At a seminar organised by the Diplomatic Insight magazine and the Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA) recently, I had the opportunity to speak about the Scandinavian Laymen’s Movement, with several Revival and Renewal Movements, from the late 1700s and in the 1800s. I will summarise my talk in this article, since I thought it would be quite appropriate to choose a religious topic for it at the end of Ramazan, and also because the Laymen’s Movement has important lessons to teach us today. It is about religious expression and people’s participation in finding ways of focusing on relevant religious issues. What could be more relevant during Ramazan when we all give time to prayer and religious reflection, and we give help to the less fortunate outside our gate and in the wider society, as our means allow.

But now back to the Laymen’s Movement in Scandinavia. We can draw a line from the religious movements in Europe and the ‘new world’ before the American Independence, the French Revolution, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England, the rest of UK and Europe.

In 1814, Norway became independent after 400 years from Denmark, but had to enter into a union with Sweden, since it was on the winning side of the Napoleonic wars (and Denmark was on the losing side and had to cede land). This was a time of radical, democratic thinking with uprisings against colonial powers, national powers and royalty - the upper classes and authority in general either it was “granted by the King or God.” The time of succumbing blindly to authority was waning, as it had gradually been from the time of the ‘reformation’ in the Church (1517), the invention of book printing and the introduction of widespread and even universal primary education. The explorers also played a role in shattering the established rule. Not all of this was good, but much of it was!

In Scandinavia as elsewhere in Europe, the Laymen’s Movement (or, laypeople’s movement, in today’s language) paved the way for democratic winds in politics, with improved human rights and workers’ rights, and the socialist and labour movements. From the 1840s, Karl Marx’s radical journalistic and scientific works about society, economics and the workers’ rights became particularly significant, also as inspiration for political parties and states.

In America, we can also draw historic lines, and we can include the Civil Rights Movement, too. Interestingly, it was the laymen, who began preaching to the Negroes in America, or the African-Americans, as the term is today. The Laymen’s Movement has to do with the democratisation of religion and society.

Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824) was the first Norwegian layman, who organised ordinary people to hold prayer meetings in their homes. At the time, many people had lost faith in the state church, but usually not in God. The church was seen as representing the establishment and elite, with university educated pastors and bishops. Hauge emphasised practical help to the poor in way of entrepreneurial advice, for example, to establish printing presses, mills and textile industries. The movement he established was not against the state church, but it gave emphasis to simple Christian morals: modesty, honesty and hard work.

Today, we would say that it was a lowbrow type of Protestant Christianity. Hauge himself was imprisoned many times because it was not permitted for laymen to hold religious meetings, unless under the leadership of the parish pastor; this law was only lifted in 1842. “Haugeanism” has lived on in the Norwegian minds and thoughts, and it also travelled with many Norwegians, who immigrated to America. When I grew up in Norway, we thought of “Haugeanism” as old-fashioned and outdated. Today, modern business schools give Hauge attention not only as a religious leader, but also a social and economic leader and entrepreneur.

In neighbouring Sweden, the main leader of the early Laymen’s Movement was Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861). He was a state church pastor himself, hailing from the remote north of the country and also working there in areas with the Sami and Lappish people, the indigenous people of Scandinavia, living in the north of the countries, often named ‘Nordkalotten’,  many as nomadic or semi-nomadic reindeer herdsmen.

Laestadius emphasised similar moral and religious ideas as Hauge. And he seems to have been theologically stricter, emphasising repentance from sin and asking people to turn around and live a purer and simpler daily life. Until this day, many “Laestadians” refrain from using curtains and ornaments in their homes. “Laestadianism” is still the largest Laymen’s Movement in Scandinavia, with more following in the northern areas.

The Laymen’s Movement in Scandinavia had pietistic elements, but few preachers were dark and joyless. In Denmark, the movement was more liberal and open. People were also influenced by the Wesleyan Heritage from the UK, which emphasised a more positive and lighter theology, emphasising that faith should give people the strength to live in a hard and unjust world, with long working hours, poverty, decease, and large families.

It is not possible to talk about the Laymen’s Movement in Scandinavia without mentioning a unique Swedish woman, notably the poet, theologian and hymn writer Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg (Lina Sandell) (1832-1903). She wrote some 650 hymns and many of them are still in use in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries. “Bred dina vida vingar” (Spread your wide wings over me), and “Blott en dag” (Day by day and by each passing moment), are the best known and most loved hymns.

Today, they are also sung by popular artists and seen as containing general spiritual and universal wisdom, comforting people in their daily lives. “Tryggare kan ingen vara” (Children of the heavenly father) is used at most child baptisms in Sweden up to this very day. Part of Lina Sandell’s success was that Oskar Anhnfelt (1813-1882) wrote such beautiful and catching tunes for her songs, travelling all over Scandinavia with his guitar performing them at religious meetings. The state church pastors complained to the king in Stockholm about his work, but the king was himself impressed by the songs and supported their use.

Lina Sandell had no formal education, not even primary school, since she was a sick child and her parents many times thought they might lose her. Her father was a state church pastor, who taught his daughter at home, including foreign languages, and she translated hymns from English and German into Swedish. This was all at a time when women did not have much of a place in public life, not even in Scandinavia. In Norway, for example, the first woman was admitted to university in 1882 and women got the right to vote in 1913.

Lina Sandell did not even use her full name on her books, only the initials “L.S.”, keeping with the ideals of Christian modesty as well as gender traditions or, put correctly, the male power culture! Although she grew up in a government state church vicarage, Lina Sandell became part of the Laymen’s Movement and her beautiful songs were part of their teaching and theology.

It has been said about Lina Sandell that if she had lived in a Catholic Christian country, say in Italy or Spain, she might well have become a nun; in Protestant Christian Sweden, she married and worked with publishing at the National Evangelical Foundation (Svenska Fosterlandsstiftelsen) in Stockholm. If she had lived in our time, she would, perhaps, have been a bishop, theology professor or maybe a TV talk show hostess, writer or preacher! On the other hand, the impact of her work might not have been less than what she achieved.

This is all interesting, you may say! But what does it all have to do with Pakistanis today?

Being a social scientist myself, and also believing in the “Scandinavian model” for development, equality and fairness, I think that the Laymen’s Movement is worth studying for Scandinavians today, and also for Pakistanis. There are many common aspects in our history, but development may happen at different times. In Pakistan today, I hope we can draw lessons from Lina Sandell’s extraordinary life and contributions to humanity. Hans Nielsen Hauge and Lars Levi Laestadius can be examples and give inspiration to Muslim men and women in Pakistan and elsewhere. I have just in a sketchy way drawn attention to them.

I believe that without the Scandinavian Laymen’s Movement, and related movements elsewhere in Europe, the democratic political movements, especially with the strong Labour Parties, would not have developed the way they did. We might not have had the welfare states and the deep feelings for equality and fairness that Scandinavians are so concerned about, yes, sometimes obsessed about.

Pakistan needs to emphasise these issues in politics and at the communal level, the way it is also emphasised in the Holy Quran. The family is strong in Pakistan, and that is good , but it is at the private level. A modern country needs a strong public sector to develop fairness for all. The main religion, in Pakistan, Islam, indeed, produces the foundation and major premises for our lives.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.