It is the 3rd of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1877.
There is a common practice of defining greatness by comparing someone to an established great in another field. We might call someone the DaVinci of landscape maintenance or the Michael Jordan of masonry… I could go on. We've done it before by calling Thomas Aquinas the Bo Jackson of the Middle Ages on this show. Aquinas rocked Philosophy and Theology like Bo knew Baseball and Football. Today we remember Hans Nielsen Hauge, a man who has been referred to as the "Martin Luther" of Norway. Being called "the Martin Luther of X" is not an unfamiliar comparison. Today we will examine that claim and know one of the most influential figures in modern Norwegian history.
On the 3rd of April in 1771, Hans Nielsen Hauge was born just outside of Oslo's modern day. Born into a family of 10 children, his father was a common peasant. Hans' mother, he recalled, was especially devout, and his home was a warm, pious Lutheran home. It was Lutheran because everyone was Lutheran. Norway adopted the Reformation in the 1530s when their King, Christian III, embraced Lutheranism, and thus all of his subjects did as well. Norway would not be independent for a few centuries, but in the Kalmar Union with the Swedes and Danish, they had a good degree of autonomy. IN 1661 The Norwegians introduced their local absolute monarch. This is the world into which Hauge was born.
Hauge was a farmer, carpenter, and later a budding figure in Norwegian industrialism… but we're going to leave that part out of the story for now. At the age of 25, Hauge had a mystical experience while working in a field. It was here that he would devote himself to a life of itinerant preaching to revive the Lutheran state church.
We've alluded to the difficulties of evaluating mystical experiences from a historical perspective. They are, by definition, something difficult, if not impossible, to verify. But we can look at the results…
So, to what did this experience lead? If Hauge is being called the 'Martin Luther of Norway," it must have been something.
Hauge's desire to travel the country and preach was thwarted by the Conventicle Act of 1741. This Act was signed into law by the Norwegian government with the express purpose of shutting down illegal religious gatherings. Under this law, any religious meeting must be announced, and a member of the state clergy must be presiding. Hauge was not a member of the state clergy. He wondered if the state should require or legislate something as holy and personal as one's faith. Don't get me wrong, Hauge was not an advocate for anything like religious freedom as we might understand it today. Instead, he wanted a "free church" not bound by state regulations.
(If you have heard of "free" churches, such as the E.V. Free church… the "free" refers to the fact that they are not "state" churches. We don't have state churches in America, but the moniker of "Free" church usually connotes a congregational polity and possible ties to a dissenting Nordic Lutheran tradition)
So the conventicle act made it hard to meet, but this didn't stop Hauge, who began a walking trip around Norway where he would knit as he walked from town to town. The "knitting preacher" would hold clandestine spirited meetings across in which he would talk about Luther's theology and its modern significance. Hauge stressed Luther's calls to freedom and his devotional use of Medieval mystics. The Norwegian government had also passed vagrancy laws designed to keep preachers such as Hauge from wandering far from home on unapproved business. The fear of a popular religious movement from the ground up led to these such laws, and Hauge was imprisoned more than a dozen times. In 1809 he was released from prison due to his previous work in desalinization… I told you there was a whole industrial side to him we aren't covering. Anyways, Norway needed salt because they had sided with Napoleon and the British punished them with a blockade… this got him out of jail, but then he started his illegal preaching again and was tossed back in the hole.
But the question we began with, "was Hans Nielsen Hauge" the "Martin Luther of Norway"? My answer: "sure, why not?"
A few points: he remained faithfully Lutheran his whole life regarding doctrine but wanted to break the grip of the state church. His popularity and the growth of a "Haugean" movement seem to suggest that he was successful. He may have been fighting against some Lutherans, but they were nominal Lutherans working for an absolute monarch. The spirit of Luther was not one of fealty to an authority standing between the individual and Christ. Hans Nielsen Hauge, also like Luther, has become a religious character that has since taken on great national importance for the Norwegians in both civic and religious life.
Hauge suffered while imprisoned, which was likely at the root of his later ill health and untimely death in 1824. The height of his movement also coincided with the Norwegian diaspora into America, making him a favorite of many Norwegian Lutherans… if you know Norwegian, ask them about the Knitting Preacher born on this, the 3rd of April in 1771.
The reading for today comes from the Norwegian hymn "Jesus, I Long for Thy Blessed Communion"… according to Hauge, it was the following stanza that he was ruminating on in that field in his 25th year…
Mightily strengthen my spirit within me,
That I may learn what Thy Spirit can do;
O take Thou captive each passion and win me,
Lead Thou and guide me my whole journey through!
All that I am and possess I surrender,
If Thou alone in my spirit mayst dwell,
Everything yield Thee, O Savior most tender,
Thou, only Thou, canst my sadness dispel.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man whose beard puts famed Norwegian explorer Leif Erickson's beard to shame. He is Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who used to confuse Leif Erickson and Leif Garret… true story. 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.