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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Twelve The Lonely Defender of the Bible

Grundtvig began his work at Udby with all the zeal of a new convert. He ministered to young and old, spent himself in work for the sick and the poor, and preached the Gospel with a fervor that was new, not only to the people of Udby, but to most people of that generation. If other things had not intervened, like his father, he might have spent his life as a successful country pastor. But his father died January 5, 1813. The authorities refused to confirm Grundtvig in the vacant charge, and he and his mother, shortly afterward, were compelled to leave the parsonage that had been their home for more than forty years. His mother settled in Prastø, a small city a few miles from Udby, and Grundtvig returned to Copenhagen to search for a new position, a task that this time proved both long and painful.

Among available positions, Grundtvig especially coveted a professorship in history at the newly founded university of Oslo, Norway, at which three of his friends, S. B. Hersleb, Niels Trechow and George Sverdrup, had already obtained employment. But although these friends worked zealously for his appointment, even after the separation of Norway from Denmark, their efforts were fruitless. Grundtvig was not destined to leave his native land. Nor were his attempts to secure other work successful. In spite of the fact that he applied for almost every vacancy in the church, even the smallest, his powerful enemies among the Rationalists were influential enough to prevent his appointment to any of them.

Meanwhile he was by no means idle. Following his conversion, he felt for a time like a man suddenly emerging from darkness into the brightness of a new day. Old things had passed away, but the brilliance of the new light confused him. What could he do? How many of his former interests were reconcilable with his new views? Could he, for instance, continue his writings? |When my eyes were opened,| he writes, |I considered all things not directly concerned with God a hindrance to the blessed knowledge of my Lord, Jesus Christ.| After a time he saw, however, that his ability to write might be accepted as a gift from God to be used in His service. |The poet when inspired,| he says, |may proclaim a message from above to the world below,| and so, |after dedicating it to Himself, the Lord again handed me the harp that I had placed upon His altar.|

During his brief stay at Udby, Grundtvig published three larger works: Episodes from the Battle between Ases and Norns, Saga and A New Year's Gift for 1812. The first of these was nearly completed before his conversion, and as he now reread the manuscript, its content almost shocked him. Was it possible that he had felt and written thus only a few months ago! He thought of destroying the work but decided to recast it in conformity with his present views and to express these clearly in a preface. With the completion of this task, however, he took a long leave from the |ice-cold giants of the North| that had so long engrossed his attention.

After his brief visit with the heroes of the past, Grundtvig again turned his attention to their descendants in the present. And the contrast was almost startling. The war still was dragging on and the country sinking deeper and deeper into the morass of political, commercial and economic difficulties. But the majority of the people seemed completely indifferent to her plight. |They talked of nothing,| Grundtvig says, |but of what they had eaten, worn and amused themselves with yesterday, or what they would eat, wear and amuse themselves with tomorrow.| Was it possible that these people could be descendants of the giants whose valor and aggressive spirit had once challenged the greater part of Europe?

Grundtvig was convinced that the spiritual apathy of his people resulted from the failure of their spiritual leaders to uphold the Evangelical faith, and that the salvation of the nation depended on a true revival of Evangelical Christianity. For this reason he now exerted every means at his command to induce the people and, especially, their leaders to return to the old paths. In numerous works, both in verse and in prose, he urged the people to renew the faith of their fathers and challenged their leaders to take a definite stand for Biblical Christianity. He became the lonely defender of the Bible.

Among outstanding personalities of that day, there were especially two that attracted widespread attention: J. P. Mynster, assistant pastor at the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, and Adam Gottlieb Oehlenschlaeger, the dramatic poet, then at the height of his fame. With their influence these men, as Grundtvig saw it, might give a strong impetus to the much needed awakening; and, he therefore, approached them personally.

Rev. Mynster, a stepson of Grundtvig's maternal uncle, after a period of rationalism, had experienced a quiet conversion to Evangelical faith and won a respected name as a faithful and gifted preacher of the Gospel, a name which he retained throughout his conspicuous career as pastor of the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen and, later, as Bishop of Sjælland. He and Grundtvig, working to the same purpose, ought to have united with another, but they were both too individualistic in temperament and views to join forces. Mynster was coldly logical, calm and reserved, a lover of form and orderly progress. Grundtvig was impetuous, and volcanic, in constant ferment, always in search of spiritual reality and wholly indifferent to outward appearances. His own experience had led him to believe that a return to Evangelical Christianity could be effected only through a clean break with Rationalism, and he could not understand Mynster's apparent attempt to temporize and bring about a gradual transition from one to the other. There should be no compromise between truth and falsehood. All believers in the Gospel should stand up and proclaim it fearlessly, no matter what the consequences.

And so Grundtvig wrote to Mynster: |Dear Rev. Mynster, I owe you an apology for asking a question that in our days may appear inexcusable: What is your real belief regarding the Bible and the faith of Jesus Christ? If you humbly believe in God's Word, I shall rejoice with you even if you differ with me in all other things. Dear Rev. Mynster -- for you are that to me -- if my question appears unseemly, you must not let it hurt you, for I have written only as my heart dictates.| But Mynster did feel offended and answered Grundtvig very coldly that his questions implied an unwarranted and offensive doubt of his sincerity that must make future intercourse between them difficult -- if not impossible.

Nor was Grundtvig more successful with a letter of similar purport to Oehlenschlaeger whose later writings he found lacked the spiritual sincerity of his earlier work. |My concern about this,| he wrote, |is increased by the thought that this lessening of spirituality must be expressive of a change in your own spiritual outlook, your inner relationship with God whom all spiritual workers should serve, counting it a greater achievement to inspire their fellow men with a true adoration of our Lord than to win the acclaim of the world.| But like Mynster the highly feted poet accepted this frank questioning of his inner motive as an unwarranted impertinence, the stupid intrusion of an intolerable fanatic with whom no friend of true enlightenment could have anything to do. Grundtvig was fast finding out what it means to be counted a fool for Christ's sake -- or for what he thought was Christ's sake.

In the midst of these troubles Grundtvig again turned his attention to history, his favorite subject from childhood days. His retreat from the present to the past implied no abolition, however, of his resolve to dedicate himself to a spiritual revival of his people. Through his historical work he wished to show the influence of Christianity upon the people of Europe. |That the life of every people,| he writes, |is and must be a fruit of faith should be clear to all. For who can dispute that every human action -- irrespective of how little considered it may have been -- is expressive of its doer's attitude, of his way of feeling and thinking. But what determines a man's way of thinking except his essential thoughts concerning the relationship between God and the world, the visible and the invisible? Every serious thinker, therefore, must recognize the importance of faith in the furtherance of science, the progress of nations and the life of the state. It is a fearful delusion that man can be immoral, an unbeliever, even an enemy of the cross of Christ, and yet a furtherer of morality and science, a good neighbor and a benefactor to his country.|

A Brief Survey of the World's History, which Grundtvig published in 1812, is thus the opposite of an objective presentation of historical events. It is a Christian philosophy of history, an attempt to prove the truth of the Gospel by its effect upon the nations. With the Bible before him Grundtvig weighs and evaluates people and events upon the scale of the revealed word. And his judgment is often relentless, stripping both persons and events of the glorified robes in which history and traditions invested them. In answer to countless protests against such a method of reading history, Grundtvig contends that the Christian historian must accept the consequences of his faith. He cannot profess the truth of Christianity and ignore its implication in the life of the world. If the Gospel be true, history must be measured by its relation to its truth.

Grundtvig's history caused a sensation, especially on account of its frank appraisal of many well-known persons. Nearly all praised its lucid style; a few, such as George Sverdrup, spoke highly of its strikingly original estimate and correlation of events; but the intelligentsia condemned it as the work of an impossible fanatic. With this work, they claimed, Grundtvig had clearly removed himself from the pale of intelligent men.

But while his enemies raged, Grundtvig was already busy with another work: A Brief Account of God's Way with the Danish and Norwegian Peoples. This history which, written in verse and later published under the title of Roskilde Rhymes, was first read at a diocesan convention in Roskilde Cathedral, the Westminster Abbey of Denmark. Although the poem contained many urgent calls to the assembled pastors to awake and return to the way of the fathers, whose bones rested within the walls of the historic sanctuary, its reading caused no immediate resentment. Most of the reverend listeners are reported, in fact, to have been peacefully asleep when late in the evening Grundtvig finished the reading of his lengthy manuscript. But a paper on |Polemics and Tolerance| which he read at another convention two years later kept his listeners wide awake.

|Our day has inherited two shibboleths from the eighteenth century: enlightenment and tolerance. By the last of these words most people understand an attitude of superior neutrality toward the opinions of others, even when these opinions concern the highest spiritual welfare of man. Such an attitude has for its premise that good and evil, truth and falsehood are not separate and irreconcilable realities but only different phases of the same question. But every Christian, thoroughly convinced of the antagonism and irreconcilability of truth with falsehood, must inevitably hate and reject such a supposition. If Christianity be true, tolerance toward opinions and teachings denying its truth is nothing but a craven betrayal of both God and man. It is written, Judge and condemn no one' but not Judge and condemn nothing.' For every Christian must surely both judge and condemn evil.

|There are times when to fight for Christianity may not be an urgent necessity; but that cannot be so in our days when every one of its divine truths is mocked and assailed.

|You call me a self-seeking fanatic, but if I be that, why are you yourself silent? If I be misleading those who follow me, why are you, the true watchmen of Zion, not exerting yourself to lead them aright? I stand here the humblest of Danish pastors, a minister without a pulpit, a man reviled by the world, shorn of my reputation as a writer, and held to be devoid of all intelligence and truth. Even so I solemnly declare that the religion now preached in our Danish church is not Christianity, is nothing but a tissue of deception and falsehood, and that unless Danish pastors bestir themselves and fight for the restoration of God's word and the Christian faith there will soon be no Christian church in Denmark.|

The immediate effect of this bold challenge was a stern reprimand from Bishop Frederik Munter, accompanied by a solemn warning that if he ever again ventured to voice a similar judgment upon his fellow pastors, sterner measures would at once be taken against him. Besides this, his enemies raved, some of his few remaining friends broke with him, and H. C. Ørsted, the famous discoverer of electro-magnetism, continued an attack upon him that for bitterness has no counterpart in Danish letters. In the midst of this storm Grundtvig remained self-possessed, answering his critic quite calmly and even with a touch of humor. Although relentless in a fight for principles, he was never vindictive toward his personal enemies. In 1815, he published a collection of poems, Kvaedlinger, in which he asks, |Who knoweth of peace who never has fought, whoso has been saved and suffered naught?| And these lines no doubt express his personal attitude toward the battles of life.

Being without a pulpit of his own, Grundtvig, after his return to Copenhagen, frequently accepted invitations to preach for other pastors. But as the opposition against him grew, these invitations decreased and, after the Roskilde affair, only one church, the church of Frederiksberg, was still open to him. Grundtvig felt his exclusion very keenly, but he knew that even friendly pastors hesitated to invite him for fear of incurring the disapproval of superiors or the displeasure of influential parishioners. And so, at the close of a Christmas service in the Frederiksberg church in 1815, he solemnly announced that he would not enter a pulpit again until he had been duly appointed to do so by the proper authorities.

Grundtvig's withdrawal from the church, though pleasing to his active enemies, was a great disappointment to his friends. His services had always been well attended, and his earnest message had brought comfort to many, especially among the distressed Evangelicals. But others, too, felt the power of his word. Thus a man in Copenhagen, after attending one of his services, wrote to a friend, |that he had laughed at the beginning of the sermon and wept at its conclusion| and that |it was the only earnest testimony he had ever heard from a pulpit.| And a reporter writing to a Copenhagen newspaper about his last service said, |Our famous Grundtvig preached yesterday at Frederiksberg church to such a crowd of people that the church was much too small to accommodate them. Here were people from all walks of life, and the speaker, we are convinced, stirred them to the bottom of their souls. Here was a Mynster's clarity, a Fallesen's earnestness, and a Balle's appeal united with a Nordahl Brun's manliness and admirable language.| And this about a man for whom his church had no room!

Thus Grundtvig instead of the friendly co-operation he had hoped for especially from the spiritual and intellectual leaders of the people found himself virtually shut out from the circle to which he naturally belonged, and from the church he loved, perhaps better than any man of his generation.

But if his hope of enlisting the leaders in a campaign to revive the spiritual life of the common people had been disappointed, his own determination to devote his life to that purpose remained unshaken. If he could look for no help from the recognized leaders of his nation, he must somehow gain a hearing from the common people themselves. His personal contact with these, however, was rather slight. Except for his brief work as a pastor, he had so far spent the greater part of his life in intellectual pursuits quite removed from the interest of the common man. And the question was then how he, a man without any special position and influence, could reach the ears of his countrymen.

In searching for an answer to this question, he remembered the two things that most profoundly had influenced his own spiritual outlook, his study of the traditions and history of his people, and his religious awakening in 1810. Was it not possible then that a like change might be engendered in others by presenting them with a picture of their own glorious past or, as his friend Ingemann later expressed it, by calling forth the generations that died to testify against the generation that lived? In presenting such a picture he would not have to rely on his own inventiveness but could use material already existing, foremost among which were the famous Sagas of Norwegian Kings by Snorra Sturlason, and Denmark's Chronicle by Saxo Grammaticus, the former written in Icelandic, and the latter in Latin.

When Grundtvig presented this plan to his remaining friends, they received it at once with enthusiasm and began the organization of societies both in Denmark and Norway for the purpose of sponsoring its execution, in itself a most herculean task.

The two books contain together about fifteen hundred large and closely printed pages and present a circumstantial account of the early mythological and factual history of the two nations. Even a merely literal translation of them might well consume years of labor. But Grundtvig's plan went much farther than mere literal translation. Wishing to appeal to the common people, he purposed to popularize the books and to transcribe them in a purer and more idiomatic Danish than the accepted literary language of the day, a Danish to be based on the dialects of the common people, the folk-songs, popular proverbs, and the old hymns. It was a bold undertaking, comparable to the work of Luther in modelling the language of the German Bible after the speech of the man in the street and the mother at the cradle, or to the great effort of Norway in our days to supplant the Danish-Norwegian tongue with a language from the various dialects of her people. Nor can it be said that Grundtvig was immediately successful in his attempt. His version of the sagas sounds somewhat stilted and artificial, and it never became popular among the common people for whom it was especially intended. Eventually, however, he did develop his new style into a plain, forceful mode of expression that has greatly enriched the Danish language of today.

For seven years Grundtvig buried himself in |the giant's mount,| emerging only occasionally for the pursuit of various studies in connection with his work or to voice his views on certain issues that particularly interested him. He discovered a number of errors in the Icelandic version of Beowulf and made a new Danish translation of that important work; he engaged in a bitter literary battle with Paul Mueller, a leader among the younger academicians, in defence of the celebrated lyric poet, Jens Baggesen, who had aroused the wrath of the students by criticising their revered dramatist, Oehlenschlaeger; and he fought a furious contest with the greatly admired song and comedy writer, John L. Heiberg, in defence of his good friend, Bernhard Severin Ingemann, whose excellent but overly sentimental lyrics had invited the barbed wit of the humorist. But although Grundtvig's contributions to these disputes were both able and pointed, their main effect was to widen the breach between him and the already antagonistic intellectuals.

In 1817 Grundtvig published the second part of World Chronicles, and a few issues of a short-lived periodical entitled |Dannevirke| which among other excellent contributions presented his splendid poem, |The Easter Lily,| a poetic dramatization of our Lord's resurrection, about which the poet, Baggesen, said that |it outweighed all Oehlenschlaeger's tragedies and that he himself had moments when he would rather have been the author of this incomparably beautiful poem than of everything he himself had written.|

Grundtvig began his translation of the sagas on a wave of high enthusiasm. But as the years multiplied, the interest of his supporters waned and he himself wearied of the task. He began, besides, to doubt his ability to resurrect the heroic dead in such a manner that they could revive the dropping spirit of the living.

In a welcome to Ingemann, on his return from a tour abroad, he expresses the hope that the poet will now devote his gifts to a reincarnation of his country's old heroes. He himself has tried to do this. |He has made armor, shields and swords for them of saga's steel, and borrowed horses for them from the ancient bards, but he has no cloth fit for the coats of such elegant knights nor feathers beautiful enough to adorn their helmets. He can sound a challenge but has no voice for singing; he can ring a bell but can not play the lute.| In other words, he can depict the thoughts and ideals of the old heroes but lacks the poetical ability to recreate them as living personalities -- a remarkably true estimate of his own limitations.

The discovery that his translation of the sagas was not accomplishing its intended purpose, and a growing apprehension that the written word was, perhaps, impotent to revive the spiritual life of his people, engendered in him an increasing wish to leave |the mount of the dead| and re-enter the world of the living. His economic circumstances also necessitated a change. In 1818 he had married Elizabeth Blicher, the daughter of a brother pastor, and he found it well nigh impossible to support his wife and growing family on the meager returns from his writings and a small pension which the government allowed him for his work with the sagas.

Spurred by these reasons, he applied for almost every vacancy in the church, even the smallest, and, in 1821, succeeded in obtaining an appointment to the pastorate at Prastø, a small city on the south-eastern shores of Sjælland.

Grundtvig was well satisfied with his new charge. He was kindly received by his congregation; the city was quite close to his beloved Udby, and his mother still lived there. |In the loveliest surroundings my eyes have ever seen and among a friendly people,| he writes, |my strength soon revived so that I could continue my literary work and even complete my wearisome translation of the sagas.|

An incident is related from his work at Prastø which throws a somewhat revealing light upon his ability as a pastor. At his only confirmation service there, the confirmants, we are told, wept so that he had to pause several times in his address to them in order to let them regain their composure. Since he was always quite objective in his preaching and heartily disbelieved in the usual revival methods, the incident illustrates his rare ability to profoundly stir even the less mature of his hearers by his objective presentation of the Gospel. Even his bitterest enemies could not deny the evident effectiveness of his ministry in every charge he served.

His work at Prastø was, however, of brief duration. In 1822, less than two years after his installation, he received and accepted a call as assistant pastor at Our Savior's Church in Copenhagen, thus attaining his long deferred wish for a pulpit in the capital.

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