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Denmark's Constitution: Freedom of Religion

Lene Dræby Kottal, Certified Genealogist®
Denmark's Constitution: Freedom of Religion

Do you have ancestors who lived in Denmark in 1849? This year marked a turning point in Danish society, particularly regarding religious beliefs. King Frederik VII ratified the Danish Constitution on 5 June 1849. It gave Danes several rights, including freedom of religion.

From No Choice to Religious Freedom

Before 1849, Denmark adhered to the Evangelical-Lutheran state church. The King tolerated a few other congregations, but generally, all inhabitants had to attend the Church of Denmark. However, the Constitution marked a new era. It established the right to practice any religion, yet, under certain conditions:

"Citizens shall be at liberty to form congregations for the worship of God in a manner according with their convictions, provided that nothing contrary to good morals or public order shall be taught or done."1

The Constitution did not define good morals. The government laid out the boundaries for acceptable religious activities when issues arose. An example of unacceptable practice was bigamy. That was against the law and continued to be so. Thus, not all persons would have felt religiously liberated in Denmark.

Religious freedom meant more than the right to practice the faith of one's own choice. The Constitution states that no one must contribute to another denomination than their own. So, in general, Danes who were not members of the Church of Denmark did not have to fund that church. Yet, a condition applied for this rule, too.2

Public schools taught about Christianity and the Bible. Additionally, ministers of the Church of Denmark oversaw most elementary schools. Thus, school fees supported the Church of Denmark. From 1849, members of a recognized religious community were free from contributing to public schools. The King recognized three religious communities immediately after the ratification of the Constitution, namely those that had previously been tolerated: The Catholic Church, the Reformed Church, and the Mosaic Community. Members of other religious communities still had to pay fees to the public school system.

Uncovering Your Ancestors' Religious Denomination

The newfound religious freedom in 1849 may have affected your ancestors' lives. Here are some research strategies to help you explore this aspect of your family history:

  • Church Records: Danish church records (parish registers) are a treasure trove of information. Ministers of the state church recorded all births, except births of children of a recognized denomination. Recognized denominations had a right to keep their own records. Thus, it is important to be meticulous when you research post-1849 birth records. Are there any notations about religious affiliations outside the Church of Denmark? Was the child even baptized in the Church of Denmark?
  • Census Records: The national censuses 1855-1901, 1911, and 1921 provide information about each person's religious affiliation. Be sure to examine all relevant years. A person may be listed with one denomination in one census record, but another in the next.
  • Civil Marriage Records: In 1851, a new possibility opened to Danes who were not members of the state church or a recognized denomination. They could enter a civil marriage. Others still had to marry in a church. Until 1919, the bailiffs in the market towns, districts, and birches performed the civil marriages and kept registers of them.
  • Newspaper Articles: After 1849, new churches were built all over Denmark, albeit slowly. For example, the Catholic Church established a church in Odense in 1867. Until then, Catholics settled in Fredericia or Copenhagen where the other churches lay. Or they traveled to those places for baptisms, marriages, etc. You can research historical newspapers for information about new churches and religious trends in Denmark.

Understanding Your Danish Family History

You can learn about your Danish family history by understanding the significance of the Constitution. Your ancestors' freedom to choose their faith and live accordingly was a significant change. So, I encourage you to pay attention to information about religious affiliation when you research Danish sources.


Source References:

  1. Danmarks Riges Grundlov [The Constitutional Act of Denmark], 5 June 1849, section 81. The quote is from the English version of the current constitution, see The Danish Parliament, The Constitutional Act of Denmark (published 2019), page 37, section 67; PDF (https://www.ft.dk/-/media/sites/ft/pdf/publikationer/engelske-publikationer-pdf/grundloven_samlet_2018_uk_web.ashx : accessed 5 June 2024) > PDF-page 38.
  2. Danmarks Riges Grundlov [The Constitutional Act of Denmark], 5 June 1849, section 82. The current constitution does not have that exact section.
  3. The image at the top is a newspaper clipping. The newspaper published the full Constitution, see "Danmarks Riges Grundlov," Kjøbenhavnsposten, 6 June 1849, page 1-4; image, The Royal Danish Library, Mediestream (http://hdl.handle.net/109.3.1/uuid:74c82cdb-4847-433c-ba4a-d8354f51a5f1 : accessed 5 June 2024).