Holger Christian Begtrup (1859-1937)

Grundtvigian folk high school leader, MA theology 1880, teacher at Askov Folk High School 1882-95, headmaster of Frederiksborg Folk High School 1895-1925, scholar of Nordic philology, expert on N.F.S. Grundtvig’s philosophy of history, brother to Eline Begtrup.

In the 1880s, a young Holger Begtrup was a popular teacher at Askov Folk High School. He inspired the students by introducing modern realistic literature and debating contemporary political and social issues in his literature lectures. In contrast to most Grundtvigians at that time, he was open to some of the ideas advocated by Georg Brandes and his followers. After the turn of the century, he became the leading N.F.S. Grundtvig scholar of the folk high school movement and an influential interpreter of Grundtvig’s legacy. In 1886, he made a strong signal in a lecture at a clerical meeting when he admitted that Christians had something to learn from modern science and books by freethinkers. He argued that contemporary scientific theories of inheritance fitted well with biblical ideas of original sin and restricted will. Begtrup’s attempt to include ideas associated with Brandes and positivism in the intellectual baggage of the Grundtvigians did not pass unnoticed. He was strongly attacked by fellow Grundtvigians and the conservative press which accused him of free thought and atheism. His employer Ludvig Schrøder found it necessary to publish a moderate version of Begtrup’s speech to calm things in Nutidsspørgsmål [Contemporary Issues] (edited by L. Schrøder, Copenhagen: Karl Schønbergs Forlag, 1887). These polemics made Begtrup pipe down, and he only addressed modern biological science again after the turn of the century, now headmaster of his own folk high school, when he publicly defended the teaching of Darwinism in Højskolebladet [The High School Magazine]. In 1909 he published Det Danske Folks Historie [The History of the Danish People] (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1909). Here Holger Begtrup reinterpreted Grundtvig’s idealistic framework by restricting his Geistesgeschichte to nineteenth-century Denmark, and he thus gave up the immense scope of writing a universal history in line with Grundtvig. Begtrup’s former headmaster Schrøder had loyally taught his students Grundtvig’s Haandbog i Verdens-Historien [Handbook in World History] including literal interpretations of Scripture. However, after the breakthrough of historical criticism, which among other things had questioned the originality and authenticity of Grundtvig’s favourite topics, the Old Testament and the Nordic Sagas, the ambition of writing a universal history could not be maintained among the younger generation of university-trained Grundtvigians. In his historical work, Begtrup accepted the theory of evolution and honoured Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, as excellent scientists, while he warned against the materialist conclusions drawn by the ‘fanatical’ German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. Begtrup insisted that evolutionism now had become the working hypothesis in all branches of science, but calmed his readers that the exaggerations and excesses that followed its introduction by Brandes and J.P. Jacobsen in the 1870s had now been more or lest removed. Begtrup was a member of the Liberal Party and embraced progressive ideas in line with the teleological view on history unfolded by Grundtvig. However, he did not, in contrast to many liberal theologians in America and Britain, advocate progressive evolutionism in an attempt to reconcile Darwinism and Christianity. Instead he restricted his discussion of evolution to the scientific results that the theory had entailed. This was a typical strategy for Grundtvigians accepting Darwinism.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

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