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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Two Reformation Hymnody

The Danish Reformation began quietly about 1520, and culminated peacefully in the establishment of the Lutheran church as the church of the realm in 1536. The movement was not, as in some other countries, the work of a single outstanding reformer. It came rather as an almost spontaneous uprising of the people under several independent leaders, among whom men like Hans Tausen, Jorgen Sadolin, Claus Mortensen, Hans Spandemager and others merely stand out as the most prominent. And it was probably this very spontaneity which invested the movement with such an irresistible force that within in a few years it was able to overthrow an establishment that had exerted a powerful influence over the country for more than seven centuries.

In this accomplishment Evangelical hymnody played a prominent part. Though the Reformation gained little momentum before 1526, the Papists began as early as 1527, to preach against |the sacrilegious custom of roaring Danish ballads at the church service|. As no collection of hymns had then been published, the hymns thus used must have been circulated privately, showing the eagerness of the people to adopt the new custom. The leaders of the Reformation were quick to recognize the new interest and make use of it in the furtherance of their cause. The first Danish hymnal was published at Malmø in 1528 by Hans Mortensen. It contained ten hymns and a splendid liturgy for the morning service. This small collection proved so popular that it was soon enlarged by the addition of thirty new hymns and appropriate liturgies for the various other services, that were held on the Sabbath day. Independent collections were almost simultaneously published by Hans Tausen, Arvid Petersen and others. And, as these different collections all circulated throughout the country, the result was confusing. At a meeting in Copenhagen of Evangelical leaders from all parts of the country, it was decided to revise the various collections and to combine them into one hymnal. This first common hymnal for the Danish church appeared in 1531, and served as the hymnal of the church till 1544, when it was revised and enlarged by Hans Tausen. Tausen's hymnal was replaced in 1569 by The Danish Psalmbook, compiled by Hans Thomisson, a pastor of the Church of Our Lady at Copenhagen, and the ablest translator and hymnwriter of the Reformation period. Hans Thomisson's Hymnal -- as it was popularly named -- was beyond question the finest hymnal of the transition period. It was exceptionally well printed, contained 268 hymns, set to their appropriate tunes, and served through innumerable reprints as the hymnal of the Danish church for more than 150 years.

Den Danske Psalmebog

Thus the Reformation, in less than fifty years, had produced an acceptable hymnal and had established congregational singing as an indispensable part of the church service. The great upheaval had failed, nevertheless, to produce a single hymnwriter of outstanding merit. The leaders in the movement were able men, striving earnestly to satisfy a pressing need. But they were not poets. Their work consisted of passable translations, selections from Pre-Reformation material and a few original hymns by Claus Mortensen, Arvid Petersen, Hans Thomisson and others. It represented an honest effort, but failed to attain greatness. People loved their new hymns, however, and clung to them despite their halting metres and crude style, even when newer and much finer songs were available. But when these at last had gained acceptance, the old hymns gradually disappeared, and very few of them are now included in the Danish hymnal. The Reformation produced a worthy hymnal, but none of the great hymnwriters whose splendid work later won Danish hymnody an honorable place in the church.

Hans Chrestensen Sthen, the first notable hymnwriter of the Danish church, was already on the scene, however, when Hans Thomisson's Hymnal left the printers. He is thought to have been born at Roskilde about 1540; but neither the date nor the place of his birth is now known with certainty. He is reported to have been orphaned at an early age, and subsequently, to have been adopted and reared by the renowned Royal Chamberlain, Christopher Walkendorf. After receiving an excellent education, he became rector of a Latin school at Helsingør, the Elsinore of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and later was appointed to a pastorate in the same city. In this latter office he was singularly successful. Lysander, one of his biographers, says of him that he was exceptionally well educated, known as a fine orator and noted as a successful author and translator. His hymns prove that he was also an earnest and warm-hearted Christian. The peoples of Helsingør loved him dearly, and for many years, after he had left their city, continued to |remember him with gifts of love for his long and faithful service among them|. In 1583, to the sorrow of his congregation he had accepted a call to Malmø, a city on the eastern shore of the Sound. But in this new field his earnest Evangelical preaching, provoked the resentment of a number of his most influential parishioners, who, motivated by a wish to blacken his name and secure his removal, instigated a suit against him for having mismanaged an inheritance left to his children by his first wife. The children themselves appeared in his defence, however, and expressed their complete satisfaction with his administration of their property; and the trumped up charge was wholly disproved. But his enemies still wanted to have him removed and, choosing a new method of attack, forwarded a petition to the king in which they claimed that |Master Hans Chrestensen Sthen because of weakness and old age was incompetent to discharge his duties as a pastor|, and asked for his removal to the parishes of Tygelse and Klagstrup. Though the king is reported to have granted the petition, other things seem to have intervened to prevent its execution, and the ill-used pastor appears to have remained at Malmø until his death, the date of which is unknown.

Sthen's fame as a poet and hymnwriter rests mainly on two thin volumes of poetry. A Small Handbook, Containing Diverse Prayers and Songs Together with Some Rules for Life, Composed in Verse, which appeared in 1578, and A Small Wander Book, published in 1591. The books contain both a number of translations and some original poems. In some of the latter Sthen readopts the style of the old folk songs with their free metre, native imagery and characteristic refrain. His most successful compositions in this style are his fine morning and evening hymns, one of which is given below.


Hans Chrestensen Sthen

tr., J. C. Aaberg

The gloomy night to morning yields,

So brightly the day is breaking;

The sun ascends over hills and fields,

And birds are with song awaking.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Our grateful thanks to God ascend,

Whose mercy guarded our slumber.

May ever His peace our days attend

And shield us from troubles somber.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Redeem us, Master, from death's strong hand,

Thy grace from sin us deliver;

Enlighten us till with Thine we stand,

And make us Thy servants ever.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Then shall with praise we seek repose

When day unto night hath yielded,

And safe in Thine arms our eyelids close

To rest by Thy mercy shielded.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Sthen's hymns all breathe a meek and lowly spirit. They express in the simplest words the faith, hope and fears of a humble, earnest Christian. The following still beloved hymn thus presents a vivid picture of the meek and prayerful spirit of its author.


Hans Chrestensen Sthen

tr., J. C. Aaberg

O Lord, my heart is turning

To Thee with ceaseless yearning

And praying for Thy grace.

Thou art my sole reliance

Against my foes' defiance;

Be Thou my stay in every place.

I offer a confession

Of my severe transgression;

In me is nothing good.

But, Lord, Thou wilt not leave me

And, like the world, deceive me;

Thou hast redeemed me with Thy blood.

Blest Lord of Life most holy,

Thou wilt the sinner lowly

Not leave in sin and death;

Thine anger wilt not sever

The child from Thee forever

That pleads with Thee for life and breath.

O Holy Spirit, guide me!

With wisdom true provide me;

Help me my cross to bear.

Uphold me in my calling

And, when the night is falling,

Grant me Thy heavenly home to share.

Most widely known of all Sthen's hymns is his beloved |Lord Jesus Christ, My Savior Blest|. In its unabbreviated form this hymn contains eight stanzas of which the initial letters spell the words: |Hans Anno|; and it has become known therefore as |Sthen's Name Hymn|. The method of thus affixing one's name to a song was frequently practiced by authors for the purpose of impressing people with their erudition. The meek and anxious spirit that pervades this hymn makes it unlikely, however, that Sthen would have employed his undoubted skill as a poet for such a purpose. The hymn is thought to have been written at Malmø at the time its author encountered his most severe trials there. And its intimate personal note makes it likely that he thus ineradicably affixed his name to his hymn in order to indicate its connection with his own faith and experience. |Sthen's Name Hymn| thus should be placed among the numerous great hymns of the church that have been born out of the sorrows and travails of their authors' believing but anxious hearts. The translation given below is from the abbreviated text now used in all Danish hymnals.


Hans Chrestensen Sthen

Lord Jesus Christ,

My Savior blest,

My refuge and salvation,

I trust in Thee,

Abide with me,

Thy word shall be

My shield and consolation.

I will confide,

Whate'er betide,

In Thy compassion tender.

When grief and stress

My heart oppress,

Thou wilt redress

And constant solace render.

When grief befalls

And woe appalls

Thy loving care enfolds me.

I have no fear

When Thou art near,

My Savior dear;

Thy saving hand upholds me.

Lord, I will be

Alway with Thee

Wherever Thou wilt have me.

Do Thou control

My heart and soul

And make me whole;

Thy grace alone can save me.

Yea, help us, Lord,

With one accord

To love and serve Thee solely,

That henceforth we

May dwell with Thee

Most happily

And see Thy presence holy.

With Sthen the fervid spirit of the Reformation period appears to have spent itself. The following century added nothing to Danish hymnody. Anders Chrestensen Arrebo, Bishop at Tronhjem, and an ardent lover and advocate of a richer cultivation of the Danish language and literature, published a versification of the Psalms of David and a few hymns in 1623. But the Danish church never became a psalm singing church, and his hymns have disappeared. Hans Thomisson's hymnal continued to be printed with occasional additions of new material, most of which possessed no permanent value. But the old hymns entered into the very heart and spirit of the people and held their affection so firmly that even Kingo lost much of his popularity when he attempted to revise them and remove some of their worst poetical and linguistic defects. They were no longer imprinted merely on the pages of a book but in the very heart and affection of a nation.

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