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Zachris Castrén

Zachris Castrén
Born December 12, 1868, Oulu. Died January 31, 1938, Helsinki

Master of Arts 1891, PhD 1899 (philosophy of religion, ethics), honorary professorship 1928, University of Helsinki

Curator of the Pohjalainen student nation 1899–1904
Curator of the Pohjois-Pohjalainen student nation 1907–08
Chairman of the student union 1899–1903
President of the Finnish Youth League 1899–1909
Docent in practical philosophy (philosophy of religion) 1903
Acting editorial secretary of Valvoja 1893–94, editor-in-chief 1906–08, 1914–19
Director of the Helsinki Adult Education Institute and its Finnish language division 1914–38
Founding member of the Young Finnish Party, member of the party’s central committee 1906–13 and member of parliament 1909
Member of the central committee of the Finnish National Progressive Party and chairman of its programme committee 1925–26
Vice-chairman of the Federation of Municipal Officers 1919, Chairman 1920–36
Vice-chairman of the Intellectual Employment Union 1922–34

Picture: Portrait in the Opistotalo building of the Helsinki Adult Education Institute / artist Kaapo Wirtanen 1938
Written by Olli Siitonen
Translated by Matthew Billington

Liberal trail blazer

Zachris Castrén was born in Oulu to a wealthy and influential family of merchants. He studied ethics and the philosophy of religion at the University of Helsinki and continued his studies at several European universities. Castrén was an active student, and he was elected chairman of the Student Union at the turn of the 20th century.

Castrén was appointed docent of practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki in 1903. As a teacher, he was popular among students and colleagues alike, due to his humane approach. Castrén worked as acting professor but never received his own professorship. Nevertheless, he was granted an honorary professorship in 1928.

As part of a reform-minded generation of philosophers, Castrén drew his influences from the likes of J.V.Snellman’s nationalist philosophy, pacifism and social liberalism. Castrén translated the major works of Adolf von Harnack on liberal theology and those of Herbert Spencer on social revolutionism. In addition to the abovementioned thinkers, his ideas were influenced by Rudolf Christoph Euken, winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize in Literature, whose lectures Castrén enjoyed while studying in Germany.

Castrén was influential through his membership of the socially and culturally liberal circle responsible for the publication of Päivälehti, and he also worked as editor-in-chief of the periodical Valvoja, a so-called newspaper for docents. In the publication, which was considered the mouthpiece of the Young Finnish Party, and which presented educational themes, Castrén wrote strongly from the perspective of his own philosophical ideas.

Castrén did not shrink from party politics, and he was involved in the foundation of the Young Finnish Party in 1904, working alongside K.J.Ståhlberg as a leading figure in the party’s left-wing group, the so-called ‘sparrows’ (varpuset). He was one of the central figures in the formulation of the party’s moderate, reformist programme. After the Finnish Civil War of 1918, Castrén was involved in the foundation of the Finnish National Progressive Party, and he was elected to the board of the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, the successor to Päivälehti.

Castrén saw religion as a personal matter, and thus decided to condemn compulsory outward displays of religiosity and formal rituals. Congregations would still play a central role among the people, but the church needed to reform itself in order to prevent its alienation from surrounding society. According to Castrén, Christianity also needed to be brought within the realm of scientific scrutiny. On the Committee on Religion, founded in 1918, he pressed for comprehensive reforms and proposed, as the only representative of a centre-right party, complete freedom of religion.

Castrén worked as an opinion shaper in party politics and the liberal publications of the day. His influence on society is said to have been predominantly invisible and persuasive, and as such known only to a small inner-circle.


  • Muiluvuori, Jukka, Castrén, Zachris, National Biography online publication, SKS, (Accessed 29 September 2015).
  • Klinge Matti (ed.) Helsingin yliopisto 1640–1990. 2. osa Keisarillinen Aleksanterin yliopisto 1808–1917 (‘University of Helsinki 1640–1990. Part 2. Imperial Alexander University 1808–1917’). Otava, Helsinki 1989.
  • Zachris Castrén 1868–1938, Helsingin työväenopiston johtaja, kansanedustaja (‘Director of the Helsinki Adult Education Institute and Member of Parliament’), Online publication of the Helsinki Adult Education Institute (Accessed 29 September 2015).
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