The partnering of church and school in nineteenth-century Sweden.

Author:Green, Todd

The causal link between modernization and secularization forms the core of secularization theories. With modernization, rationalization leads to a "demythologization" of the world; technology reduces the occasions in which humans seek divine assistance for this-worldly problems; large-scale industrialized enterprises, cities, and nation states replace the small, close-knit communities from which religion traditionally derives its strength; individualization increases the probability of religious fragmentation, religious indifference, and the rejection of religion. According to secularization theorists, these and other modern developments in recent centuries have led to a significant decline in the influence of religion in Europe. To the extent that religion survives at all, it does so as a private matter, on the margins of the social order. (1)

What secularization theorists often fail to note is what sociologist Yves Lambert refers to as modernity's "diverse and contradictory effects" on religion. (2) Modernization has contributed to secularization in Europe, but that is not the whole story. Some periods of rapid modernization, such as the nineteenth century, also witnessed popular revivalist movements, a proliferation of new religious organizations in the form of charities and associations, and redefined yet still significant roles for religious institutions and professionals in society. These developments were in many ways products of modernity, and a historical perspective merits caution when describing modernization only in terms of its secularizing effects.

The diverse effects of modernization on religion in nineteenth-century Europe can be illustrated by a closer examination of a typical feature of many secularization theories--functional differentiation. Functional differentiation is the process by which social functions historically carried out by religious institutions and personnel are "taken over" in the modern era by more secular, specialized institutions and professionals. (3) In medieval Europe, for example, most of the responsibility for poor relief rested with parish clergy, religious orders, and confraternities. In the early modern and modern periods, poor relief boards and social workers gradually assumed formal responsibility for this task. As this happened, religious institutions became less and less necessary for the functioning of society.

Secularization theorists almost universally accept the theory of functional differentiation, and this is understandable (4) Especially in the twentieth century, functional differentiation has taken its toll on European religious institutions through the emergence of modern welfare states. But in the context of the nineteenth century, functional differentiation is more accurately understood as the continuation of an early modern process that redefined the roles played by religion and religious institutions in society. This redefinition process certainly undermined the public influence of religion in various spheres of society, but where some doors closed, others opened, which the field of education demonstrates. The emergence of obligatory schooling in the nineteenth century was accompanied by the creation of a new body of secular teaching professionals and a bureaucratic system of school boards--clear signs of increasing functional differentiation. But in much of Europe, these developments took place under the auspices of church professionals and institutions, with clergy and parish boards taking on positions of authority and leadership in the new systems of compulsory education. (5) A notable exception is France, though the Republican drive to push religious institutions and orders out of education did not begin until the 1880s, and even then, the Roman Catholic Church established an alternative school system that educated a significant minority of children until the turn of the century.

A more typical example is Sweden. Its modern elementary school (folkskola) emerged in the mid- to late nineteenth century as the state adopted the task of providing for the educational "needs" of all its citizens. (6) At the same time, the elementary school system's organization and administration, its teaching professionals, and its curricula were developed and sustained in large part through the efforts of Sweden's national Lutheran church, the Church of Sweden, and its representatives at the local and regional levels. In the nineteenth century, compulsory education depended on a partnership between church and state as it took shape, and it was only in the twentieth century that this sphere of society became clearly secularized.


The provision of popular education in the form of elementary schools varied considerably in the Nordic countries in the early modern period. Denmark and Norway increasingly depended on schools, whereas Sweden, Finland, and Iceland relied much less on them. All five Nordic countries witnessed high literacy rates, but schools were much more important in the spread of literacy in Denmark and Norway than in the other countries. (7)

The availability of schools in Sweden was confined primarily to cities and to a few of the more populous regions in the south. Both extensive poverty and the sparse population in much of the country meant that the provision of schools for the vast majority of rural parishes was simply not possible before the nineteenth century. Popular education in Sweden therefore relied greatly on cooperation between the heads of household on the one hand and church functionaries such as parish clergy and clerks on the other. (8)

The 1686 Church Law, combined with a 1723 royal decree, formally placed the responsibility of teaching children the fundamentals of the Christian religion and basic reading skills in the hands of the Lutheran church and the heads of household. Parents or guardians kept the responsibility to teach their children how to read familiar religious texts, particularly Luther's Small Catechism and his explanations of the catechism. For their part, parish priests examined the reading and religious knowledge of children and adults at annual gatherings known as "house examinations" (husforhor). The priest recorded the reading ability of each parishioner in a register; if a parishioner's knowledge or literacy proved to be inadequate, it was incumbent upon the priest to arrange for supplemental instruction. In many eases, it fell to the parish clerks to provide auxiliary education, though they did not always possess the knowledge and ability to accomplish this task. In such eases, a schoolmaster or other literate person might provide remedial instruction. Schooling, however, remained a last resort for the vast majority of Swedes. (9)

The eighteenth century witnessed attempts in many Western European countries to expand the provision of elementary schools. In Sweden, the Society Pro Fide et Christianismo, established in 1771, was the leading proponent of founding a school in every parish to teach basic subjects such as geography, history, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The society succeeded in establishing a series of new schools in some regions. At the turn of the century, however, the institutions of the household and church remained the primary providers of popular education.

Despite the lesser degree of formal schooling in Sweden than in many other parts of Western Europe, by the end of the seventeenth century, Sweden had the highest literacy rank among Nordic nations. One century later, it had become one of the most literate countries in all of Europe. Of course, such an assessment depends on how literacy is defined. If the ability to sign one s name is excluded as a criterion, then Swedes were far more literate than most Europeans, at least in terms of their ability to read and pronounce words from a written text. (10) More importantly, Swedes achieved this high degree of literacy primarily through the educational efforts of the church and the household. These two institutions had proven to be as efficient as many schools throughout Europe in the provision of popular education in the early modern period.


The number of available schools in Sweden grew significantly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1820 and 1850, many of these schools were established according to the Lancastrian model of education derived from England. With this model, one teacher instructed up to several hundred children at once with the assistance of more advanced students working as monitors. The Lancastrian method was first introduced in Sweden in 1818. In 1824, there were 60 Lancastrian schools with just over 4,000 students. By 1842, the year of the Elementary School Law, there were 515 such schools with almost 30,000 students. (11) These Lancastrian schools, added to the already existing elementary schools, meant that Sweden was becoming a more schooled society even before the advent of compulsory education. Nevertheless, at the end of the 1830s, almost 50 percent of Sweden's parishes lacked an elementary school. Popular education remained at the discretion of church and household in many regions. (12)

Historians generally fall into one of two camps when explaining why the parliamentary estates decided to pass legislation on compulsory elementary school education in 1842. (13) One school of thought maintains that politicians responded to the growing democratization of society and changes in the agrarian economy. Liberal politicians in particular felt that mass education would provide people with the knowledge necessary to adapt to these changes. Other historians insist that politicians were responding to the rapid population growth and the proletarianization of the people. More conservative politicians saw in the compulsory elementary school a means of social control through which the existing social order would be reinforced and legitimized....

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