“NEVER AN UNFREE MAN”: THE NORWEGIAN “VIKING ROOTS” OF FREE LUTHERANISM


by Lars Walker, author of NPI Noble Novels fiction book West Oversea.

The following anecdote is not my own, but our president Loiell Dyrud’s. Loiell reports a conversation with a Lutheran of Swedish ancestry. They were discussing the ministry of Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Norwegian lay evangelist, when the Swedish gentleman said, “Hauge couldn’t have had a ministry at all if he’d lived in Sweden. They’d have locked him up before he ever got going.”

This led to a discussion about the differences between Norwegian Lutheranism and the Lutheranism of other Scandinavian groups, both at home and in America.

Loiell notes that Norwegian Lutherans in America had this peculiarity—that they splintered into multiple church bodies, while other Scandinavians tended to form unified Lutheran churches organized (in general) on purely ethnic lines.

In other words, if you were a Swedish Lutheran, you were a member of the Augustana Synod. If you didn’t want to be Augustana, you left Lutheranism altogether and became a Baptist, or a Methodist, or Evangelical Free, or even a Mormon. Other Scandinavians experienced minor divisions, but far fewer than the Norwegians.

But if you were Norwegian, you could choose between the Hauge Synod, the Norwegian Synod, the Lutheran Free Church, and various other, smaller groups.

While unity went by the board among the Norwegians, it might nevertheless be argued that Lutheranism, in broad terms, retained many adherents who might otherwise have been lost to it.

What accounts for this diversity? What was it about the Norwegians that led them to organize in ways different from other Lutherans, when they came to this country? I do not presume to be able to answer that interesting question comprehensively. What I’d like to offer is a hypothesis that might contribute to a partial explanation, based on my research in my own field of interest, Viking history.

P. J. Eikeland, in an essay entitled, “Hans Nielsen Hauges betydning for Norges politiske og nationale gjenreisning i løpet af det 19de aarhundre,” (“Hans Nielsen Hauge’s significance in the political and national restoration of Norway over the course of the 19th century”), describes the politics of Viking Age Norway as they were understood in his own time:

We see from this that even in ancient times there was fully popular government in Norway, although it was somewhat aristocratic, as the great farmers [storbøndene] in Norway had more to say than the small farmers. Every district [fylke] was like an aristocratic republic. But democratic it was, insofar as the great farmers’ numbers grew and that of slaves and tenants diminished…. 

Every man loved his own region [herred] and his own district, and obeyed his own district leader and petty king; for these he himself had helped to set in office…. 

Harald1  laid claim to being the sole hereditary landowner in Norway, with all Norway as his inheritance. But this was, needless to say, more than many of the great farmers would agree to. Oh no, “thralls” and “tenants” they would not be. Rather would they pack up and leave the country, travel to a land where they might be their own masters…. 

The Battle of Stiklestad,2 with its army of farmers led by farmer chieftains, provides a very illustrative picture of the situation. It was the farmer chieftains who had driven St. Olaf to Gardarike (Russia), and it was these same farmer chieftains who incited the Battle of Stiklestad.3

Further along, speaking of the development of centralized monarchical authority following the reign of King Sverre (12th century), Eikeland writes:

So now the power of the aristocracy has passed away in Norway. But the power of popular government has also now passed away. The Norwegian farmer has been excluded from everything that can be called government–political, national, and—as we shall later observe—ecclesiastical—and remains excluded all the way to 1814. But their personal freedom they have as before, [they] can order the affairs of themselves and their own as they wish, and it is this that they value, first and foremost. And this freedom they retained down through the ages. The Norwegian farmer has never been an unfree man, a slave, something farmers in nearly all other European countries became over time…. 

…It remains far better to have personal freedom than to have political freedom and be a slave; and this many farmers, both in Sweden and especially in Denmark, would discover. But that the Norwegian farmer both now possessed, and later would retain, this personal freedom, for this they could thank their ancient popular government, their ancient laws and their ancient freedom of thought….4

Eikeland writes in the spirit of Norwegian historians of his time. Some of the assumptions he makes are questioned today. But the essential point—the thing that (he believes) makes Norway almost unique, and which (I suggest) may help to explain Free Church ecclesiology, is this proud assertion: “The Norwegian farmer has never been an unfree man.” The conditions underlying this point of pride rose in part from Norwegian geography, in part from Norway’s peculiar political status under the Danish Crown for nearly half a millennium, and in part from Norwegian tradition.

 The first cause (geographical) is easily demonstrated by a glance at an atlas. Norway is a confoundingly rugged and (even today) sparsely inhabited country, one in which human populations have historically been widely separated, both by distance and by impassible terrain. It’s very hard to impose an efficient, monolithic bureaucratic system on such a country. This situation, perforce, fostered regionalism and regional decision-making.

The second cause (long-term historical) lies outside the scope of this paper.

Our focus will be on the third cause, Norwegian political tradition going back (at least) to the Viking Age.

It is my personal opinion that the (admittedly necessary) efforts of recent historians to present a “kinder, gentler” picture of the Vikings (understood in the wider sense of “early medieval Scandinavians,” rather than the “job description” definition the term originally held) have in many cases overstated the facts. Vikings are nowadays sometimes portrayed almost as “victims,” which is both condescending and unjust.

However, it remains true that the popular conception of Vikings as lawless barbarians—something like cavemen in horned helmets5, is grossly unfair. Anyone reading the Icelandic sagas—our best insight into the mindset and attitudes of the Vikings themselves—must note the extreme importance of law in all the stories.

The historian Magnus Magnusson writes, “I can never resist reminding my sceptical friends that it was these allegedly pitiless savages who introduced the very word law into the English language!”6  A famous line from the Icelandic Njal’s Saga expresses a classic Viking Age attitude, when the wise but doomed Njal says, “With laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste.”7

This Icelandic law, so pivotal in the saga texts, was a direct outgrowth of Norwegian law, in particular of the Gulatingsloven, the law of southwest Norway. The large majority of Norwegian emigrants to Iceland sprang from that region, and the sagas tell how an Icelander, Ulfljot, was sent back to Norway specifically to learn the Gulatingsloven and bring it home.8

The Gulatingsloven was the law of the “Gula Thing.” A Thing was a Viking assembly, a combined legislative assembly and law court. The Gula Thing was a representative assembly, drawing (with occasional additions) elected delegates from local Things in the four districts (fylker) within its jurisdiction—Rygjafylke, Hordafylke, Sognafylke and Firdafylke. 9

Torgrim Titlestad, professor of history at the University of Stavanger in Norway, is the author of a number of works championing the importance of “Vestland” (the southwestern region), in Norwegian history. Prof. Titlestad, in his book, Viking Norway, has this to say about the organization of the Gula Thing:

In fact the petty kingdoms of Western Norway functioned as a confederacy—with the Gula Thing as the joint organizational body. When the Gula Thing under Håkon the Good became an assembly representing several counties it is possible to say that a new level in the administration of Norway had been attained—with a confederative character. 

…The point is that after the time of the Great Migration the Scandinavians adapted and further developed the confederative method of running things so that it became an integral part of the Norse social system and came to full expression in the Viking period. 

…It can be argued that confederative thinking existed in the minds of the leaders in the various parts of Norway. This thinking was arrived at, not through the influence of elaborate political theories, but naturally from longstanding political practices.10

What was the distinctive nature of this early, confederative Norwegian political system? I think (as does Titlestad) that the answer is best illustrated through the narrative of an 11th Century conflict between two remarkable men with very different political philosophies—King Olaf Haraldsson (better known to us as St. Olaf) and Erling Skjalgsson of Sola11 , the most powerful man in the Gula Thing jurisdiction.

Erling Skjalgsson (ca. 965-1028) was a southwestern Norwegian chieftain who held the hereditary (but democratically confirmed) title of hersir. A hersir was essentially a military commander who coordinated regional levies of ships and men. In the Gula Thing jurisdiction, the hersir was the highest political office.

According to Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla (The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings), King Olaf Trygvesson, recently arrived in Norway, confronted the southwesterners at the Gula Thing about the year 995, demanding that they elect him king and receive Christian baptism. The leaders agreed, but only on the condition that Olaf give his sister Astrid in marriage to Erling (binding the king with the obligations of a legal kinsman).

A very interesting exchange occurs at the time of Erling’s wedding to Astrid. In the words of Snorri:

Erling Skjalgson held his wedding in the summer and a great many folk were present: King Olav was also there and he offered to give Erling a jarldom. But Erling said: “Hersers have my kinsmen always been and I will have no higher rank than they. Yet this will I take from thee, O king, if thou wilt let me be the greatest of that name in the land.”12

“Jarl” (earl) would seem to be a more exalted title than hersir (although Erling, as hersir of an entire region, probably enjoyed power equal to, or greater than, most jarls in the country). What then would explain his refusal to accept a social and political promotion?

Titlestad, perceptively, explains it this way:

Erling could accept a collaboration between equal partners on the basis of equality as he understood it, but to have accepted the title which Olaf offered him would have meant the same as being the king’s subject—of being subordinate. By laying claim to the title of hersir Erling Skjalgsson made it clear to both Olaf and the other Gula Thing chieftains that he, Erling, was and would continue to be, the most important leader of Vestland according to the ancient independent status of the title in the region. With this he also highlighted the old principle of confederate self-government among the different chiefdoms. Thus he made it evident that as an ally of Olaf he would not violate the established way of running things within the area under the jurisdiction of the Gula Thing.13

It was an audacious maneuver on Erling’s part. While receiving a princess in marriage, along with the power that came to him as a wedding gift (the saga says that Olaf made Erling the administrator of all southwest Norway, from Stad to Lindesnes), Erling successfully blocked any plans Olaf might have had to subordinate the traditional Norwegian democratic system (in Vestland, at least) to a more continental-style monarchy along the lines of Charlemagne’s Frankish empire. By keeping his traditional title Erling had, in effect, secured Norwegian-style democracy in the region under his control.

This arrangement ended with Olaf Trygvesson’s death at battle of Svold, in the Baltic, around 1000 A.D. Yet so secure was Erling’s political position that he was able to largely ignore the administration of the jarls Erik and Svein Haakonsson, who ruled next on behalf of the king of Denmark. Erling seems to have run Vestland almost as an independent country. In time, after Erik’s departure for England to support King Canute the Great, Jarl Svein came to terms with Erling, essentially confirming him in all the lands and power he had held under Olaf.

Everything changed once again in 1015, when a second Olaf appeared to claim the throne of Norway. This was Olaf Haraldsson (ca. 995-1030). This new Olaf had spent time in Normandy, where he very likely was baptized, and had observed there a distinctly un-Norwegian system of government. Johan Schreiner writes of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, “In no other place in Europe did a ruler have such a strong position with respect to the church and the priesthood. The ruler had complete control over the bishops and the church was in effect an important instrument for carrying out decisions that were in the hands of the duke.”14

 It seems likely, on the basis of his subsequent conduct and policies, that Olaf Haraldsson had adopted as his personal vision of kingship (what the Norwegians call “kongetanke”), the idea that, under God as supreme Monarch, the king was the divine surrogate on earth. Consequently, resistance to a Christian king was seen as resistance to God. Under such a view, there was no place for any formal “advice and consent” from popularly elected bodies or their leaders. This would seem to have been, in fact, an early glimmering of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings.

After arriving in Norway and quickly driving Jarl Svein out, Olaf met with Erling on the island of Kvitsøy, in 1016. Rather than accommodating himself to Norwegian tradition, and the rights Erling and his people had been accustomed to, this new Olaf demanded subordination. Erling’s area of governance would reduced. The title “hersir,” which he had retained so stubbornly, was abolished. Erling would now be a “lenderman” (landed man) under the king. This was an elite title, but it originated from above, and was the gift of the king, unlike the old one which Erling had held by inheritance and popular election. Erling had been reduced to something like what later generations would call a “vassal.” A subsequent agreement, in 1022, required one of Erling’s sons to join the king’s household, in effect as a hostage.

Such was Olaf’s power at that point that Erling saw no alternative to submission, though he remained characteristically uncooperative and insubordinate in his actions.

It was Olaf’s turn to be humiliated at Easter, 1023, at the royal farm of Avaldsnes, Karmøy island. On Good Friday, according to the saga, Erling’s nephew Asbjørn, who had earlier been insulted by the royal steward there, walked into the king’s hall in disguise and beheaded the steward before the king’s eyes. Erling’s son, who (as we saw above) was part of the bodyguard, persuaded Olaf to delay hanging Asbjørn out of respect for the holy season. Then he got a boat and sailed the relatively short distance to his father at Sola.

When Olaf came out of the church after Easter morning mass, Erling was there, waiting with more than 1,400 armed men. Olaf had no option but to accept a cash settlement and spare the young man’s life.

At this point it must have been clear to everyone that there could be no peace between these two iron personalities. Erling, accordingly, transferred his allegiance to Canute the Great of Denmark/England. He got his sons away to the safety of Canute’s court, and himself went into exile in England in 1026. That same year he returned with Canute’s attacking fleet. By 1028 they had defeated Olaf, who made his way northward along the coast by ship, with the aim of fleeing to Russia.

On Dec. 21, Erling’s lookouts spied Olaf’s ships sailing past Sola. He raised a hasty levy and gave chase. Because Erling’s fast ship outsailed the rest of his fleet, it was alone when Olaf, through a stratagem, managed to ambush him at a place identified in Heimskringla as Soknasund15.  Erling’s entire crew was massacred, followed by Erling himself—although the saga asserts that Olaf did not command his death, and indeed had just received his submission. A reconciled [and subjugated] Erling on his side would have given Olaf the basis for an attempt at a political comeback.

According to Heimskringla, Olaf’s words to the killer were, “Now hast thou struck Norway from my hands.”16

With Erling dead, Olaf had no choice but to continue his flight, to exile in Russia and his last desperate foray back into Norway, ending in the Battle of Stiklestad and “martyrdom” in 1030.

Did Erling fail? Did Olaf’s final victory—not a military one, but the triumph of a monarchical ideal17—put an end to Erling’s democratic, confederative vision?

Titlestad doesn’t think so. He sees Erling as a moderating figure who, if he did not prevail against Olaf, nevertheless altered the course of history.

Had it not been for the existence of the powerful leadership and personality of Erling Skjalgsson… during this decisive historical period, these kings would most probably have been able to push through their Norwegian idea in a clearly centralist monarchical direction. Erling succeeded in acting as a modifying force with respect to the two Olafs, both of whom appeared on the scene as external agents intent on introducing new European forms of rule. He probably contributed to the remoulding and Norwegianizing of some of the more extreme attitudes of the newly converted heir apparents [sic]; this was undoubtedly true of Olaf Trygvesson. At the same time he served as a role model for other, less powerful, Norwegians. 

Thus in his way Erling contributed to the idea of a unification of Norway, not as a centralized kingdom, but as a pluralist realm that evolved based upon the old traditions of self-government and freedom from the time of the chiefdoms and petty kingdoms. Out of the turbulent Viking Age[,] confederative historical mentalités took form which came to act as a basis for the much later establishment of a modern democratic state in the 19th century based upon the rule of law.18

I can find no reference to Erling, or even to his times, in the works of Sverdrup with which I am familiar. And indeed it is not at all my purpose here to suggest that Sverdrup had these matters in mind when he contemplated free church polity. His eyes were always on Scripture. The apostolic church was his model. He was no Grundtvig, attempting to resurrect an imagined, idealized Viking past.

My contention is that Sverdrup was the heir to a Norwegian cultural tradition which prized freedom as a priceless birthright, and decentralized government as a liberating principle. For Sverdrup, the new country of America provided an opportunity for Norwegians to stand tall again, as men and as members of independent Christian congregations.

But in all this, the spirit of the people is nevertheless unbowed, and it longs unceasingly for a greater work and a brighter life than that to which it is often compelled by hard necessity. And the deepest cause of the mighty emigration, of the often incomprehensible zeal with which old and young yearn for that great, unknown America, is longing—longing for wider and freer prospects, brighter and friendlier days than those they enjoy. The cottager is wearied with consuming his strength between rock-fall and stone, the fisherman with risking his life day after day in a small, fragile boat on the great, wild ocean. The farmer is disgusted at always having to bow his back under great burdens and heavy impositions, while outsiders seem to him to enjoy the benefits which he himself has earned through bitter labor.19

One is reminded of the old Vikings who, rather than bow to a high king in Norway, took their ships, families and property to Iceland, and there set up a republic under the rule of law.

If you had asked Georg Sverdrup what he thought of Erling Skjalgsson, he very likely would have repeated the judgment that prevailed at the turn of the 20th Century—that Erling had been a traitor, who sold good St. Olaf to the Dane for gold. This was a common view among Norwegian nationalists, who looked to Olaf as a unifying symbol. But recent historians have begun to view Olaf’s legacy as more ambivalent, and have recognized that medieval hagiography must be read with a degree of skepticism. P. H. Sawyer, for instance, writes, “Erling, and men like him, played as important a part in the conversion of Norway as did Olaf, and it was indeed in Erling’s territory that most of the early Christian crosses were erected.”20

If Olaf Haraldsson is seen as a pioneer of the kind of centralized, authoritarian polity against which Sverdrup rebelled, one can easily regard Sverdrup and Erling as brothers in spirit—Norwegians in the ancient tradition of the farmer who “has never been an unfree man.”

For more on Lars Walker, visit his West Oversea book page.


  1. “Harald Finehair,” traditionally the first king of all Norway. 
  2. The battle in which King Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf) died at the hands of an army of Norwegian farmers. 
  3. Mindebok om Hans Nielsen Hauge, ed. By M. O. Wee and O. E. Rølvaag (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1926), 20-21. Translation by L. Walker. 
  4. Ibid., p. 24. (Italics Eikeland’s, except for words in brackets, transliterated from Norwegian.) 
  5. It must (alas) always be noted that there is no historical evidence for horned war helmets in the Viking Age. 
  6. Magnus Magnusson, The Vikings! (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), 7-8. 
  7. Njal’s Saga, trans. by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (New York: Penguin Books, 1960), 159. 
  8. Titlestad, Torgrim, Viking Norway (Stavanger: Saga Bok, 2008), 131. 
  9. Titlestad, Torgrim, Norge Blir et Rike  (Stavanger: Erling Skjalgssonselskapet, 2000), 83. 
  10. Titlestad (2008), 126. 
  11. I hope I can be forgiven for rehashing the story of the hero of my novels here, on the basis of Prof. Titlestad’s concurrence in regard to his importance in the saga of Norwegian political development. 
  12. Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringla, or the Lives of the Norse Kings, ed. by Erling Monsen, tr. By A. H. Smith  (New York: Dover Publications, 1990),162. Spelling variations follow the original. 
  13. Titlestad (2008), 173-174. 
  14. “Viken og Norges samling,” in Historisk Tidsskrift, (1927-29), 78. Quoted in Titlestad (2008), 246-247. 
  15. Recent research suggests that it was actually nearby Boknasund. Titlestad (2008), 304. 
  16. Sturlason, 416. 
  17. It should perhaps be noted that Olaf’s death, though traditionally called a martyrdom, had less to do with religion (most of his opponents were also Christians), than with his political agenda. 
  18. Titlestad (2008), 338-339. 
  19. Georg Sverdrup, “Tale ved Skoleaarets Afslutning,” in Professor Georg Sverdrups Samlede Skrifte i  Udvalg, ed. by Andreas Helland (Minneapolis: Frikirkens Boghandels Forlag, 1910), 104. Trans. by L. Walker. 
  20. P. H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700-1100 (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), 140.
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3 Responses to “NEVER AN UNFREE MAN”: THE NORWEGIAN “VIKING ROOTS” OF FREE LUTHERANISM

  1. Mike August 28, 2009 at 3:13 am #

    Very interesting, Lars. This is a lot of info on a matter I’d never considered.

    How do you parse this with the modern, apparent very socialist (Small S) nature of the Scandinavian countries? Was this the turning point that brought them to the same cultural allegiance to king and country that most of Europe had and has?

  2. lora June 20, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    There is some time that I was coming to your blog and I must say it is always interesting!

    Avenir amour ; Voyante gratuite par mail

  3. Meera Saif October 9, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    I stumbled upon this blog with a range of new possibilities to explore.
    Thank you for this friendly in sharing.
    voyance gratuite par mail

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