (Lule) Sámi languages.  Læstadius’ half-brother, Carl Erik, introduced him and his younger brother to nature and the plants of Sápmi, which became his first passion, with the distinction of having four flowers named after him.  He entered the University of Uppsala in 1820 to pursue studies in theology.  However, because of his interest in botany and because he sold mountain plants to help pay for his studies, he was made assistant in the botany department.

            He entered the seminary at the age of 21 and was ordained a Lutheran minister in the Härnösand cathedral in 1825.  Initially appointed minister of the nomadic Sámi in the Piteå district, in 1826 he became vicar of the Karesuando parish.  This is the northernmost parish in Sweden, where fully three-fourths of the population was Sámi.

            In 1827, before moving to Karesuando, he married a Sámi woman named Brita Kajsa Alstadius, with whom he would eventually raise a family of twelve children.  Once in Karesuando, he learned Finnish and the local Sámi dialect; thus, he was capable of preaching to the Sámi in their own language.

            In 1832, Læstadius contracted typhoid fever, which almost killed him.  In 1839, his child Leevi died of measles at the age of three.  Three years later, Læstadius became ill again.  This chain of events, as well as the death of his half-brother Carl Erik, caused him to think about the “sins” of his youth and he concluded that he had thus far lead a “godless” life, despite being admired as a religious man.  His shaken faith is apparent in his pastoral thesis Crapula Mundi (roughly, The World’s Hangover) which he defended in 1843.

            In January of 1844, the questioning and shaken Læstadius had his historic encounter with Milla Clementsdotter.  This is how he describes the meeting in his autobiography:

“In the winter of 1844, I came to Åsele, Lapland, to conduct a church inspection.  Here I met some readers of the milder sort.  Among them was a Lapp girl by the name of Maria, who opened her whole heart to me after hearing the message from the altar.  In the order of grace this simple girl had experiences that I had never heard before.  She had wandered long distances, seeking light in the darkness.  In her travels she had finally come to Pastor Brandell in Nora, and when she had opened her heart to him, he freed her from doubt.  Through him she came to living faith.  And I thought: Here now is a Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus.  Only now, I thought, do I see the way leading to life.  It had been hidden from me until I could talk with Maria.  Her simple account of her travels and experiences made such a deep impression on my heart that the light dawned even for me.  On that evening that I spent with Maria I felt a foretaste of the joy of heaven.  But the pastors in Åsele did not know her heart, and she also knew that they were not of this sheepfold.  I shall remember poor Maria as long as I live, and I hope to meet her in a brighter world on the other side of the grave.” [39]


After this meeting, Læstadius’ sermons took on a new fervor.  He began preaching against the sins of drinking, stealing and worldliness.  His sermons became fiery and folksy, filled with irony and delivered in a manner to which the Sámi could relate.  In 1845, the first of what Læstadius called “the signs of grace” started appearing, with the Sámi he preached to showing “signs of waking up” (heräys).  By the end of that year, his followers had started to have the experience of the Holy Spirit moving them so dramatically that they would leap into the air, shake uncontrollably, or otherwise show signs of religious ecstasy.  These ecstatic tremors came to be known as lihkahusat and would eventually be considered one of the hallmarks of the Laestadian movement. [40]  

   In 1849, the bishop of Härnösand, Erik Abraham Almquist, appointed Læstadius as the vicar of the Pajala parish in Sweden.  Here, the resistance to his radical teachings of Christian ethics and morality was stronger than it had been in Karesuando.  Because of this resistance, the bishop decided in 1853 that two separate church services should be held in Pajala, one for Laestadians and one for the other Christians.  With this decision, Laestadianism became a religious movement in its own right, although it has never officially separated from the Church of Sweden.  Læstadius remained in Pajala, preaching to his followers until his death in 1861.

What was it about Læstadius’ meeting with Milla Clementsdotter that so radically changed his personal faith and his public teachings?  Clementsdotter, also known as Maria of Lappland (Lapin Maija in Finnish), was born in 1813 to a Sámi family that had lost all their property due to the father’s alcoholism.  At the age of six, she was left with a farming family, and from there she moved from foster family to foster family, most of which treated her abusively.  Examples of this abuse include having burning coals placed in her hands as an illustration of the hellfire that would be her lot if she stole anything and having her clothes hidden from her so as to prevent her running away in the snow. [41]   Either in spite of or because of this difficult childhood, she turned to a deep and fervent personal Christian belief system for peace and relief.  According to Laestadian tradition, it was the unshakable faith that she exhibited that so deeply moved Læstadius during his encounter with her.  According to Juhani Raattamaa, Læstadius “did not understand it [salvation] until the Lapp girl Maria said to him that he should believe his sins forgiven in the condition he was now in.  Then he obtained peace by faith in Jesus and began to preach with the power of the Spirit.” [42]

Early Years of Laestadianism

Juhani Raattamaa (1811-1899) served as the first lay preacher of the movement and after Læstadius’ death in 1861; he became its first elder and succeeded Læstadius as the leader of the new sect.  An alcoholic until he was thirty, he did not have his own personal awakening until 1842, when he found a wallet containing 700 rix-dollars.  Demanding a third of the money as a reward, he only received five rix-dollars and the owner instead accused him of stealing some of the money.  Discussion of this event led to a sermon from Læstadius on “shameless selfishness” which touched him deeply, leading him to believe that the devils of greed and honor were even more difficult to conquer than the devil of drunkenness and his only hope for salvation lay in following the teachings of Pastor Læstadius.  When Læstadius established the first mission school to board and educate Sámi children in Lainio in 1848, he appointed his close friend Raattamaa as schoolmaster. [43]   Together, Læstadius and Raattamaa formulated the doctrines that would shape Laestadianism into a pious, charismatic, fundamentalist, evangelical movement with strict morals and extremely conservative ethical and religious views. [44]

            Another important early leader of the movement was Erkki Antti Juhonpieti (1814-1900).  His father was an alcoholic preacher in the same church movement that claimed Milla Clementsdotter as a member.  Known as “readers,” or läsare, this sect was harshly critical of current church practices and several groups eventually broke off from the official church.  He too was suffering from a crisis of faith when Læstadius selected him to serve as schoolmaster in the Pajala parish.  Læstadius convinced him to take the post by explaining to him that all the sins of his past were forgiven by the grace of God.  Armed with this belief in the power of grace as the only means to achieve salvation, he traveled throughout the Tornio River Valley, where he would become known as “the gracious preacher.” [45]

            Two other early leaders of the movement that bear mentioning are Lars Jacobson Hætta and Anders Bær, both native Sámi followers of Læstadius.  Hætta preached vehemently against the three main sins of the Sámi people - alcoholism, reindeer theft, and practicing the old religion.  Bær was the alcoholic son of an alcoholic family of reindeer-herding Sámi who felt called to an extreme religious fanaticism in his desire to rid the Sámi people of the demon of alcohol.  These two hard-line followers were instrumental in the riot known as either the Guovdageaidnu Incident (in Sámi) or the Kautokeino Error (in Finnish). [46]

            On November 8, 1852, a group of approximately 35 Sámi Laestadians, led by Aslak Hætta and Mons Somby, marched on the town of Guovdageaidnu in Finnmark Norway.  Whipped into a religious fervor, they had come to the town calling themselves holy warriors, out to “wage war on the unrepentant.”  Specifically, they had come to attack a shopkeeper that had been selling liquor.  During the course of the riot that ensued, they killed the merchant and burned down his home.  They also killed the village bailiff when he tried to stop them.  The priest in the village was a follower of the well-known minister Nils Stockfleth, known for boxing the ears of his pupils with the New Testament, including his former student Aslak Hætta, one of the leaders of the riot.  Partially because of this connection and partially because he tried to dissuade them from their violence, the rioters severely beat the priest and attempted to burn down his church, with village residents inside.  After the riot, several of the participants fled to the high fells in an attempt to escape punishment, but after the Crown issued an arrest warrant, bailiffs captured most of them.  Importantly, other Sámi reported the whereabouts of quite a few of them to the authorities.  Aslak Hætta and Mons Somby were executed in 1854 for their direct roles in the incident and their skulls were sent to Oslo University for study in these prejudicial times as anatomical representatives of both primitive people and criminals.  Three other participants, including Lars Hætta and Anders Bær, received death sentences, which were later commuted to life in prison for the crime of agitating the people into such frenzy.  While in prison, Lars Hætta and Bær wrote their memoirs, Mui'talusat, though these were not published until 1958.  Hætta also used his time in jail to translate several books from Norwegian into Sámi, including the Bible, which helped lead to his eventual pardon and release from prison after serving fifteen years at the age of 33.

            This singular incident of Sámi violence clearly had its roots in the societal problems that the Sámi were suffering from as much as it did in religious zeal.  The rioters directed their anger as much at secular authorities as they did sinners.  The event occurred just a few months after the closing of the border between Norway and Finland, which cut off some of the migratory reindeer-herding Sámi from some of their best lichen pastures.  In addition, the central target of the attack was the shopkeeper, a liquor merchant who was responsible for contributing to the growing alcoholism problem among the Sámi.  However, because of the link between Laestadianism and the rioters, there was a backlash against the spread of the movement among the Sámi people.  A well-known yoik called “Guovdageaidnu Bloody Knife” commemorates the suffering caused by the riot, and most of the Sámi people take no pride in the incident as a moment of uprising against their oppressors, but rather they see it as a painful and embarrassing blemish in their history. [47]

            One other point worth mentioning about these early years of the Laestadian movement is its connection with the temperance movement.  Note that all of the early leaders mentioned here, Raattamaa, Juhonpieti, Hætta and Bær either were recovering alcoholics themselves or came from families that had suffered from the effects of alcoholism.  This reflects both the growing problem of alcoholism in the Sámi community and explains how the Laestadian movement became so intrinsically linked with the temperance movement.  For these leaders, who were in the act of forming the new religious sect, the main demon that needed fighting was alcohol.


Laestadianism and the Sámi People

Why was the Laestadian faith able to spread so rapidly among the Sámi, making such deep inroads so quickly when other missionary movements had either failed or been successful only through the use of violence?  Several choices and tactical decisions made by early leaders of the movement explain the rapid spread throughout Sápmi, while various elements of the traditional Sámi worldview help to explain the connection that the Sámi felt with the new religion.

            Much like Thomas von Westen from the prior century, Læstadius realized that language was crucial in reaching out to convert the Sámi.  However, Læstadius also added the element of shared culture to better reach out to potential converts.  A third generation Sámi himself, he was raised in Piteå Sápmi and spent time in both Lule and Ume Sápmi.  In addition, he had a natural talent for language, so he was fluent in at least two different Sámi dialects.  Thus, he had the dual advantages of being able to preach to his parishioners in their native tongue and having them not see him as an outsider, but rather as one of their own. [48]   His decision to select unlearned lay preachers from among the common nomadic reindeer-herding Sámi to spread the word reflects his understanding of this cultural advantage.  These lay preachers traveled with the unconverted Sámi year-round, thus having unlimited access to them.  They also spoke their language, and lived in the same conditions.  In effect, the Christian message was no longer coming from outsiders, but from within their own community, making it more acceptable. [49]   Læstadius was well aware of his Sámi roots and was proud of them.  He considered this aspect of his life to be a strength in his work with the Sámi people. [50]   It should be noted that the twelfth point in his pastoral thesis, Crapula Mundi, was not written in Latin or Finnish, as the first eleven were, but rather in Sámi.  In this revolutionary point he claims, “A Lapp is a man of better quality than a new settler or a non-Lapp.” [51]   This pride in his own heritage helped the Sámi to accept him as one of their own, as opposed to their rejection of previous outsider missionaries.

            An even more efficient means of spreading the new religion is the system of boarding schools that Læstadius helped establish in Sápmi.  Two of the early leaders of the movement mentioned earlier, Raattamaa and Juhonpieti, were schoolmasters.  Although the boarding school system in Sápmi came about by state decree, its inception occurred in a time when there was no separation of church and state, so the staff consisted almost entirely of Christian missionaries.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of these missionaries were members of the Laestadian movement.  This ensured that the religious leaders had a steady stream of potential new converts who were, for all intents and purposes, a captive audience unable to escape the religious indoctrination that was a large part of their education. [52]

            One of the reasons the Laestadian movement was able to connect so readily with the Sámi people was that, in many ways, it had as its foundations pre-existing traditions with which they were already familiar and comfortable.  It had as its foundation previous religious movements such as the Läseriet (readers) discussed earlier and the Uorvvut (shouters or callers).  This latter movement began in Guovdageaidnu in the 1700s and spread among the reindeer-herding Sámi.  It got its name from its traveling preachers who gave rigid legalistic sermons about doomsday and penance.  The movement eventually adopted Læstadius as one of its own and was absorbed into the larger Laestadian faith. [53]  

            Another element of Laestadianism that made it more comfortable for the Sámi was that, in the beginnings of the movement, it was closely associated with names and concepts from the traditional Sámi worldview.  For example, the Sámi had long believed in kadniha, people who lived underground but otherwise were very similar to the Sámi in appearance and lifestyle.  These people often took the form of alluring females (kadniha neidah), who could help the Sámi in times of trouble.  Læstadius would fill his sermons with mentions of these and other supernatural creatures, merely changing the meanings to new, Christian ones.  The listeners did not seem to notice the implied change in valuation, they were just happy to be dealing with terms and concepts that they were familiar with and understood. [54]   Being more familiar with the traditions, it was also easier for Læstadius to explain the benefits of conversion in a way that the Sámi understood.  One example of this is the claim that seite reindeer herds (those built up by sacrificing to traditional gods) only lasted the life of their owners, whereas Christian riches lasted three generations. [55]  

            Similarly, the lihkahusat, or ecstatic trembling, mentioned in the section on Læstadius’ life, was very reminiscent of the trance state that the noaides had formerly entered into.  These spontaneous and uncontrollable expressions of emotion most often occurred during sermons, the singing of hymns, solitary reading of the Bible, or the Eucharist.  Sometimes they were sorrowful, due to feelings of sinfulness, other times they were joyful, when believers felt that Christ had forgiven all their sins.  These joyful outbursts consisted of anything from screaming aloud to leaping up and dancing on tables.  This extreme religious emotion was at odds with mainstream Lutheranism, but it was the sort of relationship the Sámi were comfortable having with the supernatural. [56]   Along these same lines, the traveling lay preachers filled one of the roles of the vanishing noaides, as the people called upon by the laity to interpret matters of spiritual importance. [57]

            From the very beginning, the Laestadian movement was a peasant movement, relying on strong traditional ties and dealing with agrarian concerns and values, specifically, the societal issues that the Sámi were then dealing with. [58]   Hætta and Bær focused their sermons on the sins of alcoholism, reindeer theft and following the old religious traditions.  These were not issues of interest to outsiders, even other Lutherans or Christians.  These were problems that the Sámi were facing, therefore here was finally a religion for them, of their own making, rather than an outsider religion forced upon them.  As the movement spread among the coastal and migrating Sámi, the congregationalists characterized the Sámi language as a “holy language” or a “language of the heart.”  In its own way, this isolationist/separatist nature of the religion activated a sense of pride and identity in a group that had long been lacking any strong sense of self. [59]

            The strict moral codes that the Laestadians followed also made the religion more appealing to other Sámi.  By the absolute forbidding of alcohol, they turned entire villages away from pervasive alcoholism almost overnight.  This not only helped them in their own lives, but also improved their social standing with outsiders, who had long looked down upon them as ignorant and immoral.  Along the same lines, as the Sámi struggled with fewer and fewer resources, theft had started to spread in some villages.  With the spread of Laestadianism, there was a reduction in this practice, with repentant thieves in some cases returning stolen property to its rightful owner after being ‘awakened.’  The provincial governor of Jokkmokk Parish actually praised the Laestadian revival for making the Sámi “an honourable people in deeds and conduct.” [60]

            One final point that needs mentioning as to why the Sámi people took so readily to Laestadianism is that of the doctrine of “Sacral Succession” or the “Order of Grace.”  According to Laestadian church tradition, Jesus Christ served as the first intermediary between the Holy Spirit and holy people here on earth.  Before his Ascension, he left “the power of the keys” to Peter, who then passed them on to the early Church.  Shortly after Peter’s death, the Catholic Church became corrupted and the true divine message disappeared until Martin Luther brought it back out into the open.  Unfortunately, his message was also lost in church doctrine until it was again revealed and transmitted through Læstadius to the first congregation of his followers.  The important thing to remember is the Sámi link in this chain before Læstadius. [61]   He did not have his spiritual awakening until meeting with Milla Clementsdotter, a Sámi woman.  This meant that the Sámi people played an integral role in carrying the true message of God.  In the words of Johan Turi, “[Læstadius] had not the Holy Spirit before he got it through a Lapp girl.” [62]


What Laestadianism Meant to the Old Worldview

Despite the good things that Laestadianism did for the Sámi, such as dealing with the alcoholism and problems with theft in their communities and improving their social standing with outsiders, it was a strong blow to the traditional worldview and the ancient religious beliefs.  For Laestadians, everything related to the old ways was a sin.  This meant that yoiking, worship at seites, possession or use of image drums, and any form of noaide shamanism disappeared from Sámi communities as quickly as Laestadianism spread through them. [63]   For that matter, the stigma against the old worldview was so intense that even talking about it was looked down upon.  As described in the previous section, Læstadius kept some elements of the traditional worldview and used them in his sermons, however, the absorption, or “bastardization” as Laestadians called it, of Christian elements into the old worldview was no longer tolerated. [64]   According to the strict interpretation of the Bible that the Laestadians used, recognition of any other gods or worshipping nature in any way was blasphemous.

            Another way the Laestadian revival affected the Sámi was its emphasis on original sin.  As with most evangelical religious movements, there was strong emphasis on the notion that the people are born sinful and that purging themselves of their sins is the only way to achieve salvation.  This belief in man’s inherent sinfulness no doubt helped to contribute to the “feelings of inferiority deeply ingrained in most Sámi as a painful complex of shame [and] self-contempt,” [65] as well as leading them to further reject what they considered their sinful past. [66]   It also had the unintended effect of increasing their own acceptance of second-class citizen status by ensuring them that this was god’s will and their reward would come in the afterlife.  

            One final effect that Laestadianism had on the Sámi that is worth mentioning is the increased subjugation of women.  In the traditional worldview, Sámi women had enjoyed a status on relatively equal footing with the men, sometimes even holding superior positions in the hierarchy.  For example, in a traditional reindeer-herding siida, it was the female elder who was responsible for keeping the traditions, making reindeer breeding decisions, and serving as the final authority regarding marriage choices. [67]   Under Laestadian Christian views, however, women took a more subservient role, with the common attitude that women should be men’s servants being transmitted from fathers to daughters. [68]

Laestadianism Among the Sámi Today

Even before the Guovdageaidnu Incident there was an element of resistance within the Sámi community against Laestadianism.  Interestingly, some Sámi saw the lihkahusat experienced by the believers as the work of demons rather than possession by the Holy Spirit. [69]   Others saw no reason to give up the traditions that had always served them well for an exclusivist religion that viewed their very way of life as sinful.  After the Guovdageaidnu Incident, the backlash grew even stronger, with the event standing out as an example to the Sámi of religious fervor gone awry.

            After Læstadius’ death, the movement split into four different factions.  The majority of Laestadians are members of the sect known as Conservative Laestadianism.  The other three sects are First-Born Laestadianism, centered in Southern Finland, the Word of Peace, located in the Oulu region of Finland with ties to the Laestadian movement in North America, and the New Awakening, situated mostly in Sápmi.  The New Awakening is the only sect that actively carries out missionary work.  The other three sects primarily pass on membership from generation to generation. [70]   As the movement spread south, it began to be viewed as more Finnish than Sámi, lessening its positive effects as an incorporating value for the Sámi people.  Further, after the Alta Dam conflict, the Sámi people were able to look for and find other ways of expressing their own ethnic and cultural identities.

            There is no doubt that Laestadianism continues to have an impact on the Sámi people and their views, affecting everything from their views on women’s rights to their literature and music, even affecting the ways in which they view their own history. [71]   However, in today’s Sámi renaissance, this impact is being examined critically by those most effected by it, with modernization of the religious movement being forced upon it both from within and the Sámi community at large.



Did Laestadianism sound the final death knell for the traditional Sámi worldview?  To answer that, we must first decide what happened to that worldview.  Did it disappear completely, wiped out by missionaries and replaced by new beliefs?  On the other hand, it may have followed typical Sámi ways of avoiding conflict and gone into hiding, being practiced still underground and in secret.  Another possibility is that it survives openly today, modified and adapted by its encounters with Christianity and outsiders, still existing but in a different form.

            It is easy for outsiders to think that the traditional Sámi worldview has been eradicated.  The Norwegian state religion, Evangelical Lutheranism claims 86 percent of the population, with only ten percent not affirming any particular denomination. [72]   As a number of rights and benefits are accorded only to members of the official state religion, these percentages should not be surprising.  Sweden did not end its support of the official state religion, again Evangelical Lutheranism, until 2000.  Until 1996, all Swedish citizens were considered members of the Lutheran Church at birth. [73]   While Finland does not recognize an official state religion, the majority of Sámi in that country belong to the Lutheran church, with the legislative requirement that services and ceremonies held in Sápmi be bilingual or in Sámi if requested. [74]   On the other hand, the Skolt Sámi living in the Kola Peninsula are, for the most part, affiliated with the Orthodox Church of Russia.  All European colonial powers used official state churches as tools of subjugation in their imperialist land grabs of the last several hundred years, so how these churches could gain such a strong presence among the indigenous peoples in those areas is obvious.  However, to think that these statistics imply the complete eradication of the traditional worldview is to look at the situation from a western mind-set, instead of through Sámi eyes.

            The Sámi have historically dealt with conflict not actively, but passively.  Their approach has long been to head to the tree line or to disappear.  They would go into hiding or go underground, sometimes literally.  As mentioned earlier, they have also traditionally been reluctant to discuss their worldview or lifestyle (Sámi vuohki, Sámi ways) with outsiders.  Knowing these attitudes, it is important to remember that the majority of the historical information we have on the conflicts between the Sámi and outsider religions comes to us from missionaries.  This means that the written resources have a certain misleading one-sidedness.  There is no mention of passive traditionalists in this material, except in those few instances where they were detected and reported to the authorities.  Instead, our view is confined to those who actively opposed the spread of Christianity, which is the minority of the Sámi. [75]   According to Rydving, even during the harshest of the missionary activity among the Lule Sámi, “several of the sacred places on the intermediate level were still used, however, but secretly.  In addition, new places for indigenous rituals were established.  Anyone who wanted to continue to sacrifice to the gods of their ancestors had to keep in hiding from the authorities who tried to prevent these practices.  Indigenous rituals were therefore performed at the mountain ridge, far away from the clergymen who only rarely came there.” [76]   According to Juha Pentikäinen in the movie The Shaman’s Journey, to this day some Sámi carry small stone or wooden idols in their pockets when they go to church.  In this context, it is indeed possible that elements of the traditional worldview have held on among the Sámi, being practiced in secret or in hiding, away from the prying eyes of outsiders.

            The final way of looking at the current state of the traditional worldview is also decidedly more in keeping with the Sámi view, as opposed to the western dichotomous notions of winners and losers, them and us, past and present.  This view is that the traditional worldview still exists today, adapted and modified perhaps, but still in existence, still being practiced, literally being lived by the Sámi everyday.  If we add the terms buorredeaddji (healers) and ofelaš (pathfinder) to our conception of a noaide, it would not be a huge stretch to think of today’s Sámi artists, writers and cultural leaders, as modern noaides.  This would mean that they are serving as cultural pathfinders and healers, helping the Sámi to find a direction in the modern world while retaining their own identities, their essential Sámi-ness. [77]   With this view, one could readily believe that Sámi spirituality today is expressed daily in mundane tasks, lived rather than talked about. [78]

            In the end, I personally believe that the reality is most likely a combination of all three of these viewpoints.  I do not doubt that there are some elements of the traditional Sámi worldview that have been lost forever, victims of assimilation and modernization.  At the same time, I hold out strong hope that some practices have survived to the present day, quietly being observed in secret, hidden away even from those of us outsiders who want to advance the Sámi cause.  I also believe that one can hear the Sámi traditional worldview in the yoiks of Mari Boine or in the poems of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, that these represent that spirituality today, available in its modern form to the Sámi as well as those of us outsiders who are seeking spiritual answers.  To paraphrase Ailo Gaup, the ancient spirits never go away (where would they go?); instead, they simply wait patiently for us humans to remember them and our connection to them.


1. Johan Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland (Oxford:  Alden Press, 1931), 243.


2 . “Sámi People” in Wikipedia; available from; accessed 2 October 2, 2005.


3 . Veli-Pekka Lehtola, Culture – World View, 2004 [online]; available from Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; accessed 24 September 2005.


4 .  Lars Levi Læstadius.  Fragments of Lappish Mythology (Beaverton: Aspasia Books, 2002), 54.


5.  Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland, 246.


6.  Ibid., 131.


7.  Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 99.


8.  Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland, 196.


9.  Ibid., 173.


10. Lehtola, Culture – World View.


11. Alan ‘Ivvár’ Holloway, The Decline of the Sámi People’s Indigenous Religion, [online]; available from University of Texas, Sámi Web; accessed 22 September 2005.


12. Ailo Gaup, The Night Between the Days, trans. John Weinstock (2001), 100.


13. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 159.


14. Ibid., 111.


15. Lehtola, Culture – World View.


16. Ibid.


17. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 102.


18. Ibid., 147.


19. Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland, 143.


20. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 104.


21. Lehtola, Culture – World View.


22. John ‘Joavnna’ Weinstock, Laestadianism, [online]; available from University of Texas, Sámi Web; accessed 22 September 2005.


23. Veli-Pekka Lehtola, The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition (Aanaar-Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002), 30.


24. Weinstock, Laestadianism.


25. Lehtola, The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition, 32.


26. Barnett Richling, “‘Very Serious Reflections’: Inuit Dreams about Salvation and Loss in Eighteenth-Century Labrador.”  Ethnohistory, Spring 1989, 36-2 [online]; available from ATLA Religion Database; accessed 23 September 2005


27. Håkan Rydving, The End of Drum-Time:  Religious Change among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s (Uppsala:  Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1993), 76.


28. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 73.


29. Ibid., 75.


30. Nicholas Carl ‘Niillas’ Mollberg, Evangelical Christianity and the Sámi:  Warring Against the Unrepentant, 2003 [online]; available from the University of Texas, Sámi Web; accessed 22 September 2005. 

31. Rydving, The End of Drum-Time:  Religious Change among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s,1.


32. Elina Helander, The Sámi of Norway, 1992 [online]; available from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; accessed 10 October 2005.


33. Wikipedia, “Sámi People.”


34. Rydving, The End of Drum-Time:  Religious Change among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s, 60.


35. Ibid., 66.


36. Ibid., 60.


37. Ibid., 78.


38. The timeline of Læstadius’ life that I will be using in the first part of this section is a compilation from five separate sources.  I will list all of them here, one time only, thus avoiding unnecessary overuse of endnotes:

-Warren Hepokoski, Lars Levi Læstadius and the Revival in Lapland, 1993 [online]; available from; accessed 15 October 2005.

-“History of Lars Levi Læstadius” [online]; available from Laestadius Website; accessed 30 September 2005.

-Johanna Kouva, Laestadianism in Finland  Spring, 2005 [online]; available from the University of Tampere ; accessed 29 September 2005.

-“Lars Levi Læstadius” in Wikipedia; available from; accessed 2 October 2, 2005.

-Ilkka Pyysiäinen, Corrupt Doctrine and Doctrinal Revival: On the Nature and Limits of the Modes Theory [online]; available from; accessed 29 September 2005.


39. Warren Hepokoski, The Laestadian Movement:  Background Writings and Testimonies, 1998 [online]; available from; accessed 10 October 2005.


40. Pyysiäinen, Corrupt Doctrine and Doctrinal Revival: On the Nature and Limits of the Modes Theory.


41. Hepokoski, The Laestadian Movement:  Background Writings and Testimonies.


42. Ibid.


43. Ibid.


44. Holloway, The Decline of the Sámi People’s Indigenous Religion.


45. Hepokoski, The Laestadian Movement:  Background Writings and Testimonies.


46. The description that I will give of the Guovdageaidnu Incident is a compilation from four separate sources (all of which have already been cited).  I will list all of them here, one time only, thus avoiding unnecessary overuse of endnotes:

-Hepokoski, Lars Levi Læstadius and the Revival in Lapland.

-Lehtola, The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition, 40.

-Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland, 226.

-Weinstock, Laestadianism.


47. Lehtola, The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition, 40.


48. Weinstock, Laestadianism.


49. Raeburn Lange, “Indigenous Agents of Religious Change in New Zealand, 1830-1860,” The Journal of Religious History, October 2000, 24-3 [online]; available from ATLA Religion Database; accessed 26 September 2005.


50. Juha Pentikäinen, Northern Ethnography – On the Foundations of a New Paradigm.  November 2001 [online]; published by the University of Helsinki; available from the University of Chile ; accessed 29 September 2005.


51. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 27.


52. Michael Coleman, “The Symbiotic Embrace: American Indians, White Educators and the School, 1820s-1920s,” History of Education, 1996, 25-1 [online]; available from ATLA Religion Database; accessed 26 September 2005.


53. Weinstock, Laestadianism.


54. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 25.


55. Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland, 22 & 104.


56. Pyysiäinen, Corrupt Doctrine and Doctrinal Revival: On the Nature and Limits of the Modes Theory.


57. Holloway, The Decline of the Sámi People’s Indigenous Religion.


58. Kirsti Suolinna, The Relationship Between Social Change and Religious Movements [online]; available from the University of Komenského ; accessed 26 September 2005.


59. Øystein Steinlien, Cultural Change and Ethnic Continuity - Laestadianism as a Politically Incorporating Value in a Coast Sámi Municipality [online]; available from the University of Tromsø Centre for Sámi Studies; accessed 30 September 2005.


60. Roger Kvist, “Nomadic Saami and Alcohol:  Jokkmokk Parish, 1760-1910,” Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Annual 1992 v12 i2, 193.


61. Læstadius, Fragments of Lappish Mythology, 29.


62. Turi, Turi’s Book of Lappland, 226.


63. Lehtola, The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition, 106.


64. Mollberg, Evangelical Christianity and the Sámi:  Warring Against the Unrepentant.


65. Harald Eidheim, “Ethno-Political Development among the Sami after World War II,” in Sami Culture in a New Era:  The Norwegian Sami Experience, ed. Harald Gaski (Karasjohka:  Davvi Girji, 1997), 34.


66. Ibid.


67. Elina Helander and Kaarina Kailo, eds., No Beginning, No End:  The Sami Speak Up, (Finland:  Canadian Circumpolar Institute, 1998), 98.


68. Ibid., 29.


69. Hepokoski, Lars Levi Læstadius and the Revival in Lapland.


70. Kouva, Laestadianism in Finland.


71. Weinstock, Laestadianism.


72. Holloway, The Decline of the Sámi People’s Indigenous Religion.


73. International Coalition for Religious Freedom “Religious Freedom World Reports:  Sweden, Finland, Norway” 2004 [online]; available from; accessed 10 November 2005.


74. “The Sami in Finland” 2000 [online]; available from the Finland Ministry for Foreign Affairs; accessed 10 November 2005.


75.Rydving, The End of Drum-Time:  Religious Change among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s, 69 & 91.


76. Ibid., 102.


77. Helander and Kailo, eds., No Beginning, No End:  The Sami Speak Up, 164.



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