The Reformation Begins in Sweden

Germany had a significant influence on the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark politically, socially and spiritually. They could all trace their lineage back to the same Teutonic tribes that occupied Europe in the wake of the disintegration of the Roman Empire. In addition to that, they were trade partners and many native Germans had migrated to the region and were scattered throughout Scandinavia. When Wittenberg rose to fame much Scandinavian youth opted to study there and were greatly influenced by Luther and Melancthon. It was this influence that would spark the Reformation in Scandinavia and transform the entire region into a Protestant stronghold.

Sweden became part of the Roman Catholic church in the 12th century and when the 16th century dawned was loyal in its allegiance to Rome. In 1515 Leo X sent his legate Johannes Arcimboldus to sell indulgences in both Denmark and Sweden. Arcimboldus was Tetzel’s Scandinavian counterpart and managed to extract over a million florins from the purses of the faithful for the purpose of refurbishing St Peter’s Basilica. The cost of the extraction though, far exceeded the spoils of it, because the people were utterly fed up with the money-grubbing legate and his pecuniary antics. The entire episode caused the tide of popular opinion to turn against the church thereby creating a more favorable environment for the introduction of Protestantism in the region.

Political Influences

As was the case in most European nations at the time religion and politics were inextricably linked. Christian II, who occupied the throne of Denmark from 1513, was a brutal and tyrannical monarch but wielded limited power. This was because the Catholic clergy was obscenely wealthy and had a great deal of influence over the people, also the Danish nobility owned most of the land. Combined the ecclesiastical and lay nobility had more of a power base than the king. Christian took aggressive steps to reduce their power by using Protestantism as his weapon of choice. He could see the inroads that the movement had begun to make into the country and he could also see that to encourage this movement would significantly diminish the power of the priests.

The kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway were ruled by a single monarch since 1397 but when Christian ascended the throne he proved to be such a tyrannical monarch that Sweden appointed an administrator to oversee its national interests thus circumventing Christian’s direct authority over the nation. Christian bided his time and invaded Sweden, conquering and subjugating the nation and treating its citizens with terrible cruelty. Among those who suffered was the family of Gustav Vasa, who mustered an army and defeated Christian’s troops seizing the throne of Sweden himself. Vasa took the throne of Sweden in 1523 as Vasa I and began to work on behalf of the Reformation of his kingdom and its incumbent ecclesiastical powers. Unlike Christian II who saw the Reformation as a political tool, Vasa saw the Reformation as a genuine necessity in the revival and transformation of his nation. 

The Petri Brothers

Laurentius and Olaf Petri played a significant role in this enterprise, having being discipled by Luther and Melancthon during their time in Wittenberg. Olaf, born in, 1497 and Laurentius, born in 1499 both received their basic education at a Carmelite Cloister following which they both went to study at the University of Wittenberg. Some reports suggest that when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle church at Wittenberg, Olaf was among the crowd that stood around him. After completing their education at Wittenberg they both returned to Sweden, taking with them the truths they had absorbed while under the tutelage of Luther and Melancthon.

Vasa appointed Olaf as the preacher of the great Cathedral in Stockholm and Laurentius as chair of theology at the University of Uppsala. These young men infused Swedish society with the ideas they had brought back from Wittenberg making a deep impression on the country.  

The clergy immediately took up arms against the new movement and the good Bishop Brask of Linkoping, who was more a political activist than a priest, banned all Catholics from purchasing, reading or circulating protestant literature. His proscription only served to excite the curiosity of his constituents and people began to talk more feverishly about the new teachings.

Meanwhile, Olaf Petri began to translate the new testament into Swedish using Luther’s new testament as a template.As Protestantism began to gain traction, the friction between the two sides began to gain momentum. It escalated to such an extent that the King called for a conference at Uppsala to thrash out the differences between Protestantism and the Papacy. The King ordered that each point of difference was to be discussed and hashed out until every single argument and angle had been exhausted. Twelve main points of difference were raised and the discussion was held at the conference of Uppsala in 1526. Shortly thereafter at the Diet of Vasteras in 1527 Sweden officially became a Protestant nation.

Taussan and Denmark

After Christian II lost the throne of Sweden to Vasa he was also deposed from the throne of Denmark and fled into exile at the court of his brother-in-law Charles V. His uncle, Frederick, Duke of Holstein and Schleswig succeeded him to the throne. It was during his reign that the man who earned himself the title “reformer of Denmark” came on the stage of action. Hans Taussen was born in 1494 to Danish peasants whose meager income did not provide Taussen with the opportunity of receiving the kind of education he longed for. His family being Catholic he soon joined the ranks of a monastic order where the assiduity with which he executed his tasks caught the attention of the head of the order who offered him a scholarship to any University of his choosing, except the poisoned Protestant stronghold of Wittenberg. He chose Cologne and while he was there he was given the writings of Luther which sparked a fire in his bones, leading him to leave Cologne for Wittenberg without alerting his benefactors to the change. Around 1521, as Luther was preparing to set off for the Diet at Worms, Taussen returned to Denmark, receiving a doctorate in Divinity shortly after. This opened the door for him to teach others the truths that he had learned at Wittenberg. He went back to the monastery that had offered him the scholarship and he began to quietly teach the reformed faith to the students there. Before long, however,  the head of the order, who had provided him with the scholarship, realized what was happening and had Taussen locked up at the convent of Viborg and there, unable to contain himself, Tausan began to preach to the inmates of the convent through the bars of his prison cell. At this point, they expelled him from the monastic circle altogether and this gave him the freedom to travel throughout Denmark preaching and teaching wherever he went. It was also fortuitous that around the time that he was expelled from the convent at Viborg King Frederick issued a decree stipulating that no one was to touch any preacher who was preaching the reformed faith.

The Bishop of Viborg then gathered his colleagues together and the four Bishops of Denmark wrote to Dr. Eck asking him to come and live in Denmark for a period of time so that he could combat the Protestant heresy that was gaining hold in the country but Eck, wearied by his recent encounters with Luther and others was not persuaded and declined the invitation.

The animosity of the Bishops did not wane over time but intensified until Frederick I summoned them all to meet with the heads of the Protestant movement in Copenhagen to have an open disputation. The Protestants in anticipation of the dispute drew up a document of 43 points delineating their beliefs and the Catholic Bishops did the same. The key tenants of the Protestant document were; the authority of Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian and the sufficiency of Jesus death on the cross to secure the Salvation of man. The outcome of the disputation led to the Protestant movement gaining a firm foothold in Denmark.

The most striking thing about the Scandinavian Reformation is how quiet and unobtrusive it was and also how remarkably free from bloodshed and violence. Just across the border in Germany Protestantism and Catholicism were facing each other, armed and ready for battle; the same was true in Switzerland, France, England and even in the Netherlands but in Scandinavia Protestantism dawned quietly, peacefully and yet no less forcefully than anywhere else. One can only speculate as to why this was the case but one salient point to draw from it all is this; sometimes revolution doesn’t need to be marked by blood and war, it can come softly and peacefully and leave behind an equally enduring legacy.