It is the 8th of September 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1783.
It was the year that the war of American independence came to a close. It was made official in Paris, but earlier in the year, the hostilities ended precisely eight years to the day that the fighting began at Lexington and Concord. The last British troops would leave New York later in the year. General George Washington, upon the cessation of hostilities, would retire from public life to his estate at Mt. Vernon. Washington voluntarily gave up his military command, something that foreign observers did not believe he would do. Fifteen years later, he would similarly surprise the world when he would voluntarily step down after two terms as president. As the war came to an end, the newly recognized United States signed various treaties with the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.
In 1783 a famous sermon by Yale President Ezra Stiles was printed and sold. The sermon was entitled, “The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor.” It might be forgivable for exaggerating your country’s place in the world after such a stunning military defeat, but this sermon went beyond a little nationalistic bravado. Instead, Stiles refers to the United States as a new Israel. While the “city shining on a hill” metaphor goes back to the first colonists, Stiles’s argument was more theologically insidious. Stiles argues that America will see the rise and fall of the anti-Christ, the conversion of the Jewish people, and return to the Holy Land. Stiles then believe that this will lead to the return of Christ and the 1000-year reign of peace on earth. Stiles would have no idea at the time that this peculiar eschatology and belief in America as the new Israel would become hallmarks of American Christianity for over two centuries.
In the same year in Germany, the man dubbed the “Jewish Luther,” Moses Mendelssohn, published his controversial tract on religious tolerance entitled “Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism.” The work reflected on the Haskalah, or “Jewish Enlightenment,” of which Mendelssohn was at the forefront. One of the most important arguments from this work is a tolerance for Jewish people, seeing them not as would-be usurpers or villains, but as rational religious citizens who deserve protection under the law. The work was controversial for its insistence that Judaism can be understood by reason alone.
And it was into this context, in 1783, that Nikolai Frederick Severin Grundtvig was born in Zealand in the Dano-Norwegian realm. The pastor and social reformer would become one of Denmark’s most famous sons. But to get there, he had to undergo a career of criticism and personal development.
Born to a Lutheran family, his father was an ordained minister, but Nikolai was unsure of his religious convictions. He studied theology at Copenhagen but found Icelandic poetry and sagas to hold his attention better. In his late 20s, Grundtvig’s spiritual struggles led to what he called his “Christian Awakening.” He began to write from this perspective, and his damning criticism of the rationalistic Danish clergy made it hard for him to find a pastorate anywhere. He went into the service of his aging father, helping him to run his church back home.
A conservative firebrand, he was popular in small circles, but seen as too reactionary for the mainstream. Later in life, Grundtvig began to espouse the theological and social ideals for which he would become known. Grundtvigianism stressed the importance of national identity, for religious freedom, and the creation of schools not in the tradition of the humanists but rather what we might call vocational training. Grundtvig believed that just as the Holy Spirit brings the church together, so too can a spirit of community spread by sharing in meaningful physical labor. Grundtvig would become a central figure in the Danish golden age. His folk schools spread across the world. And he was instrumental in the passing of the Danish Constitution based on popular representation in parliament. Perhaps only eclipsed by the famous Danes Hans Christian Anderson and Soren Kierkegaard, the name Grundtvig elicits pride from the Danes up to the present day. Grundtvig died in 1872, born on this day in 1783, Nikolai Grundtvig was 88 years old.
Grundtvig wrote or translated over 1,000 hymns. The reading for today is a stanza from his hymn “Holy Spirit, Still our Sorrow.”
Holy Spirit, still our sorrow,
In our hearts Thy light reveal,
Turn our darkness into morrow
And the fount of life unseal;
Give us comfort, strength and breath,
Light in darkness, life in death.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of September 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who loves all things Danish, especially the Entenmann's, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.