Baptismal font where Agricola is
believed to have been Baptised in Pernaja
church. Foto by Heikki Jääskeläinen.

Memorial in Wittenberg.
Foto by Heikki Jääskeläinen.

Turku Cathedral.
Foto by Leena Maria Heikkola.

Agricola's ABC-book.
Foto by Agricola-project /
Univerisity of Turku.


A biography of Agricola

The life of Mikael Agricola

Mikael Agricola was born around the year 1510 in the village of Torsby in the parish of Pernaja to a wealthy peasant family. When he was about 10 years old, the talented Mikael was sent to a school in Vyborg. The city was situated along good road connections to the Baltic countries and Central Europe, which meant that Agricola was influenced by the latest cultural innovation, humanism. The ideology of humanism was based on the foundations of European culture, that is, the language and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanism also cleared the way for the Lutheran Reformation, and to Martin Luther (1483-1546), humanism basically meant Biblical humanism, the studying of original Biblical texts.

When the principal of the school in Vyborg, Johannes Erasmuksenpoika, moved to Turku to work for the bishop, he took Agricola with him. Thus, at the age of 18, Agricola became a scribe to the bishop, and a year later a chancellor. During his time in Turku, Agricola was ordained as a priest and possibly listened to the sermons of Pietari Särkilahti, who had been a student of Martin Luther.

In 1536, Agricola was sent to study in Germany, at the University of Wittenberg, where the Reformation had begun. Both Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon worked as professors in Wittenberg at the time.

After finishing his Master?s Degree in 1539, Agricola returned to Finland, where he was appointed a member of the Cathedral Chapter and headmaster of the most prestigious school in the diocese, Turun koulu. In addition to his demanding work as a headmaster, Agricola found time to translate and started publishing. His first published works were Abckiria [Ye ABC booke] 1543 and Rucouskiria Bibliasta [A prayer booke from ye Bible] 1544. Agricola flouted the demands of the Swedish king, Gustav Vasa (1523-1560) that talented young men come to work for the king?s chancery and tax chamber, and as a result was forced to quit his post as headmaster in 1548. That same year, Agricola?s translation of the New Testament was published. He continued his translation work, intending to translate the entire Bible into Finnish.

In 1550, Mikael Agricola and his wife Birgitta Olavintytär had a son, Kristian (? 1586), who later became the Bishop of Tallinn and Haapsalu. The Bishop of Turku, Martti Skytte, died in 1550, and from then on Agricola performed the duties of the bishop, although he was not actually ordained as a bishop until four years later. Gustav Vasa tried to weaken the economic, political and spiritual power of the Church, and one result was the decision to divide the Diocese of Turku into the Diocese of Turku and the Diocese of Vyborg. Mikael Agricola was appointed the ordinary of the Diocese of Turku. In practice, as ordinary Agricola performed the same duties as a bishop, but after converting to Lutheranism, he no longer received the confirmation of the Pope.

A war broke between Sweden and Russia in 1555, and peace negotiations were initiated two years later. Mikael Agricola was a part of the peace delegation, which was lead by the brother-in-law of Gustav Vasa, Sten Lejonhufvud and the Archbishop Laurentius Petri. As the delegation was returning to Finland, Mikael Agricola died in the village of Kyrönniemi in the parish of Kuolemajärvi, on 9th April 1557, and he was buried in Vyborg.

The literary works of Mikael Agricola

The basis of Mikael Agricola?s translations and other literary work was the central idea of the Reformation that the word of God should be made available to the people in their own language. This was to be achieved in two ways: On the one hand, crucial liturgical texts had to be created in Finnish for use by the clergy, thus enabling worship services to be held in Finnish. On the other hand, the Bible had to be translated into Finnish and the people had to be gradually taught to read it. Thus, to Agricola, the Finnish language was not an end in itself, but publishing in Finnish served a purely practical purpose.

The Swedish-speaking congregations in Finland used the translations of the Swedish Reformationist Olaus Petri (a.k.a. Olavus Petri) in their services (e.g. the New Testament 1526, the Bible 1541). However, the fundamental texts of Christianity had not been printed in Finnish, although the Apostles? Creed, the Lord?s Prayer and the Ten Commandments had been translated into Finnish already in medieval times, and the clergy had used them in their sermons and when teaching Finnish. The priests also must have had these texts in writing so that they could be repeated faithfully during the services. However, these early texts, written on odd pieces of paper, have not survived.

The works of Agricola:

1543 Abckiria [Ye ABC booke]
1544 Rucouskiria Bibliasta [A Prayer Booke from ye Bible]
1548 Se Wsi Testamenti [Ye New Testament]
1549 Käsikirja [Handbooke]
1549 Messu [A Missal]
1549 Meidän Herramme Jeesuksen Kristuksen piina [Ye Anguish of Oure Lorde Iesu Christ]
1551 Daavidin psalttari [Ye Psalter of Dauid]
1551 Veisut ja ennustukset Mooseksen laista ja profeetoista [Ye Songes & Prophesies from ye laws & prophesies of Moses]
1552 Ne profeetat (profeetat Haggai, Sakarja, Malakia) [Ye Prophetes - Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi]

The purpose of the publishing plan ? drawn up by the Diocese of Turku ? was to translate the Bible and the liturgical texts into the vernacular and, in the end, also to teach the people how to read. As a result, the whole of Agricola?s literary work is actually aimed at the clergy, and his first book, the Abckiria, is in fact a catechism teaching not only the fundaments of Christian faith, but also the alphabet and the numerals.

The nearly 900-page Prayer Book consists of 643 prayers and, among other things, 29 hymns. There is also a calendar section in the beginning of the book including useful information on astrology, astronomy, natural sciences, medicine and theology.

The new Lutheran faith is a prominent feature in the Missal, which can be seen, for example, in the emphasis given to the sermon in the service. However, Agricola?s interest did not lie solely in the new religion, as is shown by the fact that he also included a list of ancient Finnish gods and old religious rites in the Psalter of David. On the other hand, Agricola saw these heathen beliefs as something sinful and pagan in nature, which had to be fought against.

The New Testament

Without a doubt, the most important work of Agricola is his translation of the New Testament into Finnish. In his translation work, he followed the example set by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the leading figure in humanism, and Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation: Agricola used the Bible translations of both these men as his sources. He had available translations in four languages: Luther?s German translation of the Bible (The New Testament 1521, The Bible 1534), the Swedish New Testament (1526) and Bible (1541), Erasmus' new edition of the Latin New Testament, and the original Greek text, published by him as well. Agricola carefully consulted all these basic texts without giving precedence to any of them. He had already begun his Finnish translation of the New Testament when serving under the Bishop of Turku; he continued the work with his fellow students at Wittenberg and returned to it again in Turku. Agricola made two petitions for a stipend to King Gustav to be able to finish this work, but in vain. Moreover, the finished manuscript had to wait five years for permission to publish it. Finally, in the year 1548, the richly illustrated 718-page Finnish New Testament was published. In addition to the actual translation, the book contains two forewords, the second of which chronicles the arrival of Christianity in Finland, as well as describing the Finnish provinces, tribes and dialects. Furthermore, every book of the New Testament has its own preface, and there are over 500 annotations, most of them translations.

Agricola had ambitions to translate the entire Bible into Finnish, but due to lack of funds, this was not possible. The church policies of King Gustav Vasa aimed at expropriating the entire property of the Church and transferring taxation rights to the Crown, and so the Diocese could not fund publishing Christian literature. The Crown, for its part, would not give any further financial support. Agricola managed to translate about a quarter of the Old Testament before he died. As a whole, his works consist of approximately 2400 pages.

Painting by Juri Tchernuha.
Foto by Heikki Jääskeläinen.



A Great Man in Finnish History

Mikael Agricola is known as a comprehensive humanist, a learned theologian and a linguist. In addition to theology, he was also well versed in the natural sciences, law and medicine. Agricola had a home library including books about agriculture, philosophy and the complete works of Aristotle in Latin. Besides his domestic languages, Swedish and Finnish, he knew Latin, German, Greek and Hebrew.

The contribution Agricola made to Finnish culture and society is very significant. However, it was not until during the period of National Romanticism that his merits as an important figure in Finnish history were fully understood. At first, he was recognized and remembered as a reformer and a renewer of Finnish ecclesiastical life ? it was the 19th century that saw the value of his matchless work as the founder of Finnish literature. In addition, Agricola had a third, not very well known role as a peace negotiator and diplomat.

The basis of the Finnish national identity is formed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Finnish literature and popular education. Mikael Agricola had a strong influence on all of these. His work still affects the Finnish language, literature, ecclesiastical life and society.

A moderate Reformer

The Reformation in Swedish Finland proceeded, for the most part, according to the plans of King Gustav Vasa. His aim was to weaken the influence of the Church, and the Reformation suited this purpose perfectly: Gustav Vasa severed all ties to the Holy See, weakened the influence of the bishops and expropriated the Church?s property and income. Officially, the Reformation began in 1527, at the Diet of the Estates in the city of Vesterås, Sweden, where it was declared that God?s word must be preached in its pure form everywhere in the kingdom.

In Finland, the implementation of the Reformation was mostly left to Mikael Agricola. Finns had no need to oppose the Roman Catholic Church, and Agricola was not the first one in Finland to speak for Lutheranism, so his work consisted mainly of building up, rather than tearing down.

Agricola was quite moderate when it came to reforming the Church. He respected the Catholic tradition, and preserved everything that did not expressly go against the Lutheran way of thinking. A good example of this is Agricola?s prayer book. Its main source was the medieval Missale Aboense. Based on this missal, Agricola moulded the Catholic service in a more Lutheran direction. The only prayers of the medieval tradition that the Swedish reformer Olaus Petri kept were those related to the namedays of seven patron saints, while Agricola kept as many as 45 such prayers. Agricola did, however, remove all appeals to the merits of saints, and instead paid more attention on the saints' faith and teachings.

According to Luther, the Holy Bible was the fundamental guide for Christian belief. Therefore, the main goal of the Reformation was that everyone would be able study God?s word in their own language. Because of this, the Bible had to be printed in the vernacular, and the people also had to be taught to read it. Translating the Bible, and creating the foundation for Finnish literature in the process, was Agricola?s most important work.

The Father of Standard Finnish

In addition to translating the Bible and some liturgical texts into Finnish, Agricola also had to create a standard language. In Agricola?s time, there was no standard form of Finnish nor any printed Finnish literature. Different spoken dialects even had different vocabularies, but because the New Testament was meant for the entire population, it had to be understood by everyone. Agricola created the written language based mainly on the southwestern dialects, but some words and characteristics were taken from other dialects, as well. The other languages he knew ? Swedish, Latin and German ? also had an influence on the new standard Finnish.

As far as the vocabulary is concerned, Agricola had to select words that best suited each context. Sometimes various options already existed, but sometimes he had to create new words for concepts that the Finnish dialects were not familiar with. Agricola created hundreds of neologisms, such as hallitus [government], esikuva [example] and käsikirjoitus [manuscript], and formed several new loan translations, for example enkeli [angel], historia [history] and palmu [palm tree]. It is due to Agricola that a serviceable religious vocabulary was formed in the Finnish language at an early stage.

Mikael Agricola did not translate the texts alone, but was at first assisted by his fellow students, and later by a working group assigned to help him. However, it was Agricola who did the majority of the work and who carried the most responsibility for it ? thus, it is natural that it is he who is considered the father of standard Finnish.

What, then, was Agricola?s mother tongue? Finnish linguists emphasise his perfect command of the language and assume his native language had to be Finnish. Historians, on the other hand, point out that Agricola grew up in Pernaja (Pernå), a region inhabited by a Swedish-speaking population. Given this, it is justified to expect that his mother language might have been Swedish. In any case, Agricola learned Finnish at the latest when he went to school in Vyborg. The reason Agricola published in Finnish was purely practical: at that time there simply was no religious literature written in Finnish.


Painting by Mihail Gorjunov.
Foto by Heikki Jääskeläinen.

Agricola memorial at Kyrönniemi.
Foto by Heikki Jääskeläinen.


Peace Negotiator

Mikael Agricola's role as a peace negotiator is not yet very well known. The borderline between Russia and Sweden, as defined in the Treaty of Nöteborg, also known as the Treaty of Oreshek or Pähkinäsaaren Rauha (Finnish) in 1323, was unclear in some areas, and both states sought to expand their territories. In the end, the violence ? caused by continuous uncertainty ? erupted, and extensive expeditions of destruction took place, especially into the so-called Disputed Land on the Karelian Isthmus. In 1554-1557, a war was fought over the issue of control of the area, and on March 25, 1557, a peace treaty was signed in Novgorod as a result of tenacious negotiations.

The peace delegation sent by the Swedish king, Gustav Vasa, consisted of a hundred men. Amongst them ? as the representative of Finland ? was the Bishop of Turku, Mikael Agricola. Agricola did not have any previous diplomatic experience nor much knowledge of the Russian culture, language or religion. There is no certainty of his role in the delegation; apparently he was, however, somehow involved in the diplomatic decision-making process. The only document on which Agricola had the chance to leave his mark is a letter which the delegation sent to the Tsar on the 13th of March. Agricola met the Russian Tsar Ivan IV (1547-1584) twice on official occasions.

Work as a peace negotiator was Agricola's last assignment in life, for he died on April 9, 1557 in the village of Kyrönniemi, which is part of the parish of Kuolemajärvi, as the peace delegation was returning home.






Text: Elina Maines









Heininen, Simo. (2004). Mikael Agricola. In Jukka Relander (Ed.), Suuret suomalaiset. Otava.

Keränen, Jorma. (1987). Kustaa Vaasa ja uskonpuhdistuksen aika. In Seppo Zetterberg (Ed.), Suomen historian pikkujättiläinen. WSOY.

Tarkiainen, Kari. (2004). Mitä tiedämme vuoden 1557 rauhansopimusneuvotteluista Ruotsin ja Venäjän välillä? In Ossi Tuusvuori (Ed.), Agricola-symposiumi 20.-21.9.2004, raportti. Agricola-työryhmä.


Translations: Department of English Translation Studies, Turku University.


18.05.2007 17:24 Elina Maines