Christianity in Sweden has been both nourished and bedevilled by legend. The life of the country’s patron saint, King Eric the Holy (d 1160), is recounted in a single hagiographic text. The old Norse myths have also shaped the history of the faith. Although Christianity arrived in Sweden in the ninth century, pagans were still stoning Christians some 200 years later. Even in the 20th century, myths blighted the lives of the faithful. These were not tales of Odin, Loki and Thor, but sensational fables that smeared Catholicism in favour of the national Lutheran Church. In 1921, the country’s Apostolic Vicar petitioned the government to correct schoolbooks that painted Catholicism as a malign, superstitious cult. The response was a resounding no, accompanied by an accusation that this was typical Catholic censorship.
From the arrival of the first missionary, Ansgar, in 829, Christianity has had a turbulent history in Sweden. After establishing a congregation of converts and foreign Christians, Ansgar secured permission to build a church in Birka and a promise that Christianity would be tolerated. However, when he visited his flock around 20 years later he found the community had all but collapsed.
Later missionaries won more souls but they remained a beleaguered minority. Even Olof Skötkonung, Sweden’s first Christian king, limited his practice of Christianity to appease his pagan people. A chronicler claims that Olof’s plans to raze a pagan temple were thwarted when his subjects threatened rebellion should he seek to spread his religion.
Yet, in the shadows of falsehood and persecution, Sweden has produced true champions of the faith. In 2014 the remains of Eric the Holy underwent thorough scientific analysis. The results confirmed the details of the legend of his crusades and martyrdom. Even before this verification, Eric’s story inspired Swedish Christians to bold action. When fire ravaged the cathedral at Old Uppsala in 1204, a new, larger church was commissioned in the modern-day city – a church built on the site of Eric’s martyrdom.
As the new cathedral arose, another Swedish saint was growing up nearby. As an adult Bridget of Sweden would become a royal lady-in-waiting and a charitable patron of unwed mothers. But Bridget was not merely a 14th-century Lady Bountiful; her charity was fuelled by a profound spirituality.
From the age of ten, Bridget had visions of Christ born and crucified. After the death of her husband she founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour or the Bridgettines. By the Jubilee of 1350 Bridget was in Rome, calling for higher moral standards in the Church.
By the 14th century, Swedes were not only Christian but playing a significant role in building up the faith across Europe. Even the young Martin Luther pored over Bridget’s Revelations. Yet this unknown friar would soon mock her visions and inspire the expulsion of her order from its homeland. In 1524, King Gustav I rejected the Catholic Church. Soon he would adopt the new Lutheran creed.
As with the English Reformation, Sweden’s break with Rome was driven by the government. After quarrelling with the pope over taxes and the installation of bishops, Gustav I established his national church. Under the influence of Lutherans, he allowed clergy to marry and banned canon law. The 1540s saw the end of requiems, incense, holy water and many holy days.
The Catholic faith was not easily eradicated from the hearts of his people who rose up against the king’s reforms. The most significant revolt, the Dacke War, took several months to extinguish. Despite resistance, by Gustav’s death in 1560 he was head of a national Lutheran church. Catholicism in Sweden was eradicated – though the Bridgettine motherhouse somehow clung on until 1595.
State control of the church meant that national worship could be shaped by the tastes of the monarch. Ironically, this loophole would bring Sweden tantalisingly close to reunion with Rome. When John III came to the throne after a revolt of the nobility in 1569, he brought a Catholic wife: Katarina Jagellonica. The Polish princess evangelised her husband and negotiated with Rome. Sadly, she failed to convert the king or their realm. But Katarina’s efforts were not entirely fruitless: Rome sent a Jesuit mission, and her son would become Sweden’s last Catholic king: Sigismund III. As with Sweden’s first Christian rulers, his scope of action was limited by popular hostility to his beliefs. Suspicions that Sigismund would attempt to restore Catholicism in Sweden cost him the throne seven years into his reign.
Throughout the 17th century, the Catholic minority continued to engender disproportionate fear. Rumours of invasions from Rome, Poland and Spain led to increasingly severe anti-Catholic laws. Education at a Jesuit school or, worse still, conversion to Catholicism, merited draconian punishment. The success of these laws is patent in the departure of Queen Christina of Sweden after she returned to the apostolic Church. By 1654 even the sovereign could not openly practice Catholicism.
From the 18th century onwards there were piecemeal concessions. In a somewhat limited gesture of tolerance, Gustav III allowed foreign Catholics to worship in Sweden. By the late 19th century, Swedes could convert. In 1953 the country’s single Catholic diocese of Stockholm was founded.
Fear of penalty and prejudice kept Sweden’s Catholics in the shadows well into the mid-20th century. In the 1920s a Bridgettine convalescent home was denounced as a secret Catholic convent. The claim may be true or yet another Nordic myth. But in a broader sense, the fears of anti-Catholic Swedes were correct: the flame of faith had never been quite extinguished in the country, even if the external trappings of the Church were suppressed well into our own age.