Reformation “slow to start” in Norway

Nordic Spirit Symposium at CLU focuses on 500-year-old history of the Nordic region

Photo courtesy of CLU Kings, Nobles, and Bishops will continue in 2017, which is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

Photo courtesy of CLU
Kings, Nobles, and Bishops will continue in 2017, which is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

The Protestant Reformation did not get off to a rousing start in Norway, unlike its impact in other Scandinavian and European countries. Long distances, bad roads, lack of a strong aristocracy, and the official disregard for the Norwegian language contributed to the Reformation’s slow inception there.

These reasons were among topics covered by leading scholars and experts in a two-day public event at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, held Feb. 12-13. The topic for the 17th annual Nordic Spirit Symposium was “Kings, Nobles, and Bishops: Reform in Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.”

With 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the symposium topic will be continued next year to cover the Reformation in Finland and Sweden, according to Howard K. Rockstad, Nordic Spirit founder and director.

For Norway, the story of the Reformation reflects less than stellar conditions in the country at the time. With a small population and the lack of a strong aristocracy, the movement got off to a slow start, according to one of the symposium speakers.

Hallgeir Elstad of the University of Oslo, where he is dean of research in the theology faculty, noted that Martin Luther’s ideas reached Scandinavia quickly. “By 1523, Martin Luther’s theology had found its way to Stockholm, and to the new king, Gustavus Vasa,” Elstad said. “In Denmark-Norway the Reformation came a little later, due to political circumstances.”

Photo: Fred Tonsing, courtesy of CLU Hallgeir Elstad, from the University of Oslo, spoke of the differences in the Reformation’s beginning in Norway and Sweden.

Photo: Fred Tonsing, courtesy of CLU
Hallgeir Elstad, from the University of Oslo, spoke of the differences in the Reformation’s beginning in Norway and Sweden.

Being ruled by the Danish king—and the use of the Danish language in church— also put a damper on Reformation enthusiasm in Norway.

Norway was a poor country at the time, scarcely populated. While the Reformation had strengthened the power of the king, Elstad said the influence of the church itself was reduced as religion was integrated into the state.

And as Norway was ruled by Denmark, “The king got an extended responsibility for the church as well as the spiritual well-being of the people. In Norway the Reformation was the Danish King’s Reformation.”

But it never gained the same importance in Norway as it had in Sweden and Denmark, Elstad told the audience of nearly 150. “The introduction of Reformation in Norway took place just as a consequence of what happened in Denmark. “

Elstad noted that “Compared with the neighboring countries, Norway undoubtedly was the country where Luther’s ideas were less known.”

Ideas took longer to reach the people. Visitations and synods were the main vehicles that served to introduce the Reformation in Norway. But long distances between churches and bad roads slowed the movement, and local clergy “remained so passive,” Elstad said, adding that real changes took place “when a new generation of Lutheran clergy replaced the Catholic clergy towards the mid 16th century.”

Experts from Denmark, Iceland, and England who delved into other aspects of the reform were Rasmus H.C. Dreyer, chairman of the Society of Danish Church History at the University of Copenhagen; the Rev. Solveig Lára Guðmundsdóttir, the bishop of Hólar, Iceland; and Ole Peter Grell of the Open University in London. Martin Lohrmann from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Iowa spoke on the Danish scene.

Opening the symposium was the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), who later led a panel discussion.

Adding the musical element that is traditionally a featured part of the Nordic Spirit Symposium, CLU professor emeritus Fred Tonsing, accompanied by Cal Lutheran organist Kyle Johnson, focused on the music that helped spread the ideas of the Reformation, with the audience joining in the singing of Reformation era songs.

Sponsors of the symposium were Cal Lutheran, the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation, and the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA. The Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation and the Norway House Foundation in San Francisco provided grants.

This article originally appeared in the March 11, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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