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Finnish Baptist Work in America

Theodore Anderson

Due to economic and political conditions which existed in the Scandinavian countries and Finland at the beginning of the twentieth century, immigration from these countries to the United States was at an all time high. It is stated that in the year of 1905 alone over 18,000 Finlanders landed here. More were on their way and it was obvious that if the gospel were to be brought to these great masses of newcomers, most of whom were young people, it had to be done in language they could best understand, and by their own countrymen.

The few Christian workers, mostly laymen, on whom God had laid the burden of bringing the gospel to these people, were working very tenaciously with little thought for their own comforts. Much of their work involved traveling from place to place, preaching and testifying to the saving grace of God, very often without any salary. As a result, small groups of Christians banded together in various parts of the country. Regular services were held and revivals, and large numbers of conversions were reported. In communities where our people lived in greater numbers, churches were organized and the work was carried on with the aid of a pastor or traveling missionary worker.

The Rev. Matts Esselstrom was the first Baptist preacher to the Finns in the United States. At the age of twenty-one he came to this country from Finland, and it was in May of 1889 that he arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The first four years of his residence here were spent in secular work, but during these years he felt the Holy Spirit calling him to a greater task. He obeyed the call and in September, 1893 he began this new work as a lay preacher in Bailey, Michigan: In his work as a missionary and pastor he felt the need for more education in order better to prepare himself for his great calling as a minister of the gospel. In the fall of 1896, therefore, he began a course of studies at the Swedish Baptist Seminary in Morgan Park, Illinois, and was graduated in the spring of 1900. From that time on Pastor Esselstrom was actively engaged in the preaching of the gospel, until his retirement in 1938.

Because of the natural bond of fellowship which exists between each race and nationality, it was felt that a union or conference of Swedish-Finnish and Finnish churches would be the logical group to carry the gospel to its unsaved countrymen. One of the most prominent in the work of organizing this mission project, was a young man also studying at the Swedish Baptist Seminary in Morgan Park. He was Edward Flemming, a very energetic and gifted young man with a burning ambition to win his countrymen for Christ. It seemed that God had laid this particular work as a special burden on Flemming's heart.

The result was that after much prayer, and some hesitation, the Finnish Baptist Mission Union of America was organized early in the spring of 1901. Pastor Flemming was elected president; Dr. Albert Wickstrom (then a young medical student), vice-president; Mr. H. R. Schultz was elected secretary and Mr. Jacob Peterson, treasurer. As the name implies, this organization was to be national in scope, with affiliating branches all over the United States and Canada. The primary aim and object of the Union at the very beginning was the sending out of evangelists and missionaries to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Finnish people, using both the Finnish and Swedish languages.*

There were many problems to be solved and many obstacles to overcome in connection with this new venture. No great wealth or political influence stood back of this organization. The leaders as well as the group of friends who supported the Mission Union were all of modest means, but they had courage and an unswerving faith in God, both of which were of far greater value than earthly possessions. The first and foremost question in their minds was where and how to find suitable laborers for this great harvest field-men who were true to Christ and the Bible doctrines, able preachers, and soul-winners. Then the second question: What would be the source of money for their support? But while the Holy Spirit had laid this burden for the salvation of souls upon the hearts of these men, he also gave them a great urge to pray much that the Lord of the harvest might send laborers and provide the means for their support.

After one year from the date of the organization of the Finnish Baptist Mission Union, its first missionary was sent out. He was Mr. John Lindgren, a man well qualified for doing pioneer missionary work. He was born and reared in Finland with a fair educational background. His mother tongue was Finnish, but he also spoke Swedish, English and German well. Mr. Lindgren was an energetic and tireless worker, who constantly traveled and preached in mining and lumber camps, school houses, lodge halls and the like. He visited the sick and dying, in homes, hospitals, and jails. His simple sermons and testimonies brought sinners to Christ wherever he went.

The fifth annual meeting of our Mission Union was held in Duluth, Minnesota, from March 28 to April 1 of 1906. It was at this meeting that the far-reaching decision was made to publish a monthly paper, subsequently named the Mission Post. Those of our people who possessed a vision and missionary zeal had long realized the need of a publication which would carry religious news reports to the various churches and groups on our fields, and also bring the gospel of salvation to homes scattered over the country side which the individual missionary could not visit. The Rev. Matts Esselstrom was appointed editor of the Mission Post, a position he held for twenty-six years. The benefits which have accrued to the Mission Union through this publication are inestimable indeed, for we can safely say that had it not been for the ministry of the Mission Post, the Baptist Mission Union would not have been in existence today.

Space will not permit the mention of all the men and women who have labored under the banner of our Mission Union throughout the years. However, some of the missionary workers of recent years have been: Andrew Blomquist, missionary at large; Alfred Holmgren, who spent nine years out on the West Coast, mostly among the Swedish-speaking Finlanders; and Nathan Esselstrom, who was also associated with our organization on the West Coast. Prior to the last world war, the Baptist Mission Union supported a native missionary in China, but during the war, contact with this person was lost. At present, our foreign missionary efforts are channeled through the Baptist General Conference.

At this time there are fifteen churches affiliated with the Mission Union, the majority of which have full-time pastors. Several of these churches are partially supported by state conferences of the Baptist General Conference, and at present, one is supported by the Mission Union. The majority of the Mission Union churches are also affiliated with the Baptist General Conference.

We find our most needy field today among tre Finnish speaking people of Michigan, Wisconsin and the Thunder Bay district of Canada. It is estimated that in one county in northern Minnesota alone, there are thirty-eight thousand Finnish people. In that area there are many thickly populated Finnish Settlements where gospel missionaries who can speak to them in their native tongue are relatively unknown. This vast home mission field has only three full-time workers; the Rev. and Mrs. Toivo Tervonen on the Minnesota field, and Miss Esther Rissanen on the Canadian field. "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few."

With headquarters in Chisholm, Minnesota, the Tervonens visit eight or ten outstations where services are held regularly every month. In addition to these services, they carry on the Finnish Word of Life Broadcast. This is a half-hour radio program given in the Finnish language every Sunday morning over two radio stations, one in Eveleth, and one in Duluth, Minnesota. The combined coverage of these stations comprise all of Minnesota, half of Wisconsin, Northern Michigan, and parts of Canada.

It is not possible fully to evaluate the far-reaching effects of this organization during the past half century, but we know that it has exerted a powerful influence for good among our people, especially during the early days of immigration. Our hope and prayer is that the Baptist Mission Union may continue to grow and to be a blessing to all who come under its ministry.

*At the annual meeting in 1947 the word "Finnish" was dropped and the official name is now The Baptist Mission Union of America.

Published in Advance 1949. An Illustrated Annual of the Baptist General Conference of America. Vol. VIII. 1949, p. 58-64.

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