The Reformation and Danish Society: Schooling and Education

In 1536 the Crown assumed control of the old church schools alongside the majority of church properties and estates. Henceforth there was to be one good grammar school in each town so boys could be educated in Lutheran Christianity and Lutheran literacy. The best pupils could go on to university and become pastors in the new church. The grammar schools also functioned as schools for poor, local children. In the youngest classes, children were taught how to read and given religious instruction in Danish, and were in this way provided for and taught for a couple of years. In the older classes, where Latin dominated, there were fewer pupils, including a number of pastors’ sons who had been tutored at home during their first years of schooling.

Education was also a higher priority at a wider level. Parents were reminded to raise their children as good Christians. In all Danish parishes, the parish clerk was responsible for teaching young locals the basics of Christianity. This teaching was based on Luther’s Small Catechism to ensure that faith was taught according to Luther. If people did not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed, i.e. the core of the catechism, they could not take Holy Communion or be betrothed.

During the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s schools with proper reading lessons for boys and girls became more widespread. The goal was that both genders become better at reading Luther’s Small Catechism and its accompanying explanation – and subsequently be able to learn the texts by heart. During the same period, literacy became more important in society at large. Schooling was in demand, and many boys also learned writing and arithmetic.

For the pietists of the 1700s, the personal relationship of children to Christianity was crucial. In 1736 a bill was passed making confirmation obligatory, i.e. a ritual was introduced where young people were examined in Christian basics. Schooling was made compulsory, to ensure that all children had sufficient teaching in reading and Christianity. In 1814 a more extensive Education Act was passed in Denmark, stipulating seven years of education for all children, including writing and arithmetic.

The school and church were closely linked until a late stage of Danish history. State inspections of schools were carried out by pastors and church wardens up until 1933. Locally, the teacher was seen as a man of the church and called a parish clerk. Christian upbringing was part of the objects clause of the Danish school system until 1975, just as scripture, Christianity and hymns formed a large part of schooling. Since 1975 religious education classes have been based on imparting knowledge rather than preaching the gospel, although many schools in Denmark still express their relationship to Christian traditions, for example by holding Christmas celebrations.