Lutheranism and Danish social development

A collective project supported by the Independent Research Fund Denmark. Project manager Nina Javette Koefoed

The Reformation is often presented either as a key historical event in the development of Danish democracy and the Danish welfare state, or as an event characterised by its authoritarian, hierarchical and confrontational elements. The project called Lutheranism and Danish social development will add greater detail and depth to our understanding of the importance of the Reformation for Danish social development based on central elements of Lutheran thinking.

The point of departure of the project is a study of how authority, social responsibility and the duty of obedience are understood, used and developed, and how they help to create synchronisation at multiple levels of society. The household, which is the most important unit of society in Luther’s view, is the pivotal point for this project’s study of the synchronisation of Danish society over time, with a focus on the 18th century. The issue of caring for the poor, old and sick is also central because this area of social activity was transferred from the church to the state by the Reformation, as well as being influenced by Luther’s concept of work and his understanding of a merciful God.

Basically, the project asks questions about the extent to which the religious horizons of understanding that were created by the Reformation helped to shape the perceptions of responsibility, duty and obligation that were formative for Danish democracy and the Danish welfare state.


Nina Javette Koefoed: Danish household culture – absolutism and the early welfare state

The household is a central aspect of Luther’s thinking about the social order in this world. This sub-project examines social relations, identities and obligations in the household, which is the central estate in Luther’s three estates. The thesis is that the Lutheran perception of authority, duty and social responsibility had an influence on household culture in the centuries following the Reformation, which also had an impact on the perception of relations between individuals and between individuals, society and state. Consequently, the project asks how household culture was influenced by Lutheran social doctrine, and how household culture influenced our perception of citizenship and social responsibility in the late 19th century. 

Bo Kristian Holm: The Lutheran transformation of ideas about the benevolent ruler as the basis of both absolutism and social responsibility

The Lutheran ideas about authority contain a duality of ideas about benevolence and mutual obligations in the household. This sub-project studies the European heritage embedded in Lutheran theology about the benevolent ruler and its influence on the development of public authorities in Denmark via the Reformation. The hypothesis is that Melanchthon and Luther integrated ideals from stoic philosophy (Seneca, for instance) in their political theology and social ethics, combining them with biblical images of the ideal father/ruler, and that this integration formed the background for a positive attitude to absolutism as well as supporting ideals about social responsibility.

Gorm Harste: Danish confessional society in a European social context

The specific nature of Lutheran influence on Danish social development cannot be understood in isolation. This sub-project explores how Luther’s ideas about sovereignty, authority and householding were different from and corresponded to other contemporaneous and subsequent philosophers such as Jean Bodin, Erasmus and Calvin. The hypothesis is that the Danish state-building process draws on Luther’s understanding of benevolent, paternal authority when it re-interprets social ideas about absolutism from abroad, thereby integrating a particular Lutheran understanding of the individual’s will and duty to work.

Postdoc project, Sasja Emilie Mathiasen Stopa: The Lutheran understanding of universal sin and unconditional trust as formative elements in Danish welfare mentality

The idea of sin is central to Christianity’s understanding of Man and is accorded particular significance in Lutheranism owing to its connection with the unconditional trust that characterises Man’s relationship with God. This project explores the way in which the two linked concepts of sin and trust were articulated and used in a Danish context, with the focus on the formative period from the mid-16th to the mid-18th centuries. The hypothesis is that the duality of sin and trust contributed to the high level of social trust in Danish society which is a prerequisite for the welfare state.

PhD project, Maria Nørby Pedersen: The development of poor relief from the Lutheran household society to the early welfare state

The perceptions and practices associated with poor relief were influenced by Lutheran ideas about the importance of work, by Luther’s challenge against the notion that righteousness depended on human achievement, and by the social responsibility embedded in the social relations of the household and state through the duties of the householder and the king. This project explores the way in which legislation and practice in the social field were influenced by Luther’s thinking, and the way in which duty and social responsibility were articulated in relation to the poor. The hypothesis is that the poor were perceived and explained in terms of their relationship to the household and authority.