The designed society – welfare before the welfare state?

About Christiansfeld

Christiansfeld: The designed society – welfare before the welfare state?

Author: Inger-Marie Børgesen

This article has previously been published in Koldingbogen 2017 issued by Kolding Stadsarkiv (City Archive of Kolding). 

Several social researchers point out that Danish welfare policy dates back much longer than to the initiatives from the end of the 19th century and the appearance of the welfare state in the 20th century. The historical threads are tangled up in many ways. Actually, the efforts of our society in the field of welfare can be seen as a natural continuation of the pietistic faith and movement professed by the absolute Royal power since the beginning of the 18th century when Christian VI came to the throne.

The church square. Watercolor 1797. Artist: A.S. Arndt. 28

Pietism and social responsibility

The pietistic movement developed from the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century and was of great importance in relation to a growing social awareness of and responsibility for the material and spiritual environment/conditions of the fellow men.

Pietas means piety. The father of pietism was the German theologian Philipp Jacob Spener. What was central in his teachings was the dictate of reading the Bible and letting the religious conviction find expression in practical actions in the society. Christian life and the spiritual development and education of the individual were important in order to facilitate the performance of good works. Pietism was a rebellion against the orthodoxy of the state church. For the supporters of pietism, Christianity was a question of feelings and sensations and not of institutions, rituals and barren teachings.

Pietism was a protest within Protestantism! It was a rebellion against the authorities. Every human being carried divine light regardless of rank, class and gender and could thus be his or her own authority. This also implied departing from the gender roles. There was no need for the woman to be subject to the man.

The Moravian Church exercised a special kind of pietism. In the following, some of the features in the Moravian way of life are described, which bear witness of a society offering various good things such as education, help for the weakest and old-age provision.

Glimpses of the history of the Moravians

The atmosphere in the cemetery in Christiansfeld, called the God’s Acre, is quite special. There you see stone by stone lying on straight rows. No single grave is different from the others. The tombstones bear witness of concluded lives. Those who preceded are remembered in a simple and unostentatious way. In death and thus also in life: ”We are all equal”. God’s Acres are found all over the world as burial sites for members of Unitas Fratrum or in plain English: The Moravian Church.

The history of the Moravians date back to 1457 when a Christian movement arose in Bohemia and Moravia (in the present-day Czech Republic) based on the teachings of the minister Jan Hus. Jan Hus wanted to preach in his own mother tongue, and he refused to sell any letters of indulgences. The papal authority called him to an inquiry in 1415 and he was sentenced to death as a heretic at the synod in Konstanz. However, the community of Jan Hus held on to his thoughts. Over the following centuries, his followers, the Hussites, were persecuted by the Catholics.

The present-day version of the Moravian Church has developed since 1720, when the young German Count Zinzendorf, who had a strong vision and an energetic talent for organization, offered the remaining persecuted Hussites a sanctuary. He succeeded in gathering them and gave them permission to establish a settlement on his land in Saxony. A town sprang up near the hill called Hut and thus got the name Herrnhut. This was the first town, where the exiled Hussites could settle and live in peace developing a community life and a daily life in accordance with their religious conviction.

The members of the community wanted to create an ideal society. Actually, they wanted to create a brand new human being! They built Herrnhut based on their Christian values. Physically this was reflected in the ground plan and architecture of the town and socially it was reflected in the organization of both the community life and the daily life.

The God's Acre in Christiansfeld
The God's Acre in Christiansfeld. Photo: Unknown.
The image is a reproduction of E. Pontoppidans Danske Atlas fra 1763-64.
The image is a reproduction of E. Pontoppidans Danske Atlas fra 1763-64.

The foundation of Christiansfeld

Christiansfeld was one of 27 community towns worldwide. King Christian VII offered the “Moravian brothers and sisters” that they could build a town on the fields belonging to the Royal estate of Tyrstupgård. He also granted them a number of privileges with the intention of encouraging them to establish an enterprising town in Southern Jutland. The Moravians were highly proficient artisans and very competent farmers, and the King wanted to achieve regional development and gain increased knowhow.

Basically, it was not the Moravians’ interpretation of the words of the Bible and their religious way of thinking that was of most interest to King Christian VII, but rather their competence and industry. The invitation was a deliberate part of a growth and development policy, which the Royal power wanted to carry out. The Moravians accepted the invitation and bought the estate, and in the spring 1773, the first foundation stone was laid down. After only 10 years, the town was practically finished. It was not shielded behind tall walls or fortifications. Where the settlement and the large gardens ended, fields and woods began. Ideals such as charity, equality and community were some of the core values on which the settlement was founded – not on physical protection. That made this place a peaceful spot on the map with a certain code for associating and living together.

After the establishment in 1773, the Moravian community in Christiansfeld grew fast, and in 1812, membership peaked with 652 members. Census results and counts of community members from this period show that not all inhabitants belonged to the community.

The Moravian community regarded itself as evangelists. They wanted to spread the Gospel. This was done through missionary work, but also through the way of life of the members and their enterprise as artisans, businessmen and farmers. The Moravian community was in touch with the surrounding world, both globally and locally.

The new town attracted attention. This is clearly illustrated by a contemporary source, when the farmer’s son Eskild Sørensen went from Funen to Christiansfeld in 1798. In his notes about the trip, Eskild tells, that he took part in the service of the community on Good Friday: ”On the instant it all caused me wonder and astonishment”. After the service the young visitor had a closer look at the town and was impressed, that ”the streets were as clean as a floor, and all over there was order, cleanliness and an agreeable tranquillity”.

Organization and everyday life

Furthermore, Eskild Sørensen mentioned the inner order of the inhabitants of Christiansfeld as their ”exemplary life”: Everyone was ”industrious, virtuous and modest”. The community was divided into the so-called choirs. Each individual member belonged to a certain choir according to age, gender and marital status. Unmarried sisters and brothers lived separate from the other gender, respectively, in large, common houses, the choir houses, while married couples and families with children lived in private houses. This special way of organization created an everyday life where people worked, lived and ate together – and thus spent time together most of the time. The workday was planned from early morning until late in the evening with productive activities in addition to prayers and singing sessions. The latter were often of short duration, before moving on to the day’s work again. Grandfather clocks on every floor helped the inmates of the choir houses keep track of time.

The smaller houses in the town facilitated both production and family life. This industrious society established a kindergarten that could take care of children from homes of moderate means. This is said to have been the oldest kindergarten in Denmark.

The Sister' House in Nørregade. Photo: Unknown.
The Sister' House in Nørregade. Photo: Unknown.
Students from the Boys and Girls School in 1904. Photo: Unknown.
Students from the Boys and Girls School in 1904. Photo: Unknown.

School education

The schools were also included in the ”exemplary life”. The schools held a key position in relation to both the spiritual and the professional development of the individual. Education was necessary in order to teach the members to read for themselves. In the Moravian tradition, the view of education and upbringing was highly influenced by the minister and teacher Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670). He understood the child as a divine creature with individual needs. The child was not a miniature adult.

Zinzendorf continued this perception of childhood as a special stage of life and made it the starting point of the pedagogical principles of the community. The aim was to recognize and respect the individuality of the child and its gradual growth into personal realization. Therefore, the pace of the upbringing was not to be pushed or forced in any way, but should rather follow the natural growth and development of the child and be in accordance herewith.

In Christiansfeld, these ideas led to an education on many levels, where the children were to be inspired and supported in their learning process; and not chastised. The first school in Christiansfeld, the boys’ school, opened its doors in January 1775. A month later, the girls’ school followed. Both schools were boarding schools and received children from near and far against payment.

Shoemaker 1925-30. Photo: Unknown.
Shoemaker 1925-30. Photo: Unknown.

Industry and technical skills as the engine for economic growth

In the workshops and smaller factories of the town, things were quite different from what was possible in the surrounding area. With another quote of the farmer’s son Eskild Sørensen, he noticed a sharp division of labour between the individual trades, the high quality goods and not least the fixed prices. ”But they insist on the prices they charge for their goods; there was no possibility of bargaining”(1). The activities of the Moravians created growth and therefore also made it possible for more people than just the members themselves to earn a wage and get the daily bread.

Another contemporary source, Den Danske Atlas (the Danish Atlas) from 1781 tells about the trade: ”In addition to some good artisans and shops the town also has wool, linen, cotton, sealing wax and soap factories, which within a short time have found debit (a ready market) both domestically and abroad, when the quality of these factories has become known. The intention is to be engaged in gardening and farming according to foreign experiences, to bring the factories and trades to perfection by diligence, and to procure sustenance in this way; to provide workplaces for the poor both in the town and in the region, and to encourage others through the edifying example of the community”.

The faith and the religious commitment as incentive for financial help and welfare

Christiansfeld was governed locally by a Council of Elders, which was functioning as the town council. Women who had a seat in the Council of Elders had the same authority as the male members.

Christiansfeld was part of a larger European community of brothers and sisters. Care for the weakest was part of the DNA in Christiansfeld, and since Christiansfeld was a colony of the international Moravian Church in Herrnhut, Christiansfeld also received directives from Herrnhut.

In the mother town, the guidelines for the poor relief were laid down at a synod in 1848. In a letter for Christiansfeld the provisions of article 77 were underlined: ”In every community, there must be a series of poor relief funds, partly choir poor relief funds, partly a municipal poor relief fund. Those who belong to a choir shall receive assistance from the poor relief fund of the choir they belong to, while the municipal poor relief fund is meant to help all those who cannot be referred to a choir poor relief fund. For instance this can be persons who are not members of the community, but who belong to the town with regard to assistance, and it can be widows or orphaned children of brothers who ”served the municipality” (the community). If necessary the two poor relief funds may help each other out”.

The Church Square 1950. Photo: Unknown.
The Church Square 1950. Photo: Unknown.

The healthy society

A specialized and well-functioning health care system is an important part of a modern welfare state. For the Royal power in the 18th century, healthy and industrious citizens were of equal importance. The first real hospital in the modern sense of the word was built in Copenhagen by King Frederik V in 1757. Until then a hospital was tantamount to a poorhouse.

As for the Moravians, they were aiming at a healthy life, however without having specific rules for food and drink. They were aware of the importance of cleanliness. The children were taught to wash in the morning and in the evening, and in the boarding schools, brushing teeth was compulsory. The drinking water supply for the town was led from artesian wells west of Christiansfeld through hollowed oak logs to the centre of the town. Sewage discharge was also established.

A Danish proverb says that disease is every man’s master, and it was difficult to prevent epidemics from hitting the population. But the Moravians sought to ”keep a vigilant eye on the health of the children and to avoid all that could be of danger and damage to it, and altogether to exercise the same kind of loyalty and supervision of both healthy and sick children that parents would show”.

Care and welfare

Up though the 19th century an analysis of the census results indicate that the population of the Moravian town had more women than men in the oldest age groups, but relatively more boys and men in the younger age groups. In the period from the beginning of the 19th century and up until 1860, just before the region came under Prussian rule, approximately 80 % of the population in Christiansfeld were unmarried. A significant part of these people was living in the choir houses. Either in the Sisters’ house, the Brothers’ house or the Widows’ house.

In the Widows’ house, the inmates were both women from the local community and women from the surrounding region as well as from neighbouring countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany. A demographic investigation of the inmates of the Widows’ house over time shows that the Widows’ house was functioning as an old people’s home, especially for widows who came from out of town. Single unmarried women could also reside in the Widows’ house. The weakest could be taken care of and nursed in the sickroom in the Sisters’ house.

Glimpses of a destiny

From her early youth Marie Magdalene Goll struggled with illness. Medical knowledge was limited in the 19th century and so were the possibilities for treatment. Not until the end of the 19th century scientific breakthroughs had a revolutionary impact on the possibilities for treatment and hygienic measures and thus also on the quality of life for the Danish population.

Marie Magdalene never married. She grew up as the oldest child of three in the family of the stove builder Goll. Both parents had come to Christiansfeld from Germany a few years after the foundation of the town. She enjoyed going to school and in her biography, she writes (2), that she spent her childhood being happy and content, but when she was adopted in the Sisters’ choir in 1798, she was ill and in her own words she describes her illness as ”consumption”. From the year 1800 when her father died, her life was centred around taking care of her mother in the Widows’ house. They both lived here until 1806, when her mother passed away as well. After that, Marie Magdalene moved back into the Sisters’ house. She struggled with her bad condition. Sometimes she was so worn out and weak that she was taken care of in a special sickroom in the Sisters’ house. Marie Magdalene describes how her faith gave her strength: ”Now when I was all alone, I was quite inconsolable at the beginning. I truly felt that now the Lord had to become everything to me forever. I therefore prayed and asked Him to have mercy on me again and asked Him to surround me with his grace”.

In spite of her illness, Marie Magdalene Goll lived until she was 58 years old. For that time, this was a relatively old age. The average lifetime for women in the middle of the 19th century was 45 years, for men it was 43 years.

Closing remarks

The God’s Acre reflects the life of the community: The deceased are not laid to rest in family graves but individually in two sections divided by gender. Men and boys on one side, and women and girls on the other side. Every inscription on the otherwise quite anonymous tombstones on the God’s Acre conceals the history of a whole life. A life in faith and community. All members of the community since 1774 and up until today have been laid to rest here. No grave is ever discontinued.

The life in faith and community has undergone changes over the centuries. Today, Christiansfeld is a small town with the same challenges and the same conditions as other small societies in Denmark. Modern society has taken over and taken on the tasks, which the Moravians took upon themselves in the 18th century. However, the Moravian values such as equality, solidarity, equal rights, trust and community are passed on from one generation to the next in the religious community. The very same values are the ones, which we most frequently think of when we discuss the present-day welfare state.

The God's Acre, 1921. Photo: Freidrich.
The God's Acre, 1921. Photo: Freidrich.

Notes, references, sources and photos


1. Bloch Ravn, 1987.
2. At the funeral of a member of the community, the minister reads aloud the biography during a ceremony in the church. The biographies of all the brothers and sisters are stored in the Moravian Archive. These biographies are personal evidence of the individual members and their lives.

Kolding Stadsarkiv

Kolding Stadsarkiv