Catharina Asplund was a prominent leader active within the radical pietist revivalist circles in eighteenth-century Österbotten.
We have no definitive information on Catharina Asplund’s background and year of birth. During an interrogation on 28 January 1759 she stated that she was 70 years old. This implies that she was born circa 1689. Catharina Asplund was married to Lorentz Nordman, sheriff of Nykarleby. Many Österbotten residents were compelled by war and the subsequent Russian invasion of 1713 to flee westwards across the Gulf of Bothnia. This flight led to a significant turn in Catharina Asplund’s life. According to her own account she made her way to Söderhamn and then spent nine years living on the western side of the Gulf of Bothnia. There she had experienced the dramatic and prophetic preachings of Olof Montén and his curate Olof Faxén. Catharina Asplund had thereby absorbed religious impressions which she considered to be significant to her own religouis development.
Catharina Asplund made her breakthrough appearance as a leader of the revivalists in 1736. Her religious views had generated marital strife for her but the next year her husband died. Now Catharina Asplund was financially independent and all obstacles which had prevented her from assuming a leading position within the radical pietist milieu were removed. Catharina Asplund’s radical pietism manifested itself in her refusal to take communion and in her criticism of the clergy. In her ideal world the congregation and communion should only be available to true believers. Priests should lead their lives according to their teachings and the sacrament should only be given by Godly priests. Catharina Asplund felt that the Nykarleby congregation did not live up to these ideals and so she opted to disassociate herself from parish life and to practise her religion in the stillness of her own home and in nature. As a mystic she believed that the relationship between the soul and God was more important than external expressions of religion. Direct divine apparitions also formed part of the theology that Catharina Asplund espoused.
The radical-pietist revivalist movement was labelled as a separatist movement from its inception. It represented a separation from the church, namely, it was a movement which opposed the dominant united society within which church and society were integrated under the control of pure Lutheran doctrine. The united society of old viewed religious conformity as a guarantor of the state’s welfare. Breaking away from this unitary conformity was considered a form of separatism and was thus perceived as a threat to the dominant social construct. The movement led to extensive legal proceedings during which the ‘separatists’ were required to defend their views not just before secular but also church authorities.
Catharina Asplund’s sources of inspiration and radical pietist contacts included the brothers Jakob and Erik Eriksson, who had been banished from Sweden in 1734. When the Eriksson brothers were permitted to return to the kingdom they set up a closed radical pietist community in Värmdö. Catharina Asplund’s son-in-law Friedrich Basilier came from this community. He was a sheep-breeder and tobacco-grower. His arrival in Nykarleby represented a forceful contribution to the local radical pietists. Life at Catharina Asplund’s farm of Drakabacka sometimes witnessed family disputes. Her son Eric Nordman left the movement and had already departed from the farm before the arrival of Friedrich Basilier, who subsequently became his brother-in-law. Catharina Asplund’s daughter Beata shared her mother’s and her husband’s religious views. Despit this, Catharina Asplund still fell out with her son-in-law, and in the end the two of them could not tolerate each other.
Within Catharina Asplund’s social circle not only was the Bible studied but so too were books by Johann Arndt, Thomas à Kempis, and Thomas Bromley. The pietists also had their own songbook, entitled Mose och Lambsens Wisor. Followers would meet at Catharina Asplund’s home for conventicles, which at that time were prohibited. By all accounts Catharina Asplund’s contact network was extensive, involving similarly-minded radical pietists and her teachings were aligned with the general concepts of that movement.
As a spiritual leader Catharina Asplund opted to challenge the local clergy in public disputes. At the peak of the long-drawn out process in 1758 the cathedral chapter described Catharina Asplund as an “incorrigible” separatist, recommending that she should be banished from Sweden in accordance with the kingdom’s strict religious laws. Further to the theological judgements the clergy also attacked Catharina Asplund’s character. She was described as a grasping and self-serving individual who was defined by her anger and quasi-slanderous claims. Catharina Asplund did not hold back. She accused the clergy of being haughty, lascivious, greedy, and persecutors. The mutual accusations reveal more about the intensity of the disagreement than about the actual characteristics of the people involved. The Supreme Court eventually decided to take a softer line and opted not to banish Catharina Asplund, thereby laying the grounds for a new and more tolerant view of religious dissidents.
Catharina Asplund’s leadership was marked by its longevity. She was the leading separatist in Nykarleby throughout the 1736–1758 period. After 1758 the movement slowly began to recede. The peak of Catharina Asplund’s career as a leader of this group in Nykarleby can be seen as her defensive speech noted in the consistory records of 1758. There she appeared as a figurehead leader for the whole separatist movement throughout Österbotten.
There is no definitive information on Catharina Asplund’s death. She is not listed in the Nykarleby congregational list of the dead and buried. The congregation’s communion book for the years of 1762–1767 list her as deceased. There is no evidence in the communion book that she participated in congregation activities. Catharina Asplund apparently stayed true to her convictions to the end and it is likely that she was not given a Christian burial.