The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig
1783-1872

Photograph of Nikolai Frederik Severin GrundtvigNikolai F. S. Grundtvig, known as the "Poet of Whitsuntide," was born September 8, 1783 in Udby, Denmark. His father was one of the few Lutheran pastors who had remained faithful to the evangelical truth which was being threatened by Rationalism. Therefore, Grundtvig was brought up in a household where the spirit of true Christian piety reigned. While attending the University of Copenhagen, he came under the influence of "New Theology", and hence gave up his aspirations to become a minister, lost all interest in religion, and completed his education "without spirit and without faith." Soon Grundtvig began to see the spiritual poverty of the people. There seemed to be no sense of morality in the world and a spirit of indifference was prevalent.

At the age of 20, he graduated from the University of Copenhagen with a degree in theology. At the University, he became absorbed in poetry and Norse mythology, and became convinced that poetry speaks to the spirit of man more richly than prose, and is the medium of choice for conveying and expressing spritual truth. His book, Mythology of the North, published in about 1808, promotes this thesis.

In 1810, while teaching history in a school for boys, Grundtvig's father (who was ill) asked him to come to Udby to be his assistant. Grundtvig agreed and began preparing for the ministry. In his probation sermon, "Why has the Lord's Word disappeared from His House?" and which was preached before censors, he blasted the prevailing spirit of rationalism among the Danish clergy. In it, he announced that the Word of God had departed from its house in the Danish church. He went on to charge that secularism had corrupted the church by making human beings so proud that they felt they could discover the truth with the aid of Holy Scripture. Not surprisingly, the sermon annoyed the ecclesiastical authorities, especially his own bishop who vetoed Grundtvig’s assignment to his home congregation.

Because of this controversy, Grundtvig was not ordained until 1811, but he continued to assist his father until his father's death in in 1813. Though he was ordained, he was not given a congregation and even refused permission to confirm his own children. Because of the outcry from his two sermons, he abandoned the pulpit in 1826. He was reinstated in 1839 and accepted a position as chaplain at a home for aged women, a post which he retained for the next 33 years until his death. He wrote voluminously and authored over 1,000 hymns.

Engraving of Nikolai Frederik Severin GrundtvigGrundtvig's career was at times stormy and controversial. His theological positions were often challenged, but in spite of this, he was able to infuse new spiritual life into a spiritually depleted Church. Grundtvig's strongest hymns dealt with the Church and the Sacraments. He wrote primarily hymns of the Spirit which contained some of the most profound theological themes, yet possessed the most lovely lyrics. His hymns constantly emphasized the Word of God as the one and only rule and guide for the believer. Grundtvig's heaviest hymn-writing period was 1837 to 1860 as he wrote many hymns; publishing Sang-Værk til den Dansk Kirke. Two of his more well-known hymns are "Built On a Rock, the Church Doth Stand" and "God's Word is Our Great Heritage."

Grundtvig also produced a significant body of Christmas music in Danish, including:

His leadership helped to bring about the establishment of free public high schools for the masses in 1844, and the peaceful introduction of parliamentary government (retaining the monarchy) in 1849. In 1861, he was made a bishop, but without a diocese.

On September 1, 1872, when nearly 89 years old, he conducted his usual worship services in his church at Vartov. On the following day he passed away while sitting in his chair listening to his son reading to him. Grundtvig will always be remembered as the greatest historian, poet, educator, religious philosopher, hymn-writer, and folk leader that Denmark has ever produced.

His theological works, hymns, and other writings which, among other things, encouraged public schools, or folk high schools in Denmark and the other countries in Scandinavia, had a profound impact on the Danish nation and culture. He was a member of the constitutional assembly in 1848 when Denmark became a constitutional monarchy. In 1861, he was appointed Bishop (but never received a diocese) and his influence continued to increase until his death in 1872.

His thought and work is still fundamental to any understanding of the modern Danish state or church, though he was less influential with Danish-Americans, especially the ones from the Inner Mission, as represented by the UELC. The "Happy Danes" (Grundtvig supporters, as opposed to the "Gloomy Danes"), however, represented by Grandview College and the heirs of the AELC, consider themselves Grundtvigian even today. They are still constituted as a special interest group in the ELCA and have a society that still meets. One of their most significant centers is in Tyler, Minnesota.

He died September 2, 1872, at Copenhagen, Denmark, and was buried September 11, 1872. After a funeral in Copenhagen (Vor Frelsers kirke on Christianshavn), the coffin was taken by train to the town of Køge. The burial site was about three kilometers outside town, at the farm of Gl. Køgegaard, in a garden named Claras Have.

Many more of Grundtvig's hymns can be found at Gamle Danske Sange and Grundtvig: salmer i udvalg (Project Runeberg).

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And other assorted sources.

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