6. Religion and the Enlightenment

The religious universe of the seventeenth century continued to shape society into the eighteenth century, but it was gradually challenged by the ideas of the Enlightenment. At the same time, colonial trade introduced new goods and patterns of consumption. These in turn underpinned new cultural and political forums, which helped to promote Enlightenment ideas and provided a backdrop for burgeoning national sentiments. 

The importance of religion

Since the Reformation, the Lutheran Church had been the state Church in Denmark. In the early years of absolutism, the Catholic and Reformed Churches, as well as the Jewish community, were only permitted to exist in exceptional cases or tolerated in secret. As part of the King’s Code, the king had committed himself to ensuring that people lived according to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. This commitment influenced legislation and religious education in schools and churches. For example, the part of the code that concerned criminal law was structured according to the Ten Commandments, and it made any violation of these a criminal act that was punishable in compliance with examples from the Bible. In schools and churches, the population was introduced to the moral basis for this legislation, among other things through interpretations of the Ten Commandments in the catechisms, which were basic introductions to the central aspects of faith.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, new religious ideas began to arrive in Denmark in the form of Pietism, which arose within the Lutheran Church in Germany. Pietism prioritised personal devotion and the internal life of the soul over the state regulation of people’s behaviour. In many ways, therefore, it was at odds with the state-run religion that absolutism stood for. Frederik IV was influenced by Pietism in the later years of his reign, but Christian VI was particularly motivated by it, and this affected both court life and the reforms that were introduced while he was on the throne. A significant result of state Pietism under Christian VI was the law on confirmation of 1736. Confirmation was a formalisation of an earlier practice in which the pastor had to ensure that people knew the catechism before they took their first communion. Confirmation was a prerequisite for a peasant to be able to rent a farm and enter into marriage. Civil rights were conditional on confirmation for both men and women.

After Christian VI’s death, state Pietism gradually subsided, and from the middle of the eighteenth century religion was increasingly challenged by the Enlightenment and secular belief in rationality and reason. This led to conflicts between a state Church trying to adapt to the Enlightenment and a number of religious revivals that insisted on adhering to the more Pietistic aspects of faith, not least to the right to practise religion based on a personal relationship with God. These religious revivals contained an element of resistance against the state Church and thus also indirectly against the absolute monarchy.

Rural schools and Latin schools

The requirement to be confirmed and to know the catechism had two consequences. The first was an ambitious law in 1739 on rural schools, and the second was the reform of the Latin schools (latinskoler, or grammar schools) in the towns. The 1739 school act came at a time of crisis and encountered so much resistance that a significant part of it had to be withdrawn, but the stipulation on compulsory education remained. In addition to learning to read and learning about the true, Evangelical faith, children could learn writing and arithmetic if their parents paid for it. Boys in particular received this additional tuition. Since the Reformation, Latin schools in the towns had almost become part of public poor relief. Poor children came to school and were supported, because access to the Latin school gave them the right to beg. The reform of 1739 put a stop to this. Two thirds of the Latin schools were closed; with only twenty left, these schools were more able to serve as a preparation for university study. The closed schools were converted into Danish-language Christian schools (kristendomsskoler), which ran parallel to the school system in the countryside and admitted both girls and boys. It was now also necessary to pay to go to Latin school.

Lille Heddinge Rytterskole (cavalry school) on Stevns, Sjælland, c. 1722

Lille Heddinge Rytterskole (cavalry school) on the Stevns peninsula, Sjælland, c. 1722. On the initiative of Frederik IV, between 1722 and 1727 two hundred and forty schools were founded on royal estates. In addition to a schoolroom, the buildings also housed a small residence for the schoolmaster. There was a close connection between schools and the Church, and schools were usually built immediately next to the parish churches. At school, children from the age of five or six (both girls and boys) received teaching in Christianity and reading in an attempt to educate the young to be pious and law-abiding subjects. Photo: skolehistorie.au.dk 

The Great School Commission

Enlightenment thinking meant that the school syllabus and teaching became the subject of debate, leading to several attempts to reform the school system at the end of the eighteenth century. A number of experiments with common schools (almueskoler) on private estates were designed to create a more educated peasantry, a development that could benefit the whole country. This culminated politically in the establishment of the Great School Commission (Den Store Skolekommission) in 1789, strongly inspired by and running parallel to the agrarian reforms. The Commission investigated the need for a new, nationwide school reform. One issue was the education and salaries of teachers and thus the quality of the schools; another was the content and the weighting of religion in relation to other subjects. The Great School Commission presented its first bill in 1799. This led to provisional regulations for the school system in the countryside, which were introduced as a pilot scheme in 1806 and provided practical experience for the final new school act of 1814.

The Enlightenment and Ludvig Holberg

Developments in the second half of the eighteenth century were marked by the ideas of the Enlightenment, which largely involved adopting a critical approach to prevailing religious ideas. Enlightenment ideas challenged the unconditional power of authorities and the elite, promoting belief in equality and the notion that the world could be improved, particularly through education. Although the Enlightenment was shaped by great philosophical thinkers, it was built on the natural science paradigm of the seventeenth century: empiricism, or the notion that reality is known through experience.

One of the key figures of the Enlightenment in the first half of the eighteenth century in Denmark was the Danish-Norwegian writer and dramatist Ludvig Holberg. He is best known for his comedies and letters, but parallel to his writing he enjoyed a career as a historian and jurist. Holberg was employed as professor of metaphysics, rhetoric and history at the University of Copenhagen from 1717. Before his university career, he had published the first books in Denmark on natural and international law, which converted Enlightenment ideas into legal thinking. Nature was still considered God’s creation, but the moral principles that governed the relationship between humans and society could be derived, through reason, from the natural order – not only from the Bible, which otherwise constituted a significant part of the basis for legal thinking in Protestant countries. From here, it was not a huge leap to claim that society should be designed in the best way possible according to human reason, not necessarily according to God’s law. Through his letters and comedies, Holberg delivered the same critique of habitual thinking regarding power and the structure of society. He used humour and irony, adopting one of the Enlightenment philosophers’ favourite ways of criticising the establishment at a time of censorship, when criticism of the government could be viewed as a crime against the sovereign and punished by death.

Censorship and freedom of the press

The Enlightenment notions of equality and the questioning of the elite and the authorities gave rise to public debate and criticism, as well as a desire from the growing burgher estate, among others, to take part in political dialogue. Journals and newspapers were essential to increasing the population’s knowledge of academic topics and making them aware of the ongoing debates.

Censorship had been introduced in Denmark with the Reformation, because after the invention of printing in the fifteenth century and the increased dissemination of books and pamphlets, those in power wanted to control the use of printed media. In 1770, Struensee abolished censorship, but it soon became apparent that more criticism was therefore going to be levelled at Struensee himself and his government than expected. Shortly afterwards, it was again made clear what could and could not be written. Censorship was not initially re-introduced, but it was emphasised that people would be prosecuted if they wrote something proscribed, for example if they criticised the government. Censorship was not immediately re-introduced after Struensee’s fall in 1771, but the monitoring of what was printed was drastically tightened. Tension between the burgher estate, which wanted the right of expression, and the political system, which wished to limit such expression, especially following the French Revolution, led to the so-called Freedom of the Press regulation (Trykkefrihedsforordning) of 1799.

This regulation tightened the rules on what could be written and when an author could be prosecuted for violating these rules, and it also re-introduced control of smaller works after they had been published but before they were distributed. The Freedom of the Press regulation was quickly applied in order to prosecute and deport P.A. Heiberg and Malthe Conrad Bruun, among others, in 1799. From the mid-1780s, both these authors had made a name for themselves as satirists and social critics, for which they had received fines and convictions. Sentenced to exile, they both settled in Paris. The Freedom of the Press regulation and these deportations reveal the limitations of opinion-driven absolutism and the extent to which the existing political regime constituted the framework within which one could express oneself.

Bourgeois culture

The new politically conscious and wealthy bourgeoisie, which was shaped by trade with the colonies in the second half of the eighteenth century, among other things, helped to promote the ideas and cultural forms of the Enlightenment. The bourgeoisie was gripped by the ideas of the time, and they wanted to discuss politics and the development of society on the basis of reason and progress rather than religious considerations. A sense of patriotism, inspired by German Romanticism, was also characteristic of this group, which cultivated the nationalism that came to define the political and cultural landscape of the nineteenth century. Both the private homes of the bourgeoisie and the clubs and associations that emerged as alternative political forums at the end of the eighteenth century created the framework for political and national debates. The bourgeoisie were thus the carriers of the new cultural forms that fused the ideas and debates of the time with the material influences and opportunities of the colonial trade.

Consumer goods such as tea, coffee, cocoa and tobacco became more widespread in society and created new social conventions and patterns of consumption. The growing bourgeoisie created new ways of consuming, which to a large extent involved traded goods from the colonies, and fresh ways of showcasing social status through new forms of luxury. These were aimed more at comfort and enjoyment than the grandeur and refinement that had previously characterised the luxury of the nobility and the court.

♦ From absolutism by the grace of God to absolutism guided by public opinion

Between 1660 and 1814, the political system in Denmark was transformed: from absolutism through divine right to absolutism guided by public opinion. This transformation was driven in large part by the strong state. The administration had been built up and strengthened so that it could serve the king and his political goals. This involved a professionalisation of the civil service but also a standardisation of legislation, administration, registration and a consolidation of the rule of law. In this way, the foundations for a modern administration were laid. The modern administration, supplemented by Enlightenment ideologies, increased trade in the colonies, while economic recovery from the 1750s created the basis for an urban, self-aware, political bourgeoisie. In the countryside, agrarian reforms slowly brought into being a politically conscious and active class of tenant farmers.

In the year 1814 Denmark was a medium-sized European power with colonies. It was a weakened kingdom, but it was also a country that, in many ways, was prepared for the transition to constitutional monarchy that came thirty-five years later.