Hans Henrik Hjermitslev. Journal of the History of Ideas. Volume 72, Issue 2. April 2011.
From the 1870s onwards, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in On the Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871), was an important topic among the followers of the influential Danish theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). The Grundtvigians constituted a major faction within the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Established Church, which included more than ninety percent of the population in the period 1859-1914.
This article demonstrates the influence of local contexts on the reception of scientific ideas by analyzing how specific aspects of Danish intellectual culture made the Grundtvigian reactions to Darwin’s theory different from Protestant denominations in America and Britain. Firstly, Grundtvig’s critique of Lutheran scriptural theology and his preference for the living word to the letters of the Bible legitimized liberal interpretations of Scripture. Secondly the philosophy of the Soren Kierkegaard protagonist, Rasmus Nielsen, made it possible for Grundtvigians to draw radical distinctions between science and faith. This specific “Danish Protestantism,” as the clergyman Frederik Jungersen phrased it in 1873, led the way for liberal Grundtvigians in coming to terms with Darwinism in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Protestant Responses to Evolution
In recent decades historians have paid considerable attention to religious responses to Darwinism. Studies have revealed a variety of reactions to evolution depending on local contingencies, which has made it impossible to uphold any grand narrative of the dissemination of Darwinism. In his study of Calvinist attitudes toward Darwinism in Princeton, Belfast, and Edinburgh, David N. Livingstone thus emphasizes the importance of place in the reception of evolution. The historical complexities shaped by local contexts have been further demonstrated by scholars, who have explored the responses to Darwinism in a wide range of Protestant denominations in Britain and America.4 From the 1870s, when evolution was generally accepted among British and American scientists, liberal and even some orthodox theologians advocated various kinds of theistic evolutionism. It was not until the 1920s that creationists, who rejected evolution in general and human evolution in particular, took center stage in American Protestant answers to the Darwinian challenge. While many Protestant theologians in the decades around 1900 accepted that God had created the living world, including man, through evolution, very few embraced the specific Darwinian mechanism of natural selection that was often said to have atheistic implications. Instead liberal theologians, in line with many naturalists, often applied Lamarckian concepts of use-inheritance and teleological development and prevalent ideas of progress that were seen as consistent with viewing evolution as a meaningful process and the unfolding of the Creator’s plan. According to James R. Moore, Peter J. Bowler, and Frederick Gregory this was the common way for liberal Christians to respond to organic evolution at least in the English-speaking world. It offered an acceptable compromise between science and faith. However, this article demonstrates that this strategy did not dominate in Denmark, where a separation model of science and faith was a more widespread approach when embracing the theory of evolution.
While studies by Jon H. Roberts and Ronald L. Numbers reveal considerable differences within the leading Protestant denominations such as Calvinists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists in their attitudes toward evolution, they detect no significant differences among the groups. Numbers notes however that “distinctive theological convictions sometimes influenced how people viewed Darwin’s theory.” This was especially the case when we move from the Protestant mainstream into distinctive groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists and the Pentecostals. In the case of the Adventists, their hyper-literalism and strong support for young earth creationism owed much to the inspired writings of their founding prophetess Ellen G. White, while the relative indifference to evolution among Pentecostals can be explained by their Wesleyan-Methodist focus on religious experience over the study of Scripture. Likewise, in a study of attitudes toward evolution within the British Quaker community, Geoffrey Cantor has shown how discussions of Darwinism between evangelicals and moderates centred on the relative importance that should be paid to the Bible versus the doctrine of the Inner Light. Emphasizingthe Inner Light and rejecting a literalist interpretation of the Bible, moderate Quakers in the closing years of the nineteenth century embraced the theory of evolution. In contrast to the conclusion drawn by Roberts and Numbers that denominational background was not decisive in the stances toward evolution among mainline Protestants, this article demonstrates how specific doctrines within the mainline Evangelical-Lutheran group of Grundtvigians had a crucial impact on how Danish Protestants conceded to Darwinism.
Studies by Jes Fabricius Müller and by Niels Henrik Gregersen and Peter C. Kjxrgaard have demonstrated the dominant role of Grundtvigian debaters in the religious responses to Darwinism in Denmark in the period 1859-1900. This article bears out Moller’s claim that, “[b]ecause of the broad recognition given to Rasmus Nielsen’s teachings it was thus possible to accept modern scientific knowledge and at the same time retain a dogmatic Christian faith.” Gregersen and Kjxrgaard argue, by contrast, that “Nielsen’s incommensurability thesis should hardly be seen as the dominating view.” By including popular weeklies and religious magazines hitherto neglected by historians and expanding the period under study to 1914, this article demonstrates, on the one hand, that the dissemination of Darwinism among Grundtvigians was not as peaceful as Moller suggests, and on the other hand, that Gregersen and Kjargaard underestimate the influence of Nielsen’s separation model. Moreover, the article argues that the Darwinian debates should be analyzed as part of a broader controversy in the periodical press between Grundtvigian editors and writers debating over issues such as biblical criticism and modern science.
Periodical literature has recently been the focus of much scholarly work. Historians have argued that “general periodicals probably played a far greater role than books in shaping the public understanding of new scientific discoveries, theories, and practices.” Periodicals reached a larger readership than books, and by their nature they were more dynamic as they often harboured conflicting opinions about cultural, political, theological, and scientific issues. Periodicals were multivocal: they contained articles by different contributors and often included letters from readers. This complexity of narratives makes periodical literature a fruitful place to look if we wish to understand how ideas such as Darwinism were received by reading audiences.
The Grundtvigians and Their Periodical Press
The clergyman, poet, historian, philosopher and liberal politician Grundtvig was extremely important for many aspects of religious and cultural life in nineteenth -century Denmark. From the 1830s, a devoted community of friends assembled at his pulpit in the church of the Vartov Hospital in Copenhagen. During the 1860s, theologians and school teachers took up Grundtvig’s educational ideas and founded more than a hundred folk high schools in rural Denmark providing liberal education based on Grundtvig’s concept of Bildung. Politically, the vast majority of the Grundtvigians supported the Liberal Party. They were thus allied with their cultural antagonists, the freethinkers associated with the literary critic Georg Brandes, in attempts to overthrow the conservative government which remained in power from the first free Constitution of 1849 until 1901.
Grundtvig was highly critical of natural science that was not included in his concept of Bildung. Influenced by German enlightenment thinkers such as Johan Gottfried Herder, his ideas formed a synthesis ofidealistic 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. In his world history, Grundtvig interpreted Scripture literally and appears never to have accepted the Copernican worldview. Grundtvig supported Georges Cuvier’s catastrophism and took the deluge as a historical fact. In his Haandbog Verdens-Historien (Handbook on World History) of 1833, he insisted that God’s six days of creation took place c. 6,000 years ago.
While in his historical writings Grundtvig understood Genesis literally, he distanced himself from mainstream Lutheranism by attacking bibliolatry in his theological writings. According to Grundtvig’s church view (kirkelige anskuelse), the central dogmas of Christianity were the sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, and the Apostolic Creed, while the Bible only played a secondary role. The words of Jesus and the resurrected Christ to his disciplines, Grundtvig emphasized, had founded the first congregation and were both older and more original than the written letters of the Bible. According to Grundtvig, the Church was not founded on the Holy Scriptures, as other Lutherans would have it, but on the living word of Christ, which had been handed down from Christian to Christian though history. 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.
Grundtvig never explicitly commented on Darwin’s theory, but since the 1830s he had occasionally criticized ideas of human evolution that were known in Denmark before Darwin’s time.16 In his 1862 Winter address at his folk high school Marielyst, hinting at ongoing debates about Darwinism, he emphasized that there existed an unbridgeable gulf between man and animals:
We are all Human beings, and not animals, people and not beasts, so even when we lay sucking unable to say anything, we were not breast-feeding animals, but breast-feeding babies, human babies. Therefore when erudite intellectuals want to make us believe that we are no better than puppies and kittens since we suck like them, then they might as well say that we are no better than chicken and goslings, since we walk on two feet like them.
The politico-theological landscape of Denmark in the second half of the nineteenth century was dominated by the Grundtvigians and another revivalist group, the evangelical Home Mission (Indre Mission). These homegrown revivalists stayed within the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Established Church, while Anglo-American revivalist movements such as Pentecostals, Adventists, Methodists, and Baptists remained marginalized and insignificant, like the Catholic and Jewish minorities, with only a few thousand members each. The Grundtvigians and the Home Mission both challenged high-church orthodoxy as defined by the bishops and the Faculty of Theology at the only Danish university in Copenhagen. In his widely translated work on Christian ethics, the prominent bishop and professor of systematic theology H. L. Martensen defended a cultural synthesis that included a unification of faith and knowledge, theology and philosophy, in a Hegelian scheme that had Christianity as the center of all cultural life. No doubt, Martensen’s conservative and holistic approach had many adherents among the silent majority of the established church, but it was also strongly attacked by Copenhagen freethinkers on the one hand and Christian philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard and revivalists on the other. The freethinkers dismissed all aspirations by theologians to control cultural life, while Kierkegaard, Grundtvigians and evangelicals attacked academic theology and called for a living faith. Kierkegaard insisted that Christ could not be reached by reason or included in any idealistic scheme and emphasized the individualistic and paradoxical character of faith. Kierkegaardian subjectivism, however, did not gain a foothold among the laity in the nineteenth century. Instead the two revivalist groups came to dominate Christian life in Denmark after mid-century. They had, however, very different views on the role of Christianity. The low-church Home Mission was strictly evangelical and preached personal confession, biblical literalism and puritan values, criticizing all engagement with profane culture, while the more liberal Grundtvigians sought to integrate Christian faith and folk culture. From the 1860s Grundtvigians and the Home Mission expanded rapidly in the country. Hundreds of houses for worship were built by supporters of the Home Mission, and equal numbers of village halls and folk high schools were opened by Grundtvigians.
Among the central issues that divided these factions were biblical criticism and Darwinism. Historical criticism of the Old Testament was not widely discussed in Denmark before the 1880s, when the moderate theologian Frants Buhl popularized historical studies that questioned the literal truth of Genesis. In the 1890s, however, the powerful leader of the Home Mission Vilhelm Beck, and High Churchmen made their influence count at the Faculty of Theology where the conservative dean Peder Madsen was very cautious that higher criticism should not disturb the beliefs of the students and the Danes in general. The popularization of biblical criticism was thus left to groups within the Broad Church, first and foremost the Grundtvigians, who were also the most vocal voices in the debates about Darwinism that simultaneously gained momentum in the decades around 1900. Notably, the periodicals associated with the Home Mission condemned biblical criticism and ignored Darwinism.
The Grundtvigians did not form a homogeneous group. Rather, this broad category included a wide variety of people ranging from learned theologians to school teachers and farmers. The Grundtvigian circles harboured many different views on politics, science and Darwinism. What united them was their dedication to Grundtvig’s theological and educational ideas, especially his emphasis on the Apostolic Creed as the cornerstone of Christianity and his vision of Bildung. The variety of opinions within Grundtvigianism was reflected in the widespread publishing activities. Often publications were based on lectures given at folk high schools and in village halls. These places of liberal education materialized the strong oral tradition embedded in the work of Grundtvig and his followers. However, the audience that could be reached by lectures had its limits. Normally, listeners at lectures could be counted in hundreds. In contrast, publications often reached thousands of readers, and they were thus of seminal importance for increasing the audience. Educational books were issued in large numbers, including at least four books on evolution in the period 1879-1915. However, while books were obviously important for influencing the opinions about Darwinism among Grundtvigians, the periodical press played a more crucial role. From 1845 to World War I, more than twenty Grundtvigian journals and magazines covering a wide variety of readers from Copenhagen theologians to the rural youth were introduced to the periodical market. Most of them were miscellanies containing information about the Grundtvigian movement, advertisements for schools, book reviews and articles on a wide range of topics. In line with Grundtvig’s priorities, most contributions discussed theological, historical and literary issues, whereas the natural sciences did not have a prominent position. However, Darwinism was among the topics that were occasionally discussed.
An analysis of eight Grundtvigian periodicals reveals a sophisticated debate on evolution and its religious consequences. The journals analyzed here range from highbrow theological monthlies to popular generalist weeklies. Dansk Kirketidende (Danish Church News) was launched by Grundtvig’s later successor in the Vartov Church, C.J. Brandt, who served as its editor in 1845-61 and again in 1873-89. Grundtvig was a prolific contributor and the journal was from the outset the mouthpiece for theologians with Grundtvigian leanings. The main issue was theology in its broadest sense, but natural science was also discussed. Contributors often criticized what they regarded as materialist consequences of contemporary science. In this context, Darwinism was touched upon. Generally, the contributors were among the conservatives within Grundtvigian circles, and the readers were mainly clergymen. While supportive of a moderate liberal line with radicals to left and the conservatives to the right in party politics, Dansk Kirketidende remained conservative in theological matters. Hence, the journal was orthodox Grundtvigian in the sense that it defended both Grundtvig’s traditional literalist interpretation of the Bible and his church view. This meant that it was hostile to biblical criticism questioning the historical accuracy of Scripture.
While Dansk Kirketidende remained an orthodox mouthpiece during the period under study, Hojskolebladet (The High School Magazine) was launched in 1876 as a forum for more liberal voices, politically as well as theologically. This generalist magazine had a broader scope than the highbrow Dansk Kirketidende, and contained articles from all walks of life. The publisher and long-time editor (1876-95, 1901-8) Konrad Jorgensen envisioned the weekly as an organ for the folk high school movement. Significantly, Hojskolebladet was not based in the capital, but in Kolding in rural Jutland, close to the high-profile folk high school in Askov near the German border. While Dansk Kirketidende was univocal—that is strictly controlled by the editors who often contributed themselves and published other articles anonymously—Hojskolebladet was an open platform publishing signed articles from both conservative and liberal contributors. Jorgensen was known for his tolerant attitudes toward all Grundtvigian opinions, and he did not write many articles himself. Critical voices thus criticized him for being “the man without face.” In reality, however, Hojskolebladet had an editorial line, primarily harbouring liberal voices, and it was often in conflict with Dansk Kirketidende on topics concerned with literary realism including naturalism and Darwinism. The most prolific contributor to Hojskolebladet from theearly 1880s to the 1920s was the theologian Valdemar Brücker, whose extremely liberal views on Scripture, morality and free thought generated much debate in the columns. Jorgensen and the editor from 1908 to 1958, Helge Skovmand, welcomed the controversial contributions from Brücker, both for ideological and pecuniary reasons. Thus Brücker’s articles played an important part in a rapid increase of subscribers from 1,800 in 1887 to around 5,000 in 1914. No doubt, the popularity of Hojskolebladet had much to do with the lively debates and the multivocal nature of the magazine.
Dansk Kirketidende and Hojskolebladet were the most important and long-lasting Grundtvigian periodicals. However, several other publications were launched. The highbrow For Idé og Virkelighed (ForIdea and Reality) was a Christian counterpart to Brandes’s mouthpiece Nyt dansk Maanedsskrift (New Danish Monthly) (1870-74) which advocated literary realism and scientific naturalism and published several enthusiastic articles on Darwin’s theory by J. P. Jacobsen, the translator of Origin of Species (1871-72) and Descent of Man (1874-75).26 The editors of For Idé og Virkelighed, including the professor of philosophy Rasmus Nielsen, tried to make Grundtvig’s ideas acceptable in the elite circles of Copenhagen. However, neither the radical intelligentsia nor the conservative bourgeoisie took Grundtvig’s vision to heart. As it went, most readers turned out to be Grundtvigian clergymen, teachers, and farmers in rural Denmark. For Idé og Virkelighed carried primarily signed articles on educational politics, culture and religion, but occasionally pieces on natural science including Darwinism appeared.
In the village of Askov a prominent folk high school had opened in 1865 and soon became a Grundtvigian flagship in rural Denmark. The headmaster Ludvig Schroder, a theological candidate, was an acclaimed expert on Grundtvig’s philosophy of history and a prolific writer in Hojskolebladet. Politically he was a liberal, while his views on Christianity were conservative and orthodox. He did not concede to biblical criticism and remained faithful to Grundtvig’s literalist interpretation of Scripture. Moreover, Schroder was extremely critical of scientific naturalism, literary realism, and other ideas associated with Brandes such as Darwinism. Schroder launched a number of journals including the highbrow Nordisk Maanedsskrift (Nordic Monthly) and the slightly more popular Danskeren (The Dane). These journals focused on the Grundtvigian core topics, history and literature, but they also carried a few articles on science. Darwinism was occasionally critically assessed in the Askov periodicals, which were important in defining attitudes toward controversial subjects such as evolution among Grundtvigians.
While the above-mentioned periodicals defined positions within mainline Grundtvigianism, the three publications discussed below represented extremes to the left and right of the Grundtvigian politico-theological spectrum. Tidens Strom (Contemporary Current) and Frit Vidnesbyrd (Free Testimony), edited and written primarily by the theologian Morten Pontoppidan, were univocal partisan organs for the so-called neo-Grundtvigians. Politically as well as theologically they were the most liberal group within Grundtvigianism. They were strong supporters of the Liberal Party and were often more critical of fellow Christians than of freethinkers. Hence, the neo-Grundtvigians criticized the first generation of Grundtvigians including Schroder in Askov for neglecting modern literature and science, and they opened the doors for both biblical criticism and Darwinism. Brücker was part of this intellectual movement and wrote several articles for Tidens Strom. The neo-Grundtvigians were instrumental in popularizing German higher criticism and in advocating Darwinism. Pontoppidan’s ultraliberal attitudes resulted in strained relations to orthodox Grundtvigians. In 1892, the preacher and Dansk Kirketidende editor from 1890 to 1903, J. H. Monrad, thus excluded him from the Eucharist at the Vartov Church. To Grundtvigians, Monrad’s drastic action revealed the fragmentation of their movement into orthodox and neo-Grundtvigian camps.
Folkelcesning Literature for the People) was at the far right of the Grundtvigian spectrum. This popular illustrated miscellany dedicated most of its space to short fiction, devotional pieces and educational articles, including a substantial number of articles on science. It was militantly orthodox, defending conservative values and traditional Lutheran faith against freethinkers and socialists. Through a wandering intellectual life, the editor Mads Jepsen was familiar with the prevailing cultural movements of his day. He had an evangelical background but turned to Brandesian free thought in the 1890s. When he launched the weekly in 1901, however, he had regained his Christian faith and now identified himself with the Grundtvigian camp. Folkelcesning thus harbored hagiographical articles on prominent Grundtvigians and many folk high school teachers contributed. Jepsen was also sympathetic to the Home Mission which he saw as an ally in his fierce polemics against the Brandes circle and neo-Grundtvigian modernists. According to one biographer, Jepsen’s “attacks were put forth so often and with such vehemence that they were viewed by many people as morbidities.” However, this militant style appealed to many Christians with orthodox Grundtvigian or evangelical leanings as indicated by adverts for both Grundtvigian and evangelical schools at the back pages. As part of his univocal editorial strategy defending Christian faith against free thought, Jepsen published several anti-Darwinian articles. Indeed, Darwinism was by far the most prominent scientific issue in the columns.
Orthodox Grundtvigian Responses to Evolution
In Dansk Kirketidende for 1874 and 1877, Brandt published translations from German criticizing the materialist aspects of contemporary science in general and Darwinism in particular. These responses were directed against vocal freethinkers such as Brandes and Jacobsen who were inspired by Ernst Haeckel’s anticlerical writings and advocated Darwinism as a worldview that should replace Christianity. The 1874 piece was a fragment of the Protestant theologian Theodor Christlieb’s attack on naturalistic conceptions of man, while the article appearing in 1877 was written by Brandt, but based on the 1876 edition of the Catholic theologian Franz H. Reusch’s work Bibel und Natur first published in 1862. Brandt conceded that animals might have evolved through time and made it clear that transmutation of species did not contradict Genesis. However, he insisted that evolution could not occur by “blind chance,” but needed “an eye of providence.”
Brandt then approached the controversial ape question. Drawing on the authority of the anthropologist Rudolf Virchow, the linguist Max Müller and the naturalist Jean Quatrefages, Brandt emphasized that man differed fundamentally from beasts due to language and spirituality. Brandt thus denied the simian origin of man. Furthermore he added that human evolution and the idea of progressive development of mankind from a savage beginning to modern Western civilization—a common notion among evolutionary anthropologists including Darwin—conflicted with the stories of the Bible and the religious myths of other peoples, all of which referred to a golden age at the beginning of history. The target of Brandt’s attack on Darwinism was the German materialists Carl Vogt, Ernst Haeckel, and Ludwig Büchner. In spite of their evolutionary naturalism, Darwin and Thomas Huxley were reviewed more favourably than especially Haeckel, who was accused of possessing a “fanaticism of infidelity” which had to be confronted head-on by theologians. Brandt’s conclusion was clear and uncompromising: “Most theologians and idealist philosophers consider Darwinism a theological and philosophical heresy from first to last and combat all connected investigations, since they are all of them impious and inane.”
The articles on Darwinism in Dansk Kirketidende in the 1870s were framed within the context of materialism versus idealism. The focus was on human evolution, rejecting man’s common ancestry with apes and emphasizing the uniqueness of man’s spirituality. In Dansk Kirketidende Darwin’s specific mechanism of natural selection and its challenge to natural theology and design were not the prime issues. Unlike their Anglican brethren, Danish Lutheranism in the nineteenth century did not embrace the idea of natural theology. Rather the reactions in Dansk Kirketidende demonstrate that the early Danish reception resemble the German case in which Darwinism was seen in the context of materialism and monism and as a threat to morality and not primarily to design in nature.
Like Dansk Kirketidende, the Grundtvigians in Askov positioned themselves against Darwinism. While the commentators in Dansk Kirketidende primarily dealt with philosophical aspects of Darwinism, these rural debaters were primarily concerned with the relationship between Scripture and evolution. From 1880, one of the few university trained natural scientists within Grundtvigian ranks, the physicist Poul la Cour, occasionally addressed the controversial issue in public lectures and in articles. Schroder, a biblical literalist in line with Grundtvig’s philosophy of history, had employed la Cour in 1878 whenthe school upgraded its emphasis on natural science. La Cour was a devout Christian and he was seen by Schroder as a much needed safeguard against positivism. While innovative in his historical teaching ofscience and in his work on wind turbines, la Cour’s progressivism did not include evolutionary theories. When in 1880 he was asked by Schroder to review the apologetic work on evolutionary geology Stenene rhbe (The Rocks Cry Out) by the clergyman J. N. L. Dalsgárd for Nordisk Maanedsskrift la Cour took an orthodox stance. Dalsgárd attempted to reconcile Scripture and geology by endorsing the so-called day-age theory, which suggested that the six days of creation should be interpreted as geological periods. La Cour criticized this and argued that the laws of nature were only introduced by God after He had put the rainbow on the sky as a sign of the covenant with Noah after the Flood. Hereby la Cour was able to uphold his literal reading of Genesis. Consequently, la Cour did not accept organic evolution, which he refused to teach in Askov. His rejection of evolution did not reveal any detailed knowledge of the topic. He had probably not studied Darwin’s works at first hand, since the holdings at the comprehensive library in Askov did not contain Darwin’s works before 1909. La Cour’s dismissal of evolution, which he repeated in Danskeren in 1888 and in a lecture in 1892, did not pass unnoticed. He was criticized by Jungersen, who warned against attempts to harmonize science and Scripture. Jungersen saw a danger in applying the Bible in criticisms of science, and argued that the realm of theology should be restricted from studies of nature. It will become clear in the next section that Jungersen was not the only Grundtvigian to claim this separation of theology from science.
In 1890 the multivocal Hojskolebladet engaged in the Darwinian debates by publishing an article critical of human evolution by the folk high school teacher Valdemar Bennike, who served at Vallekilde Folk High School from 1878 until his death in 1923. Following Grundtvigian idealism he insisted that spirit was the exclusive hallmark of man. He admitted, however, that body and soul were common features ofman and animal. For Bennike spirit was associated with language and free will. He emphasized the difference in kind between man and ape, defining the habits and body of the ape as a “disgusting distortion”of man. Primitive man was not a connecting link between man and ape, but a “degradation of the original image of God.” Bennike’s critical view on Darwinism was thus in line with Dansk Kirketidende and Askov attitudes.
While in the 1890s Dansk Kirketidende was mostly occupied with battling biblical criticism, after 1903 Darwinism became a popular topic as it had been in the 1870s. This was no coincidence. At the turn of the century it was discussed whether evolutionary theory should be part of the curriculum at secondary and high school levels, and a handful of popular proDarwinian works were published by anticlerical writers with radical or socialist sympathies. Now edited by the moderate theologian J. P. Bang, Dansk Kirketidende harbored relatively liberal views on biblical criticism. This did not mean, however, that the anti-Darwinian position weakened. In 1904 Bang and the clergyman H. P. H. Gjevnoe wrote critiques of the liberal theologian Eduard Geismar’s attempt to reinterpret Christianity in the light of evolution. While Bang dealt with theological issues in his article, Gjevnoe attacked what he regarded as Geismar’s unnecessary surrender to Darwinism including human evolution. Drawing on the writings of the Danish-German Jesuit high-school teacher and only Catholic debater of Darwinism in Denmark Amand Breitung, Gjevnoe denied any relationship between man and ape.
This line was followed by Folkelcesning. Jepsen frequently published articles, extracts from periodicals and book reviews criticizing Darwinism. In 1910, for example, Jepsen wrote a biographical article on Darwin, and supplemented it with a critique of anticlerical popularizers of evolution who sought to deprive the youth their childhood belief and thereby weaken their hopes and their moral sentiments. Likethe American creationists in the 1920s, the central issue for Jepsen was to protect children from what he regarded as atheistic consequences of Darwinism. Hence, his campaign was directed against popular naturalistic works on Darwinism and the apetheory which was seen by many Christians as the most problematic aspect of the theory of evolution. For his anti-Darwinian campaign, Jepsen employed Breitung, whose 1899 work Abeteoriens Bankerot og vor populare Darwinisme (The Bankruptcy of the Ape-Theory and our popular Darwinism) had made him famous among both naturalists and laypeople. In 1905 Breitung wrote a fierce review of the socialist science writer Vilhelm Rasmussen’s widely circulated pro-Darwinian and anticlerical work Verdensudvikllingen (The Development of the World). Breitung strongly opposed Rasmussen’s view that the theory of evolution was in conflict with the Mosaic history of creation. According to Breitung, “the real results of science” could be fully integrated in the Genesis record. He warned parents against allowing their children to read Rasmussen’s book since this heretic work would “make them doubt and take away their most valuable possession, their Christian faith.”
In 1905-6, Breitung contributed with a series of articles criticizing Darwinian evolution. These articles were made into the inexpensive book Udviklingslceren og Kristentroen (The Theory of Evolution and Christian Faith) which was advertized in Folkelcesning and sold out in 1912. Thus Breitung’s arguments reached a wide audience including many farmers and teachers with Grundtvigian leanings. Breitung advocated theistic, teleological, and Lamarckian views on evolution and parallel lines of descent which he interpreted as being in accordance with the history of creation as told in Genesis 1. This was a more orthodox position than the one defended by his fellow Catholic, the British anatomist St. George Jackson Mivart, in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Mivart accepted the evolution of the human body, while Breitung was more in line with the Vatican by denying any relationship between man and apes. That being said, Breitung accepted a restricted form of evolution not unlike the Lamarckian and theistic evolutionism advocated by the professor of botany Eugen Warming at this time. In the 1870s, Warming was one of the first Danish naturalists to embrace evolution. However, after evolutionary theory had been integrated into university research and teaching during the last decades of the nineteenth century, he joined forces with evangelical students in Copenhagen in order to defend evangelical faith against Darwinism.
Neo-Grundtvigians Facing Darwinism
While the orthodox anti-Darwinian position was certainly strong from the 1870s to 1914, many pro-Darwinian arguments were also apparent in the Grundtvigian press. As early as July 1871—four months before the publication of the first part of Jacobsen’s translation of Origin—a compromising response to the Darwinian challenge appeared in Dansk Kirketidende. By then the journal was edited by Niels Lindberg who was more theologically liberal than the orthodox Brandt. This meant that Lindberg was open to discussing the value of biblical criticism and Darwinism, ideas that were flatly rejected by Brandt. In 1867 Lindberg had explicitly distanced himself from a critical article on the ape-theory that he had translated. In 1871 he then published an article by a contributor with the by-line “J. L.” The writer reported recent polemics in the English high-church journal The Guardian in which Anglican theologians were discussing the relationship between Darwinism and Scripture. Generally, they agreed on rejecting Darwin’s theory when applied to mankind, and many reservations to evolution were put forth. It was argued, for example, that the fossil record was better explained by Genesis than by the theory of evolution and that Darwinism was irreconcilable with Scripture and Christianity. The author of the article loyally summarised these orthodox Anglican views, but in the very last paragraph the narrative changed. He now made it clear that
In this country the case is different, since recent philosophy has shown that faith and knowledge are completely heterogeneous principles. Thus a view on nature that ends up denying creation has transgressed its field and violated the preserves of faith, just as a theology that wishes to answer a purely scientific question on the basis of biblical language has done it in the preserves of science.
The “recent philosophy” that the author hinted at was the work of Rasmus Nielsen, who built on Kierkegaard’s critique of Christians trying to reach faith by human reason, and attacked Hegelian attempts to integrate philosophy, history and Christianity into a cultural synthesis that subordinated everything to one principle: for instance Spirit. Nielsen’s work was well received by theologians with Grundtvigian sympathies as a middle road between conservative high-church orthodoxy and atheist free thought. Nielsen had occupied this mediating stance during two fierce controversies concerning faith and knowledge in 1849-50 and 1865-69.
In his 1873 piece “A Viewpoint Supporting Darwinism” published in For Idé og Virkelighed, Nielsen explicitly applied the distinction between faith and knowledge when discussing evolution. Nielsen argued:
It is clear that natural science in general is neither religious nor irreligious, neither heathen nor Christian, neither ethical nor unethical; it is what it alone can and should be: objective research. [ … ] If Darwin’s method has scientific shortcomings, it will be corrected within science, and natural scientists are the only rightful, competent judges. Whether it wins and loses in the battle has no influence on spiritual life. The religious concept of creation is not a concept of knowledge but a concept of faith.”
While knowledge was based on reason and empirical investigations, faith was founded on revelation and God’s will. For Nielsen it was an existential challenge for each individual to live with both aspects without dissolving this unbridgeable dualism. Nielsen’s distinction between faith and knowledge became instrumental in responses from liberal Grundtvigians to scientific ideas, such as Darwinism, which at first glance seemed to threaten Christian belief.
Brücker was the prime advocate of Nielsen’s ideas among Grundtvigians. He studied engineering at the Polytechnic College when in 1873 he heard Brandt preach in the Vartov Church. This experience resulted in a religious conversion and he decided to study theology. During his studies he joined Nielsen’s philosophy classes and a lecture series by Jungersen on Danish Protestantism. Their position became crucial for Brücker when he advocated for the separation model of science and religion. In 1880 he was admitted to the clergy, and from 1887 until his death in 1929, he was the reverend of a Grundtvigian congregation in the village of Aagaard near Kolding and Askov. He also managed a folk high school in the village from 1899 to 1922. From the 1880s, the label “neo-Grundtvigian” was used by conservative Grundtvigians to characterize the liberal views advocated by Brücker and the contributors to Tidens Strom.
In 1884, Tidens Strom contained a four-part article by Brücker on Nielsen. Here Brücker integrated in his theological views aspects taken from Nielsen and Grundtvig:
And in any case, it is a great relief to see that faith is autonomous, independent of science, that theological attempts to support faith by scientific arguments is nonsense, and that faith is perfectly selfcontained, explains itself, and is based on its own principles. And it is accordance with Grundtvig’s ideas. When he pointed to the sacraments, he pointed to what can be believed; When R. Nielsen makes one abandon all Titanic attempts to believe the entire Bible, word for word, one is helped by Grundtvig to realize what you can and should believe.
The central doctrine of Grundtvigian theology, Brücker emphasized, was the church view, while the Bible only played a secondary role. Brücker admitted that Grundtvig was unclear on this point since he interpreted Scripture literally and was critical towards scientific results that contradicted Genesis. However, Nielsen’s fundamental distinction between faith and knowledge had made things clear and, according to Brücker, Grundtvigians should give up literalism and accept biblical criticism and modern science including Darwinism. For Brücker, Christianity was a matter of personal belief, not a matter of knowledge, dogmas or biblical texts. These modernist views, extensively advocated in Hojskolebladet and Tidens Strom, were well received among liberal Grundtvigians faced with modern science and Brandesian free thought.
Brücker took biblical criticism to heart. More specifically, he and other neo-Grundtvigians advocated the interpretations of the Pentateuch—including Genesis—by German scholars such as Julius Wellhausen, who had argued in his 1878 work Geschichte Israels that these holy books were based on four earlier sources and written several centuries after Moses’ death. Brücker outlined his liberal views on Scripture at a meeting at the folk high school Sagatun in Norway in 1886 where freethinkers were also invited. Here he claimed that Scripture should be read in the same way as any other book: Some of the contents were useful and some of it had to be dismissed. Genesis I, for example, could not be used as a description of how earth, man and animals were created. Instead he embraced the Darwinian explanation of the creation of species since “it provides such a grand view of things, provides such a simple and coherent system, integrates all phenomena into a single view.” For Brücker, Darwinism was a possibility, not a threat, because it could make Christians focus on the central aspects of faith. He saw the radical separation of science from religion as a chance to modernize and revitalize Christianity. His lecture was published in Hojskolebladet and summarized in Tidens Strom and several newspapers. It generated fierce criticism especially from Brandt and other contributors to Dansk Kirketidende who characterized his views as non-Grundtvigian and thereby advanced the fragmentation of the Grundtvigian movement.
In Frit Vidnesbyrd Pontoppidan echoed Briicker’s positive assessment of Darwinism. In 1893 he gave a lecture at the Grundtvigian society Studenterkredsen in Copenhagen and published two articles that were supportive of evolution and argued that the theory did not exclude, but rather clarified, religious belief. Moreover he made a strong pro-Darwinian signal in 1891 when he hired the freethinker Jeppe Aakjær, who had been in open conflict with Schoder and la Cour in Askov about Darwinism in 1888, to teach natural history from a Darwinian perspective at his short-lived folk high school in Copenhagen.
Coming to Terms with Darwin
Evolution was generally accepted among liberal Grundtvigians during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The orthodox Schroder and la Cour died in 1908, and folk high school leaders now discussed how to approach the topic. Prominent schools such as Askov, Ryslinge, Testrup, Vallekilde, Frederiksborg, and Grundtvig’s High School were teaching their students versions of geological and biological evolution in lectures and in geography and natural history classes. In order to legitimize this, the headmasters often referred to Nielsen’s distinction between faith and knowledge that was being popularized at this time, and moreover they distanced themselves from the naturalistic worldview advocated by radicals and socialists.
In April 1914 Hojskolebladet put out a special issue on evolutionary theory. This editorial move signalled a clear pro-Darwinian and neo-Grundtvigian stance in line with the geologist Vilhelm Milthers, who had criticized Bennike’s orthodox views in Hojskolebladet one month earlier. From August to November 1913, polemics about the teaching of evolution in public schools had filled the columns. Milthers and the Kierkegaard scholar Niels Teisen defended evolutionary theories, while the clergyman Axel Plenge strongly criticized the teaching of evolutionary biology, which he regarded as antagonistic to revealed religion and dangerous for children. Editor Skovmand found it necessary to engage in the discussions, and in late 1913 he approached the geneticist Wilhelm Johannsen asking him to contribute with an article on the historical development and the contemporary status of the theory of evolution. Johannsen accepted the offer and delivered eight of the fourteen pages of the special issue. Altogether, the issue contained five informative articles on various aspects of evolutionary science. For example, Milthers wrote about Darwin’s inspiration from Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian geology, and the folk high school leader Eline Begtrup, who was known for her pro-evolutionary views, discussed Darwin’s observations in the Galapagos.
Three weeks before the special issue, an article by Teisen was published. At this time Teisen was known for his writings on English philosophy and his translation of the theistic evolutionist Benjamin Kidd’s Social Evolution. During the polemics with Plenge, Teisen had been asked by Skovmand to contribute with an article on evolution and faith. Following the tradition of Nielsen, Teisen advocated theindependence of science from religion. He referred to the German theologian Rudolf Otto, who argued for this radical separation, and explicitly warned against attempts to harmonize scientific results and the words of the Bible. Evolution had to be accepted as a valid and useful scientific hypothesis which, however, did not touch upon the origin of life or exclude a divine plan. Teisen emphasized that it was not degrading for man to descend from a lower species as long as evolution had not happened through a blind, purposeless process. Teisen struck a chord of reconciliation by proclaiming that “it is a great misunderstanding to think that the theory of evolution belongs to some loud mouthed materialistic-minded thinkers or natural philosophers.”
The special issue opened with Johannsen’s “Remarks on the Theory of Evolution.” Johannsen had been appointed professor of plant physiology at the University of Copenhagen in 1905 and was famous for having coined the term “gene” in 1909. Thus, Skovmand had employed an authority within biology for the front-page article. Johannsen warned against what he called “false analogies” between biological and socio-cultural ideas. He explicitly criticized sociological and political misuses of the Darwinian vocabulary of competition, adaptation and selection, and ridiculed religious debates blown up by “cheap popular science writers, philosophical dilettantes and worried Christians,” who had exaggerated the atheistic tendencies of Darwinism. Johannsen’s attack was primarily directed against Rasmussen and other atheists whose polemical anti-religious books on evolution had caused a stir among many Christians.
Johannsen explained that whereas evolution was generally accepted, neither Darwinism nor Lamarckism could be maintained in the light of the new discipline of genetics established by biologists such as the Dutchman Hugo de Vries and Johannsen himself, whose experiments with pure lines of beans, published in 1903, had shown that the phenotypes did not influence the genotypes and that evolution did not occur by means of small variations as Darwin had thought. According to Johannsen, the only mechanism that geneticists could offer to evolutionists was mutation, the sudden appearance of new hereditary units, discovered by de Vries. In general, Johannsen conceded that the evolutionary directions and mechanisms were still puzzling. He thus informed the readers about the scientific problems facing Darwin’s selection theory. He did not exclude the possibility of several independent lines of evolution, and opened up the evolutionary process to theistic interpretations.
Concluding the special edition, the readers were offered a bibliography on evolution and genetics. Among what was coined “tendentious or polemical” works, the socialist Rasmussen was listed alongside the Catholic anti-Darwinist Breitung. This is emblematic of the fact that Hojskolebladet had found a compromise between radicalism and orthodoxy in its answer to the Darwinian challenge.
This article has identified two types of Grundtvigian responses to evolution. Orthodox literalists criticized organic evolution, while neo-Grundtvigians developed strategies for embracing Darwinism by advocating a specific Danish Protestantism. They exploited resources in Grundtvig’s complex work by emphasizing his priority of the word to the letter and his church view focusing on the Apostolic Creed and the sacraments, and not the Bible, as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Thus the literalism of Grundtvig’s philosophy of history was sidelined.
The dualist philosophy of Rasmus Nielsen was widely used by liberal Grundtvigians to legitimize the teaching of evolution. Nielsen’s radical separation of science and faith made it possible for Grundtvigians to distance Darwin’s scientific work from the worldview associated with German materialism and Brandesian freethinkers. In addition, the critical scientific discussions after 1900 about the role of Darwinian natural selection in the light of genetics made the theory of evolution look less threatening than it had done decades earlier. Therefore liberal Grundtvigians were able to come to terms with organic evolution around 1914.
While critical responses to evolution were also seen in America and Britain, the neo-Grundtvigian approach to Darwinism with its combination of Grundtvigian and Kierkegaardian theologies was a uniquely Danish phenomenon and demonstrates how specific doctrines within local theological contexts led to certain strategies for reconciliation. Grundtvigians were much more inclined to discuss and accept organic evolution than other mainline factions within the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Established Church. This contrasts with the American case, in which there were no significant differences in the answers to Darwinism among mainstream Protestant denominations. Moreover, in contrast to denominations in Britain and America, for Grundtvigians the separation of science and religion into two distinctively different areas of human life was a prevalent approach when confronted with organic evolution. Danish Lutherans were not alone in emphasizing a fundamental distinction between science and faith. Lutherans in Finland developed similar strategies around 1900, and in Germany from the 1870s neo-Kantian theologians such as Wilhelm Herrmann drew on Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy in order to separate science from religion.68 However, the separation model developed by neoGrundtvigians had different intellectual origins than those appearing abroad. Thus Grundtvig, Kierkegaard and Nielsen, and not Kant, offered the rhetorical weapons needed in order to legitimize evolutionary thought.
Although they were not absent from discussions of Darwinism, Lamarckian and teleological interpretations of evolution, which were the typical ways in which liberal theologians in America and Britain responded to Darwinism, only played a minor role in Grundtvigian attempts to come to terms with organic evolution. When evolution was occasionally connected to ideas of human progress, Darwin’s theory could be linked to Grundtvig’s idealist philosophy of history. In the words of the reverend P. N. Petersen, lecturing at the annual meeting for Grundtvigians in 1910: “Grundtvig’s view on the history of the world is filled with the idea of evolution.”
In line with Livingstone’s emphasis on locality in the study of the reception of scientific ideas, the case of the Grundtvigians demonstrates that local contingencies made a crucial difference in mainline Protestant responses to Darwinism, and that the kinds of teleological evolutionism prominent in Anglo-American Protestantism around 1900 cannot be taken as the only liberal Protestant answer to the Darwinian challenge.