Danish hymnody

Reformation Hymnody

The Danish Reformation began quietly about 1520, and culminated peacefully in the establishment of the Lutheran church as the church of the realm in 1536. The movement was not, as in some other countries, the work of a single outstanding reformer. It came rather as an almost spontaneous uprising of the people under several independent leaders, among whom men like Hans Tausen, Jorgen Sadolin, Claus Mortensen, Hans Spandemager and others merely stand out as the most prominent. And it was probably this very spontaneity which invested the movement with such an irresistible force that within in a few years it was able to overthrow an establishment that had exerted a powerful influence over the country for more than seven centuries.

In this accomplishment Evangelical hymnody played a prominent part. Though the Reformation gained little momentum before 1526, the Papists began as early as 1527, to preach against “the sacrilegious custom of roaring Danish ballads at the church service”. As no collection of hymns had then been published, the hymns thus used must have been circulated privately, showing the eagerness of the people to adopt the new custom. The leaders of the Reformation were quick to recognize the new interest and make use of it in the furtherance of their cause. The first Danish hymnal was published at Malmø in 1528 by Hans Mortensen. It contained ten hymns and a splendid liturgy for the morning service. This small collection proved so popular that it was soon enlarged by the addition of thirty new hymns and appropriate liturgies for the various other services, that were held on the Sabbath day. Independent collections were almost simultaneously published by Hans Tausen, Arvid Petersen and others. And, as these different collections all circulated throughout the country, the result was confusing. At a meeting in Copenhagen of Evangelical leaders from all parts of the country, it was decided to revise the various collections and to combine them into one hymnal. This first common hymnal for the Danish church appeared in 1531, and served as the hymnal of the church till 1544, when it was revised and enlarged by Hans Tausen. Tausen's hymnal was replaced in 1569 by The Danish Psalmbook , compiled by Hans Thomisson, a pastor of the Church of Our Lady at Copenhagen, and the ablest translator and hymnwriter of the Reformation period. Hans Thomisson's Hymnal —as it was popularly named—was beyond question the finest hymnal of the transition period. It was exceptionally well printed, contained 268 hymns, set to their appropriate tunes, and served through innumerable reprints as the hymnal of the Danish church for more than 150 years.

Den Danske Psalmebog

Thus the Reformation, in less than fifty years, had produced an acceptable hymnal and had established congregational singing as an indispensable part of the church service. The great upheaval had failed, nevertheless, to produce a single hymnwriter of outstanding merit. The leaders in the movement were able men, striving earnestly to satisfy a pressing need. But they were not poets. Their work consisted of passable translations, selections from Pre-Reformation material and a few original hymns by Claus Mortensen, Arvid Petersen, Hans Thomisson and others. It represented an honest effort, but failed to attain greatness. People loved their new hymns, however, and clung to them despite their halting metres and crude style, even when newer and much finer songs were available. But when these at last had gained acceptance, the old hymns gradually disappeared, and very few of them are now included in the Danish hymnal. The Reformation produced a worthy hymnal, but none of the great hymnwriters whose splendid work later won Danish hymnody an honorable place in the church.

Hans Chrestensen Sthen, the first notable hymnwriter of the Danish church, was already on the scene, however, when Hans Thomisson's Hymnal left the printers. He is thought to have been born at Roskilde about 1540; but neither the date nor the place of his birth is now known with certainty. He is reported to have been orphaned at an early age, and subsequently, to have been adopted and reared by the renowned Royal Chamberlain, Christopher Walkendorf. After receiving an excellent education, he became rector of a Latin school at Helsingør, the Elsinore of Shakespeare's Hamlet , and later was appointed to a pastorate in the same city. In this latter office he was singularly successful. Lysander, one of his biographers, says of him that he was exceptionally well educated, known as a fine orator and noted as a successful author and translator. His hymns prove that he was also an earnest and warm-hearted Christian. The peoples of Helsingør loved him dearly, and for many years, after he had left their city, continued to “remember him with gifts of love for his long and faithful service among them”. In 1583, to the sorrow of his congregation he had accepted a call to Malmø, a city on the eastern shore of the Sound. But in this new field his earnest Evangelical preaching, provoked the resentment of a number of his most influential parishioners, who, motivated by a wish to blacken his name and secure his removal, instigated a suit against him for having mismanaged an inheritance left to his children by his first wife. The children themselves appeared in his defence, however, and expressed their complete satisfaction with his administration of their property; and the trumped up charge was wholly disproved. But his enemies still wanted to have him removed and, choosing a new method of attack, forwarded a petition to the king in which they claimed that “Master Hans Chrestensen Sthen because of weakness and old age was incompetent to discharge his duties as a pastor”, and asked for his removal to the parishes of Tygelse and Klagstrup. Though the king is reported to have granted the petition, other things seem to have intervened to prevent its execution, and the ill-used pastor appears to have remained at Malmø until his death, the date of which is unknown.

Sthen's fame as a poet and hymnwriter rests mainly on two thin volumes of poetry. A Small Handbook, Containing Diverse Prayers and Songs Together with Some Rules for Life, Composed in Verse , which appeared in 1578, and A Small Wander Book , published in 1591. The books contain both a number of translations and some original poems. In some of the latter Sthen readopts the style of the old folk songs with their free metre, native imagery and characteristic refrain. His most successful compositions in this style are his fine morning and evening hymns, one of which is given below.

The gloomy night to morning yields,

So brightly the day is breaking;

The sun ascends over hills and fields,

And birds are with song awaking.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Our grateful thanks to God ascend,

Whose mercy guarded our slumber.

May ever His peace our days attend

And shield us from troubles somber.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Redeem us, Master, from death's strong hand,

Thy grace from sin us deliver;

Enlighten us till with Thine we stand,

And make us Thy servants ever.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Then shall with praise we seek repose

When day unto night hath yielded,

And safe in Thine arms our eyelids close

To rest by Thy mercy shielded.

Lord, lend us Thy counsel and speed our days,

The light of Thy grace surround us.

Sthen's hymns all breathe a meek and lowly spirit. They express in the simplest words the faith, hope and fears of a humble, earnest Christian. The following still beloved hymn thus presents a vivid picture of the meek and prayerful spirit of its author.

O Lord, my heart is turning

To Thee with ceaseless yearning

And praying for Thy grace.

Thou art my sole reliance

Against my foes' defiance;

Be Thou my stay in every place.

I offer a confession

Of my severe transgression;

In me is nothing good.

But, Lord, Thou wilt not leave me

And, like the world, deceive me;

Thou hast redeemed me with Thy blood.

Blest Lord of Life most holy,

Thou wilt the sinner lowly

Not leave in sin and death;

Thine anger wilt not sever

The child from Thee forever

That pleads with Thee for life and breath.

O Holy Spirit, guide me!

With wisdom true provide me;

Help me my cross to bear.

Uphold me in my calling

And, when the night is falling,

Grant me Thy heavenly home to share.

Most widely known of all Sthen's hymns is his beloved “Lord Jesus Christ, My Savior Blest”. In its unabbreviated form this hymn contains eight stanzas of which the initial letters spell the words: “Hans Anno”; and it has become known therefore as “Sthen's Name Hymn”. The method of thus affixing one's name to a song was frequently practiced by authors for the purpose of impressing people with their erudition. The meek and anxious spirit that pervades this hymn makes it unlikely, however, that Sthen would have employed his undoubted skill as a poet for such a purpose. The hymn is thought to have been written at Malmø at the time its author encountered his most severe trials there. And its intimate personal note makes it likely that he thus ineradicably affixed his name to his hymn in order to indicate its connection with his own faith and experience. “Sthen's Name Hymn” thus should be placed among the numerous great hymns of the church that have been born out of the sorrows and travails of their authors' believing but anxious hearts. The translation given below is from the abbreviated text now used in all Danish hymnals.

Lord Jesus Christ,

My Savior blest,

My refuge and salvation,

I trust in Thee,

Abide with me,

Thy word shall be

My shield and consolation.

I will confide,

Whate'er betide,

In Thy compassion tender.

When grief and stress

My heart oppress,

Thou wilt redress

And constant solace render.

When grief befalls

And woe appalls

Thy loving care enfolds me.

I have no fear

When Thou art near,

My Savior dear;

Thy saving hand upholds me.

Lord, I will be

Alway with Thee

Wherever Thou wilt have me.

Do Thou control

My heart and soul

And make me whole;

Thy grace alone can save me.

Yea, help us, Lord,

With one accord

To love and serve Thee solely,

That henceforth we

May dwell with Thee

Most happily

And see Thy presence holy.

With Sthen the fervid spirit of the Reformation period appears to have spent itself. The following century added nothing to Danish hymnody. Anders Chrestensen Arrebo, Bishop at Tronhjem, and an ardent lover and advocate of a richer cultivation of the Danish language and literature, published a versification of the Psalms of David and a few hymns in 1623. But the Danish church never became a psalm singing church, and his hymns have disappeared. Hans Thomisson's hymnal continued to be printed with occasional additions of new material, most of which possessed no permanent value. But the old hymns entered into the very heart and spirit of the people and held their affection so firmly that even Kingo lost much of his popularity when he attempted to revise them and remove some of their worst poetical and linguistic defects. They were no longer imprinted merely on the pages of a book but in the very heart and affection of a nation.

Early Danish Hymnody

Danish hymnody, like that of other Protestant countries, is largely a child of the Reformation. The Northern peoples were from ancient times lovers of song. Much of their early history is preserved in poetry, and no one was more honored among them than the skjald who most skillfully presented their thoughts and deeds in song. Nor was this love of poetry lost with the transition from paganism to Christianity. The splendid folk songs of the Middle Ages prove conclusively that both the love of poetry and the skill in writing it survived into the new age. One can only wonder what fine songs the stirring advent of Christianity might have produced among a people so naturally gifted in poetry if the church had encouraged rather than discouraged this native gift.

But the Church of Rome evinced little interest in the ancient ways of the people among whom she took root. Her priests received their training in a foreign tongue; her services were conducted in Latin; and the native language and literature were neglected. Except for a few lawbooks, the seven hundred years of Catholic supremacy in Denmark did not produce a single book in the Danish language. The ordinances of the church, furthermore, expressly forbade congregational singing at the church services, holding that, since it was unlawful for the laity to preach, it was also impermissible for them to sing in the sanctuary. It is thus likely that a Danish hymn had never been sung, except on a few special occasions in a Danish church before the triumph of the Reformation.

It is not likely, however, that this prohibition of hymn singing could be effectively extended to the homes or occasional private gatherings. Hans Thomisson, who compiled the most important of the early Danish hymnals, thus includes five “old hymns” in his collection with the explanation that he had done so to show “that even during the recent times of error there were pious Christians who, by the grace of God, preserved the true Gospel. And though these songs were not sung in the churches—which were filled with songs in Latin that the people did not understand—they were sung in the homes and before the doors”.

Most of these earlier hymns no doubt were songs to the Virgin Mary or legendary hymns, two types of songs which were then very common and popular throughout the church. Of the few real hymns in use, some were composed with alternating lines of Danish and Latin, indicating that they may have been sung responsively. Among these hymns we find the oldest known Danish Christmas hymn, which, in the beautiful recast of Grundtvig, is still one of the most favored Christmas songs in Danish.

Christmas with gladness sounds,

Joy abounds

When praising God, our Father,

We gather.

We were in bondage lying,

But He hath heard our prayer.

Our inmost need supplying,

He sent the Savior here.

Therefore with praises ringing,

Our hearts for joy are singing:

All Glory, praise and might

Be God's for Christmas night.

Right in a golden year,

Came He here.

Throughout a world confounded


The tidings fraught with gladness

For every tribe of man

That He hath borne our sadness

And brought us joy again,

That He in death descended,

Like sun when day is ended,

And rose on Easter morn

With life and joy reborn.

He hath for every grief

Brought relief.

Each grateful heart His praises

Now raises.

With angels at the manger,

We sing the Savior's birth,

Who wrought release from danger

And peace to man on earth,

Who satisfies our yearning,

And grief to joy is turning

Till we with Him arise

And dwell in Paradise.

The earliest Danish texts were translations from the Latin. Of these the fine translations of the well known hymns, “Stabat Mater Dolorosa”, and “Dies Est Laetitia in Ortu Regali”, are still used, the latter especially in Grundtvig's beautiful recast “Joy is the Guest of Earth Today”.

At a somewhat later period, but still well in advance of the Reformation, the first original Danish hymns must have appeared. Foremost among these, we may mention the splendid hymns, “I Will Now Hymn His Praises Who All My Sin Hath Borne”, “On Mary, Virgin Undefiled, Did God Bestow His Favor”, and the beautiful advent hymn, “O Bride of Christ, Rejoice”, all hymns that breathe a truly Evangelical spirit and testify to a remarkable skill in the use of a language then so sorely neglected.

Best known of all Pre-Reformation songs in Danish is “The Old Christian Day Song”—the name under which it was printed by Hans Thomisson. Of the three manuscript copies of this song, which are preserved in the library of Upsala, Sweden, the oldest is commonly dated at “not later than 1450”. The song itself, however, is thought to be much older, dating probably from the latter part of the 14th century. Its place of origin is uncertain, with both Sweden and Denmark contending for the honor. The fact that the text printed by Hans Thomisson is identical, except for minor variations in dialect, with that of the oldest Swedish manuscript proves, at least, that the same version was also current in Danish, and that no conclusion as to its origin can now be drawn from the chance preservation of its text in Sweden. The following translation is based on Grundtvig's splendid revision of the song for the thousand years' festival of the Danish church.[1]

With gladness we hail the blessed day

Now out of the sea ascending,

Illuming the earth upon its way

And cheer to all mortals lending.

God grant that His children everywhere

May prove that the night is ending.

How blest was that wondrous midnight hour

When Jesus was born of Mary!

Then dawned in the East with mighty power

The day that anew shall carry

The light of God's grace to every soul

That still with the Lord would tarry.

Should every creature in song rejoice,

And were every leaflet singing,

They could not His grace and glory voice,

Though earth with their praise were ringing,

For henceforth now shines the Light of Life,

Great joy to all mortals bringing.

Like gold is the blush of morning bright,

When day has from death arisen.

Blest comfort too holds the peaceful night

When skies in the sunset glisten.

So sparkle the eyes of those whose hearts

In peace for God's summons listen.

Then journey we to our fatherland,

Where summer reigns bright and vernal.

Where ready for us God's mansions stand

With thrones in their halls supernal.

So happily there with friends of light

We joy in the peace eternal.

In this imperishable song, Pre-Reformation hymnody reached its highest excellence, an excellence that later hymnody seldom has surpassed. “The Old Christian Day Song” shows, besides, that Northern hymnwriters even “during the time of popery” had caught the true spirit of Evangelical hymnody. Their songs were few, and they were often bandied about like homeless waifs, but they embodied the purest Christian ideals of that day and served in a measure to link the old church with the new.

[1]Other translations: 
“O day full of grace, which we behold” by C. Doving in “Hymnal for Church and Home.” 
“The dawn from on high is on our shore” by S. D. Rodholm in “World of Song”.