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Olaus Petri and the Swedish Reformation

Olaus Petri (shown here) and his brother Laurentius were leading reformers of Sweden.

WHEN OLOF PERSSON WAS BORN on this day, 6 January 1493, there were no Protestants in Sweden. The country was Roman Catholic. That it became Lutheran is largely owing to him and to his younger brother Lars. The pair are better known by their Latin names, Laurentius and Olaus Petri. 

Olaus studied at the Universities of Uppsala, Leipzig, and Wittenberg. At Wittenberg, he met the renowned Martin Luther, who had posted his Ninety-Five Theses the year before, and Philipp Melanchthon, who had just become the Greek professor. These two were teaching Lutheran doctrines, and Olaus agreed with them, writing, “The pope with his crew has left off to feed the flock of Christ, and has for many hundred years milked, shorn and slaughtered them, and shown himself to be a wolf and not a good shepherd.” 

Back in Sweden, Olaus watched events veer out of control. King Christian of Denmark and Archbishop Trolle of Upsalla butchered a number of nobility and bishops who opposed Danish rule or who supported reforming the church. This massacre became known as the Bloodbath of Stockholm. 

One of the noblemen slain in Stockholm had a son, Gustav Vasa, who led a furious revolt against King Christian. During the war that followed, Olaus began reading the Bible to youth in Stüngness. Soon his religious superiors entrusted him with the cathedral school. There he commenced a work of reformation that eventually led to his excommunication by the Roman Catholics of Sweden. 

Gustav triumphed in his revolt and became king of Sweden. He turned to the Petri brothers for instruction and issued a declaration calling for limited religious reforms. A year later, at Vasa’s urging, Olaus defended Lutheran teaching in a debate with Catholics. Later Olaus was the Protestant spokesman for twelve questions prepared by Vasa, such as: “Whether men can be saved on account of their merits, or of God’s mere grace and mercy?” 

Under Vasa, Laurentius became the first Lutheran archbishop of Upsala, and Olaus was involved in translating the New Testament into Swedish. He kept Sweden’s printing presses busy with other books, too, printing in the four years after 1526 twice the number of titles in the Swedish language than had been published up till that time. This included a hymn book full of Christ-centered songs such as “How Hail We Our Redeemer” and “Thou, Jesus Christ, Didst Become Man.” 

But eventually Olaus had a falling out with the tempestuous Vasa, resisting the king’s efforts to take total control of the church. Vasa condemned him to death, but friends obtained his release. (Vasa probably was bluffing, for he did not execute a single person for reasons of faith during his entire reign.) Olaus died in 1552, having continued as an educator after his release from prison. Never a flaming orator or thundering revivalist, his life instead demonstrated the value of persistent educational efforts in reforming a nation.

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