The History and Organization
of the Church of Sweden

By Hans Högman

The History of the Church of Sweden

The Swedish Lutheran Church

Before the Reformation engulfed northern Europe, Sweden was a Roman Catholic country like most countries in Europe. In 1517 the German theologian Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) started the Reformation which divided the Roman Catholic Church. The division resulted in a protestant church movement dominated by Luther’s followers who came to be called Lutherans and their church became the Lutheran Church.

KyrkaIn Sweden, King Gustav Vasa, who reigned between 1523 and 1560, was facing large war debts and needed money after the Swedish Liberation Warwhich defeated the occupying Danes.
Gustav Vasa saw the Reformation as a unique opportunity to rid of the Crown’s debts.
At the parliamentary meeting in Västerås in 1527, he proclaimed Sweden to be a Protestant nation with a Lutheran Church. In the following years the King broke with the Pope by appointing bishops and an archbishop.
At the parliament meeting in Västerås in 1544, Sweden proclaimed an evangelical kingdom with the King as Head of the Church. Gustav Vasa was now in a position to gain the wealth that had previously been going to the Roman Catholic Church along with the Church lands and other properties. The power of the monarchy also extended to the Church, and the Sovereign was responsible to ensure that God’s law applied to the realm.
It was mainly the countries in northern Europe that converted to the Protestant Church.

That is how Church of Sweden became a State church and the clergymen/priests became state employees.

The first church law after the Reformation was adopted in 1686 under the reign of King Karl XI. It defined Sweden as an evangelical nation and required Swedes to confess the evangelical faith.

Hast O VagnThe Roman Catholic Church was banned in Sweden. Swedish citizens would be sentenced to death if they belonged to a faithother than the State Lutheran Church (Church of Sweden).
Foreigners with business in the realm, who wanted to practice another form of Christianity, or another faith, were obliged to worship in their homes, behind closed doors, and in privacy.

The church law of 1686, also stated that the church must keep official Church records on every citizen. These official Church records included births, baptism, marriages and deaths.
The King, as Head of the Church, used the church records to gain control of all the inhabitants in the country and for example, made it easier to enlist soldiers by involuntary conscription (utskrivning).

These Church records have become a “gold mine” for genealogists!

The Church Organization


When you are doing genealogical research of ancestors in Sweden, you probably will have need to read through the Swedish Church records. Therefore, it should be interesting for genealogy researchers to know how the Swedish Lutheran Church has been organized over the years. Not only that, you can gain a better understanding of some of the terminology you will find in the Swedish Church records. Even if you do not understand Swedish, knowing the church terminology will help you to find important information about your ancestors.

Historical General Church Organization

Before modern times the Church of Sweden was organized from the highest levels to the lowest as follows:

Church Division / Subdivision Leader’s Title
Bishop of Uppsala Archbishop (Head of the Church)
Stift (Diocese) Bishop
Kontrakt/Prosteri (Deanery) Kontraktsprost (Dean)
Pastorat (District) Kyrkoherde (Senior Minister or Vicar)
Socken (a parish’s territory) Komminister (Rector or Assistant Vicar)

In order to better explain how the Swedish Church operated as well as how it operates today, it seems more helpful to provide further explanations of the various subdivisions in reverse order. This way the reader will better understand how each level supported the next level up.

The Socken

Two types of “socken”

The Swedish subdivision into “socken” is very old and dates from 12th or the 13th century.
”Socken” has two meanings and it is not known which meaning was used first.

  •  Religious (church)  –  A geographical area served by a church, an ecclesiastical unit. In other words this is a parish. When we speak of the “socken” today we only mean the religious “socken”.
  • Worldly (secular) – A geographical area for local administration.
    A local administration council (sockenstämma) ran the “socken”.

Before 1862, the church “socken” and the administrative “socken” encompassed the same territorial area. However, the worldly “socken” was replaced by an administrative subdivision called “kommun” (municipality) in that year.

The Church Socken:

KyrkaAs explained above a Church “socken” is the same thing as a parish. From now on I will only refer to “socken” as a church “socken”.
Normally a “socken” (parish) is a territorial area. However, there are also non-territorial parishes. The latter is common in lager cities where the parish is not an area where all the members of the congregation live, but a number of people living all over the city.

A Lutheran parish is lead by a “komminister” – an assistant minister (assistant vicar in the UK or a pastor in the US). The old title for a “komminister” was “kaplan”.
The “komminister” was also the chairman of the wordly “sockenstämma” mentioned above. The members of the “sockenstämma” were elected from the prominent persons in the area. The minister / assistant minister was as the spiritual leader of the parish church one of the most prominent person in the “socken” and therefore a natural chairman of the council (sockenstämma).  This gave the ministers / assistant ministers both a spiritual and a secular role in the society.

In every parish there was also a “klockare” (parish clerk and organist) helping the “komminister” with practical matters.
Today there here are about 2,500 parishes in the Church of Sweden.

The Pastorat:

One or several parishes forms a pastorat. The clergyman in charge of a “pastorat” is a “kyrkoherde” (Parish Minister (US) – Vicar (UK) – Church Rector).
A “pastorat” (rectorate) is the office or jurisdiction of a parish minister.

The largest parish within a “pastorat” is called “moderförsamling” (head parish) and the other parishes “annexförsamlingar” (annex parishes).
The minister is the clergy of the head parish (moderförsamling) in the pastorat. The minister is also in charge of the annex parishes in the “pastorat”. Therefore the assistant ministers of the annex parishes are subordinated the minister.

Historically, there was a large difference between the different “pastorat”. Some smaller” pastorat” on the countryside could be very poor while others were located in richer areas.
Of course the ministers in richer areas had a higher status and it was easier to recruit new ministers to these areas.
There was also a hierarchical professional distance between the ministers and the assistant ministers in the “pastorat”. The governing body of the church was arranged in an hierarchical fashion with each position subordinate to the position above it.  The Archbishop was the highest church office.  The “komminister” or Assistant Minister was the lowest office and subordinate to the Senior Minister or “Kyrkoherde” .

Another type of parish was the parishes of the field regiments, that is the mobilized regiments. Each regiment had a clergy (Regementspastor) and two assistant clergies (bataljonspredikanter). In times of war there could be several assistant clergy in a regiment.
When the regiment was at home, the soldiers and the officers were members of their ordinary home parishes.

It was normal that castles and larger country estates had their own congregations. The nobility had the right to employ their own clergy.
However, these private parishes had to be approved by the Cathedral Chapter (Domkapitlet).

Kontrakt (Deanery):

One larger “pastorat” or several smaller ones forms a “kontrakt” (Deanery). Another term for “Kontrakt” is “Prosteri” in Swedish.
Normally a deanery consists of 4 to 8 “pastorat”.
The head of a deanery is the “kontraktprost” (Dean and on the countryside a Rural Dean) and is appointed by the Bishop.
The Dean is the minister of the largest “pastorat” within the deanery and in former days the supervisor of the ministers in that deanery.
The communication between the Cathedral Chapter and the ministers always went through the Dean.

The following diagram may help to better explain this church organization:


Stift (Diocese):

A number of deaneries form the “Stift” (Diocese). The head of a Diocese is the “biskop” (Bishop). Today there are 13 dioceses in Sweden.
The seat of the bishop is called “stiftstad” (Diocese City) and in each diocese city there is a cathedral. Each diocese has is a board called the Cathedral Chapter.
The bishop of Uppsala is the Archbishop and is the spiritual leader of the Swedish Lutheran Church. It is the Archbishop who ordinates the bishops.

In the old Parliament, the Riksdag of the Estates (Ståndsriksdagen), the Clergy was one of the four Estates.
The Estate of the Clergy consisted of 50 members. The bishops and the clergy appointed from every diocese represented this House.

From the end of the medieval times (15th century) there has been a cathedral school (katedralskola) at each cathedral with the purpose of training new clergy. The school has four stages and ends with a two-year priest seminars (prästseminarium). 

Appointment of the clergy

The clergy were given lifetime appointments. When a clergy (parish minister) had passed away, he was to be replaced with a new minister.
A new appointment could take some time to determine and depended on three factors:

  1. If the deceased minister was married
  2. If he was a widower with unmarried daughters
  3. If he was a widower without children

In the first two cases the “nådårstiden” (period of grace, respite) was applicable. Normally an employment year was from May 1st to April 30th. All clergy changing assignments did so on May 1st and the period of time until May 1st was called “tjänsteåret” (service year). When the service year came to an end at May 1st, the widow or the daughters had an extra year, “nådårstiden” (year of grace), to remain at the parsonage.  

The “sockenstämman” of the parish was anxious to have the widow and daughters provided for during the year of grace without any costs for the parish.
A way to do that was to get the new minister to take the appointment as the parish minister with the terms to provide for the old minister’s wife and/or daughter. Depending on the age of the new minister and the age of the widow he could marry the widow. If the minister was much younger and there was a daughter of the appropriate age, he could marry the daughter.
This was called “att konservera prästänkan” (to preserve the minister’s widow). 

In this way the widow didn’t have to move out of the parsonage.

This way of handling the problem with the widow was also common among the soldiers within the military Allotment System – the successor of the deceased soldier on the soldier’s croft of that “rote” married the old soldier’s widow.


The salaries of the clergy did vary a lot between the different “pastorat” depending on the economy of the parishes.
The clergy were paid in kind (naturalön) in the form of 10% of the yield from the farms in the congregation in country parishes (The Church tenth – also called a tithe). This tithing system was called “tionde” in Swedish.  This was paid to the minister in the form of seed, butter, milk, calves, etc. The clergy also received cash in hand.

If the farmers had a good year, the minister received more and in a bad year he received less.
The clergy were maintained in a similar way as the officers of the Military Allotment System – in a civilian Allotment System.

The parsonage – vicarage (prästboställe)

A church wasn’t consecrated until it was completely finished and when a parsonage (vicarage) was built. A parsonage was a house for the minister to live in. On the countryside it was a small farm.
The parsonage was a part of the parish; the parsonage and parish church belonged together.
It was the responsibility of the congregation to build and maintain both the church and the parsonage. Both the salary and the size of the parsonage depended on the economy of the parish.
According to the regulations a minister’s house, called the parsonage, consisted of seven buildings (De sju laga husen).
There were the main living quarters (stuga), the kitchen (stekhus), the hay barn (lada), the grain storage bin – granary (kornbod), the storehouse (visthus), the sleeping quarters (sovstuga) and the cow barn (fähus).

If the clergy added extra buildings to the parsonage it was his personal belongings. The successor then had to buy him out.
Both the salary and the size of the rectory were depending of the economy of the parish.

The assistant ministers (kaplan) had to settle with a smaller place to live in (kaplansboställe). Prior to the 1690’s they had to provide their own living quarters. After that time, the parishes provided their housing.

Herdaminnen (Diocesan Annals)

If you have a clergyman among your ancestors you have an important source to look at: “Herdaminnen” (diocesan annals).
The “Herdaminnen” is a detailed presentation of every clergyman within a diocese from the 1500’s to the present day. The “Herdaminnen” is published per diocese, so you have to know which diocese he served in.
You will find the “herdaminnen” at libraries. I’m sure that you will find them at the LDSs Family History Centers as well.

No Freedom of religion

In the mid-1800’s there was a large Swedish emigration due to religious conflicts. But from the 1860’s greater freedom of religion was allowed in Sweden. In 1860 it became possible to withdraw from the Church of Sweden. However, you could only withdraw if you had become a member of another religious community, a community approved by the state.
Not until 1951 were full religious freedom guaranteed to everyone by law.

Female Ministers, Church of Sweden

In 1960, two women from the Stockholm diocese and one woman from the Härnösand diocese became the first female ministers to be ordained by the Church of Sweden.

Before 1958 women didn’t have the legal right to ordination. An Act taken in the Parliament in 1958 changed this law. However, there was a clause in the Act (the so-called Clause of Conscience), which gave bishops the right to refuse ordinations of women if they thought it was against their personal believes. The clause also made it possible for ministers to refuse to work with female ministers if they felt it was against their conviction.

This made it impossible for women to be ordained in dioceses where there was an opposition against female ministers and to get an employment in parishes where there was a minister that didn’t believe in female ministers.

In 1982 the Act of 1958, which gave women the right to be ordained, was abolished.
It was replaced with the Act of Equality of opportunity between men and women and it also applied to the Church of Sweden. Thereby no bishops or minister could refer to the old Clause of Conscience anymore.

According the Church Order of the year 2000, every minister that applies for an employment within the Church of Sweden has to declare the he/she is prepared to work with ministers of the opposite sex.

The first female bishop in Sweden was appointed in the Lund diocese in 1997.

During the last few years (2002) there has been more female theology students than men. In 2001 about a third of all ministers were women. During the last years there has been a larger number of theology students being women then men. In January 2002 about 66 % of all the students were women.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church still refuses to ordain women. All the Nordic countries have female ministers; Denmark from 1948, Sweden from 1960, Norway from 1961 and Finland from 1988.
The first women in the US Anglican Church were ordained in 1974. In the UK, Church of England didn’t give women access to ordination until 1992. The Jewish Reform Movement began ordaining female rabbis in 1972 and the Conservative Jewish Movement did the same in 1985.

Church and State today

On 1 January 2000 a separation of church and state was enacted in Sweden. On that day, the Church of Sweden legally became a ”faith-community” which, along with others like the free churches, Roman Catholics, Jews, Moslems etc, could now register themselves as such with the state. Their church dues can then be collected by the state along with income tax.
The fee the members of the Church of Sweden pay to the church finances about 80 percent of church activities.


Swedish English
Biskop Bishop
Domkapitlet Cathedral Chapter
Klockare Parish clerk
Komminister or kaplan Assistant minister (assistant vicar – UK)
Kontrakt/Prosteri Deanery;
At the countryside: Rural Deanery
Kontraktprost Dean;
At the countryside: Rural Dean
Kyrkoherde Parish Minister or Senior Parish Minister, Rector (Vicar – UK)
Pastorat  “Pastorat”, rectorate
Präst Clergyman
Prästboställe, prästgård Parsonage, Vicarage (UK),  Rectory
Prästerskap, präster Clergy
Socken or församling Parish
Stift Diocese
Stiftstad The seat of a bishop (city)
Ärkebiskop Archbishop


  1. Södermanlands kyrkliga struktur under 1600-talet av Ragnar Norrman, en inlaga i “Kyrka och Krona i Södermanländskt 1600-tal”, utgiven av Mörner, Mariefred.
  2. Nationalencyklopedin, NE
  3. Church of Sweden

Copyright © Hans Högman, last updated 2015-02-10 10:18

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