The Reformation and Danish Society: Good and Evil

The opposition between good and evil forms the foundation of many moral philosophies, including that of Christianity. In many ways, the Reformation sharpened distinctions between good and evil and God and the Devil. Humankind was on a battlefield between God and the Devil.

The Devil had tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God’s orders during the Fall of Man, and this original sin had been passed on to all of humanity, who could only achieve salvation through faith in God. In Danish society during the 1500s and 1600s, the Devil lurked everywhere, constantly ready to lead people astray. It was therefore important that children were given to God through christening, and stayed in his arms. Although this was no guarantee of salvation – people had to remain vigilant.

The Devil could tempt people to become witches, and was also behind creatures like elves, who offered to help people. If someone – with the best intentions – wanted to save a sick cow using white magic like with a word from a prayer or a wafer from Holy Communion, they too were prey to the Devil’s wiles. The people of the church assumed that there were supernatural powers beyond the church, and that they worked. They condemned them as evil and diabolical. But not all evil came from the Devil. Misfortune, like the death of a child, for example, could also be an ordeal sent by God to test people’s faith. The ways of the Lord are past understanding, as people said.

During the Enlightenment of the 1700s, scepticism about using the Devil as an explanation grew. Instead, an increasing number of people believed that stories about witches and supernatural beings were attributable to mental confusion and a restless disposition, something that could be treated by talking to a pastor. Similarly, God was seen less as a vengeful judge who intervened directly in the life of the individual. The religious revivals of the 1700s and 1800s retained a higher degree of belief in God being active in the life of the individual and the presence of the Devil, because without the Devil, evil could only come from God.