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The political economy of churches in Denmark, 1300–2015


This paper reports new time-series for the numbers and sizes of churches in Denmark over a 715-year period. Per capita, the new series are termed church densities. A pattern emerges in the series that corresponds to the main development in the economy: until 1750, the economy was in the traditional steady state, where church densities were high and did not decline substantially. Modern development set in after 1750. Since then, church densities have declined more than five times. Moreover, capacity utilization of church rooms has declined, which means that the reduction in the demand for churches must have been even larger. We argue that this large decline is caused by a fall in religiosity that is caused by economic development as measured by the rise in incomes. In parallel with similar transitions in other sectors, e.g., the Agricultural Transition, it is termed the Religious Transition.

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  1. 1.

    Danish words are given in [ ] after the English translation when necessary. For institutions, we try to use the English translation of the institution itself. Most Danish sources cited are in Danish, but English translations are given in { } in the reference list.

  2. 2.

    Two thousand churches were built between 1050 and 1250. It is often seen as a large effort, but it works out to only 10 churches per year, which is a moderate effort for a population of 500,000. During the next 715 years, only 924 churches were built.

  3. 3.

    The project is expected to run for another 30–40 years.

  4. 4.

    The largest Danish church, Grundtvigskirken, was built 1921–1940 in a (then) new suburb of Copenhagen to look like a giant village church. The fall in churchgoing has led to a rearrangement of the chairs in the church. The original number of chairs was 1863, which has been reduced to 750 today (Grundtvigskirken 2015). This points to the falling effectiveness of churches discussed in Sect. 2.4.

  5. 5.

    A large amount of literature deals with the effects of ownership. The classic papers on property rights are republished in Pejovich (1997), while the World Bank (1995) compares private and public ownership.

  6. 6.

    A detailed historical narrative of the period is found in Scocozza (1990).

  7. 7.

    See Ministry for Culture (2013), Ministry for the Church (2013), Christian Daily (2016).

  8. 8.

    It would be easy to count churchgoers, but it is rarely done. Niskanen’s (1994) theory of the bureaucracy predicts that a bureau such as the Church wants to protect its budgets against threats. A key device in this endeavor is to refrain from collecting threatening information such as church attendance.

  9. 9.

    During this period, a strongly religious royal court tried to make people more religious.

  10. 10.

    Sections 3.1 and 3.2 refer to large literatures that do not overlap even though their subject does. While little is agreed upon in the secularization literature (Bruce 1992), the literature on growth is more united (Jones and Vollrath 2013).

  11. 11.

    Before 1849, other religions were not permitted, with a few exceptions. In 1674, religious freedom was granted to Fredericia, which was a walled garrison town. In 1682, the Catholic Church and three reformed denominations were permitted to hold services for foreigners, notably diplomats.

  12. 12.

    Some proponents of secularization are Wilson (1966), Berger (1967), Norris and Inglehart (2011), Ahlin (2015), while some opponents are Stark and Iannaccone (1984), Berger (1996), Stark (1999).

  13. 13.

    The equivalence hypothesis claims that the cross-country and the time-series pattern are almost the same. The most well-known transitions are the Demographic (Lee 2003) and the Agricultural ones (Timmer 1988). Transitions also occur in variables that are not purely “economic” such as in Democracy (Paldam and Gundlach 2017) and Corruption (Gundlach and Paldam 2009). In the first three cases, equivalence holds. It seems to hold for corruption too, but historical data on corruption are anecdotal only. The present paper covers the time series dimension abundantly, but only for one crude proxy and one country.

  14. 14.

    The composite trend β t has three parts: (i) The church package may shift slowly over the centuries. (ii) When transport becomes cheaper, the church stock can be more effectively used. This is a negative trend, so that r decreases a little less than s. (iii) The increasing urbanization and other movements of the population make the church distribution less efficient. We assess that (ii) is larger than (iii), while the sign on (i) is uncertain.

  15. 15.

    The approximation is quite good if β is close to zero. If (10) and (11) could be estimated, it is possible that (11) has the better fit, and that, consequently, (12) is the approximation.

  16. 16.

    Maddison’s gdp data are in 1990 International Geary–Khamis dollars.

  17. 17.

    The increase in population between 1700 and 1800 may have played a causal role in starting the Grand Transition. The same pattern is found in the United Kingdom (Clark 2007).

  18. 18.

    Table 5 shows a high confluence between variables which makes it difficult to detect causality. Even though 15 observations are rather few, the tests nevertheless seem to work.

  19. 19.

    This estimate is based on the number of seats reported by Kirsten Jensen (source 4).

  20. 20.

    Paldam (2017) supplements the production estimates of Eq. (6) with assessments of the church’s incomes that tally reasonably well.


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We are grateful to Thomas Clausen and especially Sophie Bønding for research assistance and to our two departments for financing that assistance, as well as Erich Gundlach for many discussions, and the referees and editor for unusually constructive comments. We also want to thank Casper Worm Hansen, who contributed to the design and early stages of the project; Michael Andersen and his staff at the DNM project for a fruitful meeting; the Center for Contemporary Religions at Aarhus University for consultations; Leif Danziger, Niels Haldrup, Karsten Merrald Sørensen, and Ron Wintrobe have given useful comments. The paper has been presented at the Department of the Study of Religion, Aarhus University; The Danish Public Choice 2015 Workshop, Aarhus; The European Public Choice 2015 Meeting, Groningen; the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s 2015 Meeting, Los Angeles; The Department of Economics, Deakin University 2016, Melbourne.

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Correspondence to Martin Paldam.

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Appendix: Sources for church data (all URLs accessed in late spring 2016)

Appendix: Sources for church data (all URLs accessed in late spring 2016)

1 Parish Portal (Sogneportalen)
Official list from the Ministry for the Church. Covers all present churches, including the URLs of the church
2 DNM-Project (at the Danish National Museum)
Detailed ongoing registration. Only systematic source on closed churches. Started 1927—app 36% missinga
3 Wiki-Danmark
Ongoing data collection project, p.t., currently covering about 70% of the churches. Fine and concise reporting
4 Kirsten M. Jensen’s project
Ongoing data collection project. Covers age and seats in app 60% of the churches
5 Poul Reitoft’s project
Only names of churches and year of construction, and regional classification based on the church classification
6 Church Project home page
It refers to the homepage of our coded data
7 Church statistics (Kirkestatistik)
Church statistics, covers membership data, baptisms, etc
8 Krak, addresses and maps
Addresses and maps of all existing churches
9 Catholic Church in Denmark
Source for present monasteries
  1. Sources 3–5 are typical hobby-projects, done with great care and a strong interest in the subject. They appear to use the DNM data as a source. They have been used to control the data reported in Table 1
  2. aThe DNM-project does not have a fixed format in the reports, and most researchers of the project are from a qualitative tradition. Each church has an article that describes the historical development of the building, including its inventory and its location as well as relevant folk legends and historical circumstances

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Paldam, E., Paldam, M. The political economy of churches in Denmark, 1300–2015. Public Choice 172, 443–463 (2017).

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  • Church stock
  • Religious Transition
  • Historical time series

JEL Classification

  • N13
  • N14
  • Z12