THE FIRST AND GREAT COMMANDMENT (Matthew 22:34–40)
Sermon for the WWCTU International Prayer Day 2016
Finnish and Swedish versions of the following text were sent to all congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland along with a request for prayers and economic support for the Finnish White Ribbon movement and an offer of assistance during the Sunday service of the WWCTU International Prayer Day in September.
Leading by example is the hallmark of truly outstanding leaders, and such leadership is needed to create the leaders of tomorrow. Indeed, most of those who have had a great positive impact on world history have reported that someone else inspired them by setting an example. Throughout its history, the White Ribbon movement has been inspired by its many previous leaders. The stories about them are not, however, primarily stories about what certain strong individuals have been able to achieve by themselves; rather, they demonstrate how faith and prayer have been the key to great success. The stories remind us of the wonderful promise that God is our Father, someone we can always approach with our prayers. According to Jesus, the Father knows what we need already before we ask him (Matt. 6:8).
Although the sisters of the White Ribbon had strong faith in God and counted on his support, they would by no means forget the importance of hard work and true interest in matters pertaining to surrounding society. Pioneers like Frances Willard in the USA, Maria Stenroth in Finland and countless other famous or less well-known White Ribbon sisters considered life a gift from God, an opportunity to find fulfilment in loving and helping others.
I would like to tell you about two women whose love for God and mankind inspired them to achieve great things. They accepted the “yoke of God”, a load that, paradoxically, lifted them up rather than burdened them. This yoke remains the source of power for the White Ribbon movement of today.
Under Frances Willard, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union grew into the world’s largest all-female movement. Willard passed away already at the age of 58, but she managed to accomplish a great deal. She was famous around the world, and according to scholars, she was as well-known during her lifetime as Eleanor Roosevelt was half a century later!
Joining a temperance movement like the White Ribbon felt like a natural step for Willard. Rapid industrialisation, an expanding road network and the influx of Irish and other European immigrants brought increased consumption of alcoholic beverages to the United States, and temperance movements were formed to combat the negative effects of alcohol on society. The “Woman’s Crusade” was a movement that enabled women to unite against alcohol; women took to the streets, prayed and sang outside of saloons to persuade owners to stop selling alcoholic beverages.
Willard called the Woman’s Crusade a second Pentecost, but this did not mean that she considered it only spiritual in nature; she wanted the movement to advance from prayer to politics. To a greater degree than most contemporaries, Willard was keenly aware that the temperance movement was part of the general wave of change in society at the time. Willard emphasised the role of personal faith and work for the common good as sources of meaningfulness for the individual.
The White Ribbon movement of the whole world became like family to Willard as she was elected President of the newly formed World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1891. As she was helping the White Ribbon movement grow, Willard took the work across many national and denominational boundaries. Indeed, the White Ribbon movement was the first widespread ecumenical women’s movement.
Willard died of influenza and pernicious anaemia in New York on 17.2.1898. In 1905, a sculpture of Willard was erected in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, a chamber where each state displays two sculptures of prominent residents. Willard’s home in Evanston, Illinois was later turned into a museum, Willard House.
Willard has been venerated almost as a saint, and schools, hospitals, parks and roads have been named after her. However, much of her innermost spirit has faded from popular memory. During her lifetime, she had always wanted to do something new, expand her horizons and get new ideas, and her mind was often restless. In a chapter on Willard in his 1919 book Portraits of American Women, biographer Gamaliel Bradford wrote:” Miss Willard, with the best intentions, wished to deny to everybody the excitement of alcohol. But she herself lived on the fierce excitement of doing good, beside which all other stimulants are pale and watery… but she was neither a martyr nor a saint, and heavens, how she did enjoy herself!”
In the Finnish White Ribbon movement, Maria Stenroth played a role similar to that of Frances Willard in the USA. Stenroth was born in Helsinki, but grew up in Laukaa, where her father Otto Stenroth served as a pastor. The family was interested in current issues and often expressed opinions on matters pertaining to society. The pastor’s household in Pellosniemi was in the habit of actively taking care of the locals, and Maria’s family would thus share their happiness and difficulties. Maria was asked to run for parliament in 1906, but she chose not to, even though she had an interest in political matters. Maria was also a prolific writer, known at the time by her pen names Marja Salmela and Hanna Jaakkola.
Maria Stenroth kept herself busy with many kinds of work. She was deeply involved in the work of the White Ribbon and other associations, worked as an author and translator, and took care of her mother, who had become a widow, and many relatives and friends. Stenroth’s frail health eventually deteriorated, probably much due to the stress. She had been a prominent figure of the Finnish White Ribbon movement, and the future and growth of the young association had greatly depended on her social network, education and language proficiency. She was also, however, a controversial leader, some holding the view that she was excessively drawn to the “alliance” Christianity of her time while others considered her too tightly associated with the mainstream Evangelical Lutheran Church. She often had to perform her tasks in a hurry and under stress, and she was often experiencing economic difficulties. Maria passed away at the young age of 49.
The following poem by Maria Stenroth (here translated from Finnish) conveys the gist of her love-filled attitude toward life:
”I do not want to pursue happiness, walking on a path lined with flowers,
while others are struggling, drinking their tears.
I want to choose your path, Jesus, and carry the burden of those who suffer,
so may the power of your love grant me the power to love.”
May the examples of Frances Willard and Maria Stenroth inspire you in your work and the yoke of God carry you through a summer of rich blessings!
Pastor, General Secretary of the Finnish White Ribbon Union
World Christian Outreach Director of the WWCTU
+358 9 1351 268