Menneske først - Grundtvig og hedningemissionen


  • K. E. Bugge



First a Man - then a Christian. Grundtvig and Missonary Activity

By K.E. Bugge

The aim of this paper is to clarify Grundtvig’s ideas on missionary activity in the socalled »heathen parts«. The point of departure is taken in a brief presentation of the poem »Man first - and then a Christian« (1838), an often quoted text, whenever this theme is discussed. The most extensive among earlier studies on the subject is the book published by Georg Thaning: »The Grundtvigian Movement and the Mission among Heathen« (1922). The author provides valuable insights also into Grundtvig’s ideas, but has, of course, not been able to utilize more recent studies.

On the background of the revival movement of the late 18th and early 19th century, The Danish Missionary Society was established in 1821. In the Lutheran churches such activity was generally deemed to be unnecessary. According to the Holy Scripture, so it was argued, the heathen already had a »natural« knowledge of God, and the word of God had been preached to the ends of the earth in the times of the Apostles. Nevertheless, it was considered a matter of course that a Christian sovereign had the duty to ensure that non-Christian citizens of his domain were offered the possibility of conversion to the one and true faith. In the double-monarchy Denmark-Norway such non-Christian populations were the Lapplanders of Northern Norway, the Inuits in Greenland, the black slaves in Danish West India and finally the native populations of the Danish colonies in West Africa and East India. Under the influence of Pietism missionary, activity was initiated by the Danish state in South India (1706), Northern Norway (1716), and Greenland (1721).

In Grundtvig’s home the general attitude towards missionary work among the heathen seems to have reflected traditional Lutheranism. Nevertheless, one of Grundtvig’s elder brothers, Jacob Grundtvig, volunteered to become a missionary in Greenland.

Due to incidental circumstances he was instead sent to the Danish colony in West Africa, where he died after less than one year of service. He was succeeded by his brother Niels Grundtvig, who likewise died within a year. During the period when Jacob Grundtvig prepared himself for the journey to Greenland, we can imagine that his family spent many an hour discussing his future conditions. It is probable that on these occasions his father consulted his copy of the the report on the Greenland mission published by Hans Egede in 1737. It is a fact that Grundtvig imbibed a deep admiration for Hans Egede early in his life. In his extensive poem »Roskilde Rhyme« (1812, published 1814), the theme of which is the history of Christianity in Denmark, Grundtvig inserted more than 70 lines on the Greenland mission. Egede’s achievements are here described in close connection with the missionary work of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg in Tranquebar, South India, as integral parts of the same journey towards the celestial Jerusalem.

In Grundtvig’s famous publication »The Church’s Retort« (1825) he describes the church as an historical fact from the days of the Apostles to our days. This historical church is at the same time a universal entity, carrying the potential of becoming the church of all humanity - if not before, then at the end of the world. A few years later, in a contribution to the periodical .Theological Monthly., he applies this historicaluniversal perspective on missionary acticity in earlier times and in the present. The main features of this stance may be summarized in the following points:

1. Grundtvig rejects the Orthodox-Lutheran line of thought and underscores the Biblical view: That before the end of time the Gospel must be preached out into all comers of the world.

2. Our Lutheran, Biblically founded faith must not lead to inactivity in this field.

3. Correctly understood, missionary activity is a continuance of the acts of the Apostles.

4. The Holy Spirit is the intrinsic dynamic power in the extension of the Christian faith.

5. The practical procedure in this extension work must never be compulsion or stealth, but the preaching of the word and the free, uninhibited decision of the listeners.

We find here a total reversion of the Orthodox-Lutheran way of rejection in principle, but acceptance in practice. Grundtvig accepts the principle: That missionary activity is a legitimate and necessary Christian undertaking. The same activity has, however, both historically and in our days, been marred by unacceptable practices, on which he reacts with forceful rejection. To this position Grundtvig adhered for the rest of his life.

Already in 1826, Grundtvig withdrew from the controversy arising from the publication of his .Retort.. The public dispute was, however, continued with great energy by the gifted young academic, Jacob Christian Lindberg. During the 1830s a weekly paper, edited by Lindberg, .Nordisk Kirke-Tidende., i.e. Nordic Church Tidings, became Grundtvig’s main channel of communication with the public. All through the years of its publication (1833-41), this paper, of which Grundtvig was also an avid reader, brought numerous articles and reports on missionary activity. Among the reasons for this editorial practice we find some personal motives. Quite a few of Grundtvig’s and Lindberg’s friends were board members of the Danish Missionary Society. Furthermore, one of Lindberg’s former students, Christen Christensen Østergaard was appointed a missionary in Greenland.

In the present paper the articles dealing with missionary activity are extensively reported and quoted as far as the years 1833-38 are concerned, and the effects on Grundtvig of this incessant .bombardment. of information on missionary activity are summarized. Generally speaking, it was gratifying for Grundtvig to witness ho w many of his ideas on missionary activity were reflected in these contributions. Furthermore, Lindberg’s regular reports on the progress of C.C. Østergaard in Greenland has continuously reminded Grundtvig of the admired Hans Egede.

Among the immediate effects the genesis of the poem »First the man - then the Christian« must be mentioned. As already observed by Kaj Thaning, Grundtvig has read an article in the issue of Nordic Church Tidings, dated, January 8th, 1838, written by the Orthodox-Lutheran, German theologian Heinrich Møller on the relationship between human nature and true Christianity. Grundtvig has, it seems, written his poem in protest against Møller’s assertion: That true humanness is expressed in acceptance of man’s fundamental sinfulness. Against this negative position Grundtvig holds forth the positive Johannine formulations: To be »of the truth« and to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Grundtvig has seen a connection between Møller’s negative view of human nature and a perverted missionary practice. In the third stanza of his poem Grundtvig therefore inserted some critical remarks, clearly inspired by his reading of Nordic Church Tidings.

Other immediate effects are seen in the way in which, in his sermons from these years, Grundtvig meticulously elaborates on the Biblical argumentation in favour of missionary activity. In this context he combines passages form the Old and New Testament - often in an ingenious, original manner. Finally must be mentioned the way in which Grundtvig, in his hymn writing from the middle of the 1830s, more often than hitherto recognized, interposes stanzas dealing with the preaching of the Gospel to heathen populations.

Turning from general observations and a study of immediate impact, the paper considers the effects, which become apparent in a longer perspective. In this respect Grundtvig’s interpretation of the seven churches mentioned in chapters 2-3 of the Book of Revelation is of crucial importance. According to Grundtvig, they symbolize seven stages in the historical development of Christianity, i.e. the churches of the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the English, the Germans and the »Nordic« people. The seventh and last church will reveal itself sometime in the future.

This vision, which Grundtvig expounds for the first time in 1810, emerges in his writings from time to time all through his life. The most impressive literary monument describing the vision is his great poem, »The Pleiades of Christendom« from 1856-60.

In 1845 he becomes convinced that the arrival of the sixth stage is revealed in the breakthrough of a new and vigourous hymn-singing in the church of Vartov. As late as the spring of 1863 Grundtvig voices a contented optimism in a church-historical lecture, where the Danish missions to Greenland and to Tranquebar in South India are characterized as .signs of life and good omens.. Grundtvig here refers back to his above-mentioned »Roskilde Rhyme« (1812, 1814), where he had offered a spiritual interpretation of the names of persons and localities involved in the process. He had then observed that the colony founded in Greenland by Hans Egede was called »Good Hope«, a highly symbolic name. And the church built by the missionaries in Tranquebar was called »Church of the New Jerusalem«, a name explicitly referring to the Book of Revelation, and thus welding together his great vision and his view on missionary activity. After Denmark’s humiliating defeat in the Danish-German war of 1864, the optimism faded away. Grundtvig seems to have concluded that the days of the sixth and .Nordic. church had come to an end, and the era of the seventh church was about to commence. In accordance with his poem on »The Pleiades« etc. he localizes this final church in India.

In Grundtvig’s total view missionary activity was the dynamism that bound his vision together into an integrated process. Through the activity of »Denmark’s apostle«, Ansgar, another admired mis-sionary, the universal church had become a locally rooted reality. Through the missions of Hans Egede and Ziegenbalg the Gospel was carried out to the ends of the earth. The local Danish church thus contributed significantly to the proliferation of a universal church. In the development of this view, Grundtvig was inspired as well as provoked by his regular reading of Nordic Church Tidings in the 1830s.





Bugge, K. E. (2001). Menneske først - Grundtvig og hedningemissionen. Grundtvig-Studier, 52(1), 115–165.