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Arland Fiske: Church life in Norway

There are three significant periods in Norway’s church life: the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), The Reformation, era beginning in 1536, and the Modern Period, from about 1800.

Norway became a part of “Christendom” through the conquest of King Olaf Haraldson (“St. Olaf”) starting in 1014. In this period, the Christian faith became the law of the land and became a vast landowner. Dissent was dangerous. Pilgrimages and crusades were held to be the surest way of gaining salvation.

The Reformation came to Norway first at Bergen through the Hanse merchants from Germany. By 1536, Lutheranism replaced the authority of Rome. The king in Copenhagen appointed the bishops and took over the church lands. He also had St. Olaf’s casket removed from Trondheim to Denmark, where it is thought that the jewels were removed and the silver melted down for the king’s treasury. His remains were buried somewhere either in the cathedral or on the grounds. That ended the cult of Olaf and the pilgrimages to his grave. However, some people still visit Nidaros Cathedral to pray because Olaf’s body is buried there someplace. They regard him as a true saint.

The “Great Awakening” of the Norwegian church began with a farmer from southeast of Oslo (then Christiania), Hans Nielsen Hauge. Born in 1771, Hauge grew up in a pious home and parish. It was, however, a brooding and melancholy faith with lots of emotion and sentimentalism. Hauge’s problem with that piety was its lack of ethical seriousness.

Much like John Wesley’s conversion, Hauge claimed a spiritual breakthrough when he was 25 years old, telling him, “You shall confess my Name before men.” Though opposed by the authorities, he made a mark on Norway unequaled by any other person, bringing awakening to the land that deeply influenced immigrants going to the New World.

Until the Oslo University opened in 1813, Norway’s clergy were educated in Copenhagen. Among the outstanding church leaders of the 19th century were professor Gisle Jonson of Icelandic background; Carl Paul Caspari, a German Jewish scholar who converted to Lutheranism; and Bishop J. C. Heuch, who wrote an excellent book on pastoral care.

Norway had its share of the liberal and conservative struggles in theology. As a result, two theological faculties in Oslo prepare candidates for the ministry, the independent (Menighetsfakultetet) congregational faculty and the national university.

Foreign missions work has been a passion for the church of Norway. South Africa, Madagascar and China were early areas of activity. The mission societies raise significant sums of money for this work. I observed a two-day mission conference that had packed attendance in a large church one weekend.

Despite the difference in emphasis between the mission societies and the state church, the leaders of the church came to an agreement in the 1930s, just in time to be united against the Nazi occupation (1940-1945) that tried to control the clergy. The best known leader was Bishop Eivind Berggrav, whose family traced its roots to Germany. A “reformed liberal,” he took a strong stand on the church’s confession of faith and became a symbol of resistance for the whole nation. I saw him several times in the 1950s.

Despite many predictions that church life of Norway has suffered from indifference to attend worship services, the church is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the people and has its greatest influence whenever the nation feels itself in danger. Attendance at many of the state church congregation is low in comparison to the population.

However, I have attended worship services at some of the mission societies that are packed with people and have active participation by the people, both young and old. The Christmas services are the best attended in the state churches. The YMCA carries out some of the educational functions of the church such as Sunday School.

Today there is complete freedom of religion and many denominations are represented in the land.

Next week: The Oslo Cathedral.

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes, including 2012’s “Sermon in Psalms.”