The Reformation and Danish Society: State and Church

During the Middle Ages the church had owned more than a third of Denmark’s land, and its bishops in particular exerted a major political influence. The Reformation movement wanted to limit their power, and especially the influence of the Pope in Rome. With the Reformation of Christian III in 1536, the Crown assumed control of the majority of church land and property: the secular power of the church was abolished, and the king was now its highest authority. Some of the changes were visible, for example the abolition of convents and monasteries or demolition of superfluous town churches. But the church still had its own influential organisation of pastors, wardens and bishops, and pastors continued to have a social standing that granted them privileges and a high degree of autonomy. Poor relief and schooling were among the areas they attended to.

The king was seen as an authority appointed by God, making him responsible before God, the church and his subjects. When he issued new laws, acted as the head of the judiciary, or waged war, it was often justified in terms of his responsibility to God. And when pastors preached the religious view of the world to their congregations, they emphasised this order of things and the mutual respect and dutifulness that was to prevail in a good Lutheran society. During the absolute monarchy in Denmark (1660-1849) the role of the monarch as appointed by God and thus a divine ruler was underlined. 

For more than three centuries Denmark had a Lutheran state church that all citizens had to be members of. The 1849 constitution abolished the state church, and introduced freedom of religion as a democratic right. The regent of the country was, however, still duty-bound to the Evangelical Lutheran faith. At the time nobody could imagine a society without a church and Christian social morals. The Evangelical Lutheran Church was granted the status of the national church of Denmark, which was to be supported by the state. But the promised legislation regulating the relationship between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark and the state was never implemented. This has subsequently provoked frequent debates, especially during recent years when the campaign for church autonomy has gained support both within and beyond the church itself. Membership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark has declined during recent decades, from 89.3% of the population in 1990 to 78.4% in 2014.

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