Birth of the folk high school movement

The folk high school (kansanopisto) movement began with a youth school founded by Danish clergyman Nikolaus Grundtvig (1783-1872) in 1844. Grundtvig was not satisfied with the theory-oriented city schools. The idea behind the school he founded was to teach practical skills for living. He also wanted – in the spirit of national awakening at the time – to develop, “with the might of the living word and power of personality”, a feeling of patriotism among the youth: “We must find a connection to our own language and people”. Finland’s first folk colleges also arose from these ideas. An obvious motive was nationalism. Practical subjects of study played a key role, although there was quite a bit of freedom in teaching arrangements from the start. Finland’s oldest folk high school is Borgå Folkhögskola, a Swedish-language school founded in 1889. The first Finnish language folk high school are the Liminka and Otava folk high schools, founded a couple of years later. With support from the state, Christian folk high schools emerged alongside these secular Grundtvig-type folk high schools right before Finnish independence. They too were home to a national way of thinking, which was a result of the Scandinavian folk high school tradition and the societal and national situation at the time. The main purpose was to protect young people within their own revivalist movements and to preserve the continuation of Christianity. Founders of folk high schools typically looked for a location that was relatively remote, in an outlying area, so that “there would be nothing to fear from city life, which could endanger the correct development of students”. The first Christian folk high school was founded in 1914 in Lapua by a revivalist movement called the Awakened Movement.

Antti and Elsa Räisälä

The year was 1941; Finland was in a truce of World War II. This brought new hope for the future. Antti Räisälä was checking his fishing nets on neighboring Lake Saarinen. He felt at ease. The stillness of nature made him feel as though he were at rest, since his own aging had begun weighing him down. He had no children. His health had also begun to fail. He was preoccupied with the fate of his large pieces of land. Yet God helped him believe everything would be arranged; after all, God had protected his country and home area from the enemy. The crop fields of the large farm were, in the final analysis, God’s own fields, and he was just borrowing them. He was overwhelmed by this idea. God had abundantly blessed him and his wife Elsa, and had made them managers of the “loan” they had been given. Above all, God had blessed them spiritually with his grace by giving the couple the grace of repentance. The setting sun of late summer cast light on the future of this believing man engaged in thought and gave him hope. There was reason to trust in the progress of God’s work; Antti and Elsa’s foster daughter and other local young people had brought positive reports from the Ylitornio Christian College. Suddenly, Antti was overcome by a strong emotion that led to action. Inside his house, called Iso-Räisälä, he took a pencil, and, with a steady hand, began to write down the idea that had been smoldering on his mind into a last will and testament. For a long time the Christians in the Kalajokilaakso region had wished for their own folk high school; now the dream had formed into a seed and had been tossed into good ground where it quickly took root and began to grow.

The birth of Reisjärvi Christian College

The actual history of Reisjärvi Folk College started when the idea of a folk high school, which had entered Laestadian circles at the beginning of the 1900s, met the testament of Antti and Elsa Räisälä. Next came a phase that was important to the folk college of today; plans began to be drawn up in the beginning of the 1950s for a folk high school connected to a children’s home. The project went bankrupt and, after some dramatic phases, led to the transfer of funds from the foster home to the Reisjärvi Christian Folk High School Association in 1955. The initiative for the establishment of the present college originated from the Reisjärvi Association of Peace (Reisjärven rauhanyhdistys).

The events around the birth of the college culminated with volunteer bricklaying work and the raising of the college building. Over time there has been no noticeable reduction in the willingness to participate in volunteer work and other assistance. Operations became established, and long-term development and expansion work began. Concern for the youth, which had been bottled up for a long time, could be acted on. In the custom of popular movements, the work of the college expanded into the homes of Christians in neighboring municipalities. The work has been characterized by responding to continuous changes in society and its challenges.

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A period that was important in an educational sense began in 1969, when a Folk Academy was combined to the folk high school, and the official name of the folk high school became Reisjärvi Christian College (Reisjärven kristillinen opisto). Now it was possible to shift to a greater variety of studies to match the continuously growing educational backgrounds of students.

At the same time the area of influence wielded by the college expanded outside the country’s borders. The quite countryside village changed into an international learning village pulsing with life and work. This village was prepared to rise to the newest serious challenge: the information society emerging in the 1980s. The outward appearance of the college also changed with the significant modernization of teaching and dormitory facilities as well as new building and expansion projects. The transformation culminated around 1990 when the main building was expanded and renovated. In order to pay for these projects it was necessary to greatly increase short course activity. The large project meant restarting volunteer bees. The bees and fundraising demonstrated that the college continues to be the school of homes. This premise is accentuated by how the background community has been organized into work regions for the arrangement of provincial opisto services, “small summer services”.

Today the college campus on the hill called Räisälämäki surprises visitors: the educational institution with its many buildings and expanded forms of activity has gone through a complete transformation in its fifty years of activity. Its mission as a Christian, general education boarding school has, however, remained the same. There is also a desire to stay true to the basic idea of the last will and testament: “that even one soul would be saved through this activity”. Work for this school, which originated from the concern of parents for the youth, has continued without resistance and grown to a large scale. The positive development of operations can be compared to the small boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. Thousands and thousands of people have been fed with these provisions.

A book on this college’s history, Elävän sana koulussa (In the School of the Living Word), has been published. Contact the office for inquiries and orders (phone: 08) 772 6600