In Denmark not long ago, I was of course struck by the rich sense of history at every turn, by the roster of mighty leaders and epochal events. Speaking with Danes though, a foreigner might be surprised to find just how they rank these great figures. Kings, generals, inventors, writers? Yes, yes, plenty of those. Religious leaders – oh, isn’t that Kierkegaard’s house? Well, I suppose so – is he meant to be famous? – but let me take you to the real shrine. There – right there – is where Grundtvig lived! Yes, he might have touched these very stones.
You don’t go far in Denmark without meeting Grundtvig’s name, which is close to sacred in Danish religion, history, culture and language. All of which raises an interesting question for foreigners – who on earth was Grundtvig, and why have most of us never heard of him? (Both the ELCA and the Episcopal Church commemorate him, but non-specialists certainly do not know him).
Briefly, Nikolaj F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) was a Lutheran pastor, later a bishop, who (no exaggeration) created modern Denmark and its national consciousness. While the rest of the world knows his younger contemporary Kierkegaard, ordinary Danes themselves remember Grundtvig as the man of passionate, mystical faith who challenged the national church of his time. His writings placed God at the center of European history, and his astonishing collections of hymns revolutionized religious life. Grundtvig based his thought on the “living word” present in each congregation.
Far from solely being a religious reformer, Grundtvig was deeply involved in politics, leading campaigns for free public education and representative government. He also reinvented national literary consciousness, rooting Danish culture in ancient and medieval times – among other projects, he was a pioneering scholar of Beowulf and the early Anglo-Saxon poems.
He is also famous for his educational vision, creating authentic people’s schools whose students would participate fully in the wider society. Community, culture and national identity would come together in an all-encompassing synthesis. Through such means, he genuinely tried to bring the kingdom of God to the society he knew.
I’m struggling to think of a parallel for Grundtvig in any other nation. Some sources suggest Emerson, Carlyle, Abraham Kuyper, Robert Owen – but which of those reshaped national consciousness in anything like such a total way, and moreover transformed the country’s religious outlook?
Might Grundtvig be the greatest nineteenth century Christian leader we’ve never heard of?