Nicolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872)

Historian, poet, educational thinker and clergyman, MA theology 1803, ordained 1811, pastor at the church of the Vartov Hospital 1839-72.

N.F.S. Grundtvig was the ideological father of the folk high school movement which gained momentum from the 1860s and was instrumental in educating and enlightening the rural youth. He also introduced a specific Danish version of Lutheranism which developed into mainline and broad-church Protestantism during the twentieth century. Although Grundtvig’s writings include more than a thousand texts and many thousand pages, he never explicitly discussed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was known in Denmark from the 1860s and much debated at the time of Grundtvig’s death in 1872. He did, however, before as well as after 1859 criticise naturalistic conceptions of man, and insisted that man was not an ape but rather a ‘divine experiment of dust and spirit’ as he phrased it. In general, Grundtvig was highly critical of the natural sciences of his day, and they were not included in his educational concept of Bildung. Influenced by German enlightenment thinkers such as Johan Gottfried Herder, his ideas formed a synthesis of idealistic philosophy of history, Christianity, nationalism and liberalism. He understood history as a progressive, teleological process and the unfolding of the Creator’s plan in which the peoples of the North were highly regarded as one of God’s chosen peoples. While in his historical writings Grundtvig interpreted Genesis literally and remained true to the pre-Copernican world picture, he distanced himself from mainstream Lutheranism by attacking bibliolatry in his theological writings. According to Grundtvig’s church view the central dogmas of Christianity were the two sacraments and the Apostolic Creed, while the Bible only played a secondary role. The words of Jesus and the resurrected Christ to his disciplines, Grundtvig emphasised, had founded the Christian Church and were older than the written letters of the Bible. This priority of the living word to what he called the dead letter was the cornerstone of Grundtvig’s theology and had a strong hold on his adherents. The ambiguity of Grundtvig’s literal interpretation of Scripture in his philosophy of history and his downplaying of the importance of the Bible in his theology became crucial to the reception of Darwinism among Grundtvigians. Through his adherents, Grundtvig thus played an important role in the Darwinian debates.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

Return to list of biographies