eurel     Sociological and legal data on religions in Europe and beyond
You are here : Home » Sweden » Historical highlights » Historical survey

Historical survey

Beginnings of Christianity

Christianity reached Sweden and the other Nordic countries from several directions from the ninth century onwards. Missionaries came over the sea from the British Isles; the influence of (...)

Christianity reached Sweden and the other Nordic countries from several directions from the ninth century onwards. Missionaries came over the sea from the British Isles; the influence of Byzantium came in from the East; and the German mission operated from the South. The first recorded organised mission reached Sweden in the ninth century when the monk Ansgar, later archbishop of Hamburg, visited Birka in central Sweden, close to Stockholm. The first Swedish king to be baptized and become a Christian was Olof Skötkonung around the year 1000. In 1164, Uppsala, just north of Stockholm, became the seat of the archbishop. It was during this early Christian period that the strong links between Church and State in Sweden were forged. The Christianisation of the country went hand in hand with the strengthening of a central power. From that very time the formation Sweden as a unified country emerged.

D 15 May 2014    APer Pettersson

The establishment of the Evangelical Lutheran state church

The close ties between state and church were strengthened by the Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century. The creation of a national church, free from the influence of the Pope in Rome, (...)

The close ties between state and church were strengthened by the Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century. The creation of a national church, free from the influence of the Pope in Rome, went hand in hand with the creation of an evangelical Swedish kingdom under the leadership of King Gustav Vasa. In 1527 the Parliament gathered in Västerås and decided that most of the church’s property should be handed over to the state (in fact the King). The doctrinal change from the Catholic Church to a national evangelical Lutheran church followed although the struggle between the two churches went on for a couple of decades. For the inner life of the church, the Reformation meant a renewal of the divine service. The Bible and the Service Books of the Church were translated and the Eucharist was celebrated in Swedish. The success of the Reformation was marked by the Convocation of Uppsala in 1593 which proclaimed once and for all the Lutheran character of the Church. During the first centuries, no other churches or denominations were allowed in Sweden. In the succeeding centuries Sweden emerged as a significant political power and a unitary state based on the teachings of Luther. The close relationship between Church and State was underlined by the fact that priests and bishops made up one of the Four Estates of the Swedish Parliament.

D 15 May 2014    APer Pettersson

17th to 19th century agrarian Swedish society

The history of modern Sweden is rooted in the agrarian society which revolved around the local parish, the struggle for survival and belief in God. It was during this agrarian epoch that (...)

The history of modern Sweden is rooted in the agrarian society which revolved around the local parish, the struggle for survival and belief in God. It was during this agrarian epoch that Christianity was established and organised as a national religion in Sweden. The geographical division of the congregations of the Church of Sweden in terms of local parishes evolved as part and parcel of the needs of agrarian society.
Production consisted largely of what nature could provide. The family constituted the basic entity of production and social relations were local in character and based on the family. Society was predictable and governed by tradition. The local regional bond fostered a settled way of life and patterns of living which favoured continuity. The seasons of the year created a general cyclical view of time: people expected the future to repeat the experiences of the past. Changes were looked upon as something threatening since they risked interfering with repetition and continuity. Security, stability, continuity and family solidarity were fundamental values. These values were legitimised and preserved to a great extent by the church.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the church and society were intertwined in a way that it is difficult to imagine today. Church and state, parish and municipality, formed essentially one and the same object. A certain proportion of the members of the Swedish Parliament consisted of clergymen and thus formed an integral part of the state in steering social development. The local priest (who was always a man) was a person of unquestioned authority and functioned in various ways as a civil servant and state official with legal, educational, informational, and custodial duties. Human activities from birth to death took place within the framework of the rites of the church. Because of the strong position of local society and the slow pace of change, the values of society and the church could be handed down from one generation to another without any great changes. Citizenship was combined with baptism and confirmation meant a coming of age and an entry into the adult world and its values according to the classical rites of passage. Divine service functioned not simply as a religious ceremony but equally as a central meeting place for various social activities. Public announcements from the pulpit during the service were important sources of information. According to Swedish law, every citizen was obliged to participate in Holy Communion at least once a year. The church was also responsible for the greater part of society’s care services, including care of the poor, health care and teaching.

D 15 May 2014    APer Pettersson

1862-2000 : the separation process between state and church

From the early nineteenth century, the total unity between state and church was increasingly criticised by those holding naturalistic ideas and by emergent popular movements. The question of (...)

From the early nineteenth century, the total unity between state and church was increasingly criticised by those holding naturalistic ideas and by emergent popular movements. The question of separating Church and state was raised in parliament for the first time as early as 1850. A first major change in Church-state relationships took place in 1862 when the local authority administration was split into two; a Church administration and a civil administration. Compulsory communion attendance was abolished in 1863 and the automatic right of clergy to be represented in the Swedish Parliament came to an end in 1864. Since then a number of reforms have taken place which have gradually contributed to the separation of Church and state, which can theoretically be interpreted as part of the functional differentiation process of society. Discussion concerning the disestablishment of the Church intensified during the 20th century when different groups demanded the abolition of ties between Church and state. A government inquiry into the question of altering the relationship was launched in 1958, and was subsequently followed by a number of official reports. Altogether more than forty books and reports, pronouncements and government bills were produced. During the inquiries a series of changes in Church-state relationships were gradually introduced such as the abolition of the obligatory role as an arbiter in family disputes in 1973 (SFS 1973:650).
In 1979 the government presented a proposal for a separation between Church and state which was financially generous from the point of view of the Church since the Church was promised financial state subsidies and the parishes would receive financial compensation from local municipalities for the management of graveyards. The proposal was based on the result of negotiations and agreements between representatives of the Church and the state. But the Church of Sweden General Synod turned it down with a majority of 54 votes to 42, and instead promoted a series of reforms of the Church organization within an ongoing Church-state relationship. In the decade that followed the political focus changed from the separation issue towards making the Church more independent through reforms in line with the decision of the General Synod.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the ground was laid for the subsequent change in the relationship between Church and state. From having been regulated within the framework of public law the internal organization of the Church was developed along the lines of a non-governmental organization, and many internal church issues and decisions which were previously handled by the state were now taken over by the Church itself .
As part of the specialization of the Church as a religious agent the responsibility for civil registration was transferred from the Church to the Swedish tax authorities. The Church had managed this state function since it was founded in the 16th century and regulated in the Church Law of 1686. This law was replaced with new Church Law in 1992 since it was in many ways obsolete and also at the time the oldest Swedish law still in use.
In 1994 a proposal for reform was put forward which aimed at a more or less the complete disestablishment of the Church. In 1995 a principal decision on separating Church and state was adopted by a large majority of the Church General Synod, without the counting of votes, and also by a large majority of the Swedish parliament with 282 votes for and 19 against a separation.
From 1 January 1996 a change was introduced in the conditions for membership of the Church of Sweden. Before this date, all infants automatically became members of the Church of Sweden by birth if one of the parents was a member. But from 1996, baptism became the determinant of membership. The new rules clearly assume a more active desire to belong to the Church than was previously the case.
The final decisions on the road towards a religiously, almost, neutral and secular state were taken in 1997 and 1998 when the parliament changed the Swedish constitutional law, separating Church and state and increasing the recognition of other faith communities. A new Act on Faith Communities (SFS 1998:1593) as well as a special Church of Sweden Act (SFS 1998:1591) was introduced. This legislation aimed at placing the various faith communities in Sweden on a more equal footing, while simultaneously preserving continuity with respect to the position of the Church of Sweden as the national church. As a part of the process and a consequence of these juridical changes, the Church of Sweden General Synod adopted a new Church ordinance in 1999 replacing major parts of earlier legislation with internal regulations (Kyrkoordningen 1999, 2020). These parallel and coordinated reforms undertaken by the state and by the Church internally were implemented from 1 January 2000.
A major element of the reforms consisted of moving decision making in Church affairs from the state to the Church itself and its own internal democratic organization. The Church has thereby been given responsibility for its decision making structures, the ordination of bishops, clergy and deacons as well as its financial administration. For example, the bishops are, since 1 January 2000, no longer appointed by the government, but rather elected in a democratic manner by representatives of the Church members and representatives of the clergy and the deacons.
As part of the reform the former Church tax was replaced on 1 January 2000 by a Church fee. This fee continues, however, to be levied by the state via the tax system, which means that there is in practice no change for the individual Church member. The same opportunity to use this service has, from the year 2000, also been available to all officially registered faith communities.

D 26 October 2020    APer Pettersson

1945-2020: Increasing immigration and religious diversity

As described in the historical overview above, Sweden has for a long time been characterised by a high degree of religious and ethnic homogeneity and a low degree of immigration. However, after (...)

As described in the historical overview above, Sweden has for a long time been characterised by a high degree of religious and ethnic homogeneity and a low degree of immigration. However, after the Second World War, immigration continuously increased in a number of “waves”. This meant that Sweden continuously developed towards an increased religious diversity in parallel with the process of separation between the church and the state (described in the previous section).

During the Second World War and the first decade after it ended in 1945, refugees arrived from the other Nordic countries, the Baltic countries, and other East European countries in crisis after the war. Since Sweden had been kept out of the war, the start-up process of industry was fast and a long very expansive economic period took place until the 1970s with a high demand of labour. In order to fulfil the need of workers, a large number of people were recruited mostly from Finland, but also from Southern Europe, e.g. Italy and Greece.

In the decades after the war Sweden step by step opened up to refugees from different international conflict areas and repressive regimes, and eventually developed a very liberal humanitarian refugee policy. Deserters from the US Army during the Vietnam war (1955-1975), refugees from Hungary during the political crisis in 1956, refugees from Greece during the military junta period (1967-1974), refugees from Chile during the military junta period (1973-1990), Assyrian, Syrian and Kurdish refugees (1975-1982), Vietnamese “boat refugees” (1978-79), refugees from different African conflict areas (1980-1995) and from the conflict in the Balkan countries (former Yugoslavia, 1992-1995) arrived in successive waves. From 1990, an increasing numbers of refugees arrived mainly from Iran, Iraq and, Somalia, joined after 2010 by those coming from Afghanistan and Syria, with a peak in 2015 as a consequence of long-term war and terror in these countries.

From a period of slowly increasing immigration between 1945 and 2000, the first two decades of the 21st century has seen a dramatic change of Swedish demography.
Figures from December 31st 2019 show that 25,5% of the Swedish population has a foreign background, either by being born abroad or by being born in Sweden from parents born abroad. The table below shows the increase of people with a foreign background from 1970 to 2019, in percent of the total population (National Statistics).

Year 1970 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2019
Proportion of the population with a foreign background 8% 12% 14,5% 16,2% 19,1% 22,2% 25,5%

Immigration of people also means immigration of religion. As a consequence, Swedish religious demography was also changed by the numerous arriving Christian Catholics and Orthodox in the first part of the period, followed by Buddhists and African Pentecostal Christians, and during the last three decades a large number of Sunni and Shia Muslims. Thereby, Sweden has, between the Second World War and today, changed from a homogeneous country with a totally dominant religion, to an increasingly culturally and religiously diverse one.

D 26 October 2020    APer Pettersson

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

Follow us:
© 2002-2021 eurel - Contact