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Houses divided?

Local churches as spaces of contention in 18th- and early 19th-century Norway

Trond Bjerkas

Although Norway, as part of the absolutist Oldenburg monarchy, was ruled by one of the more authoritarian states in 18th-century Europe, it has long been a widespread view among historians that there existed institutions where common people and local communities exerted influence over their lives to a certain degree.1 This consensus shares common roots with historiographical traditions in other Scandinavian countries connected to the concept of ‘interaction,’ which, in Eva Osterbergs definition, denotes a premise that the subjects of the early modern states must be accorded historical agency and communicative abilities in dialogue with their rulers.2 The model of interaction has in turn been influenced by the concept of ‘communalism,’ developed in particular by Peter Blickle and adapted to Norwegian history by Steinar Imsen.3

To be sure, from this basic premise of interaction, historians have differed in their approaches, both in subject matter and in their interpretation of the relationship between state and local communities. Some have highlighted the right of petition as a vehicle for interaction,4 others the local courts or Thing.5 Historians have also differed in their view of how intentional this influence from below was from the point of view of the absolutist state. On the one hand, a historian such as Knut Mykland seems to argue for a real harmony of interests between ruler and subjects.6 On the other hand, Knut Dorum argues that peasants conquered a much larger sphere of influence than the authorities intended.7 In other words, local arenas of interaction were also arenas of contention and conflict.

Some, most notably Dorum, have also argued that from the middle of the 18th century, new institutions developed outside the framework of the Thing, that strongly point towards the establishment of municipal self-rule in 1837.8 The new system of local self-government with elected members established that year was, and still is, widely recognised as bringing local governance up to date with the Norwegian constitution of 1814, for its time a liberal or even radical constitution that ended absolutism and introduced a parliament with a wide suffrage. The new system of local self-government in 1837 has consequently also been viewed as far-reaching and radical.9 Even so, many historians have highlighted the strong lines of continuity

The local churches as spaces of contention 253 with pre-existing arenas of local government that the new nation-state had inherited from absolutism prior to 1814.10

This continuity is indeed a premise also in this chapter, but the main aim here is to highlight the local church as an important nexus for the development of the local public sphere in this period. I will argue that the local church organisation was perhaps the most important physical and symbolic space of contention in the late 18th century, both on account of its importance for the local communities and because of the way state officials conceived of governance in this period.

Although the local public sphere has received wide attention in Norwegian historiography, the role of the church in this public sphere has received relatively little attention. At first sight, this is surprising. The church was an institution of utmost importance, for both rulers and subjects. Furthermore, in Sweden, the local church plays a significantly more prominent role in comparable historiography.11 One important reason for this is the source situation. Unlike in Sweden (and Finland), there were no formal parish assemblies in Norway, which could produce records for later historians to exploit. Therefore, an investigation of the church as a local public sphere must employ other, more dispersed source material.

Another reason has to do with the historiographical tradition itself. Although local institutions connected to the church, such as school- and poverty commissions, have received attention, they have rarely been interpreted as institutions intimately connected to the church.12 For its part, the church has traditionally either been studied by church historians from the point of view of theological history, as an element in history of ideas or, more recently, as a propagator of absolutist ideology.13 As such it has largely been interpreted as an institution of one-sided communication from above.14

The main purpose of this chapter is to investigate the local church as an integral part of the local public sphere and an arena for state building from below in 18th- and early 19th-century Norway. What arenas and meeting places between state and subject pertained to the church? Were these sites of contention or harmony? To what extent were the local churches houses divided between popular and elite culture? And to what extent did they serve to integrate the local populace in public discourse and action?

The characteristics of the rural local public sphere

The concept of public spheres has for the last 50 years been heavily influenced by Jurgen Habermas’ groundbreaking study from 1961.15 However, the Habermasean perspective is problematic when applied to early modern rural Scandinavia. For one thing, his perspective was decidedly urban, as Knut Dorum and others have pointed out.16 Furthermore, as Jakob Maliks has noted, Habermas’ claim to general validity was that he based his model on fundamental changes in the material structure of early modern

Europe - that is, the rise of merchant capitalism.17 But the changes in the local public sphere in rural Norway that will be discussed here, cannot in a meaningful way to be tied to these types of changes. Even more problematic in our context is that Habermas’ notion of a public sphere denotes a social space outside of governance, a voluntary social space partially outside the reach of government control, while at the same time in principal accepted and to a certain extent encouraged by the government. For Habermas, the civil society constitutes itself contrary to the government.18 Its fundamental institutions were the printed press, theatres, clubs, guest houses, and the like.19

The local public spheres we are dealing with here differ in many ways from these Habermasean notions. First, they were not spheres outside of governance. On the contrary, they were legitimated and often established by the government, and were part of the state’s institutional structure. Furthermore, they were not voluntary social spaces, certainly not exclusively so. Participation was often mandatory, sometimes unpopular and usually framed by criteria of participation encoded in laws and government ordinances.

This does not mean that these were arenas in total control of the government, where opposition could not be voiced. It could, and it was. These were, in Charles Tilly’s and Sidney Tarrow’s phrase, sites of contention, where claims could be made on the government from different agents, claims that had to be answered.20 But it does mean that the Habermasean model of a modern public sphere supplanting an older ‘representative’ public sphere, is a map that does not easily correspond to the terrain of Norwegian rural communities in the 18th century. Rather, modern forms of political participation, co-governance, and ‘state building from below’ in many ways evolved from the structures established and legitimated by the supposedly authoritarian and ‘representative’ early modern state.

The structure of the local public sphere

in absolutist Norway

In the absence of political institutions in a modern sense, the local public sphere in 18th-century Norway can be divided into two main parts, the judicial and the clerical. To each of them belonged different arenas and physical meeting places. From the point of view of the central government, the two parts coincided with the domain of, respectively, the regional judge (sorenskriver) and the parish priest. They also coincided with the paths of education - law and theology - that these government officials had to traverse before they took their place as caretakers of local courts and churches. Local communities were overwhelmingly governed by lawyers and theologians. Furthermore, the law and Lutheran religion were the two central concepts used to legitimise absolutist rule in the Oldenburg realm. This rule was, the official ideology said, a rule of law and a rule of God.21 This

The local churches as spaces of contention 255 ideological aspect added a weight to the public arenas associated with these spheres. In particular, the church carried out important ideological and legitimising functions for the absolutist regime.22

The judicial sphere

In a European context, the judicial sphere has been widely researched and interpreted in the light of the concept of the judicial revolution, which holds that during the early modern period, the states acquired a tighter grip on local communities by standardising laws and institutions, channelling conflicts into the legal system, and thereby checking violence as a means of protest and conflict solving. This has also been an important interpretation in Norwegian historiography, and has probably contributed to the dominance of research focusing on judicial, rather than clerical arenas of interaction.23 The main public arena within the judicial sphere in Norway was the local Thing (bygdetinget). The Thing was the lowest court of law, but also had several other functions. It served as a forum of public and private announcements, as a court of civil and criminal law and it was where tax collection took place. Usually, there were three sessions a year in every judicial district (tinglag).14 The judicial districts varied in size but would normally comprise three or four parishes. The regional judge normally administered several districts. To take but one example: Mandal judicial region (sorenskriveri) in southern Norway comprised three districts: Leirkjaer, Hollen, and Odde. Each of these comprised between three and five parishes.

Several special courts also belonged to the judicial sphere, such as the probate court and ad hoc commissions.25 From the mid-1790s, local councils of conciliation, presided over by both a government official and one or two laypeople, were also established. The purpose of these commissions was to ease the burden on the Thing, where the caseload grew rapidly during the century.26

The Thing is by far the local arena that has received the most attention from Norwegian historians, not the least because of the rich source material provided by the dense court records (tingboker). Basically, we can distinguish between two interpretations of the function of the Thing in the 18th century. One, forwarded by historians such as And Mikkelsen Tretvik and Solvi Sogner, argues that the Thing served as the peasant’s own arena, with low levels of conflict between the local community and the government.27 Another, less widespread interpretation holds that the Thing to a large extent was governed by the officials and that it served as a forum for the state to extract taxes and soldiers.28 All historians agree that the state during the 17th century had taken steps to gain more formal control over the Thing, by giving the regional judge more influence, by standardising the law, and by diminishing the role played by the lay court members (lagretten).24 The formal rules governing the Thing in the 18th century thus strongly favoured government control, and the point of contention amonghistorians is to what extent these rules were effectively implemented or whether they were ignored or challenged.

The main discussion has concerned the role of the lay court (lagretten). By the late 17th century, lay court members had, with some exceptions, lost their former status as judges in criminal and civil cases. Furthermore, according to the Norwegian code of 1687, they were only to serve for 1 year at a time, and to be selected arbitrarily according to local registers. Historians have thus argued that they after this lost their role as local elites speaking on behalf of the community. However, several historians have questioned whether this was really the case.30 Aud Mikkelsen Tretvik argues, based on a study of the Thing in the district of Alen and Roros in Trondelag, that ‘the lay element was not as insignificant as previous research have argued.’31 The legal historian Jorn 0yrehagen Sunde argues that the lay court members still ‘participated in government’ in the late 18th century.32

The clerical sphere

The clerical part of the local public sphere centred upon the physical meeting place of the parish church. In recent historiography, the church in the 18th century has been given quite a lot of attention. As noted, however, the main perspective has been to see the church as a part of the states’ institutional power, and in particular as a producer of ideology.33 There are good reasons for this, of course. Attendance at services was mandatory, and the church ritual - the most important law text governing the church - stated that the local priests should ‘remind the congregation of the subservience and duty of loyalty toward their king and his commands.’34

However, a too one-sided view of the church as a producer of state ideology risks missing several important aspects of this part of the local public sphere. For one thing, the congregation was the closest form of local community, providing identity and emotional bonds between people in a way that the Thing could not. As the Danish historian Hans Henrik Appel has pointed out, the message and rituals of the church were not simply forced upon a hostile community. Baptism, communion, weddings, and funerals were important rituals that provided meaning in the parishioners’ life.35 The pulpit was used for local announcements as well as for legitimising sermons. The church hill was an important public arena where the locals discussed issues of importance to them.36

Contentious practices

Equally importantly, the church was a space of contention, both symbolically and physically. The church and its surroundings were important social arenas, and as such they were often appropriated by the local populace in ways that were clearly against the government’s wishes.

Local communities claimed symbolic ownership over the church in conflict with official norms. Reports from local officials tell of partying, drinking, and trade in or in the vicinity of churches.57 The bishop in Christiansand, Rasmus Paludan, complained in the 1750s that ‘large wedding Processions came to the church with noise and disturbances, interrupting the prayers of the parishioners, and causing many frivolous people to run out of church.’58 The bishop in Bergen, Johan Nordahl Brun, similarly complained of the ‘bad habit, that participants in wedding parties were drinking, playing and dancing in the priest’s house.’59 People would ignore or interrupt the priest or even the bishop when he was visiting. Bishop Nordahl Brun reported from the parish of Opdahl in western Norway: ‘Here was true rabble, that did not stay silent while I spoke. I hardly had space to stand upright on the floor. Angrily, I had to cut my overhearing short.’40 Bishop Bugge in Trondheim lamented the ‘indifference and lack of attention during service.’41

We can also find evidence of conflicts between popular and official notions and practices of a more specifically religious nature. Throughout the 16th and into the 17th century the new Lutheran clergy struggled to stamp out traditional practices that after the reformation were deemed heretical.42 But also throughout the 18th century, popular practices could be interpreted by the clergy as catholic heresy. At a visitation in Voss in western Norway in 1748, Bishop Erik Pontoppidan advised the local priest to refuse to allow, against the wishes of the congregation, two of his parishioners to receive the sacrament, on the grounds that they were deaf and dumb. According to the bishop, they could not, being deaf, possibly have any notion of the word of God, which, according to Lutheran theology, was the prerequisite for receiving the sacrament. He even cited John Locke’s empiricist epistemology to underscore his point. Otherwise, Pontoppidan said, one would admit to the truth of the catholic doctrine of ‘ex opere operato,’ that is, that the ritual of communion is effectual regardless of the receiver’s convictions. The local priest was caught between a rock and a hard place, between the stern bishop and the parishioners, whom he feared would be angry and protest about this meddling in their traditional practices.45 The problem of deaf parishioners wanting to receive communion appears several places in the source material.44 It also touched upon a legal debate influenced by Wolffian theory of the legal status of the deaf in 18th-century Scandinavia.45

In 1823, the priest in Stadsbygd in Trondelag complained to his dean about his sexton, whom he claimed made heretical eulogies for the dead after funerals. The sexton would, for example, preach of salvation through deeds and of purgatory. The priest wrote to the dean: ‘I don’t know in what catholic book he has read about this, but he surely dared to speak of it in the presence of myself and 50 other people.’ According to the priest this was part of the sexton’s campaign to undermine his authority among the congregation.46

To these conflicts between popular and official religious tenets could also be added the 50-year-old farmer, whom Bishop Pontoppidan in his visitation rapport described as ‘part naturalist, part Jew, part fanatic and part sceptic,’ and who openly admitted to the bishop that while he held the old testament in high esteem, he refused to accept Christ as the son of God.47 What all these examples have in common is that they expose conflicts, not between religion and irréligion, but between official tenets and norms on the one hand and on the other, popular practices and beliefs that carried deeply held meanings for parishioners. The same can be said of conflicts concerning the introduction of new psalm books or catechisms, which could be hotly contested.48 The church was a site of contention because it was a site of meaning. Increasingly during the 18th century, however, the church provided arenas of interaction where this contention could be addressed and formulated. These developments, I will argue, increased the political agency of the local communities in rural Norway.

Church institutions

Some institutions where the local populace was represented belonged to the local church organisation. From 1740 onwards, poverty- and school commissions were established. Their primary tasks were to administer the local schools, formally established in 1739, and the local poverty relief system, established during the period 1740-1790.49 In many places, the two commissions functioned as one, under the name of the parish commission or village commission. From the late 18th century, and particularly after Denmark and Norway’s entry into the Napoleonic wars from 1807, the commissions expanded their activity to areas such as grain and food supplies.50

The commissions were led by the local priest with appointed lay members, but in several ways, they were democratised from the early 19th century. From 1816 the local electors - parishioners elected to the electoral college for the parliamentary election - were to sit on the commissions. This provided an element of elected representatives in the commissions.51 Already in 1800, the bishop in Christiansand, Peder Hansen, suggested that two of the commission members should be chosen by the local parishioners. He also suggested that decisions in the commissions should be made per plurima vota.51 Source material indeed indicate increased use of voting and plurality decisions within the commissions.5’ Furthermore, we find several instances where commissions expressly opposed government decisions or made proposals in opposition to the local priest, who was the commission leader.54 The ageing dean of Lister deanery in southern Norway lamented in 1820 that a new age had arrived, when ‘the will of the parishioners’ seemed to be the law of the land. The occasion for his comment was precisely an unruly parish commission in his district, who had made unacceptable demands ‘on behalf of the parish.’55

The institution of the visitation should also be viewed as a local public arena. Every year, the parish churches were to be visited by either the bishop or the dean. The visitation practice had come under new scrutiny by the government during the reign of rhe pietist King Christian VI and was considered an important mechanism for controlling the local priests and the congregations. But it was also an arena where the local populace could meet high officials and bring forth demands or complaints. It is an example of how the government wanted active participation by the congregations, albeit within strict boundaries defined by the government.56

Individual offices

Different local offices belonged to the public arenas and institutions. A local office may be defined as a formally recognised public function, where the individual office holder was usually recruited from the local community. He thus occupied a position as intermediary between the government and the local community. They were, in the terminology of Michael Braddick, part of a ‘middling sort,’ local agents which the state utilised to forward their policies.57

In the judicial public sphere, the most important local office, besides the lay court members, was the sheriff (lensmanrip The sheriff was the local servant of the bailwick (fogd) and should ‘mind and care for the king’s interest.’ At the same time, he was usually recruited from the local peasantry and could in many cases speak on behalf of the local populace.58 Below the sheriff, there were often appointed helpers, known as fjerdingsmenn or rodemestere, who assisted in tax collection or other tasks.59

Several local offices also belonged to the church: The sexton, the churchwarden, and the priest helpers. The sexton was a layperson whose tasks included helping the priest during the service, leading the singing and teaching the youth. Formally, the bishop appointed the sextons, but in practice the choice was made locally, and the parishioners could have opinions on the issue. In 1802, for example, the congregation in Urland in western Norway wanted the son of the recently deceased sexton to replace his father, but the bishop objected, noting in his journal: ‘he sang badly and was a slob.’60

The sextons were often viewed as representatives of the local populace and would, for example, present demands or wishes on behalf of the parish at visitations.61 However, government officials expressed fear of a politicised sexton office, and many wanted to professionalise it by filling the office with educated non-locals.62 The dean in Fredrikshald in eastern Norway remarked in 1737 that sextons who ‘concern themselves with writing petitions on behalf of the local parishioners, should lose their office,’ a warning that seems to indicate that this was in fact happening.63 There probably was a certain professionalisation of the sexton’s office in the 18th century. Bishop Nordahl Brun wrote in the 1790s of the sexton in

Findâs outside Bergen that ‘the sexton and his family spoke pure Danish,’ and consequently lived separate lives from the locals.64 However, geographical factors also played an important part. Parishes near the cities often had educated sextons, while in the countryside they were more often local laypersons.65

The office of churchwarden had roots going back to the middle ages. His main responsibilities were maintenance of the church buildings, finances, and real estate. However, the conditions for performing these responsibilities changed markedly in different periods, and throughout much the 18th century, the churchwarden was not a very important office, for reasons that will become clear next.66

Of perhaps greater importance were the priest helpers. This office was established by an ordinance in 1629, according to which the priest helpers should assist the parish priest with whatever he may need. Two Godfearing men from each parish were to be appointed, who should ‘serve him (the priest) and help increase his authority.’67 The ordinance in question concerned church discipline, and this was the area where the helpers had their primary tasks. As such they could be seen as instruments of an increasingly authoritarian state bent on social control. The helpers were ‘as useful to the priest as eyes and ears to the body,’ according to the dean in Fredrikshald, who commented on this in 1737.68 However, during the 18th century and into the 19th century, the priest helpers received new responsibilities. Important in this respect, they became regular members of the school- and poverty commissions. As such they often, particularly after the turn of the century, came to be termed ‘representatives of the parishioners.’69

It was not uncommon for multiple local offices to be held by individuals or families. Sheriff’s dynasties are well documented, for example, by Brynjulf Gjerdâker.70 In addition, there could be family ties between local office holders and other local elites. In the early 18th century, for example, Ommund Olsen Kielland was sheriff in the parish of Sogne for over 30 years. He was the great-grandson of one of the former parish priests. Furthermore, he was related by marriage to the current priest and to a wealthy merchant, Nicolai Langfeldt, of German origins living in the parish. These were not accidental connections. The sheriff’s office had been in his family for almost a century, and so had the family connections with the local priests. The relations with the Langfeldt family would also continue later in the century.71

Several local offices could be held by the same person. In the parish of Klæbu in Trondelag, the sexton Lars Forseth in the late 18th century also functioned as member of the commission of conciliation, an office he would hold for 40 years. His brother, the local sheriff, became a member of the first extraordinary parliament session in the fall of 1814. The brothers also served as commissioners for the 1816 ‘silver tax’ cadastre, and they were on good terms with Count Moltke, the regional governor in Trondheim

The local churches as spaces of contention 261 and one of the highest civil servants in the country. In the commission of conciliation, the sexton Forseth presided alongside Moltke.72 When the British scientist Thomas Malthus travelled through Norway in 1799, he visited Moltke, expressed amazement at this seeming cordiality between the peasantry and high officials, and wrote in his diary that ‘The Count is in the commission of conciliation with a peasant who is reckoned an oracle by the common people.’73

The church sales and their influence on the local sphere

Most parish churches in Norway were defined as private property after the state sold them in the 1720s in a rather successful effort to fill the treasury after the costly Great Northern War. This arrangement effected the populace’s influence over the church in various ways. Of the 627 churches that were sold, more than two thirds were sold to merchants or government officials who often did not reside in the parish.74 This could affect the nature of public control over the church negatively. For one thing, the public office of the churchwarden was often replaced by a private manager.75 The priests in the deanery of Romerike, for example, claimed in 1753 that76: ‘After the churches in the countryside have been sold, there are no longer any church wardens, but only priest helpers named by the vicar with the council of the dean.’

Consequently, the church sales have in older historiography often been seen as a low point of local self-government in Norway.77 However, Romerike was a region where the buyers overwhelmingly belonged to the civil, military, or clerical government administration. In other areas, particularly in southern and western Norway, most churches were bought by the local parishioners. About a hundred churches in total had buyers from this category.78 Although still categorised as privately owned, these churches were owned by the local populace, who shared both income and expenses. The churches’ main income was the tithes, which were customarily split into three parts - one part to the king, one part to the priest, and one part to the church. Many new owners chose to dispose of the church’s tithes, because they were both creditors and debtors.79 This meant that they would have to finance expenses, such as repairs and wine and bread in other ways. But it did give the local community more control over church finances.

The church sales thus in some ways increased local influence over the church, both in short and long terms. First, it gave the parishioners more influence over church income and expenses. Furthermore, although the sales terms forbade the new church owners to sell real estate pertaining to the church, sources show that this happened on several occasions.80 In a visitation rapport from 1741, Jacob Kiterup, the bishop in Christiansand, wrote that ‘land rent and forests, quite contrary to your Majesty’s graciously given ordinances, are sold by many of the new church owners, whom havebeen reprimanded by the regional governor and myself.’81 In other words, the new church owners claimed rights over church landed property against the express wishes of the government.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in our perspective, the church sales in the long run contributed to a ‘re-communalisation’ of local public life. By the end of the 18th century, many of the churches originally sold to individual buyers were resold to the local parishioners. For example, in 1794, the church in Orkdal in Trondelag, a region where all churches were initially bought by private individual buyers, was bought by the local congregation. This was the direct occasion for re-establishing the office of churchwarden, who was after this elected by the parishioners.82 By 1800 the churchwarden again seems to have been a regular office in Norwegian parishes.83 In many places, church boards were established as a direct consequence of the re-collectivisation of the churches.84 In 1837 these churches automatically became the responsibility of the new municipal councils that were established that year. These councils henceforth also appointed the churchwardens.85 The extent to which the church buildings by this time were considered to be under communal control is illustrated by the priest in Oppdal in Trondelag, who in 1846 felt the need to ask permission from the municipal council to use the church for missionary meetings.86

However, the development of an increased peasant influence should not in general be construed as a simple process whereby pressure from below compelled the state to yield. The compulsory nature of much of the peasantry’s participation has led Knut Dorum to coin the phrase ‘manipulative state,’ in which the state made local agents perform unpopular tasks such as tax collection.87 Many of the institutions that were to become the arenas of local decision-making were forced upon the local communities, often to vocal protests. Bishop Pontoppidan lamented in 1748 that the local schools were in so miserable a shape that one should think the royal ordinance from 1739 was unknown by the peasantry in his diocese. Even good priests, he writes, ‘were unable to cut through the objections that the parishioners, particularly the wealthy among them, have against the ordinances from his Royal Highness.’88

Protests against local schools and poverty relief reforms are well known, but not isolated examples.89 When, in 1789, the government proposed to establish local grain storages in the bailwick of Mandal, it met with protest from several parishes. The proposal was a part of a nation-wide plan for establishing local grain storages in the whole of Norway. As with the schools and poverty relief, the government wanted the storages to be locally administered and financed. This compelled it to seek the opinion and support of the local populace. With a typical formulation, the government wanted the local communities to ‘consider whether they could contribute such a project, which was solely for their own gain.’90 In this way, the issue of grain storages was another element in a general communalisation in the late 18th century.

Still, the peasants in Mandai were not impressed. They argued predictably that the storages would not be effective poor relief, and that it would hurt the peasants’ economy.91 The protests were effective. As late as 1833, there were still only two grain storages in the whole of Lister and Mandai region. These, however, were administered in similar fashion as the schools and poverty relief, with local ‘grain commissions.’92

Novel forms of organisation

There is a clear tendency for the local public sphere in the 18th century to gravitate from general assemblies towards appointed or elected institutions, that is, from direct to indirect participation. The traditional venues - the Thing, the Sunday service and the visitation - were all general assemblies. The new institutions in the 18th century, the school- and poverty commissions and the commissions of conciliation, on the other hand had appointed members only.93 Church boards in many instances fused with poverty commissions and school commissions.94 Furthermore, from the late 18th century, bishops’ visitations increasingly assumed the form of meetings with the local parish commissions.95 At the turn of the century, a common feature in rural parishes was thus a commission consisting of the priest and a handful of appointed members dealing with most of what can be termed local politics and arbitration with higher officials.

These parish commissions were in many ways the direct precursors of the municipal councils that were established in 1837. As Knut Dorum has found, they sometimes even continued to use the parish commission’s protocols.96 In many ways, this can be seen as an elitisation of public life, similar to what has been found in Swedish research.97 But through these ‘elites,’ the local community may be said to have increased its influence, creating more ‘empowering interactions,’ to use André Holensteins term.98

This elitisation of the local institutions could seem to conflict with a different characteristic of the late 18th-century local public sphere that Knut Dorum has drawn attention to; the tendency, at least after 1814, to use more general assemblies and more public votes.99 One answer to this could be simply that, yes, there were conflicting tendencies in a complex area such as the local public sphere. Furthermore, Dorum argues that the drive towards ‘more inclusive notions of participation’ was apparent mostly from the 1830s and 1840s onwards.100 Finally, one could argue that the new eliticised institutions were, by the early 19th century, performing functions of government that were previously reserved for government officials only. Within these institutions, it was to a certain extent possible to actively formulate an agenda and act politically in a way that it was not in the old general assemblies connected to the Thing or the visitation. When these new institutions felt the need for legitimation by ‘a broader public opinion,’101 the general assemblies and public votes performed the more passive task of approving or opposing the elites’ suggestions. The limited, or indirect forms of, participation thus enabled more proactive political participation from local elements than the traditional general assemblies.

Shepherds and herds

Praise for indirect representation was of course commonplace among the architects of the many constitutions of the Age of Revolution, the Norwegian not excluded. The ‘Father of the Norwegian Constitution,’ Christian Magnus Falsen, wrote in his constitutional draft that: ‘Our age has in the system of Representation found a means for the whole People to participate in law-making,’ as opposed to in ancient times when the people acted en masse, and therefore could hardly deliberate or agree on anything.102

There is, however, an ideological, specifically religious component in the way that this elitisation developed locally, that has been somewhat overlooked in previous research. The indirect form of participation in the parish commissions preceded the Age of Revolution, and its ideological origins should be sought elsewhere. The notion of selecting a few community members ‘above the fray,’ so to speak, was an influential idea in the pietist movement, a movement that strongly influenced the school reforms and the establishment of school commissions around 1740. An important person in this regard was Erik Pontoppidan. As court priest for the pious Christian VI, he was instrumental in conceiving these reforms in the 1730s. As bishop in Bergen from 1748 to 1754, he worked tirelessly to implement them in the local communities. And as a prolific writer he gave them the ideological underpinnings that they needed, most famously in his catechism of 1737. In his priest manual from 1757 Pontoppidan argued that the parish priest should gather an ‘Ecclesiolum in Ecclesia,’ that is, ‘a small church within the church, an exquisite selection among the many.’ The most righteous and eager members of the congregation should help the priest to lead the congregation.10’’ These were well-known pietist ideas that Pontoppidan borrowed from Philipp Jacob Spener and the Halle pietist movement.104 In the 1730s and 1740s, that is, in the formative years of the new 18th-century local public sphere, these pietist ideas strongly influenced the state’s highest policy makers, including the king himself.

The religious model of shepherds and herds thus informed the thinking around the institutions of the local public sphere. Shepherd and herd were biblical tropes that were prominent in how the clergy in the Oldenburg state conceptualised their relationship with the parishioners.105 The priest was to lead the parishioners towards salvation. Within pietism, the shepherds could and should include elite members of the laity. Michel Foucault has suggested that a notion of ‘pastoral power,’ with connotations of care, zeal, and dedication, rather than commandments and coercion, deeply influenced 18th-century governance.106 Hans Horstboll and Ingrid Markussen have both connected pietism to new notions of self-improvement, enlightenment,

The local churches as spaces of contention 265 and self-discipline.107 It is not accidental, I think, that new organisational forms developed within the framework of the church at this time.

Neither were connections between local moral elites and forms of local governance limited to the period around 1740. The parish commissions’ moral task of improvement was apparent in the ordinance from 1790, concerning the commissions in Trondelag: They were to ‘instill virtue and discipline in the youth and the local community.’108 The notion of local moral elites leading their fellow parishioners is still evident in visitation rapports in the 1840s. In Klaebo, ‘some esteemed Families of the peasantry are assisting the parish priest with promoting virtue and Christianity in the congregation.’109 The comment was made by the dean after a meeting with the local visitation commission. In the same period, church reformers looked to the new municipal councils for a new model of organising the local churches. The local churches, a suggestion from Dalerne in Trondelag said, should be administered by a ‘church council’ after the model of the municipal councils, the institution of the priest helpers should be elected so that the priest could have real helpers.110

Debates and notions of organising the church and organising the local public sphere were thus intimately entwined. The notion of pastoral power - with its emphasis on leading, helping, and improving - seems more aptly to describe influential ideas of local governance, than legal power -with its emphasis on judging, punishment, and coercion. As dean Cold in Fredrikshald put it in 1737: ‘The priest should not be a judge, and the servants of the Word should not punish and torment the body, but help and improve the inner self.’111 Ingrid Markussen has argued that pietist notions of governing the parishioners fundamentally informed notions of governing subjects throughout the 18th-century Oldenburg state.112 Their institutional legacy was the new local public sphere in the late 18th century. The ideal small elite gatherings of pietism became the model for local governance in Danish and Norwegian communities. Only later were they reconfigured according to constitutional notions of representation.

From judicial revolution to clerical evolution

In this chapter, I have argued that the development of a local public sphere and more inclusive forms of interaction between the state and local communities in late 18th- and early 19th-century Norway was intimately related to ideological and institutional developments within the church. In a longterm perspective, from around 1700 to 1850, one could arguably draw an inverse graph over the relative importance of the two branches of the local public spheres, the judicial and the clerical. Arenas pertaining to the local church became more important public arenas, even as the legal arenas diminished in importance. It is not unlikely that this is the case not only for Norway, but for Scandinavia as a whole and for other parts of Lutheran northern Europe as well. The great body of research that has documentedthe judicial revolution from the 16th century onwards must therefore in my opinion be complemented by a concept of a ‘clerical’ revolution - or perhaps evolution is a more precise term - in the 18th century.

Following reforms in the late 16th century, the Thing was by far the most important local public arena in the first half of the 17th century. For reasons previously noted, this changed during the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th century. John Ragnar Myking has argued that while the lay court, the lagrette, functioned as a local elite body representing the local populace until around 1750, this role was then taken over by the members of the school- and poverty commissions.113

While the Thing and the lay court, that is, the main institutions in the judicial sphere, lost some of their former status, arenas connected to the church became more important as decision-making arenas in the late 18th century. According to the local priest in Oppdal in Trondelag, who touched upon this in 1816, the office of lay court member was ‘utterly unimportant,’ as it only occurred once in a man’s lifetime, and did not entail much effort. This contrasted with the office of priest helper and member of the parish commission, whose responsibilities and workload he described as ‘overwhelming.’114 The increasing marginalisation of the lay court is corroborated in research by Erling Sandmo and Alan Hutchinson.115

Some evidence also suggests that in the late 18th century, the parish community was considered better suited to make binding decisions than the general assemblies of the Thing. When the government’s plan for new grain storages was presented at the Thing in the autumn of 1789, the presiding judge asked the assembly for its opinion. In the judicial district of Leirkjser in southern Norway, the attending peasants answered that they could not speak for all parishioners (apparently only a minority of peasants actually attended the Thing). Instead, they asked that the plans should be presented by the local priests outside the parish churches and discussed in public there, and that each parish should give their separate answer. Identical answers were given by the attendants in the two neighbouring judicial districts, Hollen and Odde.116 This was also how the issue proceeded. Neither the Thing as a venue nor the lay court members seemed at this time to legitimately represent the local populace. The parish community, however, did, and each parish gave their written, and decidedly negative, response to the regional government.117

The changing emphasis on the judicial and clerical spheres corresponded as we have seen to a movement from general, open arenas to closed ‘commissions’ or ‘councils’ with appointed lay members. This in turn can be interpreted as part of a transition from a legalistic, reactive form of peasant politics to a more proactive form, where politics increasingly could be formulated, and not just opposed, locally. The judicial public sphere, with its general Thing assemblies and its legal framework of prohibitions and injunctions, tended to suit an older, legalistic culture. With the advent of local commissions within the clerical local public sphere and new norms of

The local churches as spaces of contention 267 governance informed by pietism, the foundations were laid for more active participation, more empowered interactions, by the peasantry in local politics, a potential that was to be more fully realised with the reforms of local government in 1837.


  • 1 For example, Bagge & Mykland 1987; Sogner 1995; Dyrvik 1999. With some notable exceptions, such as Kare Lunden (Lunden 2002) and 0ystein Rian, who presents a critical review of this tradition in Rian 2014, p. 53 ff.
  • 2 Österberg 1989; Österberg 1993, p. 133; Gustafsson 1994.
  • 3 Blickle 1981, 1986; Imsen 1990, 1995.
  • 4 Supphellen 1978; Bagge & Mykland 1987.
  • 5 Sogner 1995; Tretvik 2000.
  • 6 Bagge & Mykland 1987.
  • 7 Dorum 2006, 2010.
  • 8 Dorum 2010. See also Ntess 1987.
  • 9 Bergsgärd 1937; Gustafsson 1987.
  • 10 Ntess 1987; Pryser 1999; Dorum 2010; Bjerkäs 2016.
  • 11 Johansson 1937; Aronsson 1992; Larsson 1999; Lindstrom 2003.
  • 12 Ntess 1987; Dorum 2010; Bjerkäs 2014.
  • 13 For theological history, see Aarflot 1967. For a history of ideas-perspective, see Gilje & Rasmussen 2002. For the ideological perspective, see Bregnsbo 1997, 2017; Viken 2014; Viken 2017; Rian 2014; Slettebo 2017.
  • 14 An exception to this one-sidedness is Slettebo 2017.
  • 15 Habermas 1991.
  • 16 Dorum 2013, pp. 97-102. Dorum sites Negt & Kluge 1993 in his critique of Habermas.
  • 17 Maliks 2011, pp. 43-45.
  • 18 Maliks 2011, pp. 42-45.
  • 19 Habermas 1991; Engelhardt 2007; Dorum 2013.
  • 20 Tilly & Tarrow 2012.
  • 21 Bregnsbo 2017.
  • 22 Viken 2014; Viken 2017.
  • 23 Sandvik 1992; Österberg & Sogner 2000.
  • 24 CVNL p. 1, 3, 10; Tretvik, pp. 239-245.
  • 25 Tretvik 2000, p. 235 ff.
  • 26 Bjorlin 2004.
  • 27 Sogner 1995, pp. 58-72; Tretvik 2000. Other works with similar perspectives are Sandmo 1992, Hutchinson 2015.
  • 28 Gausdal 2006.
  • 29 Seip 1953; Sandvik 1992.
  • 30 Myking 1996.
  • 31 Tretvik 2000, p. 313.
  • 32 Sunde 2014, pp. 14-15.
  • 33 Rian 2014; Viken 2014; Viken 2017; Slettebo 2017.
  • 34 Danmarcks og Norgis Kirke-Ritual 1985, p. 16.
  • 35 Appel 1999, pp. 497-498.
  • 36 Tretvik 2000, pp. 272-274.
  • 37 Bjerkäs 2015.
  • 38 Faye 1867, p. 365.
  • 39 Brun 1951, p. 80. For other examples, see Bjerkäs 2015.

Brun 1951, p. 78.

SAT, biskopen i Nidaros, visitasprotokoll nr. 2, p. 77a.

Rian 2014, p. 363.

RA; GKIK; Visitation protocoll from Erik Pontoppidan; Visitation at Voss 24 July 1749.

RA; GKIK; Visitas i Borgen, Maria bebudelsesdag, 1750; GKIK; Visitas Volda 15 juni 1750.

Sunde 2007.

SAT; PL 401 Rönne.

RA; GKIK; Visitation in Strandebarm 14 August 1749.

Horstboll 2004.

Bjerkäs 2014.

Dorum 2010.

Bjerkäs 2014, pp. 123-125.

SAK; Biskopen i Kristiansand; Skolevesenet 1678-1841; C 105: ‘Bishop Hansens plan for the schools in the countryside in Christiansand diocese’, p. 16. Bjerkäs 2014, pp. 122-123.

Bjerkäs 2014, pp. 126-127.

SAK; Biskopen I Agder; Prostevisitasberetninger; Visitasberetning i Lister prosti, 1820.

Bjerkäs 2015, 2016, pp. 57-58.

Braddick 2000.

Gjerdäker 2011.

Dorum 2010.

Brun 1951, p. 56.

Bjerkäs 2015, p. 193.

RA, GKIK, 0001, visitation rapport by bishop Rasmus Paludan, 1757.

Betenkninger fra geistligheten i Norge, p. 158.

Brun 1951, p. 6.

Bjerkäs 2015, pp. 193-194.

Bjerkäs 2017a.

Restated in CVNL 2-9-5.

Betenkninger fra Geistligheten i Norge, p. 129.

Bjerkäs 2015, pp. 194-195.

Gjerdäker 2011.

Brästad 1987; Sodal 1996; Langfeldt 2004.

Bjerkäs 2014.

Malthus 1966, p. 158.

Mykland 1976, p. 55.

Bjerkäs 2017a.

Betatnkninger fra Geistligheden..., p. 225.

For this historiography, see Mykland 1976 and Sandvik 1987 who both present a more nuanced view.

Mykland 1976.

Mykland 1976.

SAK; Biskopen i Kristiansand; C 87 Kirkene - Innberetning over kirkene i Sogne prestegjeld, 1789. SAT; Trondheim bispearkiv; pakkesaker Da. 52. RA; GKIK; Visitasrapporter. Kterup til GKIK, 30 September 1741.

Skrondal 1961.

Bjerkäs 2017a, p. 487.

Pedersen 1992, pp. 255-258.

Bjerkäs 2017a, pp. 488-489.

Oppdal formannskapsprotokoll 1837-1859, folio 114b, formannskapsmote 1 oktober 1846.

  • 87 Dorum 2010.
  • 88 RA; GKIK, 0001: Pontoppidan to the Church College 24 December 1748; Pontoppidan to the Church College 19 January 1753.
  • 89 Dyrvik 1983; Bjerkäs 2015.
  • 90 “Sondere hvorvidt de selv kunne contribuere til et sädant, til deres eget Gavn alene sigtende Anlceg.” Governement proposal of 15 August 1789, quoted in Karlgard 1954, p. 193.
  • 91 SAK; amtmannen i Lister og Mandal: 174; letters from Mandal bailwick: The regional judge Fridrichsen and bailiff Stoud to the regional governor Holm, 15 May 1790. With attached complaints from nine parishes.
  • 92 SAK; Mandal sokneprestkontor: kornmagasin 1813—1831.
  • 93 Bjerkäs 2016, pp. 62-63.
  • 94 Pedersen 1992.
  • 95 Bjerkäs 2015.
  • 96 Dorum 2010.
  • 97 Gustafsson 1989; Aronsson 1992.
  • 98 Holenstein 2009.
  • 99 Dorum 2013.
  • 100 Dorum 2013, p. 104.
  • 101 Dorum 2013, p. 106
  • 102 Riksforsamlingens forhandlinger, 3die del. Grundlovsutkast, 1916: 7.
  • 103 Pontoppidan 1850 (orig. 1757), p. 470 ff.
  • 104 On this influence, see Gilje Rasmussen 2002, p. 301 ff.
  • 105 Viken 2017, pp. 171-175.
  • 106 Foucault 2009, p. 193.
  • 107 Horstboll 2004; Markussen 1995.
  • 108 Reser. 15 August 1790.
  • 109 SAT; Dalerne prosti, forhandlingsprotokoll ved visitasmoter 1819-1861: Visitasmote i Klabo 11 September 1844.
  • 110 SAT; Dalerne prosti; avskrifter av visitaser, 1776-1846, Forslag om forandrede bestemmelser for bispe- og prostevisitaer, undated, propably from 1846.
  • 111 Betsenkninger fra Geistligheden, p. 135.
  • 112 Markussen 1995.
  • 113 Myking 1996.
  • 114 SÄT; Oppdal sogneprest; 1.2d.2 Brev 1816-1823: Ronnau til stiftsdireksjo-nen, 4 September 1816.
  • 115 Sandmo 1992; Hutchinson 2015.
  • 116 SAK; Mandal sorenskriveri, tingbok nr. 32, 1780-1794, pp. 354a, 360a, 363b.
  • 117 SAK; amtmannen i Lister og Mandal: The regional judge Fridrichsen and bailwick Stoud to the regional governor Holm, 15 May 1790; with attached complaints from nine parishes.


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