We had been informed that the Finnish church-going and service was a grand sight. At about eight o'clock on Sunday morning, I climbed the rocks above the post-house to have a survey, but little had I anticipated what now burst upon my view. A whole fleet of boats, forty or fifty in number, with their white sails set, was bearing down the lake to the church at Ruokalaks. From every creek they seemed to drop out, and soon there was the number I have named. In addition to these, there was a steamer heavily freighted, and a number of boats propelled by oars. The rowers in many cases were women, the men lazily reclining, and smoking their long pipes. The sight was magnificent in the extreme, and reminded me of a fleet of fishing-boats leaving the harbour-mouth. In the light of the language of Scripture it might be said, 'Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?'
And soon the road past the post-house was alive with pedestrians, and peasants driving their swift carrioles. Each carriole held two passengers. Every cross-road seemed to furnish its contingent, and by the time they were all assembled round the church, their numbers must have exceeded one thousand. The men were dressed mostly in grey clothing. You would have said all the grey coats of Cumberland were there. The women wore dark blue dresses, with a scarlet border at the bottom, two inches deep. Two kerchiefs covered the head, a white one upon the hair, with a long pendant falling down the back, and a gay-coloured one over it. Some of them wore massive silver ornaments, as large as the hollow of a saucer, on their breasts. They were all cleanly and wholesome to look upon, and bore manifest traces of hard toil and of the severe climate. Many of them carried baskets of raspberries gathered in the woods, to refresh themselves by the way, and around the church-doors I saw several groups reclining on the grass, and eating bread and fruit, before entering the holy place to receive food for their souls. The women all carried the Psalter and Liturgy. Between two and three hundred carrioles were tied up in the vicinity of the church, and the whole scene forcibly reminded one like myself, of a Presbyterian Communion Sunday in the country, in the olden time.
Hearing some plaintive singing proceeding from the churchyard, I went there and witnessed three funerals. One was that of a grown- up person, the others were those of little children. A huge pit had been dug in the sandy formation, and two men going down into it by means of a ladder received the three coffins, and placed them alongside each other. Hundreds accompanied these funerals. Who were the mourners it was impossible to tell. No mourning-dress was worn, and no signs of grief were visible. The Finns are not a demonstrative race. The chant over, the pastor, dressed in black, and wearing a white tie and bands, came to the edge of the grave, and casting three wooden spadefuls of sand on each of the coffins, repeated three sentences. He then read several prayers, and after all had said 'Amen,' in token of their submission to the Divine will, and of their faith in the resurrection that is to be, and a short silent prayer had been offered up, the pastor leading, all quitted God's-acre, and accompanied him to the church.
Taking their seats, and, as in the Lutheran Church everywhere, the women sitting apart from the men, the preparatory service began. This consisted in the singing of a Psalm, to a tune led by the clerk, who stood before a desk in the front of the gallery, and was assisted by a number of young men and women. This would continue for twenty minutes, the church meanwhile gradually getting better filled. When the pastor, a professorial-looking man, entered, the singing ceased, and ascending the lofty pulpit of the huge church, capable of holding two thousand people, he began his part of the duty by reading prayers. The sermon followed ; it was short, and read in an unimpressive manner. During the delivery of this sermon, in a monotone, I did not wonder at seeing a number of the people fast asleep. They had been working hard at harvesting all week, had come many miles that morning, and on sitting down, an unusual thing with these hard workers, in the church, were overcome with heaviness. Who would lack the charity to say of them, 'The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak'? Had the pastor 'delivered' his sermon instead of reading it, and had he possessed a little of the Boanerges fire, it is more than probable that he would have had a more wakeful and attentive audience.
At the close of the sermon the pastor prepared to administer the Communion, and a number repaired, according to the Lutheran custom, to the communion-rail. All who had come to the church, by no means entered it during this service. Another was to follow, and those who were then standing and gossiping about the door were probably waiting for it. One thing struck me very forcibly as being different from our church usage. People kept coming in during the whole of the service, and a hum of undertoned conversation filled the church, which must have proved utterly distracting and intolerable to any English preacher.
There is a law in Finland against Sunday trading, but it seems to be a dead letter, for the three shops in Ruokalaks were open, and filled with customers. This Finnish trip was enjoyable and instructive to a degree. It now only remained to make our way back 150 miles to St. Petersburg, which falls to be first noticed in our second chapter.