It is the 29th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Who was St. Olaf and why do so many Lutheran institutions bear his name?
Today I will tell you the story of St. Olaf- the first king of Norway, the patron saint of Norway, and a man often credited with the conversion of Norway to Christianity (although this is only “sort-of” true). Let’s break down the life of this Patron Saint on the anniversary of his canonization, the 29th of July in 1031, this on the anniversary of his death one year prior on this same day at the famed battle of Stiklestad.
Olaf Haraldsson was born in 995 and became a feared pagan Viking warrior in the Baltics and in England. He harassed the always unfortunate English until he took up on the side of the English against the Danes. When the Danes took England Olaf fled to the continent where he was converted to Christianity and was baptized.
On account of a vision, he decided to halt his European raiding tour in order to go back to take up as the king of Norway. By 1016 he had successfully taken back land from the Swedes and the Danes and consolidated power around himself as the first de facto king of Norway.
And so is this when he comes in and converts the kingdom to Christ? Not really, because that had already been done by Olaf Tryggvason. Sort of.
“Be Baptized or Die” was his style of evangelism.
This was not uncommon in Scandinavia and lead to:
- Lots of baptisms and “re-baptisms" based on fear and/or encouraged with gifts
- This also leads to a “top-down” church structure wherein theological decisions were made by the crown and state.
By the 1020s Olaf had been in exile, forced to flee when Canute- the king of England and Denmark took Norway. In 1030 Olaf attempted to get back on the throne by beating a vastly superior Danish army. Olaf claimed he was fighting for, and with Christ. This is strange for a lot of reasons but mostly because the Danish were already Christian.
Olaf died at the battle of Stikelstad (OTD) but in his death, he would become the “saint” the “perpetual king of Norway” and a symbol of unity between the Norwegian state and church. While abroad, all over the world, Norwegians unite behind the image of “St. Olaf” as the symbol of a Nordic, heroic, and historic Christian state.
It was the maladministration of the Danes and the success of Olaf’s sons that helped to create the image of a benevolent Christian king such that within only one year of his death on this day Olaf would be canonized by the church. He would be the last “western” Saint recognized in the Eastern church and still a “saint” in post-reformation Lutheran and Anglican churches. We remember St. Olaf on this, the anniversary of his death, and then canonization in 1030 and 1031.
The last word for today comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Olaf’s include: the snowman, the berzerker, the troll, the count, and Snoopy’s ugly brother. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.