Conversion, heresy, and witchcraft : theological narratives in Scandinavian missionary writings




Brown, Collin Laine

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Writings by 16th to 18th century Lutheran missionaries on the indigenous Sámi peoples of northern Scandinavia show a strong tendency to characterize all aspects of traditional Sámi spirituality as demonic “superstition” that posed a real, existential threat to the kingdoms of Denmark-Norway and Sweden’s status as Lutheran Christian kingdoms following the Reformation. These beliefs and practices, in their view, therefore needed to be stamped out. This dissertations views the theological rhetoric of these missionary works through the lens of “superstition” (i.e. illicit religion) vs. “religion” (i.e. licit religion) as elucidated by Patristic authors such as Tertullian and Augustine, as well as the more recent theoretical model of “syncretism” (i.e. religion blendings) vs. “anti-syncretism” (i.e. the backlash against religious blendings) from scholars such as Meyer and van der Leeuw. I argue that indigenous spirituality served as a canvas upon which these Lutheran missionaries cast many of their own theological uncertainties regarding the fight against illicit religion which had begun centuries earlier with the Lutheran Reformation. Chapter 1 provides an overview of relevant research on historical missionary contact with the Sámi and a summary of important scholarship on the Western study of indigenous spirituality in general. Chapter 2 focuses on the most salient Lutheran missionary authors of this period. It situates these authors’ works within their historical contexts, and presents the writers’ depictions of Sámi spirituality. Chapter 3 outlines the methodological considerations of both of the theoretical frameworks used in this dissertation to analyze missionary sources on Sámi spirituality. Chapter 4 uses the theoretical frameworks as outlined in the previous chapter to analyze the relevant missionary works. By doing this, it shows that almost all of these missionary writers categorized indigenous Sámi spirituality as “superstition” and strongly condemned any perceived syncretistic blendings. Chapter 5 is a comparative analysis of German Lutheran missionaries in Papua New Guinea in the 20th century. This chapter provides a similar analysis of a Lutheran mission in a different part of the world and in a different time that bears strong similarities to the Scandinavian Lutheran missions to the Sámi. This dissertation uses these models of “superstition” vs. “religion” and “syncretism” vs. “anti-syncretism” to track how missionary portrayals of Sámi spirituality and the conversion process changed throughout the course of missionary activity, thereby showing how changing theological attitudes over from the 17th through the 20th century affected missionary attitudes.


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