Finnish Lutherans in Ohio, 1871-1937
Skrivet av John I.Kolehmainen   
2006-10-29 18:48

Finnish Lutherans in Ohio, 1871-1937

John I. Kolehmainen

During the seventies and eighties of the last century emigrants began to move across the seas from Finland to the New World. By 1893 nearly forty thousand Finns, drawn almost exclusively from the two northernmost provinces of Oulu and Vaasa, had applied for passports to America. These pioneers generally headed for the Far West, Minnesota, and Michigan; a small but increasing number of them, however, ended their trans-continental journey in the Western Pennsylvania - Ohio area. As early as 1871-73 there were more than seventy Finns doing railroad construction work in and about Titusville, Pennsylvania. Many of these mobile labor units penetrated into Ohio: in 1872 a Finnish section gang visited Ashtabula Harbor while laying track for the Ashtabula, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh Railroad; a second company of migratory laborers spent the autumn of 1873 in the town but departed, as had its predecessor, when its task was finished. Not until the spring of 1874 was the first permanent settlement begun by a group of fourteen men, formerly in the employ of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, who found work as ore shovelers at the Ashtabula unloading docks. The rapid development at this time of the iron ore trade and the subsequent brisk demand for shovelers - a bit of welcome news that traveled swiftly back to the Old Country - caused the Lake Erie port to replace Titusville as the point to which emigrants directed their footsteps. By 1878 it was estimated that the settlement contained fifty males, three wives, and seven young women; the number rose to nearly 1,500 foreign-born Finns at the close of the century. From Ashtabula, moreover, shovelers went to the new ore unloading docks at Fairport, Cleveland, and Conneaut where permanent settlements were established in 1885, 1886, and 1892 respectively. Finnish laborers were also drawn from the original settlement to Youngstown (1879), Girard (1881), and Warren (1889) where they in turn settled down. By 1900 more than 2,500 emigrants from the small Baltic country had entered Ohio. The following two decades brought more and more Finns; at the end of 1920 there were nearly 6,500 foreign-born in the state. They were largely Oulu and Vaasa rural folk, drawn from the mobile elements within the agricultural population: sons and daughters of landowners, agrarian proletarians, hired hands, and children of tenant farmers. Each had his own reasons for forsaking the fatherland. The vista of economic opportunity attracted many; Russian oppression compelled others to seek refuge; some came to enjoy the warmth of a family hearth; the zest of adventure motivated few. In all, they formed a young group of migrants, in their early twenties, unmarried, and literate.

A large majority, moreover, was Lutheran by tradition and training. In Finland Lutheranism had been the state-supported religion since the Reformation and naturally attracted the largest body of communicants. In 1870 the followers of Martin Luther constituted 97.9 % of the total population; by 1910 the proportion of Lutherans had risen to 98.1 % but then dropped to 96.1 % in 1933. Dissenting bodies were unable to secure much of a foothold; the Baptists have never formed more than 1.7 % of the population; the Methodists number only 2,739 at the present time; and the adherents to the Congregational Church account for but 0.6 % of the total number of inhabitants. Since established religious predilections are extremely susceptible of transfer, Lutheranism was the creed professed by nearly all of the immigrant Finns in Ohio.

The first Finnish pastor to preach the Gospel to them was a Church of Finland clergyman, Alfred Elisier Backman. Returning to Northern Michigan after a visit to his homeland, Mr. Backman spent four days in the Ashtabula Harbor settlement in the fall of 1881.1 His visit naturally intensified the long-felt desire of many Finns to resume the normal spiritual life to which they had been accustomed from birth. Since the Ashtabula Harbor Finns had as yet no formal religious organization and despaired of finding or supporting by themselves an ordained Finnish clergyman, they joined hands with the Swedes. During the years 1882-89 the Swedish and Finnish Lutherans were served by four bi-lingual ministers. The first was a twenty-eight-year-old seminarian, John J. Hoikka, who spent the summer of 1882 among the two groups. In the fall Hoikka returned to his studies but revisited his friends during the winter recess. The impression which the young student made upon the Swedes and Finns by his fearlessness, sincerity and ability led to talk of forming a permanent Swede-Finn congregation with Hoikka as its shepherd. The preacher, however, had other plans; after being ordained in June, 1883, he went to Oregon to work among the Finnish people. The Swedes and Finns then turned to the Rev. Alexander Malmstrom who had been called to America by the Augustana Synod to do work among the Finnish as well as Swedish immigrants. Malmstrom came to Ashtabula in the spring of 1883 and preached several times; he was not pleased with the prospects which the community seemed to offer and shortly left the city. The two nationalities were next served by John W. Lähde who arrived in the settlement in May, 1884. Largely through his efforts among the Finns the Bethlehem congregation was founded that year; this first Finnish religious body in Ohio was, in the absence of any Finnish-American synods, affiliated with the Augustana Synod. The Synod's records show that the Bethlehem Church was in existence from 1884 to 1889 with a membership between twenty-five and forty Finns. Within a short time after his arrival, Lähde had won the esteem of the Finns and Swedes; in testimony of their affection the two groups sent him to the Augustana Seminary for the spring term of 1885 after which he was ordained. After his ordination the Rev. Mr. Lähde returned to Ashtabula, but in the fall of 1885 moved to New York. A newspaperman August Edwards, undertook to perform the indispensable clerical duties for the Finns and Swedes after Lähde's departure. For four years he took time from his newspaper work to deliver sermons, christen children, and bury the dead. When ordained Finnish ministers, as the Rev. E. Panelius and the missionary Frans E. Ohde, chanced to visit the settlement, Edwards quietly and without complaint withdrew into the background.

In June, 1889, the Rev. John J. Hoikka returned for his third visit to the community and observed with alarm the activity of the Congregationalists among the Finnish residents.2 In common with many other contemporary Finnish clerics, Hoikka regarded Lutheranism as the "natural" religion of his people, best suited to them psychologically and historically; he saw Congregationalism as a "new teaching", erroneous and dangerous, threatening the dominance of the Lutheran faith. He shortly persuaded the powerful and gifted Rev. William Williamson of Duluth, Minnesota, to visit Ashtabula Harbor and fortify the Finns' resistance against the new doctrines. The knight-errant of Lutheranism, who reached the settlement on September 21, 1889, just ten days after the arrival of a Finnish Congregationalist preacher, lost no time in drawing his sword. In two days he delivered three resounding appeals for the Finns to hold fast to the religion of their forefathers. Williamson in return no doubt for his oratorical prowess, was asked to become the pastor of the Ashtabula Harbor Lutherans. He refused their call chiefly because there was no formally organized religious body among the Finns since the dissolution earlier that year of the Bethlehem congregation. But shortly after Williamson's return to Duluth, a movement was begun to re-establish a Finnish Lutheran church; at a mass meeting of Finns on January 6, 1890, the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Lutheran Church was organized. Members of this new body sent another call to Williamson who now accepted the invitation. On April 6 the "real" minister re-entered the Ohio settlement.

For nearly a year the energetic Williamson received the solid support of the Finns in his crusade against drunkenness, dancing, and other practices then regarded as sinful. Yet, in spite of commendable work in purifying community morals, opposition to the preacher's tactics - aggravated by personal animosities - developed within the congregation. Many resented the practice of requiring all who wished to enjoy the Holy Eucharist to visit the parsonage on the preceding day for a confession of sins; the pastor's refusal to administer the sacrament to several individuals he considered unworthy raised a great uproar. The decisions, claimed many, were unprecedented, arbitrary, and unbecoming a true Lutheran clergyman. The qualifications, moreover, that Williamson imposed on those who wished to serve in the baptismal rites alienated others. Not a few also found his lack of a formal academic education sufficient cause for discrediting him. The ultimate outcome was schism; in May, 1891, a majority of Williamson's communicants walked out on him and a month later formed a separate Finnish Lutheran church in the community.

Meanwhile Williamson had preached the Gospel to the Finns in the neighboring settlements shortly after his arrival in Ohio in 1890. As a result of his activity there appeared by 1900 a fairly large congregation in Fairport and smaller groups in Conneaut and Erie (Pennsylvania) acknowledging his spiritual leadership. Desiring to unite these congregations in a common organization, Williamson decided to form an independent and separate synod. The Suomi Synod (founded in 1890) was anathema to him, and while he looked with favor on the Finnish National Church (begun in 1896), Williamson was fearful that it would die in infancy. The new religious organization was incorporated on May 1, 1900; its name, the Vapaa Kansan Kirkkokunta (the Free People's Church), and motto came from 2 Corinthians 3:17. The existence of the Vapaa Kansan "Synod" as an independent body was very short. Only two annual conventions were held under Williamson's presidency and only three men were ordained into its ministry. Inasmuch as there were no doctrinal differences between the Ohio sect and the Finnish National Church, and since the latter had now begun to give promise of longevity, the sire of the Vapaa Kansan "Synod" proposed at the second convention of that body in February, 1901, that it merge with the National Church. The union of the two churches, delayed somewhat by Williamson's unsuccessful attempt to get the word Vapaa added to the official title of the National Church, was accomplished in late 1901. The four clergymen of the Vapaa Kansan organization were accepted into the ministry of the larger church; and when the veteran Rev. W. A. Mandellof resigned the presidency in May, 1905, Williamson was appointed his successor, serving in that capacity until 1908.

For eighteen years following the schism of 1891 Williamson directed the destinies of his communicants without further internal opposition. The Ashtabula Harbor and Fairport congregations grew to considerable size; in 1907 the membership of the former was 430, and of the latter 425. There were fifty members in Conneaut, fifty-three in Perry, and ten in Cleveland; the Perry congregation had joined the National Church in 1901, the Cleveland group in 1903. But unfortunate developments in 1909-10 shattered Williamson's following. As early as December 30, 1908, it was reported at a meeting of the Ashtabula Harbor church that rumors were rife in the community charging their pastor with improper relations with several female communicants. An inquiry, conducted by President K. G. Rissanen of the National Church, ended in a stalemate with Williamson refusing to admit the truth of his alleged misconduct. Rissanen thereupon decided to turn the case over to the church's highest tribunal, the annual assembly. The eleventh, or Lehtijärvi (Minnesota), convention very carefully appraised the evidence against one of its ablest ministers. By a close vote of fourteen to eleven the clergyman was found guilty of misconduct and removed from the church roll; on the following day, after Williamson had "tearfully confessed" his wrongs, the assembly retracted its sentence of excommunication and substituted for it a "firm warning". The humiliation proved to be too much for Williamson; he shortly repudiated his confession. The National Church re-imposed its ban on August 18, 1909; the recalcitrant preacher in return announced his resignation from the church. While the first impulse of his communicants had been to give Williamson their unfaltering support even unto secession, the course of events at the Lehtijärvi assembly and subsequently created a body of opinion within the Ashtabula Harbor and Fairport congregations hostile to his retention. The inevitable outcome was schism. The Ashtabula National Church dismissed Williamson on July 2, 1909; the Fairport church on October 3 of the same year. The faithful followers of the erring pastor, on the other hand, officially withdrew from the National Church in January, 1910, and became independent Lutheran congregations. The breach was made irrevocable by the Gilbert (Minnesota) assembly of the National Church in June, 1910, when it pronounced a final and complete excommunication of Williamson and his supporters. The Finnish National churches faced a difficult period of reconstruction following this schism. A small body of communicants in Conneaut was totally lost to Williamson; the membership of the Ashtabula and Fairport congregations dropped to about 150 each while the groups in Perry and Cleveland dwindled to an inconsiderable figure. Yet, largely through the effective leadership of Pastors Matti P. Miettinen (1910-16, 1927-32), W. W. Wilen (1916-24), A. S. Kokkonen (1924), R. Niemi (1924-27), E. Penttinen (1932-33) and the incumbent, the young and able, American-born G. A. Aho, the National Church was able to make a satisfactory and continuous recovery. The membership of the Ohio congregations of the National Church in 1936 was: Ashtabula Harbor, 192; Fairport, 207; and Cleveland, 19.

The followers of Williamson, on the other hand, continued their activity as independent Lutherans. They numbered about eighty-five each in Ashtabula Harbor and Fairport and a handful in Conneaut. In 1916 the angel of death removed Williamson from this troubled world and shortly afterward negotiations were started to reunite the congregations which bad split on a personal rather than on a doctrinal question. The pastorate of the independent bodies had been offered by them to the Rev. John Huuskonen, a National Church clergyman then serving in Wisconsin. The National Church forbade its pastor to accept the charge inasmuch as an authorized representative of the church was already in the region. Huuskonen, whose relations with the deceased had been very intimate, chose to ignore the order and accepted the call of the independent congregations. Subsequent negotiations between the National Church and Huuskonen failed to bring a solution; in August, 1918, the board of directors of the church imposed a sentence of excommunication upon its recalcitrant minister. The Finlayson (Minnesota) assembly of 1919 affirmed the ban. Since then reunion forces have tried again and again to bring harmony between the independent and National Church congregations in Ohio but their attempts have been thus far unsuccessful. Some 150 followers of Huuskonen still live in each of the communities of Ashtabula and Fairport, less than a dozen remain in Conneaut. Pervading their religious life is the ubiquitous spirit of their founder and apostle, William Williamson.

The secessionists, who had walked out on Williamson in May, 1891, shortly organized the Ashtabula Harbor New Finnish Lutheran Church. Resolving to call a minister from the Old Country - one who had been "ordained by the consistory of the Church of Finland" - they succeeded in persuading the Rev. Abel Kivioja to come to America. The new pastor and his able wife, Liisi, arrived at Ashtabula Harbor in November, 1891, and began to labor diligently in the religious and temperance fields. Kivioja's activity, moreover, took him beyond the confines of Ashtabula: as early as December 13, 1891, he visited Finn Hollow in Fairport and founded a Lutheran congregation there among the Finns. He also began to make regular pilgrimages to Conneaut in March, 1894, which resulted in the initiation of a Lutheran church among the city's Finnish residents in July, 1895. While the Rev. Kivioja found time to visit Finns in Warren and New Castle (Pennsylvania), he was not able to add a fourth formally organized congregation to his charge. Until his return to Finland in 1897, the indefatigable pastor took excellent care of his home parish as well as of those which he had been instrumental in founding at Fairport and Conneaut. His successor was the Rev. Kaarlo Huotari of Ironwood, Michigan, who continued the three congregation system for a period of three years. In March, 1900, the Fairport and Conneaut churches withdrew from the arrangement in order to procure a joint minister, the Rev. K Salovaara; Huotari continued as pastor of the Ashtabula Harbor church. Salovaara became especially active in his visitations to Cleveland, Warren, Girard, and Youngstown; in each community he not only preached the Gospel but exhorted the Finns to band themselves together in a formal religious organization. Largely as a result of his work, Finnish Lutheran churches were started in Cleveland in February, 1903; Girard, March, 1903; Warren, January, 1904; and Youngstown, September, 1905.3 All of these churches, as the older institutions at Ashtabula Harbor, Fairport, and Conneaut, joined the Suomi Snyod, a national body founded in 1890, which was patterned after, though not directly affiliated with, the Church of Finland. In later years two small Suorni Synod congregations appeared in Burton and Lowellville. The membership, including children, of these Suomi Synod churches in 1907 and 1935 was as follows:



Ashtabula Harbor



























Since 1910 the Suomi Synod churches in Ohio have had a regional organization, the Ohio-Pennsylvania Conference, to co-ordinate their religious work and stimulate as well as direct their religious endeavors. The conference plan was adopted in 1909 by the Suomi Synod and affiliated churches of the synod were urged to form sectional organizations. The emergence of the Ohio-Pennsylvania Conference was greatly facilitated by the practice of holding joint annual summer religious festivals. At such a gathering held at Monessen, Pennsylvania, in July, 1909, a committee was chosen to prepare the ground for a conference. The committee report, of which 150 copies were printed and distributed, was ready in the spring of 1910 and received the approval of the synod's consistory in July of that year. It was then presented to the delegates of twelve churches from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, convening at Fairport on July 15, 1910, and was accepted by them. This may be considered the first meeting of the conference. A constitution was shortly drafted; between September 11, 1910, and April 29, 1911, all of the Ohio churches accepted the constitution and thus became members of the conference. The functions of the regional body have been many. It has supported missionaries not only in the immediate vicinity but as far north as Canada and as far south as Mississippi. It has co-ordinated the activity of the various religious groups and acted as a central clearing house for its member churches. It has tried to improve and standardize instruction of the children and has sponsored an annual convention of Sunday school teachers, known as the "Sunday School Days". The conference has been truly an important force in the religious life of the Ohio Finns.

The internal activity of the Finnish immigrant Lutheran churches in Ohio has not differed greatly from that of the American institutions. In addition to the purely clerical work of each congregation, there have appeared such auxiliary organizations as women's sewing circles, choral societies, and a variety of young people's clubs. The only conspicuous difference between the immigrant and the American church is in the instruction of the youth; in the former's Sunday, summer, and confirmation schools Finnish language and history have been incorporated into the curriculum.

In the half century since the Gospel was first preached in the Finnish language, immigrant religious life in Ohio has been marked by the remarkable persistency of the Lutheran faith. Yet, on the other hand, Lutheranism has not been immune to internal schismatic forces. There are three Finnish Lutheran churches in Fairport, three in Ashtabula Harbor, each maintaining its own edifice and clerical household. It is the task of future generations of native-born Finns to reunite these factions into a single, strong, and effective Lutheran church.


1 The writer has used the unpublished records of the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Ev. Luth. (Suomi Synod) Bethany Church; Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Ev. Luth. National Church; Cleveland Finnish Ev. Luth. (Suomi Synod) Church; Conneaut Finnish Ev. Luth. (Suomi Synod) Church; Fairport Finnish Ev. Luth. (Suomi Synod) Suomi Church; Fairport Finnish Ev. Luth. National Church; Warren Finnish Ev. Luth. (Suomi Synod) Church; and the Ohio and Pennsylvania Conference of the Suomi Synod Churches.

The following published studies have been of some assistance: S. Ilmonen, Amerikan Suomalaisten Historia (3 vols., 1919-26) and his Amerikan Suomalaisten Sivistyshistoria (2 vols., 1930-31); Akseli Järnefelt, Suomalaiset Amerikassa (1889); Alexander Kukko (ed.), Muistoja 30 Vuotisesta Lähetystyöstä (1920); Kalle H. Mannerkorpi, Ashtabula Harborin Bethania Seurakunnan 25 Vuotis Julkaisu, 1891-1916 (1916); William Rautanen, Amerikan Suomalainen Kirkko (1911); K. E. Salonen, Amerikan Suom. Ev. Luth. Kansalliskirkon 25 Vuotis Julkaisu, 1898-1923 (1923); A. J. Hinkkanen (ed.), Suomi Kirkko (1925); John Wargelin, The Americanization of the Finns (1924). Periodicals as the Ev. Luth. Kansalliskirkokunnan Kalenteri, Hengelliselta Taistelutaantereelta, and Kirkollinen Kalenteri also contain much valuable information.

2 A short account of the Congregationalist movement among the Finns in Ohio will be published in an early issue of The Missionary Herald (Boston).

3 Pastors of the Ashtabula Harbor church included: Juho Kallen (1902-05); Victor Tiitola (1905-07); Frans Kava (1907-12); Kalle H. Mannerkorpi (1912-17) ; John F. Saarinen (1917-25); Y. E. Jauhiainen (1925-28); F. Y. Joki (1929-35), and Otto Mäki, incumbent. Pastors of joint Conneaut-Fairport congregations (arrangement until 1906): Salovaara to 1904; Hannes Leiwiska (1904-05); and Torsten M. Hohenthal (1905-06). Pastors of Fairport church: Alfred Haapanen (1906-13); and Gabriel Lipsanen (1913-present). Pastors of Conneaut church: Rafael Hartman (1908): from 1908-17 served by Ashtabula ministers; Maunu Kuusi (1917); Matti Pesonon (1919-24); Urho Valtari (1924-28); and Anton Korhonen (1928-present). Pastors of Warren church: M. Luttinen (1906-10); Otto Stadius (1910); S. Ilmonen (1911-13); Evert Määttälä (1913-18); Antti Könönen (1918-21); William Rautanen (1922-present). The Cleveland, Girard, Burton, Lowellville, and Youngstown churches have shared the ministers of the larger institutions.

Published in The Lutheran Church Quarterly, Vol. 11, 1938, p. 72-78.

Senast uppdaterad 2006-10-29 19:15
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