Martti Rautanen as the Agricola of Owambo

Marjo Kaartinen

Martti Rautanen (1845–1926) remains a well-known figure in Finnish history. As one of the first group of missionaries to Owambo, Rautanen worked there from 1870 up until his death in 1926. He is buried in Olukonda along with many of his immediate family. His renown was not only forged by the length of time he worked as a missionary, but also by the fact that he became the face of missionary activities in general in Finland. School textbooks on church history in the 1960s, for example, referred to him as the most preeminent Finnish missionary in Africa.

Perhaps Rautanen’s multilingual childhood and youth in Russian Ingria provided him with a foundation that helped him to thoroughly know Oshindonga, and to devote an enormous amount of time to the translation of what missionaries would consider essential texts, such as hymns and the Bible into this language.

In Finland this work earned him the unofficial title as the “Agricola of Owambo” (Ambomaan Agricola). This chapter takes a look at the ways in which Rautanen’s career epithet was seen in the press in Finland. This will be done by taking a look at the Finnish National Digital Archive, as well as studying a number of journals and other texts. However, the reader is advised to keep in mind that these are tentative results, which rely on basic electronic searches, and are thus not intended to present a complete picture of the title used in the media for Rautanen.

Mikael Agricola

I am especially interested in the title “Agricola” because of its special importance to Finns. The title Agricola of Owambo refers to Mikael Agricola, the sixteenth-century Bishop of Turku. In the nineteenth century, Finns granted him the title of “the Father of the Finnish language”, in honor of his contribution to the development of literary Finnish. Agricola was born in approximately 1510 in Pernaja, in southern Finland. At the time Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. Educated in Wittenberg in Germany, the hotspot of the Lutheran Reformation, Agricola became a reformer. Among his works in Finnish were the primer and catechism Abckiria (1543) and the Bible. Being able to read vernacular translations of the Bible was one of the main goals of the reformers and Agricola began his translation of the New Testament during his studies in Wittenberg. The work was published in 1548. He also translated parts of the Old Testament.

After the Finnish War of 1809, Finland was transferred from Sweden to the Russian Empire. Thereafter, in less than two generations a great national movement and awakening emerged. As a result of this movement, the Finnish language was “discovered”. Because the language of the elites had been Swedish, Finnish had been identified with the illiterate poor. But the change was rapid. The first Finnish-speaking school had opened in Jyväskylä in 1858, and soon there was a seminary for Finnish-speaking teachers. Meanwhile, the Kalevala had been created as the national epic, based on traditional Karelian folk poetry. This work further strengthened the new-found status of the language and heroic character of Finns. In the process, Agricola was “created” as the father of written Finnish. He became a national hero in the nineteenth century (and he remains so to this day), with his death, on 9 April 1554, being annually honored as an official flag day.

Martti Rautanen grew up in an age when Finnish national identity was being forged. He studied in Helsinki before departing for Africa at the height of this rising sense of Finnish nationalism. Although he later used German at home among his family and, at least initially, considered himself Russian, Rautanen would not have minded being given an honorary nickname that compared him to the great Agricola. The first reference to Rautanen as Agricola that I have found is from the Herättäjä, a Pietist newspaper, from 1912, when a great deal of his translation work from Finnish to Oshindonga had already been published, including the New Testament. This had also been Agricola’s most acclaimed Biblical translation.


Frieda and Martti Rautanen with their children. Photograph: Fr. Schoulz (c. 1891–1892). The Finnish Heritage Agency.


Rautanen’s Seventy-Fifth Birthday and Fifty Years in Owambo in Finnish Newspapers

In 1920 Rautanen turned seventy-five. By this time he had lived in Owambo for fifty years, and his life-work as a translator was almost done. His birthday in 1920 was celebrated in Finnish newspapers, alongside the fiftieth anniversary of his missionary work in Africa. His colleagues were also remembered in independent, non-religious newspapers. It seems that contemporary newspapers considered the greatest achievement of Finnish missionaries in Africa to have been the creation of a written form of Oshindonga. At the same time, newspapers made negative comments on the low numbers of baptisms in Owambo.

In many ways this achievement was a heroic achievement for the Finnish nation state, which was then only two-years-old. Independence from Russia had been gained in December 1917, but it came at the high price of a short but bloody civil war. Finland was a nascent and thoroughly insecure country in which Finnish nationalism ruled. In this context, the creation of a written Oshindonga language by Finns was considered heroic and it was perceived as a great gift of light to the Aawambo people. In July 1920, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the Finnish missionaries in Owambo, an editorial writer in Aamulehti wrote: “Gratitude fills one’s mind when we remember that Finnish people have also been allowed for 50 years to take part in this great historical world mission”. Two weeks earlier Rautanen’s colleague, Albin Savola, wrote in Etelä-Savo that more than thirty books had already been published in Oshindonga, and that a newspaper was also in print and that many locals took delight in being able to read and write.

Rautanen’s birthday caused some confusion in Finnish newspapers. This could have been due to calendar variations, as autonomous Finland used the Gregorian calendar, whilst Russia used the Julian calendar. His birthday was mostly celebrated on 21 October and on 10 November, but also on 9 November. Herättäjä in fact mentioned that Rautanen would have been born on the day Agricola had died. This error is an interesting sign of how strongly the two translators could be coupled together. Yet, we know that Agricola died in April, that is, seven months earlier in the calendar year than Rautanen’s birthday. Perhaps the most significant recognition of Rautanen’s birthday in the Finnish press appeared in Suomen Kuvalehti, a weekly magazine with a wide national readership. Herein, the head of the Missionary Society, Hannu Haahti, wrote a biographical article on the 75-year missionary, which was syndicated widely throughout Finland. By 1920 Rautanen was a household name in Finland.

The Bible Translation in the News in 1921

By the end of 1920, the Bible had been fully translated into Oshindonga by Rautanen. The news reached Finland the following spring, where it was not only duly noted in various Christian journals and magazines, but also in daily newspapers. The first article I located was published by Forssan Lehti on 15 March. This is the full free translation of the text:

On 29 December the translation of the Bible in South West Africa in the language of the Aawambo was finished. For 50 years missionary work has been carried out there and already now the whole Bible is available as a full translation. This work has been carried out by the missionary Martti Rautanen, except for [the books on the] prophet Daniel and the minor prophets, which Pastor Savola has translated. The New Testament [and the books of] Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, the minor prophets and the Psalms had been translated earlier. All the translations are being standardized and then the whole Bible will be printed.

It took almost five-hundred years from the arrival of Christianity to our country before the Bible could be read in the Finnish language. Now, after fifty years of work, Finns have translated the Bible into an African language. This is a significant occasion and a great cultural achievement, which will leave its mark on the church histories of both Finland and the Aawambo.

On 15 April 1921, the Christian newspaper Kotimaa reported the feelings of Rautanen on completing this monumental achievement: “You can guess that at that moment I thanked the Lord from my heart and was delighted […] One can say that the Lord gave [this task] to me: this is why He must receive thanks and glory. I was only a mediator.” The article concluded with the notion of how delightful it was that Finns had been able to produce something like this. The translation was a matter of national pride.

The notion of national indebtedness was intertwined with national pride. A speech by A. V. Laitakari’s (this is most likely Aarne Laitakari, later a professor of geology) in Ähtäri in July 1921 was quoted in the regional newspaper Vaasa. He proclaimed that Finns had been able to achieve things through missionary work that would have otherwise been impossible. He too intertwined the national history of Finns and the missionary endeavors in Owambo: “Through other Christians did our people receive Christianity […] Through it [Christianity], did Finland receive its written language from which other aspects of civilization followed. Now Finland has done a great service to Owambo, and given it a written language, which will be followed by other civilizational processes.” He compared Rautanen to Agricola, with the former also being referred to as the Father of Oshindongan literature. Laitakari also emphasized that a sense of duty was more important than fame. Riihimäen Sanomat added similar praise in July 1921, noting in addition that a hymnal in Oshindonga was now in print. This too was a pleasant present for the “singing congregation” of Aawambo Christians, who now numbered 9300.

Rautanen’s Posthumous Fame

The one-hundredth anniversary of Rautanen’s birth, in 1945, was commemorated in a number of newspapers, and, invariably, he was honored with the title of Agricola. This connection was also made in the leftist Suomen Sosialidemokraatti. Leftist politicians in Finland were among the earliest critics of Finnish missionary work. In this article, the writer “Yx” (“One”) took the anniversary of Rautanen’s birth to continue with this critique. He or she wrote that “missionary work has often been rather sharply criticized, and by no means without cause – to take into account the needs that we have in our home country.” Yx then cited a world traveler, who had written that only medical aid work was acceptable. The essayist then continued by admitting that they had enjoyed reading Negley Farson’s book on Africa (likely to have been Behind God’s Back, 1941). Farson, who hailed from the United States, was critical of all missionary work, but had been particularly against Finnish work in Owambo precisely because it had aimed at furthering local culture. However, Yx gives the impression that s/he does not completely condemn Rautanen’s work in Owambo, and, moreover, sees translation work as a means of furthering local culture.

The memory of Rautanen and of his heroic nickname was kept alive in religious teaching at schools and Sunday schools. For schoolchildren educated in the 1950s and 1960s, Rautanen remains a familiar name. For the purposes of the present overview, I located one high school book on Lutheran religion with a full chapter devoted to the Agricola of Owambo. This is Isiemme usko III (The Religion of our Fathers, 1966) in which a three-page chapter is devoted to Rautanen (accompanied by a general image of missionary work in Owambo). In another book, Koulun raamattutieto (Bible Knowledge for Schools, 1957), Rautanen is also mentioned in comparison to Agricola. In Oma uskontokirjani (My Own Book on Religion, 1953), in a short chapter focusing on Rautanen entitled “The Finnish Apostle of Pagans”, the famous missionary is also mentioned using his more common nickname Agricola. These school books typically went through many editions, and were used in schools for several years, even decades, thus building a solid basis for Rautanen’s fame.

Rautanen’s nickname as Agricola was lasting. As recently as 1998 he was referred to as the Agricola of Owambo in Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, with the title suggesting that the reader would know the subject of the study without reference to his actual name. This allusion to the Agricola of Owambo appeared in an obituary of Matti Kuusi, a folklorist, who had also carried out scholarly work in Owambo and who had come across Rautanen’s notes. Similarly, Rautanen was given the nickname without further explanation in a caption for an image of his grave in the weekly magazine Apu on 23 February 1990, in a reportage on members of the Finnish peacekeeping forces in Namibia at the advent of its independence.


In this article I hope I have given a glimpse of the lasting importance of Martti Rautanen’s Oshindonga translation work in regards to Finnish national identity and pride, mediated especially by the printing press. Even leftist commentators, who were prone to condemn missionary work, were interested in the endeavors undertaken by Rautanen in Africa. The newly-independent Finland needed national heroes, and Rautanen was eagerly given a heroes’ cloak. Stressing Rautanen’s translation efforts, the nascent Finnish nation’s efforts to build itself up through its own history was closely intertwined with the historical processes in Owambo.


Newspapers and Magazines

Aamulehti 9 July 1920

Apu 23 February 1990

Etelä-Savo 22 June 1920

Forssan lehti 15 March 1921

Herättäjä 17 May 1912, 5 November 1920

Kotimaa 22 October 1920; 15 April 1921

Laatokka 10 November 1945

Maaseudun Tulevaisuus 3 February 1998

Riihimäen Sanomat 27 August 1921

Suomen Kuvalehti 10 November 1945

Suomen Sosialidemokraatti 11 November 1945

Uudenkaupungin sanomat 3 May 1921

Uusi Aura 21 October 1920, 9 November 1920

Uusi Suomi 10 November 1920; 10 November 1945

Vaasa 2 August 1921


Lähteenmäki, O., H. Koski, A. Heikkala, V. Nissinen, Isiemme usko. Helsinki: Otava, 1966.

Simojoki, M., J. Haavio, V. Myrsky, Oma uskontokirjani. Porvoo: WSOY, 1953.

Voipio, A., Koulun raamattutieto. 8th printing. Porvoo: WSOY, (1929) 1957.


About the Author

Marjo Kaartinen is Professor in Cultural History at the University of Turku. She is an early modernist, but has had a long-standing interest in African history, and especially in the study of the perception of Africa in Finland. In 2007, she was awarded the Villa Karo Prize in recognition of her work against racism and for promoting cooperation between cultures.