I think I knew that church membership played an important role in the lives of our ancestors. As a product of the American system of a separated church and state, I just did not appreciate how extensive a role it played for these people. Recently, as I entered a lot of data derived from Church of Norway documents into my computer program, I came to realize how fully the Scandinavians in the 18th and 19th centuries entwined church life and everyday life.
They marked their rites of passage in Lutheran religious ceremonies—baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial. The church carefully recorded these important occasions, and we can view the records today, hundreds of years later. In addition to facts about the event, the records also provide information on names of an ancestor’s parents and the places they lived. They even reveal the name of the father if a child was illegitimate.
Yet the church affected more than just the individual behavior reflected in the records. It was the reason for some modern reforms in Scandinavian society. For example, Norway in the 1700′s instituted a nationwide push for literacy. Why? So the people could pass the 700-question confirmation test. The pastor recorded their scores for posterity—not so good, good, or very good.
Why would a young Norwegian, or anyone, want to take and pass this difficult confirmation test? Because you could not get married in Norway unless you did. Every parish pastor asked for confirmation date and place before performing a marriage ceremony. That information, along with information pertinent to the marriage, is recorded on the nuptial record.
Even today, although most Norwegians claim they are not religious, the Church of Norway retains its official state status. It receives its financial support from the state. All clergy are state employees. The King of Norway is required to be Lutheran. The Church still has its role there, affecting the everyday lives of most Norwegians.