The Reformation and Danish Society: Ethics and Welfare

Both before and after the Reformation, Christianity provided the basis for morality in Denmark, governing how people should behave in relationship to others, in relationship to society – and in relationship to themselves. But Lutheranism led to changes in ways of thinking and traditions. In the modern period it has often been claimed that Protestantism created a strong work ethic. On the basis of Luther’s Small Catechism, everyone in Denmark had learned about the vocation of the individual. People were to accept and respect their vocation and station in life, and work ‘by the sweat of their brow’. At a practical level, the number of holidays was reduced because some saint’s days were abolished.

The sociologist Max Weber has analysed the connection between religion and the work ethic in Calvinist regions of Europe. Calvin believed that salvation was predestined by God. Work and prosperity were therefore a sign that people had been chosen. This gave an extra motivation for hard work. Weber therefore saw this ‘Protestant work ethic’ as part of the explanation for the development of early capitalism in Northwest Europe. The belief in predestination – that some were selected for salvation – was not practised by Lutherans. But in the early modern period, elements of a similar way of thinking can be traced, for example when Danish Lutheran revivalists see success not as a sign of predestined salvation, but as a sign of true faith in God.

In Danish society during the 1500s and 1600s the most important idea was for people to fulfil their vocation and take care of each other in families, households and parish communities. Loving one’s neighbour was a basic virtue. Caring for others was validated by Christianity, and to a large extent organised by the Lutheran church. In many ways the household was the central welfare institution at the time, and the parish community was to help those who did not belong to a household. Poor people in the parish were given alms, and in many places poorhouses and shelters for the old and sick were founded, often with donations from local landowners or pastors. This created a form of local social safety net.

Institutions for the poor, old and sick were extended during the 1700s and 1800s, with responsibility for them falling increasingly on parishes and local councils – albeit with the pastor and church continuing to play a central role for a long time. In Lutheran Denmark there was always room for private initiatives like religious foundations. As the 1800s progressed, a large part of the aid work done in Denmark was provided by philanthropic organisations, still based on Lutheran principles. People who moved to Denmark’s cities or worked in its new industries left the security of the household, creating the need for new kinds of social systems and safety nets. Here the labour movement and church competed to set the agenda.

Throughout the 1900s the number and scale of state and council welfare services increased in Denmark, ultimately leading to the establishment of the welfare state. The church and pastor had lost their official right to head social initiatives, but some of the legitimation for the development of the welfare state could be found in Lutheran thinking, for example in the work of Hal Koch, a theology professor and influential Social Democrat in 1950s Denmark. He made direct reference to Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms – the secular and the spiritual – when arguing for the creation of the welfare state. For a modern man like Koch, it was natural for the secular state to ensure material well being for society as a whole. There was, however, also opposition to the welfare state from other Lutherans who believed it would remove responsibility from God and the individual.