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Finnish Immigrants and a "Frii Kontri"

John I. Kolehmainen

Professor of History and Government, Heidelberg College

In response to America's ideological as well as its material environment, Finnish immigrant life has been marked by the widespread acceptance of new ideals and values as well as by the more apparent modifications in dress, dietary habits, language, and the like. The democratic winds of a renowned "Frii Kontri" filled the sails of the Finnish immigrants, driving them irresistibly away from their old moorings. "This country's atmosphere," reflected the Calumet (Michigan) Amerikan Uutiset in 1902, "has breathed into us entirely different viewpoints from those known in our land of birth."

The immigrants, recruited largely from underprivileged rural elements, were well prepared to accept traditional American democratic concepts. Many of them left Finland with a deep-rooted aversion for aristocracy, a heritage of ancient proverbs that rang out with the cry, "Out of the way, peasant, here comes the lord's family! Let them pass-to hell!" The immigrants persisted stubbornly, as a keen-eyed traveler observed in 1926, in regarding their former homeland as a paradise for the Privileged Three: landowner, churchman, and public official. It remained in their minds a country where the "manual worker could expect any kind of treatment at the hands of even the smallest lord".

The democratic ideals and institutions of a new homeland thus readily won the affections of the Finnish immigrants. Speaking for them, the editor of an influential newspaper said in 1898: "I admire the constitutional popular freedom and democracy of the United States; I am sensitive if they are touched; I detest aristocratic rule and oppression of the people." The generous measure of new-world freedom of press was almost instinctively contrasted with conditions prevailing in the old country during the Russification Era. The Hancock (Michigan) Sankarin Maine, for example, after censorship bad prevented its circulation in Finland, expostulated that "such theft of private property is impossible in a republic, where one person is no greater a master than another." Pleasing, too, was the wide measure of personal freedom. "How many Finns," reported a visitor from Finland, "have been joyously surprised at being able to live their own lives in peace without the questioning of all the curious, to be where they wanted at any moment, to try and fail, to be wealthy or penniless, to be respectable men or vagabonds - and yet be accepted again by the others when the wheel of fortune turned." The gentler sex also felt the invigorating impact of American freedom an chivalry; as early as 1899 Akseli Järnefelt reported in his Suomalaiset Amerikassa that the immigrant women "quickly came to recognize their value and to demand treatment corresponding to their new status".

Immigrant attachment to democratic values was manifested in other ways. In America, for example, the salutation Mister came to symbolize the full release from an aristocratic order. "A man who in Finland was a mere Peter or Paul, one whom no one deigned to respect as a human being," explained Professor A. J. Pietilä in his excellent Helsingistä Astoriaan "became in America Mr. Partanen, Mr. Mäki, or somebody else, a human being and a citizen, who could demand recognition of his humanity." Almost as a corollary the immigrants adopted the practice of addressing friends and strangers alike with the familiar Sinä (you) rather than the polite te (thou), a divergence from old world etiquette that both amazed and shocked those accustomed to more deferential treatment. The immigrants, however, were "strongly convinced that in doing so they were conforming to true democratic principles and following the general American custom". On occasions, it must be admitted, overzealous devotion to equalitarianism led to unfair handling of those newcomers whose misfortune was their former good fortune and whose only refuge seemed to be discreet anonymity.

The tenets of religious freedom likewise found expression in Finnish immigrant life. Antipathy to an established church, as a matter of fact, stemmed back to the old country. Many immigrants had been powerfully stirred by the Laestadian and the Awakened revivalistic movements of the nineteenth century, both of which carried a strong note of opposition to a state church. While no formal secession from the Church of Finland occurred, in free America these groupings quickly and naturally crystallized into separate and competing Lutheran churches: the Apostolic Lutheran (Laestadian), the National (the Awakened), and the Suomi Synod (Church of Finland). The receptive attitude of many immigrants toward the American setup was well expressed by the venerated Laestadian leader Juhani Raattamaa in letters written in the 1880's to his American followers: "Dear brethren, you now live in free America. The state does not bind you to follow false teachings as here in Europe.... You can confess with your lips the simple faith that is in your hearts." In time the pattern of a free church in a free state became the hallmark of immigrant religious thinking, a development setting them apart from their Finland brothers who remained loyal to the traditional system. Conditions generally existing in the new world made it difficult to attract and hold Church of Finland clergy. In 1906 the president of the Hancock Suomi College informed a Detroit newspaper that it was "almost impossible to secure Finnish ministers to come here from the old country and even those who do come are not perfectly adapted for work in this field". A few years later the college bulletin recorded the lament that "ministers who come over here from the fatherland do not find conditions here such that they stay".

Religious freedom meant moreover the appearance of non-Lutheran churchgoers among the immigrants, ranging from Congregationalists and Methodists to Unitarians and the theosophically-inclined followers of Annie Besant. Hope was expressed by their adherents that in a new, "liberating" environment the Finnish "national mind" would accept and support non-Lutheran points of view. The founder of Finnish American Unitarianism, for example, felt certain that immigrants in increasing number would rally around a church which he described to be "the logical growth of the American spirit, the free, enterprising, independent, brotherly mind." The emergence of non-Lutheran movements, it might be added, engendered a series of highly controversial issues as to the ethics of missionary activity among a people traditionally Lutheran and the compatibility of non-Lutheranism with a "true Finnish spirit." The Methodist publication Rauhan Kilpi, for one, argued forcefully that the Finnish American Methodists were neither renegades nor pariahs but were as staunchly Finnish as the good Bishop Gustaf Johansson of the Church of Finland.

A voluntary religious system, on the other hand, inaugurated nonparticipation among the immigrants to a degree that verily startled the old world. In free America, the immigrants very quickly learned that "it was not necessary to go to church, pay a preacher' salary, or sweat in company of a catechism at a reading examination".

Religious freedom finally contributed something to the modification of theological tenets, sometimes although not always, in a liberal direction. As an illustration, the Amerikan Suomalainen Aapinen, prepared in 1880 by an Apostolic Lutheran clergyman, differed in a significant respect from the old country model. However, it was agreed that "this kind of a change could be made because of conditions in free America". Here and there appeared evidences of the infiltration of American religious modernism; at least one Finnish American cleric sought to find a scriptural basis for socialism.

Prevailing economic as well as political and religious outlooks were liable to appropriation. Laissez-faire economics, for example, won for itself the enthusiastic support of the immigrants. Indeed, a visitor from Finland felt compelled to say: "One would think he was living in the age of Adam Smith when he hears the Finnish Americans speaking of competition as the guiding principle of economic life. The matter is as clear as day to them, and they cannot understand why Finland has not more decisively travelled the road of free competition." In the opinion of the immigrant critics, Finland's economic backwardness could be explained by its lack of economic freedom, the absence of the bold, energetic, risk-taking, American entrepreneur spirit. The cult of efficiency counted Finnish immigrants among its devotees. A recent volume published in Finland, Suomi ja Amerikan Suomalaiset, warned businessmen that their American brethren would no longer tolerate the proverbial Finnish dilly-dallying in the conduct of busines affairs.

As usual, some immigrants proceeded to adopt other, less honorable, business practices. Observers from northern Europe were struck by the immigrants' "easy come, easy go" manner of living, one which stood in strong contrast to the customary Finnish frugality. One writer, after quoting the words of a Michigan farmer that "he really is a man who earns much and spends much", came to the conclusion that "not a single old country miser had strayed into their midst, or if one bad been a miser going there, he has since changed his nature". The New York Mills (Minnesota) Uusi Kotimaa reported in 1904 another disheartening development: "The Finns in our region are also now being Americanized. A certain young man ... went to a local bank and borrowed $125, giving as collateral cows and horses which he has at times seen around the community but of which he himself has none."

On the other hand, disproportionate emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth received the opprobrium of many immigrants. The newspaper Swen Tuuva, for example, critically noted in 1878 that "the ceaseless search for profit or the acquisition of quick riches is held as the greater wisdom in America, while the advancement of education and art unfortunately is not greatly heeded". Economic success, moreover, had other liabilities. When an immigrant moved up the occupational ladder, it was time, advised the Hancock Amerikan Suometar in 1905, to speculate whether he "would become proud, look down on his nationality, or continue to speak his national tongue".

The likelihood of improper enjoyment of the blessings of a "Frii Kontri" aroused constant concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Innumerable guides were prepared on the theme "A Few Words Concerning Freedom in America". In Finland, particularly during the pre-1914 years, there seems to have been general agreement that the American relatives had misused freedom's gifts. The Oulu Kaleva, for example, discussed in 1904 "American freedom which has been held to be better than God, more valuable than gold". It chronicled the sad story of musicians who refused to follow their conductor, insisting that "we are now in a free country, where no one is better than another, where no one has the right to command". It pointed to immigrant saloons and intemperance, smoke-filled halls and noisy, unruly audiences. Other old world journals lifted accusing fingers at the discord and intransigence and division of immigrant institutional life; the discourtesy and disobedience of the immigrants' American-born children. "There has grown up among the Finnish Americans," was one comment, "you'h who do not have the slightest sense of sacred honor." Final proof of the disintegration in free America of the Finnish personality was seen in the behavior of the returned emigrants. The Oulu Hengellinen Kuukausilehti was convinced by 1899 that they brought back with them "only evil and entirely erroneous cultural ideas". Prodigal sons, others insinuated, returned to old haunts more haughty and intolerant, less loving toward their wives and children.

The real impact of a "Frii Kontri" upon the immigrants was nonetheless discerned by some. The writer Aino Malmberg, for example, indicated that America's first miracle was to imbue the newcomers with a sense of "youth and power". They seemed to experience the "great energy that moves in the new world. For that reason many succeed there and begin life anew. They attain a status which in the old world is beyond dreams."

Professor Pietillä in effect likened America to a warm and fertile soil prompting the immigrants to grow and mature far beyond what would have been possible in their native land. "Only America has opened life's motherly face to the Finnish Americans," he suggested. "Only America has truly opened the souls of these people.... Only America has shown them life in its positive aspects, only it has offered them the possibilities of a life worthy of a human being."

Such, in truth, has been the mission of a "Frii Kontri". Little wonder, then, that the immigrants "observe with joy that their children become the citizens of the West's great civilized land".

Published in Social Science, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 1947, p. 15-18.

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