The Reformation and Danish Society: International and National Contexts

The medieval church was international. It was divided into sees headed by the Pope in Rome. Almost all criticism of the church in the 1400s and early 1500s was aimed at improvements to bring the church back to its true foundations. The goal was to reform the church.

Luther’s intentions were the same. But when he was excommunicated by the Pope and still persisted with his criticisms, events escalated. New church organisations were introduced in many areas of Germany, and numerous princes officially broke with Rome to head their own so-called territorial churches. During the 1500s the religious map of Europe changed. Towards the southeast – as previously – there was the orthodox church. But the rest of Europe was now divided between different churches. The three main ones were the Roman Catholic church, the Lutheran church, and the Reformed church where Calvin and Zwingli were the most important reformers.  The Anglican Church was established in England.

The new independent, territorial churches became important for kings and princes wanting to establish strong states during the 1500s. In Denmark, Christian III introduced a Lutheran state church in 1536. For a society with a religious worldview, it was crucial that the church was protected from internal and external enemies. The king had the role of head and protector of the church, with a special responsibility to God. This role made ‘the Lutheran model’ attractive to numerous strong rulers of the period. At the same time, Protestant Christianity superceded individual states and people were not bound by nationality. The entire history of the Reformation shows how new religious ideas and traditions were exchanged and translated. Both books and people crossed borders, also after the formation of the new territorial churches. Latin continued to be the shared language of the Lutheran world, but German also played a major role. In Denmark Luther’s writings were read in both Latin and German, and many texts were translated into Danish, including many of Luther’s hymns, like ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’.

At the time of the Reformation concepts of peoples or nations existed - like the state of Denmark or the people of Germany - but they existed in relationship to God, and everyone was part of a long, shared history that began with the people of Israel in the Bible and ended with the Day of Judgement. The idea of a specific, national character that prevails in modern nationalism did not exist in Luther’s time. Although in the long term the Reformation did contribute to the development of national identities, because national languages played a major role and religious cultures developed local characteristics within each country.

In Denmark during the 1800s romantic and national ideas about a Danish people with their own unique history emerged. The 1849 Constitution established the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the national church of Denmark. Danish hymns and whitewashed churches became part of the new Danish identity. This coupling of the Christian and national was also clear in Danish schools where, for example, morning assembly was comprised of national songs and religious hymns. This is probably part of the explanation of why the national church has a strong position in Denmark today, and why many Danes connect Danish identity to the church and Lutheranism. At the same time, parts of the church and many individual churches also work internationally and ecumenically.