The Reformation and Danish Society: Pastor and Congregation

The German Reformation movement’s slogan on ‘the universal priesthood’, which placed the clergy and laypeople on an equal footing, also reached Denmark. But after the introduction of the Reformation it was indisputable that church services be conducted in an entirely Lutheran manner, and that the word of God had to be explained to the congregation. This made the individual pastor even more important than before. He was the local representative of the church and state, and also the shepherd and learned expert of the people in his parish. After the Reformation, the pastor was also expected to be married with a family of his own in the vicarage and to provide a role model for all Christian heads of families.

The parish pastor had a large and growing number of responsibilities. As well as the sermon and church service, he was also responsible for parish poor relief and nursing, youth education, the supervision of local schools, disciplining sinners, mediation between married couples, and the proclamation of new legislation. This expanding number of duties increased demands on the education of the clergy, and supervision by rural deans and bishops intensified.

Even though it was officially the congregation that appointed a new pastor, the influence of the people of the parish was often limited. It was usually the local lord of the manor, king or bishop who had the last word. With the Pietism of the 1700s and religious revivals of the 1800s, the idea of the direct relationship between the individual and God was given a new lease of life and more people started to question the authority of the pastor. Several years after the 1849 Constitution of Denmark, people were freed of parish ties, i.e. given the right to find a pastor of their own choosing beyond their own parish. It was now also possible to form free congregations where members found each other and chose their own pastor. From 1903 there were elected church councils in all Danish parishes.  

The clergy retained their central position in social and cultural life throughout the 1800s. Developments in society since then, especially the increase in secularisation, have changed the conditions for the role of pastors in Denmark.