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Christianity in Norway

By Erling Bø

London, 994 A.D. Kneeling at the baptismal font is Olav Tryggvason, a Norwegian-born Viking. Twice, he and his men have conquered Southeast England, and twice King Ethelred of England had to pay a huge ransom to get the Vikings to return their spoils. But now Olav Tryggvason has become a Christian - the English have finally been freed from the Viking raids.

According to the saga: Olav Tryggvason returned to Norway. and an extensive and difficult quest awaited him - to convert the extended and sparsely populated country to the Christian faith.

The consequences of his last voyage to England were dramatic. Historians disagree about much, but none deny that Olav Tryggvason became a zealous Christian. Faith in the Christian God dominated his life after his baptism, and Norway has never fostered a more powerful missionary. The heathens were to be won for Jesus.

The Norwegian faith

A Roman Catholic visiting Norway just can't comprehend...dancing a sin? Drinking wine a sin? The use of epithets a sin?

"When were you saved?" queries the Christian Norwegian.

"Saved?" asks the Catholic.

"Yes, converted" answers the Norwegian.

The visitor still doesn't get it. He is born a Catholic, goes to confession a couple of times a year, and that's what Christianity is to him. The poor Catholic just has to hope that the Lord is more merciful than his Norwegian disciples...

Norway is special

But it hasn't been so special as it is today, as far as religion goes, for more than about a quarter of the millennium which the Church of Norway is now celebrating in 1995 and 1996.

Luther and Pontoppidan

Olav Tryggvason imported Christianity from Europe. But soon - about 500 years later - faith and religious culture in Norway would develop into something quite different. What shook things up were the Reformation and then pietism.

A German, Martin Luther, was to have a massive influence on Norwegian Christian life. He viewed the Scripture as the sole authority. Therefore he translated the Bible to ordinary German, so that it could become the public domain - rather than reserved for the learned few. And he said that deeds, whether ecclesiastical or not, do not lead to human salvation. Sola gratia per fidem - "Of grace alone" - can the sinful individual return to God's glory.

The Papal Church in Rome was thus degraded; its political and religious power diminished. With his doctrine of the two realms, Luther established a razor sharp division between faith and secularity. Jesus said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God things that are God's!" Luther agreed.

The Reformation came to Norway in 1536. With it came a bigger emphasis on personal faith. The development took another leap in the same direction a couple of centuries later, with pietism, another German import. On the request of the king of the Danish-Norwegian realm, Erik Pontoppidan wrote the textbook Sannhet til gudfryktighet (Truth to fear of God] in 1737. Two years later, the Church backed the establishment of general education in Norway, intent on enabling youth to study for confirmation. School started as a school in Christianity - the other two subjects were reading and writing.

Pietism emphasised personal surrender to God, on the individual plane. Thus could the concept of "personally Christian" slide naturally into the Norwegian vernacular, while it was - and still is - meaningless in Catholic countries. While pietism made a strong connection between morality and faith, Catholics were more likely to stress the community - Christian life tied in with participation in common ecumenical acts.

But even though the Catholic and the Lutheran perceptions of faith collide on many points, they don't deny each other the right to call themselves "Christian". That's something, indeed.

The church

In Norway's case, the concept of being a "Christian nation" has to be defined legally, culturally and historically. Article 2 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway declares that:

All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion.

The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same.

The debate about the relation between church and state started seriously in the 1850s and has washed back and forth in waves ever since. Since Mediaeval times, the Church had so much power that one could talk about the "Church's state". If this were turned around, did we get the "State's church"? Or was the

transformation a new way for the men of the Church to secure their power?

In time, as democracy developed, most of society's privileged groups lost their disproportionate clout. We had a "state-bearing church" from the advent of "court pietism" in the 1730s until the 1880s. When the parliamentary system was established in 1884 we had a "church-bearing state".

Very many Norwegians are affiliated with the Church of Norway, this is one of the reasons why politicians still have to lend it an ear. The Church bears a considerable voter potential, so it is unwise to go head-on against the clergy. To a certain degree, this rule still applies.

Likewise, the Church has harked to the heralds of the state. The power of politicians over the Church of Norway has - whenever it's been used - led to a clash. But just as invariably, the row has generally ebbed out within a few years.

According to the state church arrangement, the king is the ruler of the Church. Any ruler has to make controversial decisions now and then. King Olav V did so in 1961 when he appointed the first woman priest. King Harald V did the same in 1993 when he made sure that Norway got its first female bishop.

The state church

Some have argued that the state church arrangement should be terminated. But the arguments leading to this conclusion are divergent, even antagonistic. Some have wished to cut the Church loose from the state because - simplistically put - they don't like the state. Others because - also grossly put - they don't like the Church.

In the 1970s in particular, there were many who resigned from the Church, either because they considered themselves to be "non-Christians" or for the opposite reason, because they felt that the Church of Norway was "not Christian enough". (A bishop quit in protest of the liberal abortion law passed by the Storting, and he was followed by a few priests. But no mass exodus resulted.)

The trend today is actually the opposite. Annually, about 5,000 Norwegians quit the Church, but now there are frequent reports of

those who rejoin it. The rebellion is

over, at least for the most part. And those who are most eager to sever the knot between Church and state generally belong to the public church's least plebeian strata. But even they are fairly satisfied with the current situation. The Church generally rules itself, the state pays the bill, and the people are members.

The people

A people's church without people is not a church. Per capita, Norway is among the countries in the world with the most active Christian population. Every summer, around 70 organizations stage their get-togethers, general assemblies, conferences, summer camps and council meetings. In the warmest months, thousands participate and take home inspiration to their everyday Christian life.

A survey which was recently publicised shows that there are 918 Norwegian missionaries in 69 different countries all around the globe. Behind these 918 are several thousand Norwegian supporters in 12 different organizations under the umbrella of the state church.

Domestically, the voluntary Christian organizations also do a colossal job: 18 organizations and institutions doing care work, 21 home mission organizations, countless groups carrying out child and youth work, 28 linking organizations in the cultural and media sector, six ecumenical organizations and 33 educational institutions.

In addition are the considerable efforts from the members of Norway's 12 "dissenter" societies - members of churches outside the Church of Norway: Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, free churchists, Roman Catholics, and the rest. When we add that all this comes in addition to the work carried out by 1,359 congregations of the Norwegian Church, we can assert that the Christian activities represent Norway's biggest folk movement.

The fact that we have a large chapter of the International Humanist and Ethical Union -an organization which attracts people to a religious belief in absolutely nothing- simply demonstrates what a strong position Christianity has in Norway.

Strong position

Every year, maybe a hundred thousand new books are written about Christ and the Christian faith. A huge number of television programmes are made. Thousands of missionaries are sent out with bread and words to the poor. Millions attend church, even more fold their hands in prayer.

Annually, about 300 new Christian books are published in Norway. Seven million visits to church are registered in Norway with its population of 4.3 million.

As mentioned, every summer Christianity's strong position is demonstrated in Norway, when all the Christian organizations hold their biggest meetings. These manifest the fact that Christianity is something far more than tradition in this country. But is doesn't all happen in the summer. There is an unbelievable (sic!) activity year around, the Christian people's movement goes on without stop: with prayer meetings and various forms of internal edification, help to the homeless and other significant social efforts.

The Christian organizations seldom make the biggest headlines. They are too solid and they are far more interested in the 2,000-year-old message than getting media footage.

Look, for example, at the Norwegian Lutheran Mission, the largest of the missionary organizations. Many in Norway have never heard of it. But it has four thousand associated groups. Four hundred persons work with its main board and its 18 district divisions. Two hundred and fifteen teachers are employed at its 17 schools, educating 2,000 pupils.The number of chapels in Norway can only be estimated, but they are scattered all over the country - densely in western Norway. The missionary organization runs 33 camps and 44 kindergartens with 280 employees. Missionary radio stations broadcast in 23 languages, and there are 30 local Christian FM stations in this country. The organizations run 30 book stores, their own publishing houses and music recording companies. The Norwegian Lutheran Mission has 600 missionaries distributed in Ethiopia, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Indonesia, Peru and Bolivia.

Another world

Impressive? Yes, indeed! The Norwegian Lutheran Mission operates with a USD 20 million budget and publishes no less than four magazines with a combined circulation of over 100,000. Its secretary-general earns about USD 30,000 a year - not much more than a skilled labourer. What business executive with responsibility for 20 million dollars a year would accept that?

Some talk about de-Christianization. Some youngsters may be growing up who believe that Hansel and Gretel where the first two people on the planet, or that Job founded the county employment bureau. Nevertheless, we are far from being a de-Christianized nation.

Colossal effort

Norwegian society appears to be totally dependent on the magnificent voluntary initiatives from the active Christians.

In any case, the help which Christian Norway gives to the general community in the form of child rearing, youth activities, culture, sports, health, care for the elderly, the fight against substance abuse, Third World aid and much more, just can't be measured in dollars and cents.

The basis for all this is the simple hope that Jesus will come and save us. No one can deny that the Christian faith is a strong source of inspiration. Agnostics and others must envy the power which the Christian organizations are based on and trust in.

Jesus - a fact

It's a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth lived. That he arose from the dead is a religious question - it cannot be proved. To believe in the resurrection, you have to believe in Jesus. If you believe in Jesus, you can believe in the resurrection.

It is no coincidence that "to breathe" (å ånde) in Norwegian, like the verb "respire" from the Latin spirare is related to the word "spirit". The process of respiration provides the blood with oxygen and removes wastes - we have to respire to live. In the same way, we have to have spirit to be beings of intellect. If we use our intellect and our perception alone to seek the meaning of life, existence is reduced to guesswork. With spirit, life can become something more and something richer. Whitsun, as the celebration of the spirit, raises Christianity beyond a codex of moral virtues, it becomes a religion.

Our Christian cultural heritage, founded on the doctrine of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, has more of an effect on Norwegian society than most of us understand. This heritage even pervades the calendar year. Bishop Eivind Berggrav writes: "The church year gives the calendar year its content, its spark of life. Without the church year, all the calendar days would be uniformly grey and undistinctive. They would have no face. It is the church year which gives the year blood and colour, which makes it live."

And this is just one example. Our language is full of words and concepts with biblical origins - phrases one cannot completely grasp without learning a minimum of Bible history: a "Judas", a "repenting sinner", "crucified" , "Babel", a " the camel and the eye of the needle", "head on a platter" and so on. Thus it is natural that Christianity is given a broad platform and is thoroughly studied in school. It has always had this status in our schools because in Norway Christianity is more important than other religions. And it will probably be that way for centuries to come, regardless of what people believe and think. On 3 May, 1995, a ministry-appointed committee put forth a recommendation to strengthen the role of Christianity as a school subject in Norwegian schools. The Government minister responsible for education and church affairs believes that all Norwegian children will gain from a basic knowledge about our nation's Christian cultural basis and the main stories of the Bible. And he adds: "There are certain kinds of ignorance which shouldn't be borne."

Changing values

In the past decade, the word "values" has switched connotation from "money" to "quality of life". Those who research trends predict that the jogging wave is being replaced by a reading and thinking wave. And it has become comme il faut to talk about God. But Jesus? No, discourse about Jesus is still embarrassing and makes us uncomfortable. It is just a little too personal, we don't want to be confronted with the subject. We stick with a far-away God...

Simultaneously: Jesus on the cross is a key to an understanding of ourselves and our society, the power of love and the power of evil. We crucified Him; then for the past 2,000 years we've founded our culture on his message.

The message of peace and mercy from the little child whose birthday we celebrate every Christmas has had a wondrous ability to survive, despite the misery and evil of history, through two millennia. In Norway, in the past thousand years.


A thousand years ago, a small group of foreigners came to Dragseidet at Selja in Nordfjord. They were fleeing from heathens and came to Norway with a faith which was advancing all over Europe. This faith was soon to become Norwegian. So says the saga of Sunniva, a holy Irish virgin and her men. King Olav Tryggvason believed in St. Sunniva's God, and started Christianizing the country.

Many think that the Christianization of the country got its real start at Dragseidet, nearly as far northwest as one could come in Norway in 996. It was there that the king gathered representatives from four counties and gave his orders to march. In 997, Christianity was accepted by law at the "Gulating", in Gulen, Sogn og Fjordane county. The Gulating was what passed as a court and parliament for Vikings in South and West Norway.

From farm to farm

King Olav and his successors started by converting the upper class and leading men. Then they had to win family by family, farm by farm. The establishment of Christianity was a cultural revolution - the western European faith replaced the old Norse beliefs. The new church became part of the life of all Norwegians, believers or not.

People had to be influenced for 200 years before Norway was completely Christianized, and the methods used were not haphazard.

The sagas tell us that Olav Tryggvason built a wooden church by the cave where St. Sunniva was found. What happened? There are several versions, but they don't differ radically.

Sunniva was a king's daughter from Ireland, where Christianity had made early inroads. To escape betrothal to a heathen chieftain, she fled eastward in a boat lacking sails and oars. She landed on the island of Selja, but an attempt to kill her, or at least expel her, was made by heathens lead by the Viking Håkon Jarl. He was opposed to newcomers. She and her men were forced to hide in a cave on the island. The refugees prayed to God to send angels to break down the mountain and bury them, and the rocks tumbled down. Their souls soared to heaven in a spire of light which all on the mainland could see, and a sweet fragrance permeated the air.

Olav Tryggvason heard about this. In 996 he exhumed the bones of the martyrs, and he found Sunniva's corpse unscathed. It was placed in a casket and later brought to Bergen with the diocese, in 1170. Selja was the first bishopric in West Norway, despite the fact that Rome preferred to have its dioceses in towns and cities. Researcher Kjell Bondevik says that the Sunniva crypt became a goal for pilgrimages for centuries - it even attracted more tourists than Selja does today. Miracles were said to have occurred when pilgrims visited the place where the foreign martyrs died. Now the foreigners' faith is our faith, their culture is our culture.

A child who is carried to a baptismal font in 1995, the same baptism given to Olav Tryggvason a thousand years ago, knows nothing about Norwegian history. But Norway's history will exert a major influence on the child.

The author of this article, Erling Bø (born in 1957), is a sub-editor at the daily newspaper Verdens Gang. He has studied philosophy and Sociology at the University of Oslo. For 11 years, he was a journalist and editor at the newspaper Vårt Land.


Other denominations and groups

According to the latest issue of "Norsk Almanakk", in 1992 there were in addition to the Church of Norway, 269,939 members of religious and ethics-oriented groups qualifying for state subsidies - listed below with their membership figures.

The Humanist and Ethical Union 54,553

Pentacostalist 44,888

The Roman Catholic Church 30,027

Islam 28,906

The Evangelical Lutheran Free Church 20,336

Jehovah's Witnesses 15,146

The Methodist Church 14,949

The Baptist Church 11,350

The Mission Covenant Church of Norway 7,767

The Seventh Day Adventist Church 6,409

The Evangelical Lutheran Church 3,580

The Free Evangelical Assemblies of Norway 2,788

The Anglican Church 1,531

The Jewish Community 1,073

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