Peter Nielsen Petersen (1846-1916)

Grundtvigian clergyman, MA theology 1872, reverend in Alslev in Western Jutland 1877-86, in Ågerup on Sealand 1886-1901 and in Copenhagen 1901-11.

P.N. Petersen was a moderate Grundtvigian clergyman who engaged in the Darwinian debates with his pamphlet Udviklingen – Kristendommen [Evolution – Christianity] (Copenhagen: Kirkeligt Samfunds Smaaskrifter, 1911) which was based on a lecture given at the annual assembly of the Grundtvigian movement in 1910. It was published by the Grundtvigian society Kirkeligt Samfund [The Church Society] which represented the conservative fraction of the Grundtvigian clergy. The society was critical towards theologically radical and politically liberal tendencies among neo-Grundtvigians. In his lecture, Petersen took an apologetic stance by emphasising the resonance between the history of creation and the theory of evolution. Drawing on the so-called gap-theory, he asserted that long periods of time had elapsed from the original creation of heaven and earth to the six days of creation outlined in Genesis 1:3-31. In this way he admitted an immense time span in which geological changes could occur. He also interpreted the days of creation as periods of 1,000 years in line with the statement in 2. Peter 3:8 that for God one day is like 1,000 years (the so-called day-age theory). Petersen pointed to the fact that the sequence of God’s creation of species, from reptiles, fish, birds and mammals to man, resembled the scientific history of evolution. Moreover, Petersen found it crucial to make a clear distinction between man and the animal world. To Petersen there existed a difference in kind, not merely in degree, between human beings and beasts, because man possessed spirit and language. These hallmarks of man were among the key doctrines of Grundtvigian theology and marked the divide between the competing ideologies of dualism and monism. In order to legitimise evolutionary ideas in a Grundtvigian context, Petersen also pointed to the analogy between N.F.S. Grundtvig’s developmental view in his philosophy of history and modern evolutionary views. Petersen’s apologetic argumentation and his acceptance of a limited version of evolution was in accordance with conservative Grundtvigian attitudes around 1900 and can be seen as a middle way between evangelical literalists and pro-Darwinian neo-Grundtvigians.

See ‘Not just breast-feeding animals: Grundtvigian Protestant responses to Darwinism in Denmark, 1859-1914’.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

Return to list of biographies