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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Sixteen Grundtvig's Later Years

Grundtvig's later years present a striking contrast to the years of his earlier manhood. The lonely Defender of the Bible became a respected sage and the acknowledged leader of a fast growing religious and folk movement, both in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries. His long years of continuous struggles were followed by years of fruitful work and an extensive growth of his religious and educational ideals until he was generally recognized as one of the most vital spiritual leaders of Scandinavia.

The first break in the wall of isolation that surrounded him came with an invitation from a group of students to |the excellent historian, N. F. S. Grundtvig, who has never asked for a reward but only for a chance to do good,| to deliver a series of historical lectures at Borch's Collegium in Copenhagen. These lectures -- seventy-one in all -- were delivered before packed audiences during the summer and fall of 1838, and were so enthusiastically received that the students, on the evening of the concluding lecture, arranged a splendid banquet for the speaker, at which one of them sang:

Yes, through years of lonely struggle

Did you bravely fight,

Bearing scorn without complaining

Till your hair turned white.

During his most lonely years Grundtvig once comforted himself with the words of a Greek sage: |Speak to the people of yesterday, and you will be heard by the people of tomorrow.| Thus it was, no doubt, a great satisfaction to him that the first public honor bestowed upon him should be accorded him by his nation's youth.

From that day his reputation and influence grew steadily. He became an honored member of several influential societies, such as the Society for Northern Studies, and the Scandinavian Society, an association of academicians from all the Scandinavian countries for the purpose of effecting a closer spiritual and cultural union between them. He also received frequent invitations to lecture both on outstanding occasions and before special groups. His work as a lecturer probably reached its culmination at a public meeting on the Skamlingsbanke, a wooded hill on the borders of Slesvig, where he spoke to thousands of profoundly stirred listeners, and at a great meeting of Scandinavian students at Oslo, Norway, in 1851, to which he was invited as the guest of honor and acclaimed both by the students and the Norwegian people. When Denmark became a constitutional kingdom in 1848, he was a member of the constitutional assembly and was elected several times to the Riksdag.

Meanwhile he worked ceaselessly for the development of his folk and educational ideals. After his conversion, he felt for a time that his new outlook was incompatible with his previous enthusiasm for the heroic life and ideals of the old North, and that he must now devote himself solely to the preaching of the Gospel. But the formerly mentioned decline of all phases of Danish life during the early part of the nineteenth century and the failure of his preaching to evoke any response from an indifferent people caused him to suspect a closer relationship between a people's religious and national or folk-life than he had hitherto recognized. Was not the folk life of a people, after all, the soil in which the Word of God must be sown, and could the Word bear fruit in a soil completely hardened and unprepared to receive it? If it could not, was not a folk awakening a necessary preparation for a Christian?

Under the spur of this question he undertook the translation of the sagas and developed his now widely recognized ideas of folk life and folk education, which later were embodied in the Grundtvigian folk schools. The first of these schools was opened at Rødding, Slesvig in 1844. The war between Denmark and Germany from 1848 to 1850 delayed the establishment of other similar schools. But in 1851, Christian Kold, the man who more than any other realized Grundtvig's idea of a school for life -- as the folk schools were frequently called -- opened his first school at Ryslinge, Fyn. From there the movement spread rapidly not only to all parts of Denmark but also to Norway, Finland and Sweden. The latter country now has more schools of the Grundtvigian type than Denmark, and Norway and Finland have about have as many.

To extend the influence of the movement lecture societies, reading circles, gymnastic societies, choral groups and the like were organized in almost every parish of Denmark. Thus before Grundtvig died, he had the satisfaction of seeing his work bear fruit in one of the most vital folk and educational movements of Scandinavia, a movement which has made a tremendous imprint upon all phases of life in the Northern countries and which today is spreading to many other parts of the world.

Grundtvig held that the life of a nation, Christian as well as national, never rose above the real culture of its common people. To be real, a culture had to be national, had to be based on a people's natural characteristics and developed in accordance with native history and traditions. The aim of all true folk-education was the awakening and enrichment of life and not a mere mental or practical training. The natural means for the attainment of this aim was a living presentation of a people's own cultural heritage, their native tradition, history, literature and folk life. But in all cases the medium of this presentation was the living, that is the spoken word by men and women who were themselves spiritually alive. Christianity, in his opinion, had not come to destroy but to cleanse and vivify the folk life of a people, and, since the latter was the soil in which the former had to grow, the fruitfulness of both demanded a living inter-action so that national life might become Christian and Christianity national.

In the practical application of these educational theories, Grundtvig took no active part. Aside from his conception of the idea and the development of much of the material used in the folk-school, his greatest contributions to their work are probably, his innumerable Biblical, historical and folk songs that were and are used in the schools.

Meanwhile he by no means neglected his religious work. Rationalism had been defeated, a sound Evangelical movement was fast revitalizing the church, and he could therefore concentrate his energy on a further development of the view that had come to him during his years of struggle. Among innumerable other works, he produced during his later years the splendid Enlightenment of the Church, published 1840-1844; Teachings of Our Christian Childhood, published 1855-1862; The Seven Stars of the Churches, published 1854-1855; and The Church Mirror, a series of lectures on the main currents of church history, published 1861-1863.

Although Grundtvig's views, and especially his distinction between the |living| and the |written| word, were strongly opposed by many, his profoundly spiritual conception of the church, as the body of Christ, and of the sacraments, as its true means of life, has greatly influenced all branches of the Danish church. In emphasizing the true indwelling of Christ in the creed and sacraments, he visualized the real presence of Him in the church and underscored the vital center of congregational worship with a realism that no theological dissertation can ever convey. Nor did he feel that in so doing he was in any sense diverging from true Lutheranism. The fact that Luther himself chose the creed and the words of institution of the sacrament as a basis for his catechism, showed, he contended, that the great Reformer also had recognized their distinction.

Despite frequent charges to the contrary, Grundtvig had no desire to engender a separatist movement in the church. He constantly warned his followers against any such tendency. In a closing speech to the Meeting of Friends in 1863, he said, |You can no more forbid the world to call you Grundtvigians than those whom Luther called to the Lord could forbid anyone to call them Lutherans, but do not yourself adopt that name. For history shows that some have let themselves be called Lutherans until they have almost lost the name of Christians. If anyone wishes to name us after any other than Christ, we ought to tell them that we accept nothing unto salvation except what the Christian church has taught and confessed from generation to generation. To or from that we neither add nor detract. We acknowledge without reservation that word of faith which Paul says is believed to righteousness and confessed unto salvation. The manner of teaching and believing that faith so that the Old Adam may be put off and the new put on, we hold to be a matter of enlightenment in which we shall be guided by Grundtvig, as we are guided by Luther, only in so far as we are convinced that he has been guided by Scripture and the Spirit. We also disclaim any intention of making our conception of Scripture an article of faith which must be accepted by the church.| Grundtvig's followers would, no doubt, have profited greatly by remembering this truly liberal view of their leader.

Thus his years passed quietly onward, filled with fruitful labor even unto the end. In contrast to his often stormy public career, Grundtvig's private life was quite peaceful and commonplace, subject only to the usual trials and sorrows of human existence. During the greater part of his life he was extremely poor, subsisting on a small government pension, the meager returns from his writings and occasional gifts from friends. For his own part this did not trouble him; his wants were few and easily satisfied. But he |liked to see shining faces around him,| as he once wrote, and he had discovered that the face of a child could often be brightened by a small gift, which he was frequently too poor to give. |But if we would follow the Lord in these days,| he wrote to a friend, |we must evidently be prepared to renounce all things for His sake and cast out all these heathen worries for dross and chaff with which we as Christians often distress ourselves.|

Grundtvig was thrice married. His first wife, Lise Grundtvig, died January 4, 1851, after a long illness. Her husband said at her grave, |I stand here as an old man who is taking a decided step toward my own grave by burying the bride of my youth and the mother of my children who for more than forty years with unfailing loyalty shared all my joys and sorrows -- and mostly latter.|

But Grundtvig did not appear to be growing old. During the following summer he attended the great meeting of Scandinavian students at Oslo, where he was hailed as the youngest of them all. And on October 4 of the same year, he rejoiced his enemies and grieved many of his friends by marrying Marie Toft, of Rennebeck's Manor, a wealthy widow and his junior by thirty years. And despite dire predictions to the contrary, the marriage was very happy. Marie Toft was a highly intelligent and spiritual-minded woman who wholeheartedly shared her husband's spiritual views and ideals; and her death in 1854 came, therefore, as an almost overwhelming blow. In a letter to a friend a few weeks after her death, Grundtvig writes, |It was wonderful to be loved as unselfishly as Marie loved me. But she belonged wholly to God. He gave and He took; and despite all objections by the world and our own selfish flesh, the believing heart must exclaim, His name be praised. When I consider the greatness of the treasure that the Lord gave to me by opening this loving heart to me in my old age, I confess that it probably would have proved beyond my strength continuously to bear such good days; for had I not already become critical of all that were not like her, and indifferent to all things that were not concerned with her?|

The last remark, perhaps, refers to a complaint by his friends that he had become so absorbed in his wife that he neglected other things. If this had been the case, he now made amends by throwing himself into a whirl of activity that would have taxed the strength of a much younger man. During the following years, he wrote part of his formerly mentioned books on the church and Christian education, delivered a large number of lectures, resumed his seat in the Riksdag and, of course, attended to his growing work as a pastor. As he was also very neglectful of his own comfort in other ways, it was evident to all that such a strenuous life must soon exhaust his strength unless someone could be constantly about him and minister to his need. For this reason a high-minded young widow, the Baroness Asta Tugendreich Reetz, entered into marriage with him that she might help to conserve the strength of the man whom she considered one of the greatest assets her country possessed.

Grundtvig once said of his marriages that the first was an idyl, the second a romance and the third a fairy-tale. Others said harsher things. But Asta Grundtvig paid no attention to the scandal mongers. A very earnest Christian woman herself, she devoted all her energy to create a real Christian home for her husband and family. As Grundtvig had always lived much by himself, she wished especially to make their home a ready gathering place for all his friends and co-workers. In this she succeeded so well that their modest dwelling was frequently crowded with visitors from far and near, many of whom later counted their visit with Grundtvig among the richest experiences of their life.

Grundtvig's fiftieth anniversary as a pastor was celebrated with impressive festivities on May 29, 1861. The celebration was attended by representatives from all departments of government and the church as well as by a host of people from all parts of Scandinavia; and the celebrant was showered with gifts and honors. The king conferred upon him the title of bishop; the former queen, Carolina Amalia, presented him with a seven armed candlestick of gold from women in Norway, Sweden and Denmark; his friend, Pastor P. A. Fenger, handed him a gift of three thousand dollars from friends in Denmark and Norway to finance a popular edition of his Hymns and Songs for the Danish Church; and another friend, Gunni Busck, presented him with a plaque of gold engraved with his likeness and a line from his hymns, a gift from the congregation of Vartov.

Many of those who participated in this splendid jubilee felt that it would be of great benefit to them to meet again for mutual fellowship and discussion of pressing religious and national questions. And with the willing cooperation of Asta Grundtvig, it was decided to invite all who might be interested to a meeting in Copenhagen on Grundtvig's eightieth birthday, September 8, the following year. This Meeting of Friends -- as it was named -- proved so successful that it henceforth became an annual event, attended by people from all parts of Scandinavia. Although Grundtvig earnestly desired that these meetings should actually be what they were designed to be, meetings of friends for mutual help and enlightenment, his own part in them was naturally important. His powers were still unimpaired, and his contributions were rich in wisdom and spiritual insight. Knowing himself surrounded by friends, he often spoke with an appealing heartiness and power that made the Meetings of Friends unforgettable experiences to many.

Thus the once loneliest man in Denmark found himself in his old age honored by his nation, surrounded by friends, and besieged by visitors and co-workers, seeking his help and advice. He was always very approachable. In his younger days he had frequently been harsh and self-assertive in his judgment of others; but in his latter years he learned that kindness is always more fruitful than wrath. Sitting in his easy chair and smoking his long pipe, he talked frankly and often wittily with the many who came to visit him. Thus Bishop H. Martensen, the theologian, tells us that his conversation was admirably eloquent and interspersed with wit and humor. And a prominent Swedish author, P. Wisselgren, writes: |Some years ago I spent one of the most delightful evenings of my life with Bishop Grundtvig. I doubt that I have ever met a greater poet of conversation. Each thought was an inspiration and his heart was in every word he said.|

Grundtvig's outward appearance, especially during his later years, was extremely charming. His strong countenance framed by long white locks and a full beard bore the imprint of a profound spiritual intellect and a benevolent calmness. The queen, Caroline Amalia, after her first meeting with him wrote, |Grundtvig has a most beautiful countenance, and he attracted me at once by his indescribably kind and benevolent appearance. What an interesting man he is, and what a pleasure it is to listen to his open and forthright conversation.|

And so, still active and surrounded by friends, he saw his long, fruitful life drawing quietly toward its close. In 1871, he opened the annual Meeting of Friends by speaking from the text: |See, I die, but the Lord shall be with you,| and said in all likelihood this meeting would be the last at which he would be present. He lived, however, to prepare for the next meeting, which was to be held on September 11, 1872. On September 1, he conducted his service at Vartov as usual, preaching an exceptionally warm and inspiring sermon. But the following morning he passed away quietly while sitting in his easy chair and listening to his son read for him.

He was buried September 11, three days after his 89th birthday, in the presence of representatives from all departments of the government, one fourth of the Danish clergy and a vast assembly of people from all parts of Scandinavia.

An American writer recently named Grundtvig |The Builder of Modern Denmark.| And there are few phases of modern Danish life which he has not influenced. His genius was so unique and his work so many-sided that with equal justice one might call him a historian, a poet, an educator, a religious philosopher, a hymnologist and a folk-leader. Yet there is an underlying unity of thought and purpose in all his work which makes each part of it merely a branch of the whole. This underlying unity is his clear conception of the spiritual and of man as a spiritual being who can attain his fullest development only through the widest possible realization of the spiritual in all his divine and human relationships. In every part of his work Grundtvig, therefore, invariably seeks to discover the spiritual realities. The mere form of a thing, the form of religion, of knowledge, of education, of government, of all human institutions and endeavors have no intrinsic value, are only skeletons and dead bones until they become imbued and vivified by the spirit. Thus Professor Martensen, who by no means belonged to the Grundtvigian party, writes, |But among the many things I owe to Grundtvig, I cherish above all his conception of the spiritual as the reality besides which all other things are nothing but shadows, and of the spirit inspired word as the mightiest power in human life. And he gave that to me not as a theory but as a living truth, a spiritual reality about which there could be not even a shadow of doubt.|

Grundtvig found the spiritual in many things, in the myth of the North, in history, literature and, in fact, in all things through which man has to express his god-given nature. He had no patience with the Pietists who looked upon all things not directly religious as evils with which a Christian could have nothing to do. Yet he believed above all in the Holy Spirit as the |Spirit of spirits,| the true agent of God in the world. The work of the Spirit was indispensable to man's salvation, and the fruit of that work, the regenerated Christian life, the highest expression of the spiritual. Since he believed furthermore, that the Holy Spirit works especially in the church through the word and sacraments, the church was to him the workshop of the Spirit.

In his famous hymn to the church bell, his symbol for the church, he writes |that among all noble voices none could compare with that of the ringing bell.| Despite the many fields in which he traced the imprint of the spiritual, the church remained throughout his long life his real spiritual home, a fact which he beautifully expresses in the hymn below.


Grundtvig, Nicolai Frederik Severin, 1783-1872

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Hallowed Church Bell, not for worldly centers

Wast thou made, but for the village small

Where thy voice, as home and hearth it enters,

Blends with lullabies at evenfall.

When a child and in the country dwelling,

Christmas morning was my heaven on earth,

And thy chimes, like angel voices swelling,

Told with joy of my Redeemer's birth.

Louder still thy joyful chimes resounded,

When on wings of early morning borne,

They proclaimed: Awake with joy unbounded,

Christ arose this blessed Easter morn.

Sweeter even were thy tolls when blending

With the calm of summer eventide

And, as though from heaven above descending,

Bid me cast all grief and care aside.

Hence when now the day is softly ending,

Shadows fall and birds ascend their nest,

Like the flowers my head in silence bending,

I am chanting with my soul at rest:

When at last, O Church Bell, thou art tolling

O'er my grave while loved grieve and sigh,

Say to them, their troubled heart consoling,

He is resting with his Lord on high.

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