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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Eleven Grundtvig's Early Years

The latter part of the eighteenth and the earlier part of the nineteenth century produced a number of great changes in the spiritual, intellectual and economic life of Denmark. The strong Pietist movement at the time of Brorson, as we have seen, lost much of its momentum with the death of King Christian VI, and within a few years was overwhelmed by a wave of the intellectual and religious Rationalism then engulfing a large part of Europe. Religion, it was claimed, should be divested of its mysteries and reason made supreme. Whatever could not justify itself before the bar of the human intellect should be discarded as outworn conceptions of a less enlightened age. The movement, however, comprised all shades of opinions from pure agnosticism to an idealistic belief in God, virtue and immortality.

Although firmly opposed by some of the most influential Danish leaders of that day, such as the valiant bishop of Sjælland, Johan Edinger Balle, Rationalism swept the country with irresistible force. Invested in the attractive robe of human enlightenment and appealing to man's natural intellectual vanity, the movement attracted the majority of the upper classes and a large proportion of the clergy. Its adherents studied Rousseau and Voltaire, talked resoundingly of human enlightenment, organized endless numbers of clubs, and -- in some instances -- worked zealously for the social and economic uplift of the depressed classes.

In this latter endeavor many pastors assumed a commendable part. Having lost the old Gospel, the men of the cloth became eager exponents of the |social gospel| of that day. While we may not approve their Christmas sermons |on improved methods of stable feeding,| or their Easter sermons |on the profitable cultivation of buckwheat,| we cannot but recognize their devoted labor for the educational and economic uplift, especially of the hard-pressed peasants.

Their well-meant efforts, however, bore little fruit. The great majority of the people had sunk into a slough of spiritual apathy from which neither the work of the Rationalists nor the stirring events of the time could arouse them.

The nineteenth century began threateningly for Denmark, heaping calamity after calamity upon her. England attacked her in 1801 and 1807, robbing her of her fine fleet and forcing her to enter the European war on the side of Napoleon. The war wrecked her trade, bankrupted her finances and ended with the severance of her long union with Norway in 1814. But through it all Holger Danske slept peacefully, apparently unaware that the very existence of the nation was threatened.

It is against this background of spiritual and national indifference that the towering figure of Grundtvig must be seen. For it was he, more than any other, who awakened his people from their lethargic indifference and started them upon the road toward a happier day spiritually and nationally.

Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, like so many of Denmark's greatest men, was the son of a parson. He was born September 8, 1783, at Udby, a country parish in the south-eastern part of Sjælland. His father, Johan Ottesen Grundtvig, was a pastor of the old school, an upright, earnest and staunch supporter of the Evangelical Lutheran faith. His mother, Catherine Marie Bang, was a high-minded, finely educated woman with an ardent love for her country, its history, traditions and culture. Her son claimed that he had inherited his love of |song and saga| from her.

The Grundtvigs on both sides of the family were descendants of a long line of distinguished forebears, the most famous of whom was Archbishop Absalon, the founder of Copenhagen and one of the most powerful figures in 13th Century Denmark. And they still had relatives in high places. Thus Johan Edinger Balle, the formerly mentioned bishop of Sjælland, was a brother-in-law of Johan Grundtvig; Cathrine Grundtvig's brother, Dr. Johan Frederik Bang, was a well-known professor of medicine and the stepfather of Jacob Peter Mynster; and her younger sister, Susanna Kristine Steffens, was the mother of Henrik Steffens, a professor at the universities of Halle and Breslau, a friend of Goethe and Schiller, and a leader of the early Romantic movement, both in Germany and Denmark.

Cathrine Grundtvig bore her husband five children, of whom Nicolaj was the youngest. But even with such a large household to manage, she found time to supervise the early schooling of her youngest son. She taught him to read, told him the sagas of his people and gave him his first lessons in the history and literature, both of his own and of other nations.

It was a period of stirring events. Wars and revolutions raged in many parts of Europe. And these events were eagerly followed and discussed in the parsonage. Listening to his elders, Grundtvig saw, as it were, history in its making and acquired an interest in the subject that produced rich fruits in later years. The wholesome Christian life of his home and the devotional spirit of the services in his father's church also made a deep impression upon him, an impression that even the scepticism of his youth could not eradicate.

But his happy childhood years ended all too quickly. At the age of nine he left his home to continue his studies under a former tutor, Pastor L. Feld of Thyregod, a country parish in Jylland. There he spent six lonely but quite fruitful years, receiving among other things a solid training in the classical languages. In 1798, he completed his studies with Rev. Feld and enrolled in the Latin school at Aarhus, the principal city of Jylland. But the change proved most unfortunate for young Grundtvig. Under the wise and kindly guidance of Rev. Feld he had preserved the wholesome, eager spirit of his childhood, but the lifeless teaching, the compulsory religious exercises and the whole spiritless atmosphere of his new school soon changed him into an indifferent, sophisticated and self-satisfied cynic with little interest in his studies, and none at all in religion.

At the completion of his course, however, this attitude did not deter him from enrolling at the University of Copenhagen with the intention of studying for the ministry. A university education was then considered almost indispensable to a man of his social position, and his parents earnestly wished him to enter the church. Nor was his attitude toward Christianity greatly different from that of his fellow students or even from that of many pastors already preaching the emasculated gospel of God, Virtue, and Immortality which the Rationalists held to be the true essence of the Christian religion. Believing the important part of the Gospel to be its ethical precepts, Grundtvig, furthermore, prided himself upon the correctness of his own moral conduct and his ability to control all unworthy passions. |I was at that time,| he later complained, |nothing but an insufferably vain and narrow-minded Pharisee.|

From this spirit of superior self-sufficiency, only two things momentarily aroused him during his university years -- the English attacks upon Copenhagen; and a series of lectures by his cousin, Henrik Steffens.

Steffens, as a student at Jena, had met and become an enthusiastic disciple of Schelling, the father of natural philosophy, a pantheistic colored conception of life, opposed to the narrowly materialistic views of most Rationalists. Lecturing at the university during the years 1802-1803, Steffens aroused a tremendous enthusiasm, both among the students and some of the older intellectuals. |He was a fiery speaker,| Grundtvig remarks later, |and his lectures both shocked and inspired us although I often laughed at him afterward.|

Despite his attempt to laugh away the impression of the fiery speaker, Grundtvig, nevertheless, retained at least two lasting memories from the lectures -- the power of the spoken word, a power that even against his will could arouse him from his cynical indifference, and the reverence with which Steffens spoke of Christ as |the center of history.| The human race, he contended, had sunk progressively lower and lower from the fall of man until the time of Nero, when the process had been reversed and man had begun the slow upward climb that was still continuing. And of this progress the speaker in glowing terms pictured Christ as the living center.

Grundtvig was graduated from the university in the spring of 1803. He wished to remain in Copenhagen but could find no employment and was forced, therefore, to return to his home. Here he remained for about a year, after which he succeeded in obtaining a position as tutor for the son of Lieutenant Steensen Leth of Egelykke, a large estate on the island of Langeland.

Except for the fact that Egelykke was far from Copenhagen, Grundtvig soon became quite satisfied with his new position. Both the manor and its surroundings were extremely beautiful, and his work was congenial. His employer, a former naval officer, proved to be a rough, hard-drinking worldling; but his hostess, Constance Leth, was a charming, well-educated woman whose cultural interests made the manor a favored gathering place for a group of like-minded ladies from the neighborhood. And with these cultured women, Grundtvig soon felt himself much more at home than with his rough-spoken employer and hard-drinking companions.

But if Grundtvig unexpectedly was beginning to enjoy his stay at Egelykke, this enjoyment vanished like a dream when he suddenly discovered that he was falling passionately in love with his attractive hostess. It availed him nothing that others as he well knew might have accepted such a situation with complacence; to him it appeared an unpardonable reproach both to his intelligence and his honor. Having proudly asserted the ability of any intelligent man to master his passions, he was both horrified and humiliated to discover that he could not control his own.

Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig

Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig

Grundtvig never consciously revealed his true sentiment to Constance Leth. At the cost of an intense struggle, he managed outwardly to maintain his code of honorable conduct. But he still felt humbled and shaken by his inability to suppress his inner and as he saw it guilty passion. And under this blow to his proud self-sufficiency, he felt, perhaps for the first time in his life, the need for a power greater than his own. |To win in this struggle,| he wrote in his diary, |lies beyond my own power. I must look for help from above or sink as the stone sinks while the lightly floating leaves mock it and wonder why it cannot float as they do.|

The struggle against his passion engendered a need for work. |In order to quiet the storm within me,| he writes, |I forced my mind to occupy itself with the most difficult labor.| Although he had paid small attention to the suggestion at the time, he now remembered and began to read some of the authors Steffens had recommended in his lectures: Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Fichte, Shakespeare and others. He also studied the work of newer Danish writers, such as Prof. Jens Møller, a writer on Northern mythology, and Adam Oehlenschlaeger, a young man who, inspired by Steffens, was becoming the foremost dramatic poet of Denmark. He even renewed the study of his long neglected Bible. The motive of his extensive reading was, no doubt, ethical rather than esthetic, a search for that outside power of which the battle within him revealed his urgent need. Thus he wrote:

My spirit opened its eyes,

Saw itself on the brink of the abyss,

Searched with trembling and fear

Everywhere for a power to save,

And found God in all things,

Found Him in the songs of the poets,

Found Him in the work of the sages,

Found Him in the myths of the North,

Found Him in the records of history,

But clearest of all it still

Found Him in the Book of Books.

The fate that appears to crush a man may also exalt him. And so it was with Grundtvig. His suffering crushed the stony shell of cynical indifference in which he had long enclosed his naturally warm and impetuous spirit and released the great latent forces within him. In the midst of his struggle, new ideas germinated springlike in his mind. He read, thought and wrote, especially on the subject that was always near to his heart, the mythology and early traditions of the Northern peoples. And after three years of struggle, he was at last ready to break away from Egelykke. If he had not yet conquered his passion, he had so far mastered it that he could aspire to other things.

Thus ended what a modern Danish writer, Skovgaard-Petersen, calls |the finest love story in Danish history.| The event had caused Grundtvig much pain, but it left no festering wounds. His firm refusal to permit his passion to sully himself or degrade the woman he loved had, on the contrary, made it one of the greatest incitations to good in his whole life.

On his return to Copenhagen Grundtvig almost at once obtained a position as teacher in history at Borch's Collegium for boys. His new position satisfied him eminently by affording him a chance to work with his favorite subject and to expand his other intellectual interests. He soon made friends with a number of promising young intellectuals who, in turn, introduced him to some of the outstanding intellectual and literary lights of the country, and within a short while the list of his acquaintances read like a Blue Book of the city's intelligentsia.

Although Grundtvig was still quite unknown except for a few articles in a current magazine, there was something about him, an originality of view, an arresting way of phrasing his thoughts, a quiet sense of humor, that commanded attention. His young friends willingly acknowledged his leadership, and the older watched him with expectation. Nor were they disappointed. His Northern Mythology appeared in 1808, and Episodes from the Decay of Northern Heroism only a year later. And these strikingly original and finely written works immediately established his reputation as one of the foremost writers of Denmark. There were even those who in their enthusiasm compared him with the revered Oehlenschlaeger. A satirical poem, |The Masquerade Ball of Denmark,| inspired by the frivolous indifference with which many people had reacted to the English bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, showed his power of burning scorn and biting satire.

In the midst of this success and the preparation of plans for new and more ambitious works, Grundtvig received a request from his old father to come home and assist him with his parish work. The request was not at all pleasing to him. His personal attitude toward Christianity was still uncertain, and his removal from the capital would interfere with his literary career. But as the wish of his good parents could not be ignored, he reluctantly applied for ordination and began to prepare his probation sermon.

This now famous sermon was delivered before the proper officials March 17, 1810. Knowing that few besides the censors would be present to hear him and feeling that an ordinary sermon would be out of place before such an audience, Grundtvig prepared his sermon as an historical survey of the present state of the church rather than as an Evangelical discourse.

His study of history had convinced him of the mighty influence Christianity had once exerted upon the nations, and he, therefore, posed the question why this influence was now in decline. |Are the glad tidings,| he asked, |which through seventeen hundred years passed from confessing lips to listening ears still not preached?| And the answer is |no|. Even the very name of Jesus is now without significance and worth to most people of the younger generation, |for the Word of God has departed from His house and that which is preached there is not the Word of God, but the earth-bound speculations of men. The holy men of old believed in the message they were called to preach, but the human spirit has now become so proud that it feels itself capable of discovering the truth without the light of the Gospel, and so faith has died. My Brethren!| he exclaims, |Let us not, if we share this blindness and contempt for the heavenly light, be false and shameless enough to desecrate the Holy Place by appearing there as preachers of a Christianity in which we ourselves do not believe!|

The sermon was delivered with much force and eloquence. Grundtvig felt himself stirred by the strength of his own argument; and a comparison of the warm devotional spirit of a church service, as he remembered it from his childhood, with the cold indifference of later days moved him to sentimental tears, the first pious tears that he had shed for many years, he said later. Even the censors were so impressed that they unanimously awarded him the mark of excellent, a generosity they bitterly regretted a few weeks later. For Grundtvig, contrary to his promise -- as the censors asserted but Grundtvig denied -- published his sermon. And it was warmly received by the Evangelicals as the first manna that had fallen in a desert for many years. But the Rationalists violently condemned it and presented the Committee on Church Affairs with an indignant protest against its author |for having grossly insulted the Danish clergy.|

Considering the enthusiastic approval the sermon had received in various quarters, the committee would gladly have squashed the complaint. But the complainers, comprising many of the most influential pastors in the city, were too powerful to be ignored. And so Grundtvig was found guilty |of having willfully insulted the Danish clergy, both individually and as a body,| and sentenced to receive a reprimand by the dean of the theological faculty.

When Grundtvig on January 11, 1811, presented himself before the dean to receive his reprimand, he looked so pale and shaken that even the worthy official took compassion upon him and advised him privately that he must not take his sentence too seriously. It was not, however, the stern reprimand of the dean but an experience of far greater consequence that so visibly blanched the cheeks of the defendant.

The prospect of entering the active ministry caused Grundtvig to examine seriously his own attitude toward Christianity. And although the bishop vetoed his assignment to Udby and thus released him from the immediate prospect of entering the pulpit, this did not stop the trend of his thoughts. He had lost his former indifference toward religion and discovered the historical significance of Christianity, but just what did the Christian faith mean to him personally?

He was still pondering this question, when in the fall of 1810, he commenced a study of the Crusades, |the heroic age of Christianity,| as one historian called the period. The phrase appealed to him. He had lately wandered through the mystic halls of Northern gods and heroes and deplored the decay of their heroic spirit. He admired the heroic, and his heart still wavered between the mighty Wodin and the meek and lowly Christ. But the heroic age of Christianity -- was it possible then that Christianity too could rise to the heroic?

In the course of his study he read The Early History of Prussia by A. von Kotzebue in which the author, after ridiculing |the missionary zeal that, like a fire on the steppes, caught the kings of Poland and Scandinavia and moved them to frantic efforts for the conversion of neighboring peoples,| proudly stated, |But while her neighbors all accepted Christianity and the withered cross drew steadily nearer to the green oak, Prussia remained faithful to her ancient gods.|

|The withered Cross!| The words stung Grundtvig to the quick. He hurled the book away, sprang up and stormed about the room, vowing that he would henceforth dedicate his life to the cause of the spurned emblem.

A few weeks of restless exaltation followed. He read his Bible, studied Luther's catechism and pondered the ways and means of accomplishing a reform of his church, especially a reform inspired by pen and ink. But his New Year's Night, a small book published during this period, shows his still troublesome uncertainty, his constant wavering between the old gods and the Christ of the Gospels, between various degrees of Rationalism and a full acceptance of the mystery of the cross. In a mighty hymn of praise to the suffering Savior, he wrote many years later: |Yes, my heart believes the wonder of Thy cross, which ages ponder| -- but he had yet to pass through the depths before he could say that. Even so, he now exultingly wrote: |On the rim of the bottomless abyss toward which our age is blindly hastening, I will stand and confront it with a picture, illumined by two shining lights, the Word of God, and the testimony of history. As long as God gives me strength to lift up my voice, I will call and admonish my people in His name.|

But from this pinnacle of proud exultation, he was suddenly hurled into the abyss when, like a bolt of lightning, the thought struck him: But are you yourself a Christian, have you received the forgiveness of your sin?

|It struck me like a hammer, crashing the rock,| he said later, |what the Lord tells the ungodly: What hast thou to declare my statutes or that thou shouldest take my covenant into thy mouth, seeing that thou hatest my instruction and castest my word behind thee!'| Gone like a dream were now all his proud fancies. Only one thought filled his whole being -- to obtain the forgiveness of his sin and the assurance of God's grace. But so violent became his struggle that his mind at times reeled on the brink of insanity. His young friends stood loyally by him, comforting and guarding him as far as they could. And when it became clear that he must be removed from the noise of the city, one of them, F. Sibbern, volunteered to take him home. There his old parents received him with understanding, even rejoicing that anxiety for his soul and not other things had so disturbed his mind.

The peace of the quiet countryside, the understanding care of his parents and the soothing influence of their firm Evangelical faith acted as a balm to Grundtvig's struggling spirit. He loved to enter the old church of his childhood, to hear his father preach, or sit alone before the altar in meditation and prayer. And there before the altar of the church in which he had been baptized and confirmed, he at last found peace, the true peace of God that passeth all understanding.

After the great change in his life, Grundtvig now wished most heartily to become his father's assistant. The elder Grundtvig had already forwarded his resignation from the pastorate but was more than happy to apply for its return and for the appointment of his son as his assistant. And so, Grundtvig was ordained at Copenhagen, May 11, 1811, and installed at Udby a few days later. He was back again in the old church of his childhood.

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