From Ansgar to Kierkegaard 865-1855

From Ansgar to Kierkegaard


As full of infirmity, yet as full of a wonderful life-power, as the history of the church in other lands of Europe, is the story of the Christian Church in Denmark and the north. It is now for a thousand years that these lands have enjoyed the knowledge of God; and during that time, in the midst of innumerable backslidings, the Word has been paving for itself a free course to the hearts of the children of the north. At this moment it has oversprung many walls of separation, but there are still many remaining over which the Word must leap.

The propagator of Christianity in Denmark was Ansgar (801-865). Others aided him, but he did so much alone as to entitle himself to the name of the Apostle of Scandinavia.

The Odinic worship was what Ansgar had to contend with. It was a mighty foe; but the Cross was powerful enough to subdue even it. Fierce was the struggle. Long did that nature-worship light for its natural life its natural ascendancy, its natural dominion. All the powers arose to stand by it; all on earth all in man. But the Cross inclined tranquilly over the elected lands, and no missile that its adversary directed against it did any hurt. It was a pure symbol, and having laid aside all alloy, all earthly dross, no element of nature could injure it; waters would not drown it, fire could not burn it; its very purity was hateful. “White Christ!” should He, by mere presence too, slay a whole national religion? Yet so it was. The death struggle of the old faith was terrible; it wrestled for life with the hearts of men in its hands; but with a tremendous throe it died. All at once, a number of pale shades were seen to flit away from the worship of the north; no one knew whither they went, but they fled shivering from their pierced bodies. And for a while after that, there was a great silence in the lands, whilst the missionaries of the Cross went about to build up where they had pulled violently down.

It is one of Grundtvig’s vital convictions that the ancient religion of Scandinavia (viewing it in its length and breadth) could have given way before nothing but Christianity. I think it hard to controvert this position.

Well! St. Ansgar, as an Apostle, accomplished great things. There is a fearful solemnity about that early planting of Christianity in Scandinavia. So silent was all after the storm, so still, so pure, so irresistible. The old faith lay in its blood on the stricken plains, and the new one walked spiritual, spotless, in white raiment about the land, as if taking it in possession. The hated white Christ proved the conqueror, but a gentle and loving Lord. It was found that in perfect purity only, the true fire of love did burn. This was a strange law for the people, but the isles had long unwittingly waited for this law, and now they began to receive it.

Afterwards, in the age of symbols, the symbol of Christianity, the Cross, a pure white cross as it had appeared to the isles, was placed triumphant on the red field of its victory; and this figure, the dominant cross with a red background, became the national banner of Denmark, as it remaineth unto this day. The Danish flag, even now borne in battle, is a white cross upon a red ground.

The story is that this flag fell down from heaven into the arms of the bishop, during a battle of the Danes against the heathen in Russia.

Meantime the Church took root. During the many centuries before the Reformation, it had its tale of degeneracies to the full. It had also its less apparent holinesses. There is much in the annals of Christianity in the north during the Middle Ages to enliven one’s heart.

But the hierarchy grew too strong for the faith it ought to have cherished, and in time almost smothered it. We find hardly anywhere records of a more aspiring hierarchy than that in the north.

Denmark was at first under the sway of the See of Hamburgh, but afterwards an archbishopric was founded at Lund, in the province of Scania, in Sweden, which part of Sweden belonged at that time to the crown of Denmark, and the Archbishop of Lund became primate, not merely of Denmark, including Scania, but of all Scandinavia. Other archbishoprics were established at Upsala in Sweden, and at Trondhiem in Norway, but they were respectively subordinate, however unwillingly at times, to the Archbishop of Lund. Denmark thus took the lead in ecclesiastical matters in Scandinavia, although its archiepiscopal see was situated in a province that by nature, if not in fact, belonged to Sweden.

From their powerful position as Primates of all Scandinavia, the Archbishops of Lund speedily became right assuming in their pretensions. Towards their sovereigns, the Kings of Denmark, they took and maintained a very stupendous demeanor, encouraging their suffragan bishops and the inferior clergy to do the same towards the nobility and common people. The laity, from the King downwards, generally fought desperately against the pretensions of the priesthood, but with wonderfully little effect. The influence of the clergy, as their consequence increased, was exerted not for the right ends; — this is the sad point. It was not for the Word of God, but for the ecclesiastical body they strove. There can be no denying that for a long time during the latter Middle Ages, Denmark was priest ridden.

Ecclesiastical annals of that period are full of the squabbles, or rather serious contentions, between the Kings of Denmark and the Archbishops of Lund. Very often the latter came off with the most flying colors. But the Danish monarchs had no desire to be dictated to by the ghostly power, and they resisted vigorously.

It so happens that many of the Primates were personally very admirable men, whose private lives are beautifully edifying. Their subordinates were oftener mere worldlings in sheep’s clothing. But they all worked together for the power of the church.

As displayed in individual prelates, the church-life of Denmark then took quite a color of its own, which ought to prove an interesting subject of comparison and investigation for church historians. It was not a mere reproduction of something existing elsewhere.

I have found the lives of sundry Danish ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages full of a singular interest, well repaying the trouble of perusal. I believe little is known of this branch of church history in other parts of Europe, but there is no reason why it should be a terra incognita.

The man in whom, on the whole, the type of a Scandinavian churchman of that period may be seen to pretty fair advantage, is, I think. Archbishop Absalon (1128-1201), the third of that rank in the see of Lund. He is well known as the friend and patron of Saxo Giammaticus (1150-1220). In him, many of the good, and some of the bad, elements of episcopal character may be traced. He was a man of commanding intellect, with great talents for ruling his diocese, and the affairs of his country, both temporal and spiritual, which talents he found ample opportunity to exercise. In private life, he must have been very estimable, although from a natural hastiness of temper, he was often betrayed into acts which he had reason afterwards to regret. His piety and learning were great, and he does not seem altogether to have been personally of an ambitious nature, inasmuch as he was most unwilling to forsake the bishopric of Roeskilde, which he held, for the higher dignity of Lund, preferring the peace of comparatively private life to the very exposed situation of the primacy; although, after he had been almost forced to accept the archbishopric, he never hesitated to extend its greatness by every means in his power. For his time, he is on the whole, a very admirable character. One must always remember he was a churchman.

In his life, and in those of his predecessors, Adzer and Eskil (1100-11176), as well as in those of many other ecclesiastics of that age, the student fond of such things, will find plenty to interest him. They often combined with great outward activity, and what one must regard as unwarrantable ecclesiasticism, a delightful degree of deep devotion, and “pure contemplation. “The inner life was not unattended to; they were men of faith and prayer.

One fancies that the pulpit ministrations of that era must oftentimes have been very charming. But indeed, so they were everywhere at that time; in this respect, I presume, Denmark differed less from other lands.


Thus in vicissitudes the church held on from its foundation until the time of reformation. In the beginning it was very good ; afterwards it deteriorated ; but at all times it had spots of light here and there, shining more or less brightly as they drew more or less straight their illumination from the white cross St. Ansgar had extended over the lands. At the Reformation there was much to clear away, and it was pretty effectually managed on the whole. It was doubtless at the time an immense gain to Denmark that it enjoyed the labors of Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558), the great German reformer, because at home they had no one fitted to head such a movement, most of the superior clergy being against it; but in some respects it has not been an advantage that they so directly received the Reformation from Germany, inasmuch as it gave a much more German direction to the Danish church than it had had before. This direction it did not lose for ages, if even now the impression be quite effaced. Connected with the Reformation in Denmark are sundry curious points for the student of church history, such, for instance, as the fact that it sprung to so great an extent from the court, and neither from the people nor clergy, &c.

For two centuries and a half after the Reformation, the church of Denmark followed the course of most others; a course well known not to have been a subject for gratulation. Many godly persons it doubtless had in its communion, but fewer and fewer as the time went on. What traces it has now left of its vitality during that period are small in number. That among private persons in particular, there were many faithful is doubtless, but they were more numerous at first than afterwards.

Two very costly inheritances from those centuries, to which the modern church has succeeded, are the volumes of hymns by the Bishops Kingo and Brorson. These two productions are great treasures now for evermore, and the church that had the first use of them cannot certainly be said to have been poor. The effect of such hymns is quite incalculable; how many times they have sustained faith, and expressed believers’ sentiments, when such sentiments must have expired for want of expression, is what we can never know. It is a good thing that hardly any nation is without a treasure of hymns. But it is an odd enough thing that every nation thinks no other church can be as well off in that respect as its own. In Great Britain, we believe our own hymns to be the best in the world. Ask the Germans whether they do not think the same of theirs? And I can answer for the Danes being firmly persuaded that scarcely any language is so rich in hymn literature as Danish.

Towards the close of last century, the progress of stupor was complete, and vital Christianity seemed to have departed from the land. Formalism was at its height, and, oddly enough, bigotry appeared to accompany it.

But with the century, men slept their sleep outright. The beginning of the present beheld a change, and that of a vital sort; though, perhaps, the generation that then was, discerned not what grew up in their very midst, and what the future was to unfold. But the airs of heaven had blown over the generation, and had breathed life into some of its young and receptive hearts.

Mynster to Kierkegaard

The man who unquestionably has had most to do in this work of replanting and rewatering the Faith of Christ in Denmark during this now completed half century, is the present venerable Bishop of Copenhagen, Dr. Jacob Peter Mynster (1775-1854). Him the Head of the church has honored to be the first and the chief in the exalted mission. In the second year of the century, he commenced his regular office as a preacher of the gospel, which office has been uninterrupted till the present moment.

His own heart being kindled by the inspiration of the spirit, and his intellect being wide awake he felt himself impelled to proclaim to his countrymen the same gospel which had wrought such a gladsome change in himself. So he began, with the word put in his mouth, and unmindful of what other men might object, fearlessly, in simplicity and godly sincerity, to preach that redemption by the blood of the cross which had so long been concealed and kept in silence. The results have been very wonderful. Many have been turned from darkness to light; but in particular, the effect upon those who should enter the ministry has been invaluable. Now the everlasting gospel is again proclaimed in many churches over the length and breadth of the land; this was not the case a generation ago.

One can fancy that it was not without misgivings and self-questionings that a young man commenced a course so different from that of his fellows. Should he alone be right? In our ages, direct commissions from on high are not given; the more difficult for a messenger to be sure he is sent, and what he is sent for. Yet the clearly revealed word of God allowed of no doubt.

In a youthful letter to Oehlenschlager about some poems of the latter, I find Mr. Mynster, saying, ”I also design, God willing, to open my mouth, and that in divers ways, certainly first to try what echo will answer my voice; but it shall not be quite in vain, for I know that I am among the called, and I muse day and night, in watching and prayer, that I may also become one of the chosen.” This object he speedily attained; and from that time until the present, there has been no cessation of that gentle but loud and solemn voice persuading men everywhere to repent. In speaking and in writing, Christ crucified has been the beginning and the ending, the first and the last.

Dr. Mynster’s printed works are pretty voluminous. I remember, soon after reaching Denmark, being advised to read his “Contemplations, as one of the finest things in the language.” This is true, especially as far as prose is concerned. It is a book which has been peculiarly useful, in making men see something attractive, something beautiful, in true Christianity. In its solemn and elevated tone, it reminds me now and then of Hervey. But it is entirely different in design, as Dr. Mynster’s “Contemplations” go over a large surface of Christian truth. Many printed sermons are even finer than the “Contemplations.” In fact, a few of Dr. Mynster’s sermons are in their own way quite matchless.

Dr. Mynster was at first a country clergyman. After that, he was removed to the much more influential position of incumbent of the church of Our Lady in Copenhagen. Finally, he was elevated to the See of Copenhagen, and Primacy of Denmark, which station he has now filled for a number of years.

Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), also, has been a remarkable agent during the present century. He commenced about the year 1810. At that period, Rationalism was as yet little shaken, and he set about with might and main to attack it. He had previously occupied him- self solely with poetry; when the Faith laid hold of him, and it seemed to him a sin that he should be taken up with mythology, while the pastors of God’s flock were neglecting their duty. So he stepped forward as polemic, asserting the faith against all human might and reason. He was too loud for the times and got into difficulties from the enmity of the Rationalistic party. In fact, for many years he was not a pastor of the National Church at all.

But these matters which, after all, have not directly to do with the revival of religion in this century, I must omit, as it is far too extensive a subject. Besides, Grundtvig’s position, his controversy with Clausen, and other things, have been repeatedly put in print in England, which makes it the less needful for me to do so.

Grundtvig has always had, and retains to this day, extraordinary powers as a preacher. He is what one would call stirring. In fact, this quality of stirringness. In fact (the raking and shaking through of everything) is characteristic of him altogether. His sermons, even now when his voice has become very feeble, are sometimes extremely exciting. He has remarkable views of truth.

Besides the power which his preaching has had in commending certain parts of truths to men’s minds and in making men thinks the great influence which Grundtvig has exerted has been as a controversialist. He has from first to last fought against Rationalism in every form. Doubtless this was also a very important vocation in such times, and we must bear it in mind when looking at Grundtvig as a theologian. He has gone into extremes which he could scarcely have done had he not been obliged to oppose the reverse in others. He entertains many views which evangelically-minded men must regard as having a tendency towards error, and some which we would altogether pronounce false. For instance his extraordinary ideas of the forms connected with baptism as necessary to the valid administering of that rite, the “seven questions,” &c., as if aught more could be necessary than the form our Lord laid down, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The questions and profession of faith may be very good and excellent, but certainly they are not necessary. His views about the “living word,” the all-importance of preaching, and many others, bear also the stamp of exaggeration.

Grundtvig is eminently not critical, but traditional. This is also by way of opposing the Rationalists. There is much worth investigating in the tendency of his views, but this book is evidently not the place for it, and perhaps I have already said too much. He has been a very valuable man as an opponent and destroyer of unbelief, but he has not succeeded so well in building up. There is too much of the Son of Thunder in him for the latter purpose; indeed he has often knocked down theories of his own very soon after he had raised them. And, in fact he has too many theories about the church, missions reading of the Bible, &c. He does not himself put the Bible into the hands of an unconverted person, because there is no hope such a person can understand it. It was written for the church, and must be expounded orally by a believer, because faith cometh by hearing, &c. Hence he does not think the Spirit of God doth instruct in the reading of the Word.

Grundtvig’s great idea is that of “The Faith once delivered to the Saints.” To preserve this in its purity is his grand aim. His errors must be forgiven on account of the useful work he has done. There is something very splendid about the man’s power. And I must again comment upon his hymns as those of this century, which raise its rank to that when Kingo and Brorson sang. Many of Grundtvig’s are the finest in the language; others, again, are in bad taste.

Dr. Mynster’s grand idea I should call, “The Gospel, the power of God unto salvation.” I have said Grundtvig’s was ” The Faith once delivered to the Saints.” I think from these two sentences, in some measure, a fair idea may be had of the difference between the two men. And it will be perceived how much more fitted for all times and eras the former is, how much more universal it is; while the latter is for an era, a limited time, a time of controversy.

I said there were many devoted clergyman now. Some are zealous disciples of Grundtvig, but his views are not fitted to make a lasting, though they do make a deep impression.

Among younger theologians of the orthodox school, the most distinguished is Professor Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-1884). His “Meister Eckhart,” and his sermons, and other writings, had earned him a high name, even before his “Dogmatik” appeared, which took place during my stay. He is striking as a preacher as well as a professor. Martensen seems acknowledged even by the German divines, who are not in general very frank to own foreign merit, as a theologian of high significance.

The former history of the Danish church has been learnedly written by the late Bishop Friedrich Münter (1761-1830), a very accomplished man. I have derived a great deal of information from his volumes, “The History of the Church in Denmark ” (written in German), and the “History of the Reformation in Denmark.” But the former work he left incomplete; and it were to be wished that there was a history coming down to recent times.

I ought to have mentioned that when Scania was cut off from Denmark, the latter country, as a necessary consequence, lost its archbishop, and now the Bishop of Copenhagen is Primate of Denmark. And the see of Lund, from being the seat of the primacy of all Scandinavia, dwindled down into a simple bishopric, subject to the archbishopric of Upsala, which is now the metropolitan see of Sweden. Denmark has now eight dioceses.

There is a man whom it is impossible to omit in any account of Denmark, but whose place it might be more difficult to fix, I mean Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). But as his works have, at all events for the most part, a religious tendency, he may find a place among the theologians. He is a philosophical Christian writer, evermore dwelling, one might almost say harping, on the theme of the human heart. There is no Danish writer more in earnest than he, yet there is no one in whose way stand more things to prevent his becoming popular. He writes at times with an unearthly beauty, but too often with an exaggerated display of logic that disgusts the public. All very well, if he were not a popular author, but it is for this he intends himself.

I have received the highest delight from some of his books. But no one of them could I read with pleasure all through. His “Works of Love” has, I suppose, been the most popular, or, perhaps, his “Either —Or,” a very singular book. A little thing published during my stay, gave me much pleasure, “Sickness unto Death.”

Kierkegaard’s habits of life are singular enough to lend a (perhaps false) interest to his proceedings. He goes into no company, and sees nobody in his own house, which answers all the ends of an invisible dwelling; I could never learn that anyone had been inside of it. Yet his one great study is human nature; no one knows more people than he. The fact is he walks about town all day, and generally in some person’s company; only in the evening does he write and read. When walking, he is very communicative, and at the same time manages to draw everything out of his companion that is likely to be profitable to himself.

I do Dot know him. I saw him almost daily in the streets, and when he was alone I often felt much inclined to accost him, but never put it into execution. I was told his “talk” was very fine. Could I have enjoyed it, without the feeling that I was myself being mercilessly pumped and sifted, I should have liked very much.

Sixteen Months in the Danish Isles by Andrew Hamilton Vol II Published 1852 Chapter XIV. p. 254-270




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