The Faith of Dag Hammarskjöld (by Kathleen McGregor)

CST student Kathleen McGregor

This post is written in conjunction with the Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.

In Becoming a Public Scholar, we have discussed what makes a public scholar, specifically, a religious public scholar. A public scholar is not only well educated, and an expert in his or her field, there is also an ability to serve and be respected as a public conscience. Dag Hammarskjöld served in a public role as Secretary General for the United Nations from 1953 until his untimely death in 1961. His book, Markings, was published posthumously in 1964. Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in the Congo, Northern Rhodesia, which is now known as Zambia on a peace mission. As recently as August 2011, nearly fifty years later, evidence suggests that he was assassinated.

Hammarskjöld was born to a prominent family in 1905. His father served as the prime minister of Sweden and other significant roles in Sweden and internationally. Hammarskjöld earned a bachelor of arts degree, a law degree and a doctorate in economics. He followed his father into civil service, which put him on what could only be termed a stellar career trajectory. In anticipation of his death, Hammarskjöld left his diary with a letter for publication.

Hammarskjöld’s public lectures were necessarily secular in nature. A credo he wrote for a radio program, though, revealed his faith. Markings details Hammarskjöld’s inner wrestling with creating meaning in his life, and the deep loneliness that was the result of sacrificing his personal social life for the greater good. He wrote, “For him who has responded to the call of the Way of Possibility, loneliness may be obligatory.” The theme of sacrifice emerges over and over. Yet, Hammarskjöld kept his public life and his contemplative life separate. Markings contains no details from his public secular life. Rather, the entries reveal a glimpse of what made him a human being.

The glimpse comes from the fragmentary character of Markings. The fragments are complete thoughts, but few are more than a paragraph long. I was attracted to his quotes long before graduate school. Still, his writings remind me of a bright child who completes her math homework, but does not show the work to get to the answers. The short thoughts, poetry, and prayers detail his struggle with his ego, his loneliness, and his desire to do God’s will. He also included quotes from mystics, writers, the Bible, and other sources that inspired him. Because he was intensely private, few realized that his inner calling was to take up the cross.

Hammarskjöld admonished himself, “Pray that your loneliness will spur you into something to live for, great enough to die for.” Still, other entries are short and beautiful, such as, “A landscape can sing about God, a body about spirit.” The man lived his faith. One can sense that Markings is both for himself, and in the entries towards the end of his life, for posterity. Hammarskjöld does not fit the profile of the modern, well-connected public scholar who is known for more than just their academic work. Still, he allowed his faith to inform his secular public work. He served as a conscience for the United Nations, and thus is a forerunner of the modern public scholar.

Kathleen McGregor is a student at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont Lincoln University and candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry. Her twitter accounts are @uukady and @uugreenbeaner. Her tumblr is

  • Steve Martin

    Thanks for a very interesting and informative piece about a man whom I had never heard of before.

    I’ll have to get a copy of ‘Markings’.

  • Sandie Richards


    Thank you for this overview of Hammarskjold’s life. I hadn’t realized that his death may have been an assassination rather than an accident. His ability to bifurcate expression of his inner life, and the secular work in which he engaged, shows a very disciplined mind, I think.

    What a shame that his life was ended too soon.

  • Wes

    Thank you Kathleen for this great reflection on Hammarskjold. I hadn’t considered, but your brought to light the almost sad way that he, apart form dying too young, represents a bygone era where public figures worked for a more just and equitable world and that their faith deeply informed this project, though was at the same intensely private. We see from Hammarskjold that below the calm exterior of a diplomatic statesmen, is a turbulent life of questioning and faith. It makes me wonder about all of the other powerful and influential people who also have a perhaps turbulent interior faith life and the task of public religious scholars to be in conversation with and offer spiritual care to such people.

  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Kathleen – Thanks for this blog post. I struggled while reading Hammarsjold’s piece, partly because I think I was hoping for a more linear account that blended his personal and private personas. It seems like it would have been incredibly difficult to keep the various spheres in your life so separate, but there is something intriguing about it, too. Today it feels like our tendency is to always intermix the two. Often on sites like Facebook, we find ourselves as “friends” with co-workers, family, true friends, acquaintances and all sorts of other folks. As some of us grow more comfortable with sharing more about ourselves more broadly, what might we lose? It’s certainly something to think about! Thanks for a good post.

  • Sheri Kling

    In an age when it is assumed that there be no boundaries between one’s public and one’s private life, or one’s public work and one’s private faith, it is interesting to read and reflect on Hammerskjold’s book “Markings.” Thanks for your informative blog and especially the link to the Guardian’s article on the assassination theory.

  • tripp fuller

    good point Sheri.
    i appreciated the post and glad to share it.

  • Trina Armstrong


    Thanks for your analysis of Hammarskjöld! Like Hannah, I too struggled with the fragmentary nature of “Markings”. Though, as one who has devoted my life to ministry and the personal sacrifices that come with answering the call, I really resonated with his thoughts. Your post helped me to reflect, for myself and in conjunction with reading Hammarskjöld’s thoughts, how challenging it is to be reminded in all facets of life no matter how we try to compartmentalize our identity, that call as often a fragmented life-long journey.