Anna Michelsdotter Rågel was a preacher and one of the most famous late eighteenth-century peasant women of eastern Sweden. Her sermons made her an important leading figure of the revival movement in Satakunda and the coastal areas of Österbotten during the 1770s.
Anna Rågel was born in Sastmola (Merikarvia in Finnish) parish in Satakunda in 1751. Her father was Michel Michelsson and her mother was Maria Isaaksdotter. Her father owned the Rågel homestead in Nederby in Sastmola which is the reason that Anna Rågel was referred to as “bondedottren” (farmer’s daughter) in various contemporary documents. She came from a family of ten children, albeit six of these children died young. Little is known of Anna Rågel’s childhood although Anders Eneberg, the local parson of Sastmola, noted in his chapter records for 1774 that the Rågel family “are all capable people, but in poor health”. According to Eneberg Anna Rågel had “since childhood been quiet and meek and had not socialised much with other children, preferring her own company instead”. Initially Anna Rågel had difficulty with reading but once she began attending confirmation lessons the parson realised that she “could compete with the best of the other children with regard to her understanding of the Christian teachings”.
Anna Rågel suffered a very severe illness in the spring of 1770, from which it was feared she would not recover. Nevertheless, by Christmas time that same year she had begun to preach. This occurred whilst she was in a trance-like state. According to contemporary witnesses she was lying in her bed, seemingly quite lifeless, with only the faintest of heartbeats and very shallow breaths to show that she was still alive. Suddenly, however, she began to preach. These sermons could last several hours and as she delivered them the people around her could discern neither any movement in her eyes or hands, and she had no reaction to being touched. This preaching continued until 1771 and then suddenly recommenced around Pentecost in 1772. Sometimes she also sang while preaching. Her sermons were lengthy in duration, as was the norm at that time. They were didactic in form and not infrequently contained warnings and encouragement directed towards her contemporaries. Prayers and intercessions also formed important elements within her trance- or sleeping preaching.
Large hordes of people came to visit Anna Rågel in her sick-bed. People came not only from the immediately surrounding areas but also from great distances to hear her preach. According to contemporary reports people gathered in their thousands to hear her words. In September 1774 she was taken, still in her bed, to Vasa by boat. Her friends in that town hoped that they could give her the care she required. She carried on preaching in Vasa and reports state that several hundred people flocked to her side every day in order to hear what she said. People would come from as far away as Kalajokki in the north to visit the Stenberg farm where Anna Rågel was being housed. Indeed others travelled from western Bottenviken in order to see her and experience her preaching for themselves. After a few years in Vasa she was returned to her home in Nederby in Sastmola.
How did Anna Rågel come to assume such a prominent role as a preacher and a religious authority? At this time women were disenfranchised from officially serving as preachers, both within the church and outside it. Further, the Conventicle Act outlawed gatherings of the type which Anna Rågel’s preaching generated. One reason that Anna Rågel was largely undisturbed in her preaching – according to several researchers – was that she, like several other female preachers at this time, found refuge in her illness. Being unwell she presented no threat to her surroundings and the fact that a person could be in such poor health and yet still preach out loud for hours at a time made her particularly remarkable to outsiders. Those who flocked to her sick bed considered her to be a divine intercessory. Indeed, when preaching she used an inherited language of symbols that was familiar to her listeners and which helped her to create an identity as a prophet.
At this time the ruling social framework was undergoing great changes which gave preachers like Anna Rågel room to manoeuvre. Increased individualism and secularisation contributed to a growing questioning of previously unquestionable authorities. This also applied to the spiritual world and thus the church and the clergy were no longer as readily accepted as sole interpreters of religion. It is also clear that one of the reasons for Anna Rågel’s public support was that Anders Eneberg, the Sastmola pastor, protected her in various ways. It is nearly impossible to find any negative comment on Anna Rågel in Eneberg’s letters that he wrote to the chapter and in the personal accounts he wrote after her death. He presents her as a good and genuine Christian who, despite severe illness, was able to lead large numbers of people to become revivalists through her dogmatic preachings. According to Eneberg, Anna Rågel was not aware of what she was saying or doing when she was in her trances and thus could not be held accountable for her behaviour.
Anna Rågel died in 1784. She was only 32 years old. She is buried under the sacristy in Sastmola church. In 1870 – a century after she had begun preaching – a memorial stone was raised in her honour at the site in Nederby in Sastmola where she had preached from her sick bed. The stone testifies to Anna Rågel’s great significance, particularly within the west-Finnish revivalist movement.