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Church History

As far as can be ascertained, Ansgar, a French Benedictine monk, was the first to preach the Christian gospel in what is now Sweden. He arrived at the trading centre of Birka on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren in the year 829.

The history of Christianity in Sweden

Ansgar was the first preacher, but the ground was prepared even earlier as the Vikings during their travels eastward and westward had been in touch with Christianity.

It took a long time for Sweden to be Christianized, partly because it was divided into provinces, each headed by an independent king or chieftain. Olof Skötkonung, king of both Götar and Svear, was the first king to be baptized, about 1000.

Uppsala as the seat of an archbishop

The selection of Uppsala as the seat of an archbishop, in 1164, signified a breakthrough for Christianity in Sweden.

The king had played a central role at the pagan sacrifices held in Uppsala three times a year. The Christian king, too, was considered sacred, divinely ordained through the act of coronation. In 1210, Erik Knutsson was the first king to be crowned by a bishop, marking the union of church and state in the person of bishop and monarch.

Birgitta (Bridget) of Vadstena (1303-1373).

This bond did not guarantee the monarch the support of the church - as may be seen in the case of Birgitta (Bridget) of Vadstena (1303-1373). The daughter of a lawman (lagman) in Uppland, and wife of a lawman and councillor of the realm, she was outspoken in criticism of both papal decadence and royal abuse of power. Birgitta founded the Order of Our Most Holy Saviour (Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris, OSS), which was approved by the pope in 1370*. Birgitta was canonized in 1391.

The Order of St Bridget returned to Sweden in the 1960s, re-establishing a religious community in Vadstena. A new branch of the Bridgettine order was founded in 1911 by another Swede, Elisabeth Hesselblad (1870-1957) and approved by the pope in 1942. Today the Bridgettines are found in about 20 countries.

National liberation

At the end of the 14th century, the Nordic countries were united in a confederation. In 1520, its king, Christian II of Denmark, contrived to have two bishops executed in Stockholm. This became the signal for a movement of national liberation, both from the union and from the pope.

The leader of the insurrection, Gustav Vasa, was crowned king of Sweden in 1523. He received ideological support for his break with the pope and for the creation of a national Swedish church from two brothers, Olavus and Laurentius Petri, who had been inspired by Martin Luther and other church reformers on the continent.

The Swedish reformers were cautious. Much of the old order was retained unless judged to be superstition or false belief. At the parliament (riksdag) in Västerås in 1544, Sweden was proclaimed an evangelical kingdom. The king became the church's most prominent member, but, in contrast to his counterparts in the German states, never became summus episcopus. Earlier, in 1531, Laurentius Petri was consecrated the first evangelical archbishop of Uppsala.

The Reformation

The Reformation brought new manuals and practices. The Church of Sweden adopted the reforms to the medieval teaching and organisation common to all Protestant churches, following the more moderate line of Martin Luther in preference to the stricter purging in teaching and practice associated with John Calvin.

In 1530, it was decided to celebrate mass in the vernacular. In 1541, the first Bible entirely in Swedish appeared (the New Testament having been published in Swedish in 1526). In 1543-44, a Swedish hymnal and lectionary appeared. In 1571, a new Church Ordinance (kyrkoordning) was ratified. The Convocation of Uppsala of 1593 may be said to mark the end of the Reformation period in the Church of Sweden.

The era of great bishops

In the 17th century, Sweden became a major power in Europe. By then, Sweden was a monolithic religious state, allowing only the Swedish version of the evangelical faith. Priests and bishops formed one of the four houses of the riksdag.

The period is known as ”the era of great bishops” because of the enormous influence of the episcopate on both church and state. This led to a certain tension between the nobility and the king on the one hand and the church leadership on the other.

An evangelical nation

The first church law after the Reformation was adopted in 1686. It defined Sweden as an evangelical nation and required Swedes to confess the evangelical faith. The power of the monarch also extended to the church, and he or she was responsible to ensure that God's law applied to the realm.

Foreigners with business in the realm who wanted to practise another form of Christianity, or another faith, were obliged to worship ”in their homes, behind closed doors, and in privacy.” If they wished to remain in the realm, their children were to be raised in ”the true evangelical faith.”

Already in the first decades of the 18th century, the religious monopoly was threatened by pietistic influences from Germany and later on also by ”Swedenborgianism.” A Swedish scientist and philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg, founded the New Church. He died in London in 1772, and is buried in Uppsala cathedral.

The authorities reacted strongly. In 1726 the Conventicle Edict was issued. It prohibited worship in private groups.

With its Sunday high mass (högmässa), at that time usually without holy communion, the parish church was still a focus of the predominantly rural life of Sweden. In many places, priests made much progress in the religious education of the people.

During this time, certain contacts were made between the Church of Sweden and the Church of England as well as with churches on the continent. Jacob Serenius, bishop of Strängnäs (1763-76), re-introduced confirmation in his diocese as a result of his English Anglican contacts. (Confirmation had been abolished after the Reformation.) In 1784, in Stockholm, a public Roman Catholic mass was allowed in Sweden for the first time since the Reformation.

Evangelical revival movements

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Swedish church history was characterized by several evangelical revival movements. These included, in far northern Sweden, Laestadianism in the Torne Valley (inspired by L.L. Laestadius, 1800-1868) and Rosenianism in Västerbotten (C.O. Rosenius, 1816-1868), and, on the west coast, Schartauanism (H. Schartau, 1757-1825).

As a result of tensions between the church leadership and the revival movements, as well as for theological reasons, some groups left the Church of Sweden and formed ”free congregations,” despite several laws prohibiting secession.

Religious freedom

In the 1800s, greater freedom of religion was allowed in Sweden, but not until 1951 was full religious freedom guaranteed to everyone by law. Today, everyone has the right to belong (or not to belong) to any religious body, Christian or non-Christian. The only exception from this is the monarch (currently Carl XVI Gustaf, the king of Sweden) who has to "confess to the pure evangelical, Protestant teachings" as dictated by the Constitution of Sweden.

At the close of the 19th century, some parts of the Church of Sweden were marked by a certain degree of pessimism and passivity. But, early in the 20th century, a new self-consciousness developed and quickly gained ground. This movement centred in the Young Church Movement (ungkyrkorörelsen). The historical roots of church and nation were rediscovered, the vital role of the church for people and society was stressed, and the catholicity and theological identity of the church grew stronger.

Even though nationalistic elements were obvious, international concerns were also apparent. J.A. Eklund (1863-1945), bishop of Karlstad, Einar Billing (1871-1939), bishop of Västerås, and Manfred Björkquist (1884-1985), bishop of Stockholm, became leaders of this movement.