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Historical survey

Religion in pre-Reformation Norway

The earliest written sources to the pre-Christian Norse religion, dominant in the Nordic countries, are from Christian writers working in the 13th century. While these writings provide basic (...)

The earliest written sources to the pre-Christian Norse religion, dominant in the Nordic countries, are from Christian writers working in the 13th century. While these writings provide basic details of religious myths and conceptions, they transmit only scattered information about practices, rituals or beliefs among the general populace. Archaeological evidence, in particular from burial mounds, has provided some clues to the cultic nature of Norse religion, although the day-to-day religious activities of the population remain unknown.

The Christianization of Norway is generally considered to have begun during the latter half of the 900s, commonly linked to the efforts of kings Olaf Tryggvason (968-1000) and Olaf Haraldsson (995-1030, also known as "the Holy"), although the influence of Christianity from Continental Europe via Denmark probably started as early as the 800s, perhaps earlier. The introduction of Christianity was a gradual process, but following the creation of Nidaros (present-day Trondheim) as a separate church province directly under papal authority in 1152/1153, the church established a secure foothold in Norway.

Following decades of unrest from the mid 12th century onwards, the Norwegian polity was consolidated under the reign of Magnus Lagabøte ("Lawmaker"), 1263-1280. Magnus furnished the emerging state with a unified code of laws, the core of which remained in effect with only minor changes until the 17th century, and settled the often chaotic power struggles between churchly and stately authority during the meeting with Archbishop Jon Raude ("The Red") at Tunsberg in 1277 (known as Sættargjerden).

D 19 September 2016    AHelge Årsheim

From Reformation to Absolutism

The Reformation was introduced to Denmark-Norway by law, through the adoption of the Church Ordinance in 1537, prescribing the structure and competence of the Norwegian church. After this (...)

The Reformation was introduced to Denmark-Norway by law, through the adoption of the Church Ordinance in 1537, prescribing the structure and competence of the Norwegian church. After this followed more than a century of increasingly strict legislative acts securing the religious orthodoxy in the realm, including the 1569 Articles on Foreigners (Fremmedartiklene), prohibiting any form of religious dissent for foreigners, and the repeated tightening of punishments for religious transgressions introduced during the reign of Christian IV (1588-1648). His successor, Frederik III abolished the Council of State in 1661, effectively turning Denmark-Norway into an absolutist monarchy, most clearly defined in his King’s Act (Kongelov) from 1665, under which the only checks on absolute monarchical power was to maintain Lutheran orthodoxy, keep the realm undivided and not cede power.

Under the reign of Frederik’s eldest son, King Christian V, a new Norwegian Law was introduced in 1687, sections of which are still on the lawbooks. This law represented the final departure from the Medieval codes in effect up to that time, and secured the continued iron grip of the king over the church and the polity in general. Throughout the 18th century, the Danish-Norwegian state remained strongly absolutist and intolerant of non-Lutheran faiths, as enshrined in the 1741 Code on congregationalism, prohibiting lay preaching of pastors unaffiliated with the official church.

D 20 September 2016    AHelge Årsheim

From 1814 to 1905

Although the rule of Norway was officially transferred from Denmark to Sweden in the peace treaty of Kiel in 1814, the warden of Norway, Danish Prince Christian Frederik, called a constitutional (...)

Although the rule of Norway was officially transferred from Denmark to Sweden in the peace treaty of Kiel in 1814, the warden of Norway, Danish Prince Christian Frederik, called a constitutional assembly in the spring of 1814, adopting a Constitution strongly inspired by the principles of the US and French constitutions, emphasizing the importance of fundamental rights, the distribution of power and the sovereignty of the Norwegian people. While the independence was swiftly struck down by the forces of the Swedish king Carl Johan in the summer of 1814, an amended version of constitution was adopted by the parliamentary assembly in November 1814.

While the constitution was distinctly liberal in many respects for its time, it was less so in the field of religion. The continued dominance of the Evangelical Lutheran Faith and the obligation of parents to raise their children in that faith were kept, while the draft provisions on religious freedom that circulated at the constitutional assembly were scrapped. The king remained head of state and church, while members of the cabinet were obliged to be members of the church. By far the most controversial provision, however, was the decision to prohibit Jews from the realm, a prohibition that remained in effect until 1851.

Although the official censorship in place during absolutism was eased in the constitution, the absolute ban on blasphemy and denigration of religion was kept, as §100 prohibited expressions of contempt against religion, and the draconian measures against blasphemers of Norske Lov from 1687 remained on the books until the adoption of a Criminal Code in 1842, which continued the ban, but reduced the penalty from beheading to fines, imprisonment or hard labour. The 1845 Law on Dissenters eased the religious monopoly of the Church of Norway further, removing the ban on lay preaching and stipulating various freedoms for members of other Christian denominations.

D 20 September 2016    AHelge Årsheim

Independence and the Modern Era

The time from independence from Sweden in 1905 and up to the present has been marked by a gradual loosening of the relationship between church and state, increasing legal recognition of the (...)

The time from independence from Sweden in 1905 and up to the present has been marked by a gradual loosening of the relationship between church and state, increasing legal recognition of the rights of members belonging to other or no religions, and the influence of international human rights law on several Norwegian laws on religion, particularly in the decades following the second world war.

While the first, tentative moves towards a separation of Church and State were taken in the 1970s, the final separation was adopted via constitutional amendments ratified by Parliament as late as 2012, as part of the 200-year anniversary of the Constitution. Despite the amendments, the continued influence of Christianity on Norwegian state power is secured, as Church of Norway is pronounced in the new §16 as the "people’s church", and §2 provides that the "Christian and humanist heritage" remain part of the values underpinning the Norwegian state. In 1969, the 1845 Law on dissenters was replaced by an Act on Faith Communities, providing faith communities outside the Church of Norway with access to funding and legal personality. Later on, similar funding has been made available to non-religious life-stance communities.

Throughout the 1970s and up to the present, Norway experienced increasing rates of immigration, significantly altering the demographic and religious makeup of the country, changes that have led to social tensions and legal challenges, ranging from the controversies surrounding the publication of the Satanic Verses in 1989 and the "cartoon controversy" of 2006, and to the continued discussions around the access to halal and kosher certified slaughter, the potential ban of the full face veil and the circumcision of baby boys, the latter of which became subject of its own legal bill in 2014.

Simultaneously, the societal role of the Church of Norway and the belief in God among the population has gradually diminished. Christenings and marriages have steadily diminished over the last years, and early in 2016, the number of non-believers overtook that of the believers for the first time since measurements started in the mid 1980s. Nevertheless, the Church and the so-called "Christian cultural heritage" of Norway continues to play an important symbolic and ceremonial role in the lives of many Norwegians, and frequently features in the many contentious debates of the last decade concerning the role of religions, notably Islam, in the Norwegian public sphere.

D 20 September 2016    AHelge Årsheim

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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