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Grundtvig Redirected Denmark

Although censured by the Danish church, Grundtvig remained a one-man dynamo for religious and political change.

IN 1810, Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig reluctantly left a promising future in Denmark’s capital to assist his ailing father in the parish of Udby. He had achieved acclaim with a book on mythology and a successful drama. Before he could become his father’s assistant, however, he had to preach an admission sermon. When he published it three weeks later, every clergyman in Copenhagen signed a letter of censure against him. 

Grundtvig’s theme was “Why has the Word of God vanished from his house?” He observed that Denmark’s state-appointed clergy taught social improvements from the pulpit or extolled the beauties of nature but neglected faith. Grundtvig accused them of believing they could lay a better foundation than “Jesus is Christ.” 

Soon afterward, reading a history which spoke of “the withered cross,” Grundtvig was roused to make the passionate defense of the cross of Jesus that would mark his books, sermons, and endeavors the rest of his life. He immersed himself in the study of the Bible and old hymns. This prompted him to ask himself: “Are you yourself a Christian?—Have you the forgiveness of your sins?” His search for assurance almost drove him mad. 

When he finally settled the issue of his personal salvation, his attacks on rationalism and on unconverted clergy kept him in continual hot water. He was under censure by the established church most of his remaining years. His wife encouraged him to resign from the state church in 1826, although it could mean poverty, saying God will “know how to give us bread.” Her faith was vindicated when his book sales, state commissions (the king appreciated him even if the church did not), and a chaplaincy fed them. 

When Grundtvig died on this day, 2 September 1872, he had permanently changed Denmark through his revivalist spirit, historical writings, and a popular movement of educational reform that he led. He had also been influential in creating Denmark’s constitutional monarchy, and had written or translated over a thousand hymns. Typical of Grundtvig’s emphases on the Word and on Christ is his Christmas carol “Bright and Glorious is the Sky”: 

As a star God’s holy Word
Leads us to our King and Lord;
Brightly from its sacred pages
Shall this light throughout the ages
Shine upon our path of life.

Dan Graves

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