“Johan and Alma Lindlof: Early Saints in Russia,” Ensign, July 1981, 23
It was February 1884. John Bloom stood at the entrance of the state prison in Helsinki, sentenced to twenty-eight days on bread and water for the crime of a “breach of the Sabbath.” A Swede who had joined the Church in 1878, he had brought his family to Finland for the express purpose of missionary work. The “breach” had been baptizing two sisters two years earlier,1 but his real fault was obviously the success his preaching was having.
Among the little group who watched him enter prison was a twenty-six-year-old Finn named Johan Maurits Lindlof, the son of one of the women who had been baptized. A decade later, he and his wife would become the first of the few Latter-day Saints to be baptized in the land of Russia.2
In 1925, John Bloom wrote from California to the Church Historian’s office, mentioning that Johan “yet this day lives in Saint Petersburg.”
Johan was born in Pohja, Finland, in 1857. One record indicates that he emigrated to Saint Petersburg, Russia, as early as 1879 when he was twenty-two.3 Possibly he went there to be an apprentice. Saint Petersburg, capital of the Russian empire, was a cosmopolitan center with large communities of Germans, Swedes, French, Finns, and other nationalities. However, in 1887 when he married Alma Augusta Holmberg, he was a journeyman gold and silversmith living in Finland. Their first child was born in Finland the next year, but the second child was born in Saint Petersburg in 1890.
Five years later, on Sunday, June 9, a lone missionary, August Joel Hoglund, arrived at the Lindlof home, was welcomed by Alma’s “splendid” meal, and immediately began a gospel conversation that lasted until daybreak. After a rest on Monday and renewed conversation, Johan and Alma asked for baptism.4
On Tuesday, 11 June 1895, the three hired a boat and rowed out on Saint Petersburg’s Neva River, looking for a secluded place because there were official sanctions against proselyting. The search seemed vain. The banks were crowded with strolling pedestrians, sailboats dotted the river, and fishing boats bobbed about. Nonetheless, they selected a place, rowed ashore, and then knelt in prayer for assistance. Almost miraculously “both boats and people seemed to leave the particular locality we had selected.” After the baptisms and confirmations were performed, they knelt again in a prayer of thanks. Alma was overjoyed: “Oh, I feel so happy! I know that the Lord has forgiven me my sins!”5
Elder Hoglund, also deeply affected, reported to the Scandinavian mission president that Johan and Alma Lindlof already lived lives consistent with gospel principles.6 A visitor noted that Johan was “good at heart” and that there could not be found a more “faithful, patient woman than sister Lindlof.”7
Elder Hoglund remained with the Lindlofs for another week and a half, continuing to instruct them in gospel principles and encouraging Johan to visit friends, read the Bible to them, and instruct as the Spirit dictated. The day before leaving he ordained Johan an elder and he blessed the three Lindlof children, Johannes Lenard, Oskar Edward, and Agnes Irene. Together they partook of the sacrament. When he parted, Elder Hoglund notes, “During the short time I was with them I learned to love Brother and Sister Lindlof, and they in turn learned to love me with that love which the Gospel gives, and bound together in the holy covenant we could not part without our feelings being deeply wrought upon.”8
With the missionary gone, the Lindlofs faced the task of living and preaching the gospel in remote isolation from the body of the Church. Conversant in Swedish and Russian, as well as Finnish, well acquainted with the Scandinavian community, and prosperous as a gold and silversmith, Johan was in a position to do much good. Yet the only details we have of the Lindlof’s activities come from the infrequent visits of Scandinavian missionaries. In August of 1896 Alonzo Irvine spent a week with them. In May 1897 Carl Ahlquist and Norman Lee arrived, held a public meeting (though it was not billed as a Mormon meeting), and baptized a lady, Amalia Josefina Lindbohm, also Finnish.9 Three years later Charles Leroy Anderson, Jr., went to Saint Petersburg and baptized the first Russian-born son of the Lindlofs, Oskar Edvard.10 These contacts brought the family much-needed comfort and encouragement.
In 1903 the Lindlofs were overwhelmed to receive the visit of an Apostle. Elder Francis Marion Lyman, European Mission president and a member of the Council of the Twelve, arrived to dedicate Russia for missionary labor. On the same day that the prayer was offered he blessed Linda Alice Lindlof, the youngest daughter of the seven children now belonging to the family. Several months after the visit, Johan wrote to the Millennial Star in Liverpool that his family still felt comfort from President Lyman’s visit, and said they awaited “with much yearning the arrival of a missionary,” anticipating they would “help as much as possible in the spreading of the Gospel.”11
While proselyting was legally forbidden among native Russians, foreigners could preach among their own communities. One missionary, Mischa Markow, proselyted in Riga during September but was forced to leave because of clerical opposition backed by the legal authorities.12 In November, J. A. Hedrikson arrived in Saint Petersburg. But these are the only two missionaries we have record of before Russia was enveloped in the war with Japan.
Failures at the battlefront precipitated a crisis in Saint Petersburg. On 25 January 1905, the Czar’s Cossack guard fired upon a peaceful procession of two hundred thousand men, women, and children. Over five hundred were killed and thousands were wounded, a foretaste of the coming bloodshed of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Shortly after the conclusion of the war in September 1905, Peter Matson, the first president of the newly formed Swedish Mission, travelled to Saint Petersburg to a hearty welcome at the Lindlofs. Apparently their isolation had begun to bother them, for they expressed a desire to leave Russia and go where there were more of their faith.13 However, they remained.
For the next seven years we have no record that the Lindlofs were visited. In 1912 their isolation was again broken by the arrival of Swedish Mission president Andreas Peterson, accompanied by A. Theodore Johnson. Once again these visitors found a faithful family. To keep them better informed of Church events, President Peterson sent them the Nordstjarnan, a church periodical. His successor, Theodore Tobiason, visited the family in August 1914. While he was there, war was declared between Germany and Russia.
The Lindlofs endured many privations during the war and the revolution that followed, but the ultimate trial came in 1918. As Johan told the story many years later, it was 3 A.M. when the sleeping family was suddenly roused by the entry of several armed trespassers who announced that the family was under arrest. The crime? They had too much wealth.
Their wealth was confiscated. The children were sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor, where two daughters died. The oldest son survived his term and came to Finland with his parents in 1928. At least one other daughter also survived.14
The turmoil of the early Soviet period prevented any visits to Saint Petersburg, renamed Petrograd, and in 1924, Leningrad. In 1928 the Lindlofs finally returned to Finland. In May of the following year, the Swedish Mission president, Gideon Hulterstrom, came to their home in Helsinki and records that the penniless couple bore their testimonies that in spite of all they had endured, they still knew the gospel to be true.
But there was still more to endure. The Church was not established in Finland, and for the rest of their lives they were the only members in Helsinki. Alma Lindlof passed away in 1939, and Johan on 23 February 1944. Before Johan’s death, he received one last visit from the acting mission president in Sweden, Carl Fritz Johansson, who recorded that the aging Saint was being cared for by a daughter who spoke bitterly of the family’s experiences.15 Yet the reverses of this life did not blight the testimonies of Johan and Alma Lindlof, whose story remains a legacy of endurance for all who seek to sustain their faith in a world so often callous to the workings of the Spirit.