The Reformation and Danish Society: Discipline and Democracy

The Reformation took place in a society where there were vast social differences between people. These differences were seen as part of a God-given order. There were differences and power hierarchies between nobles, priests, burghers and peasants – and between the head of the household, the housewife and the rest of the household. The king was at the top of the hierarchy. Obedience was demanded in all social relationships, not least obedience to the authorities. But the obedient were also entitled to demand protection, and the idea of individual rights played a major role. Society was permeated by the idea of reciprocity. Local communities were based on mutual obligations, and people were to help their neighbours.

The Lutheran understanding of Christianity weighted the individual and their relationship to God heavily. But this emphasis on the individual did not in itself contribute to the creation of modern democracy. In the centuries following the Reformation, more importance was placed on the duties everyone had to the social and moral community: the individual’s ability to understand the word of God meant they had to take responsibility.

Social morality was based on religion. It was believed that sinful behaviour could harm both the individual and society, because God’s punishment in the form of war or natural disasters, etc. could affect everyone. The men of the church therefore intervened in cases of loose morals, unrest, neglect and misinterpretations of faith. This intervention took the from of what was called church discipline, which consisted of didactic conversations, confession and in serious cases exclusion from church and parish life. There was, however, almost always a way back into the community for those who repented their sins and submitted to faith in God.

Lutheran ideas about the individual paved the way for those who dared to challenge the authority of the church during the 1800s. In revivalist movements they were able to define and interpret their own faith, and religious gatherings gave many Danes the experience of establishing their own organisations. The 1849 Constitution included the abolition of parish ties, giving people the right to find a pastor of their own choosing. The Lutheran belief in equality also contributed to the courage of women to demand the vote, and was integral to the development of a democratic, political culture.