Grundtvig, the Dane


by Randall S. Frederick


Much of Denmark’s attitude regarding the refugee crisis can be distilled to one idea: they are a small country that has remained homogenous for so long. Outsiders are thought of as intruders to the stability and cultural expectation of the Danish people, challengers to the long-held culture of Denmark, the social norms held for decades and even centuries together with her folkways and customs. This is often misunderstood as racism, rather than widespread concern, even frustration, over the ways that the “outsiders” and distant foreigners have come in demanding immediate and encyclical change to the Danish tradition and what it means to be Danish. But what does it mean to be Danish today? To answer this, we look to Grundtvig.

Compared to other important Danes, Grundtvig is very much alive today. Many Danes are first exposed to his works by way of song and musical accompaniment at Easter or birthdays, marriages, and church services but as they mature, Grundtvig begins to take up more of the intellectual space. Exceptionally prolific, Grundtvig wrote about society, politics, theology, language, education, the arts, and culture.

More than any other individual, living or dead, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 – 1872) is said to have influenced Danes’ ideas about what it means to be Danish today. He was not only a prolific preacher, writer and poet, but also pioneered Denmark’s education system. His many hymns are a sung in Danish schools, at birthday parties, weddings, baptisms and social gatherings every day. But this pastor, who was once considered a champion for anti-elitism, egalitarianism and a laid-back attitude to life, is now being heralded by politicians on the far right as the father of Danish nationalism. Denmark and its citizens consistently feature at the top of international polls measuring the happiness and best standards of living. However, increasingly over the last decade, the country has experienced growing tensions among recent immigrants, minority and “mainstream” communities. Today, Denmark has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on immigration. The recent election saw a surge in popularity for the far right Danish People’s Party who campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform and in September of last year, the Danish Government responded to the refugee crisis by placing ads in Lebanese newspapers aimed at deterring refugees from travelling to Denmark. Grundtvig’s motto was “human first, Christian next”. His legacy is still felt in everything from how the country organizes its government, education, politics, and religious life.

One of the most influential people in Danish history, his philosophy gave rise to a new form of nationalism in the last half of the 19th Century and is steeped in national literature and supported by deep spirituality. Grundtvig and his followers are credited with the formation of modern Danish national consciousness. He was active during the Danish Golden Age, occurring during the 19th Century, and his influence can be compared to polymaths like Thomas Carlyle or even the social and poetic contributions of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Though his style of writing and fields of reference are not immediately accessible to a foreigner (dependent, as they are, on Danish history and Danish culture), his international importance or notability does not match that of contemporaries Hans Christian Anderson or Soren Kierkegaard.

Born in 1783 and called Frederik rather than Nikolaj by those close to him, N.F.S. Grundtvig was brought up in a very religious atmosphere. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor and a mother who had “great respect” for the Norse legends and traditions. He was schooled in the tradition of the European Enlightenment, but his faith in reason was typically, even predictably, influenced by German Romanticism and the ancient history of the Nordic countries.

In 1791, at the age of nine, he went to study with pastor Laurids Svindt Feld in Thyregod, Sydjylland. The region has historically been a region of great strife, as both Germany and Denmark claim legitimate rights to the Southern Jutland region and have had a handful of wars over the territory. It is entirely possible that Grundtvig picked up an appreciation for the German customs and folklore during this time, as we know of no open hostility towards Germany but rather an appreciation for their literature and history. In 1798, he left Thyregod to study at the Cathedral School of Aarhus before leaving once again for Copenhagen in 1800 to study theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1801. There, his extracurricular activities involved a deep and thorough study of the Icelandic mythologies and teaching himself to speak and translate Icelandic which he continued to do throughout his life. In 1805, he took a position as a house tutor on the island of Langeland, where he studied the works of Shakespeare, Schiller, and Fichte for the next three years. Grundtvig had been introduced to the works of Schiller years earlier by a cousin and now began to examine them. Many biographers record this as a time of cultural renaissance for Grundtvig, whose only mental stimulation came from prolific writers. He began writing during this time, but his first book, On the Songs of Edda, was ignored for the most part and considered too dense. His second work, Northern Mythology, published in 1808, achieved much greater success. The following year, he continued this success with The Fall of the Heroic Life in the North and delivered his first sermon in 1810, denouncing the clergy of his city for compromise.

That first sermon is exceptionally telling, not just as a biographical marker but a cultural one as well.. More than his then-published books, the 1810 sermon reveals who Grundtvig had become. Some biographers skip over a key element: Grundtvig’s father would be considered “conservative” even perhaps a Fundamentalist by today’s religious standards, because he believed in the supreme authority of the Bible over and against the tide of Rationalism that had developed since the Enlightenment. When Grundtvig went to study with pastor Svindt in Sydjylland, he was taught there to believe in a kind of Evangelical belief with deference to God, again, in opposition to the Rationalism of the time. It was at the University of Copenhagen that Gundtvig was exposed to these ideas himself – not the translations given by the men who raised him. He could now read for himself and think for himself, consider these challenges thoughtfully and carefully. Which, it can be imagined, he did. His prodigious mind would have turned these ideas over, compared them, contrasted them, and studied them extensively. He would have been fully aware of the wave of New Theology which had been filtered through Rationalism and been “Christianized” by it. While Grundtvig’s personal writings are not as extensive as his academic and professional contributions, we know that it was during his studies in Copenhagen that he gave up his aspirations to become a minister. Unlike the contemporary trends in America, where personal development can take decades and a career chosen well into one’s thirties or forties, Western Europe believed in choosing a path very early in life. German theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, chose to become a minister when he was nine as well. Professional studies were chosen early and the individual directed towards that end from childhood forward. So for Grundtvig to give up his “calling” and lose interest in religion, instead completing his education “without spirit and without faith,” we can imagine the toll these competing narratives took on him. The anger, disappointment, and loss of bearings he would have experienced. Songs of Edda was not the book he had wanted to write, and Northern Mythology very well may have been an effort to throw himself towards new interests – the ones he had been taught as a child by his mother. Grundtvig’s personal letters begin to note a spiritual poverty of people, perhaps a projection of his own experience, the sensation of abiding immorality and prevalent indifference. At 20, he graduates from Copenhagen well versed in beliefs he himself is not convinced are true –  at least not the way they have been explained to him or are being lived out around him. Northern Mythology captures some of this longing for wonder, for the supernatural, for hope and purpose as he increasingly finds himself convinced that poetry speaks to the spirit of humanity more than prose. And so it is that he begins to settle into the acclaim of his second work, still percolating on these ideas, when his father asks that Grundtvig to return home to Udby and become his assistant.

Imagine such a man contemplating this offer. Alone, disillusioned, now returning home metaphorically as well as literally. Imagine his desire to express all of the ideas he has been navigating in the interiors of the mind, of the zealous righteousness within, imagine him ascending the pulpit, carefully tidying the papers in front of him, fingers nervously and slowly touching the Bible in front of him as he presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth and swallows. Now imagine such a man delivering the shotgun blast of a sermon, “Why has the Lord’s Word disappeared from His House?”

Grundtvig indicted everyone present that day and offended the people of Udby so much that, incensed, they requested his name be stricken from the list of candidates eligible for ministry. He had blasted the prevailing spirit of rationalism among Danish clergy, even the Danish people, and grandly announced that the Word of God had departed from its rightful place in the Danish church. Ichabod. He charged that secularism had corrupted the church, making the people too proud to discover truth in Holy Scripture. The presiding bishop vetoed Grundtvig’s assignment to his father’s church and home congregation.

Surprisingly, Grundtvig is ordained the following year. He makes a decisive turn towards Lutheranism, evidenced by his second sermon, “Why are we called Lutherans?” which upset the clergy again. Grundtvig’s boldness towards ecclesiastical hierarchy and support for national revival is part of the zeitgeist at the time. He is ordained and serves as a vicar, but is denied permission to confirm his two children, which only contributes to his popularity among the people. In 1826, he abandons the pulpit to write theological treatises and contribute to theological scholarship at the academic level. He is reinstated in 1839 when he accepts a position as chaplain Vartov Hospital, where he continued to write for the next 33 years until his death, ascending to the role of Bishop of Denmark in 1861. Over his life, he wrote several books, including poetry and translations of other works, contributed to the political and cultural organization of Denmark, and preached every Sunday from 1839 until his death in 1872, including before members of the royal family. In this way, Grundtvig gave new life and direction to the Church of Denmark. His theology was not one of high academia, but a patient and folkish Christian nationalism that shapes and will, in subsequent decades, contribute significantly to the formulation of a Nordic identity.

A key part of reassembling Grundtvig’s contributions is so simple it could almost be ignored: he was a poet. The work of a poet is to take an idea, something ineffable, and reduce it to the atomic level. While, as stated previously, Grundtvig’s literary contributions do not reach the heights of someone like Hans Christian Anderson because the ideas are inherently insulated, Grundtvig’s creation of a what amounts to a national hymnal cannot be ignored. It is here, reducing ideas about God, statehood, identity, and romance to meter, that Grundtvig becomes the “father” of Denmark. He effectively creates not just a culture, but a national identity through his projects first by disseminating his ideas in embryonic form through poetry, then the teachers and of course students of folk high schools which taught without a syllabus of examinations but dialectic method. Academic and vocational training was replaced by general preparation for every life as a Danish citizen. His model thrived, especially after The Second Schleswig War of 1864, and was, in large part, what Hitler and other European nations based their educational aims on during the revitalization of Germany and Eastern Europe decades later. His songs, patriotic in nature, combined a national historical stance with a Christian view of mankind which was important in building a new Danish identity, first after the battles of 1807 and again with the loss of Norway in 1814. The songs produced a culture of straightforward, energetic, and active participation in society and remain  fixture to this day. In similar fashion, the hymns he published between 1837 and 1881 were sung in the National Church of Denmark and imparted a lively if homely character to the Christian festivals. His hymns, like his other songs, are still sung today in the authorized hymn book of the Church, with even non-churchgoing Danes aware of his name and contributions. Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, weddings, even funeral services continue to incorporate his works.

But his theological considerations, in large part, shaped what would not be considered the modern sensibility of Denmark. It was his 1808 publication of Nordens Mytologi (The Mythology of the North) where he began to express an alignment with Nordic pagan myths.

A serious student of theology myself, I recently read a translation of Nordens Mytologi and found myself stunned at the parallels that Grundtvig draws and how he explains them. Putting the book down, there is no doubt left for me; the early Christians picked up several strands of mythology and ritual expression from their “barbarian” Nordic neighbors, or were at least greatly influenced by them as they reinterpreted the New Testament for a decidedly post-Roman audience. The expanded and revised edition of Nordens Mytologi, published in 1832, created the modern Nordic view of life. There, he emphasizes an emphasis for the present condition and stations of life on Earth, keeping a suitable even reserved pace with the political developments toward democracy. Grundtvig also advocated for a freedom that ensured the individual citizen was afforded the same opportunity by his neighbor as he (or she) might wish for their self. Looming is the idea of democracy apart, even in repose from, the surrounding contexts, conditions, and excesses of autocracy. It is the calm individualized self which emerges from Grundtvig’s interpretations of the the untouchable halcyon of Nordic origin, inspiring the individual to remain calm for they were, after all, extensions and expressions of divine origin. Greatness and honor were, in large measure, what Grundtvig pressed upon the Danish people, seeking to reshape their cultural attitude towards nobility and strength.

This emphasis on life on Earth is seminal to all of Grundtvig’s work. As though he had an epiphany, Grundtvig – a cultivated intellectual and artistic elite – discovers the ability of rural people corresponding to the distribution of population. Simple life and reliance on the land, “planting one’s own garden” as it were, becomes his unrelenting theme. And, conveniently, here he talks to, for, and about the majority of Danes. He adopts this ordinary, even “common” point of view for in the Danish people across Denmark, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands – all under the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (or the House of Glücksburg, for short) – will he find a simple, tolerant, and loving audience familiar with the themes of stormy transition, the cycles of life, and the ultimate growth of nature’s divinely created order. This cycle Grundtvig will express as the way of life, though an enigma only made clear at the end of time. Accordingly, the solidarity and familiarity to be found in Denmark for all human life and its expressions, even happy accidents, are a form of congregation stretching all the way back to Christ. It is the history of the world, Grundtvig avers, stretching all the way back to Paradise itself – it is the very nature of Denmark stretching all the way back to King Dan. Every form of compulsion or immediacy in intellectual, personal, or spiritual life was perverse. He argues repeatedly for a piercing of coagulated institutions and lifeless doctrinal essays that need to be replaced with oral formulation, whether spoken or sung,  and a continued persistence for dialogue in the face of adversity, always believing the best in, about, and for one’s supposed “enemy.” This becomes his main educational tool. And in this way, Grundtvig stressed the significance of a native language, a strong nationalism, and a cohesion of Denmark to revivify the eternal potential of a Nordic people. Language, he reasons, must be a native language handed down in pure form by women and the unlearned. His anti-authoritarian attitude is unique in a time of pandemic upheaval and, perhaps more than historians are able to record, creates the concept of an idyllic “coziness” within modern Denmark. It is peaceful, gradual change rather than revolution. With Grundtvig, compromise becomes a way of life in Danish politics and society. He will leave behind him the religious and popular movements which stand today in folk high schools, the church, parliament, and the public at large in Danish society.

Which is what makes in 1810 so notable, for it is then that Grundtvig becomes who who he is meant to become. The theological insight he had been raised in and, just a short time prior had struggled with, becomes his own as he begins to work towards a unifying identity for himself and for the Danish people. It might be said that, as he ages, his theology moves from ambivalence to the congregational to, in his last years, sacramental with occasional moments of the prophetic.

To be continued in part II (coming soon!)

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