The Scandinavian Reformers: Olaus Petri – Father of the Swedish Reformation

Olaus Petri

Olaus Petri – Courtesy: Skara kommun

Olaus Petri helped to spearhead the Reformation in Sweden. He and his brother Laurentius studied under Martin Luther just as the Reformation got started in Germany. What they heard and what they took with them became the subject of intense debate, condemnation, and eventually adoption. Olaus Petri and others worked tirelessly in Sweden to develop a distinctly Swedish liturgy, a Swedish hymnal, and a Swedish Bible. His legacy continues to this day.

Olaus Petri - Statue at Storkyrkan Cathedral - Stockholm, Sweding - By: Theodore Lundberg

Olaus Petri – Statue at Storkyrkan Cathedral – Stockholm, Sweding – By: Theodore Lundberg

Born in Örebro, Sweden in January of 1493, Olaus Petri grew up in a blacksmith’s family. Devout Catholics, Olaus’s parents sent him and his brother to school first to Uppsala, then Leipzig, and eventually to Wittenberg, Germany where a new university had started. At Wittenberg c.1517, Olaus and his brother eagerly “absorbed the reformed teaching of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.” (“Olaus Petri”) This would set the course for each of their lives. Olaus drank deeply of these reforming ideas and he imported them with him back home to Sweden.

As Olaus began to work and to preach people started to notice his reforming ideas. However, while reforming, he had not yet advocated a formal break with the Church in Rome and so was tolerated. In addition, the political scene had undergone some recent changes with the ousting of Danish King Christian II and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Sweden through the efforts of Gustav Vasa in 1521 during the Swedish War of Liberation. All seemed to be peaceful in the newly liberated Sweden, until Olaus really started acting on the preaching he had been conducting. C.1524-5 he married a local girl as a priest in the church. This outraged Bishop Hans Brask of Linköping who “immediately protested to the new king, Gustav Vasa (r.1521-1560), about it” because it violated the priestly vow of celibacy. (Law and Religion, 107) Vasa, however, silently agreed with Petri’s sentiments and tolerated his teaching. As a result, Petri only bolstered his teaching and took to the people real and lasting reforms.

Heininen and Czaika explain, “Olaus Petri wrote polemical texts against the Mass, celibacy, the cult of the saints and monastic life, and he published a Swedish Mass and agenda (liturgy book). [Vasa supported him.] The only Swedish printing house was under royal supervision and it only published texts which were inspired by the Wittenberg Reformation.” (“Wittenberg Influences”) Petri had the attention of the kingdom. He defended his work with passion as well. Grell relates that:

“Olaus Petri was instrumental, through his writings, in bringing about a gradual transformation of the liturgy and the acceptance of services in the vernacular in Sweden. In 1531 he published the Swedish mass, but he also worked more energetically than anyone else to promote evangelical preaching in Sweden….The son of a blacksmith, he is alleged to have favoured the saying that just as the blacksmith is supposed to forge, so a clergyman’s task is to preach.” (The Scandinavian Reformation 52)

These ideas could not remain unchecked. As a result, a disputation was held with Peter Galle, a defender of the traditional Catholic position.

Olaus Petri and Peter Galle - Disputation at the Royal Palace - December, 1524,

Olaus Petri and Peter Galle – Disputation at the Royal Palace – December, 1524 – Carl Hellqvist – 1883

The Cambridge Modern History describes the scene “at Christmas” where “a discussion held in the royal palace between Olaus Petri and Peter Galle, a champion of the old order, on the subject of the sufficiency of Scripture, once more gave them confidence.” (624) The debate had been won and Catholicism had already begun its decline in Sweden. By 1526 Olaus, his brother Laurentius, and a few others had even completed a translation of the New Testament into Swedish with a final completion of the whole bible by 1541. (625) As a result of the efforts of both Olaus and Laurentius Gustav Vasa took a simultaneous step with King Henry VIII of England and broke ties with Rome. He appointed Laurentius Archbishop of Sweden at the Uppsala Council of 1531 and Lutheranism became the official religion of the kingdom.

Olaus did not always find favor with the King of Sweden. He opposed the excesses and autocracy of his king. As a result, “he fell from favor and was condemned to death in 1540, the sentence being remitted for a heavy fine.” (“Olaus Petri”). The people loved Olaus and as things cooled down with the King, he would eventually find favor again. As a result he would be appointed the pastor of Storkyrkan or the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Stockholm where he would serve until his death in 1552. (“Olaus Petri”)

Today, Olaus Petri is honored in Sweden by a church which bears his name in his hometown of Örebro as well as by a world-class choir Olaus Petri Vocalis. Olaus Petri contributed greatly to the Reformation and helped the people of Sweden see the bible for the first time their own language.  His legacy in music and liturgy continues to inspire many in the church to this day.

For a political map of Scandinavia during the time of Gustav Vasa – Click Here.

The Scandinavian Reformation: From Evangelical Movement to Institutionalisation of Reform. Ole Peter Grell, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Google Books.

Heininen, Simo and Otfried Czaika. “Wittenberg Influences on the Reformation in Scandinavia.” 01 Aug 2012. EGO: European History Online. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Law and Religion: The Legal Teachings of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Wim Decock, Jordan J. Ballor, Michael Germann, and Lauratent Waelkens, eds. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Riprecht, 2014. Google Books.

“Olaus Petri – Swedish Church Leader.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

The Cambridge Modern History: The Reformation. Vol. 2. Sir Adolphus William Ward, George Walter Prothero, Sir Stanley Mordaunt Leathes, eds. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1907. Google Books.




2 thoughts on “The Scandinavian Reformers: Olaus Petri – Father of the Swedish Reformation

  1. Pingback: The Scandinavian Reformers: Mikael Agricola – The Father of Finnish and the Finnish Reformation | Continuing Reformation

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