The Pietist movement, new and numerically small when the Brorsons aligned themselves with it, made such sweeping progress that within a few years it became the most powerful movement within the Danish church. And in 1739, it ascended the throne in the persons of King Christian VI and his consort, Queen Sophia Magdalene of Kulmbach, an event of great significance to the fortunes of the Brorsons.
In Denmark the king is officially the head of the church. At the time of Brorson all church appointments belonged to him, and King Christian VI, if he had so wanted, could thus have filled all vacancies with adherents of the movement in which he sincerely believed. He was, however, no fanatic. Earnestly concerned, as he no doubt was, to further the spiritual welfare of his subjects, his only desire was to supply all church positions at his disposal with good and able men. And as such the Brorsons were recommended to him by his old tutor and adviser in church affairs, John Herman Schraeder. On this recommendation, he successively invited the brothers to preach at court. Their impression upon him was so favorable that within a few years he appointed Nicolaj to become pastor of Nicolaj church in Copenhagen, one of the largest churches in the capital, Broder to become Provost of the cathedral at Ribe and, two years later, Bishop of Aalborg, and Hans Adolph to succeed his brother at Ribe and, four years later, to become bishop of that large and historically famous bishopric. Thus the brothers in a few years had been elevated from obscurity to leading positions within their church.
Contemporaries express highly different estimates of Brorson as a bishop. While praised by some, he is severely criticized by others as unfit both by ability and temperament for the high office he occupied. This last estimate now is generally held to be unjust and, to some extent at least, inspired by jealousy of his quick rise to fame and by antagonism to his pietistic views. A close examination of church records and his official correspondence proves him to have been both efficient in the administration of his office and moderate in his dealings with others. He was by all accounts an eloquent and effective speaker. Although Ribe was a small city, its large cathedral was usually crowded whenever it was known that Brorson would conduct the service. People came from far away to hear him. And his preaching at home and on his frequent visits to all parts of his large bishopric bore fruit in a signal quickening of the Christian life in many of the parishes under his charge. He was, we are told, as happy as a child when he found pastors and their people working faithfully together for the upbuilding of the kingdom. But his own zeal caused him to look for the same earnestness in others. And he was usually stern and, at times, implacable, in his judgment of neglect and slothfulness, especially in the pastors.
His private life was by all accounts exceptionally pure and simple, a true expression of his sincere faith and earnest piety. A domestic, who for many years served in his home has furnished us with a most interesting account of his home life. Brorson, she testifies, was an exceptionally kind and friendly man, always gentle and considerate in his dealing with others except when they had provoked him by some gross neglect or inattention to right and duty. He was generous to a fault toward others, but very frugal, even parsimonious in his home and in his personal habits. Only at Christmas or on other special occasion would he urge his household to spare nothing. He was a ceaseless and industrious worker, giving close personal attention to the multiple duties of his important position and office. His daily life bore eloquent witness of his sincere piety. When at home, no matter how busy, he always gathered his whole household for daily devotions. Music constituted his sole diversion. He enjoyed an evening spent in playing and singing with his family and servants. If he chanced to hear a popular song with a pleasing tune, he often adopted it to his own words, and sang it in the family circle. Many of the hymns in his Swan-Song are said to have been composed and sung in that way.
His life was rich in trials and suffering. His first wife died just as he was preparing to go to Copenhagen for his consecration as a bishop, and the loss affected him so deeply that only the pleading of his friends prevented him from resigning the office. He later married a most excellent woman, Johanne Riese, but could never forget the wife of his youth. Several of his children preceded him in death, some of them while still in their infancy, and others in the prime of their youth. His own health was always delicate and he passed through several severe illnesses from which his recovery was considered miraculous. His heaviest cross was, perhaps, the hopeless insanity of his first-born son, who throughout his life had to be confined to a locked and barred room as a hopeless and dangerous lunatic. A visitor in the bishop's palace, it is related, once remarked: |You speak so often about sorrows and trials, Bishop Brorson, but you have your ample income and live comfortably in this fine mansion, so how can you know about these things?| Without answering, Brorson beckoned his visitor to follow him to the graveyard where he showed him the grave of his wife and several of his children, and into the palace where he showed him the sad spectacle of his insane son. Then the visitor understood that position and material comfort are no guaranty against sorrow.
A very sensitive man, Brorson was often deeply afflicted by his trials, but though cast down, he was not downcast. The words of his own beloved hymn, |Whatever I am called to bear, I must in patience suffer,| no doubt express his own attitude toward the burdens of his life. His trials engendered in him, however, an intense yearning for release, especially during his later years. The hymns of his Swan-Song are eloquent testimonies of his desire to depart and be at home with God.
With the passing years his health became progressively poorer and his weakening body less able to support the strain of his exacting office. He would listen to no plea for relaxation, however, until his decreasing strength clearly made it impossible for him to continue. Even then he refused to rest and planned to publish a series of weekly sermons that he might thus continue to speak to his people. But his strength waned so quickly that he was able to complete only one of the sermons.
On May 29, 1764, he begged a government official to complete a case before him at his earliest convenience |for I am now seventy years old, feeble, bedridden and praying for release from this unhappy world.| Only a day later, his illness took a grave turn for the worse. He sank into a stupor that lasted until dusk when he awoke and said clearly, |My Jesus is praying for me in heaven. I see it by faith and am anxious to go. Come quickly, my Lord, and take me home!| He lingered until the morning of June 3, when he passed away peacefully just as the great bells of the cathedral announced the morning service.
Several fine memorials have been raised to his memory, among them an excellent statue at the entrance to the cathedral at Ribe, and a tablet on the inside wall of the building right beside a similar remembrance of Hans Tausen, the leader of the Danish reformation and a former bishop of the diocese. But the finest memorial was raised to him by his son through the publication of Hans Adolph Brorson's Swan-Song, a collection of hymns and songs selected from his unpublished writings.
The songs of the Swan-Song were evidently written for the poet's own consolation and diversion. They are of very different types and merit, and a number of them might without loss have been left out of the collection. A few of them stand unexcelled, however, for beauty, sentiment and poetic excellence. There are songs of patience such as the inimitable:
Her vil ties, her vil bies,
Her vil bies, o svage Sind.
Vist skal du hente, kun ved at vente,
Kun ved at vente, vor Sommer ind.
Her vil ties, her vil bies,
Her vil bies, o svage Sind.
which one can hardly transfer to another language without marring its tender beauty. And there are songs of yearning such as the greatly favored,
Brorson, Hans Adolf, 1694-1764
tr., J. C. Aaberg
O Holy Ghost, my spirit
With yearning longs to see
That precious gem,
Where I shall soon inherit
The home prepared for me.
But O the stormy waters!
How shall I find my way
Mid hidden shoals,
Where darkness rolls,
And join thy sons and daughters
Who dwell in thee for aye.
Lord, strengthen my assurance
Of dwelling soon with Thee,
That I may brave
The threatening wave
With firm and calm endurance;
Thyself my pilot be.
And there is |The Great White Host|, most beloved of all Brorson's hymns, which Dr. Ryden, a Swedish-American Hymnologist, calls the most popular Scandinavian hymn in the English language. Several English translations of this song are available. The translation presented below is from the new English hymnal of the Danish Lutheran churches in America.
Brorson, Hans Adolf, 1694-1764
tr., J. C. Aaberg
Behold the mighty, whiterobed band
Like thousand snowclad mountains stand
With waving palms
And swelling psalms
Above at God's right hand.
These are the heroes brave that came
Through tribulation, war and flame
And in the flood
Of Jesus' blood
Were cleansed from sin and shame.
Now with the ransomed, heavenly Throng
They praise the Lord in every tongue,
And anthems swell
Where God doth dwell
Amidst the angels' song.
They braved the world's contempt and might,
But see them now in glory bright
With golden crowns,
In priestly gowns
Before the throne of light.
The world oft weighed them with dismay.
And tears would flow without allay,
But there above
The Saviour's love
Has wiped their tears away.
Theirs is henceforth the Sabbath rest,
The Paschal banquet of the blest,
Where fountains play
And Christ for aye
Is host as well as guest.
All hail to you, blest heroes, then!
A thousand fold is now your gain
That ye stood fast
Unto the last
And did your goal attain.
Ye spurned all worldly joy and fame,
And harvest now in Jesus' name
What ye have sown
With tears unknown
Mid angels' glad acclaim.
Lift up your voice, wave high your palm,
Compass the heavens with your psalm:
All glory be
To God and to the Lamb.
Brorson's hymns were received with immediate favor. The Rare Clenod of Faith passed through six editions before the death of its author, and a new church hymnal published in 1740 contained ninety of his hymns. Pietism swept the country and adopted Brorson as its poet. But its reign was surprisingly short. King Christian VI died in 1746, and the new king, a luxury-loving worldling, showed little interest in religion and none at all in Pietism. Under his influence the movement quickly waned. During the latter part of the eighteenth century it was overpowered by a wave of religious rationalism which engulfed the greater part of the intellectual classes and the younger clergy. The intelligentsia adopted Voltaire and Rousseau as their prophets and talked endlessly of the new age of enlightenment in which religion was to be shorn of its mysteries and people were to be delivered from the bonds of superstition.
In such an atmosphere the old hymns and, least of all, Brorson's hymns with their mystic contemplation of the Saviour's blood and wounds could not survive. The leading spirits in the movement demanded a new hymnal that expressed the spirit of the new age. The preparation of such a book was undertaken by a committee of popular writers, many of whom openly mocked Evangelical Christianity. Their work was published under the title The Evangelical Christian Hymnal, a peculiar name for a book which, as has been justly said, was neither Evangelical nor Christian. The compilers had eliminated many of the finest hymns of Kingo and Brorson and ruthlessly altered others so that they were irrecognizable. To compensate for this loss, a great number of |poetically perfect hymns| by newer writers -- nearly all of whom have happily been forgotten -- were adopted.
But while would-be leaders discarded or mutilated the old hymns and, with a zeal worthy of a better cause, sought to force their new songs upon the congregations, many of these clung tenaciously to their old hymnal and stoutly refused to accept the new. In places the controversy even developed into a singing contest, with the congregations singing the numbers from the old hymnal and the deacons from the new. And these contests were, of course, expressive of an even greater controversy than the choice of hymns. They represented the struggle between pastors, working for the spread of the new gospel, and congregations still clinging to the old. With the highest authorities actively supporting the new movement, the result of the contest was, however, a foregone conclusion. The new enlightenment triumphed, and thousands of Evangelical Christians became homeless in their own church.
During the subsequent period of triumphant Rationalism, groups of Evangelical laymen began to hold private assemblies in their own homes and to provide for their own spiritual nourishment by reading Luther's sermons and singing the old hymns. In these assemblies Brorson's hymns retained their favor until a new Evangelical awakening during the middle part of the nineteenth century produced a new appreciation of the old hymns and restored them to their rightful place in the worship of the church. And the songs of the Sweet Singer of Pietism have, perhaps, never enjoyed a greater favor in his church than they do today.