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Understanding an un-Christian life through negative emotions

In this post I suggest that negative emotions described in the religious literature as an element in an un-Christian life can bring us closer to an understanding of what was deemed to be an un-Christian life in early modern Denmark. I argue that this will enable us to gain a deeper understanding not only of norms, values and responsibilities within the household, but also of the possible influence of religious literature and worldviews on the lives of ordinary people.

[Translate to English:] Emotions are culturally understood as positive or negative. Laziness was in Luther’s catechism described as a negative emotion, connected to disobedience and an un-Christian life, opposite to the good life. Photo from ”Colourbox.com”

Un-Christian in deeds and character
The case of a young man accused of living an ‘un-Christian life’ has made me wonder how I can gain a better understanding of what it meant to be ‘un-Christian’ in the 18th century. In 1742, the local authorities in the town of Odense had Johan Henric Becker sent to the newly built prison and workhouse on the island of Møn. The reason for his imprisonment was given as disobedience towards his parents, which was a criminal act. In the court case against him, his behaviour and personal character were described in detail by witnesses, amongst them the priest and neighbours. A consistent element in this description was his un-Christian deeds and character.

He was repeatedly described as ungodly, immoral and ill-mannered. As stubborn. His behaviour was characterised as evil, ungodly and scandalous, as shameful, disgraceful and sinful, or just improper and indecent. In more specific terms, he was accused of threatening, beating and scolding his parents.

His behaviour must have produced negative emotions such as anger and fear. However, I will argue that his un-Christian behaviour was also regarded as originating from negative emotions. Negative emotions were a problem because they caused un-Christian – and potentially dangerous – behaviour.

A Christian life
The negative emotions that created un-Christian behaviour should be seen in relation to a Christian life, good deeds and positive emotions. The religious context of the time is central to our understanding of what was defined as an un-Christian or Christian life. Luther’s catechisms (and in particular the Small Catechism) are central sources in this respect in Denmark, because they give us insight into the Christian upbringing of ordinary people.

In his catechisms, Luther explained his view of the commandments: they prohibited sin, as well as commanding people to do good. Both aspects are central to the understanding of what was regarded as a Christian life, and included both deeds and emotions. I will use his explanation of the Fourth Commandment (honour your father and your mother) as an example.  

Luther defines the term “to honour” as meaning to love and feel humbleness and awe. These are the positive emotions connected with fulfilling the Fourth Commandment. If children honour their parents, the result will be love, peace and harmony on earth, and they will themselves enjoy good days of happiness and welfare, that is: good health, a wife, children, daily bread, peace etc.

In order to honour your parents, you need to honour them in your heart, in your language and in your deeds. The three connect, and a good Christian life is dependent on the emotions defined or described as being correct.

Anger and reluctance
In continuation of this, I argue that an un-Christian life also relates to emotions, language and deeds. If we look for this in the Large Catechism, Luther argues that children who do not honour their parents evoke the anger of both their parents and God. Anger is regarded as a justified and fair emotion that follows from somebody failing to do their duty, from wrong deeds.

But anger can also be a wrong or negative emotion. In the table of duties in the Small Catechism, parents are told not to evoke anger in their children. Children’s anger should be avoided. But even here, anger is an emotion evoked by the wrong deed of somebody else: the wrong deed of parents who do not live up to the responsibility they have as parents.

When children are unwilling to do the tasks assigned to them, they are failing to show honour to their parents. Disobedience in itself might not be categorised as an emotion, but reluctance and perhaps laziness may be. The failure to comply with your duty to work was central to the definition of an un-Christian life. Not to work was a sign of the negative emotions in your heart – reluctance and laziness – and it was a deed that provoked justified anger in others.

Shame and ingratitude
Children who did not honour their parents through their work were thus driven by reluctance and laziness, according to Luther. They were not capable of feeling either shame or honour, he says. Shame was not necessarily a negative emotion. If you were capable of feeling shame, it would lead you to the right behaviour. But as we see in the case of Johan Becker, his disobedience was categorised as shameful nonetheless. This could indicate a different understanding of the connection between emotions and deeds, or that deeds could be understood as shameful without the person who did them being understood as capable of feeling shame.

Children who did not honour their parents felt ingratitude towards them. Children should always be grateful to their parents, and the honour they showed towards them came from this gratitude. Therefore, the lack of honour was a sign of ingratitude. Ingratitude was a negative emotion and a violation of the Fourth Commandment both in itself and through the deeds that followed from it. Like honour, ingratitude was both an emotion and an act.

Negative emotions as part of an un-Christian life
The perception of emotions as positive or negative implies an element of cultural construction. Early modern negative emotions were defined (at least partly) through the religious worldview of the time. Central to the un-Christian life of a disobedient child were ingratitude, reluctance and laziness. Their behaviour would evoke justified anger and shame in others. The emotional aspects of an un-Christian life bring us closer to an understanding not only of the commandment to be obedient as a feeling of gratitude and the importance of working and fulfilling your position in the household as part of a religious worldview or life, but also the extent to which religion influenced everyday life.