Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

Through my friendship with Phyllis Holmer, I have begun a correspondence with a longstanding friend of the Holmers, Dr Andrew Burgess, Professor of Philosophy and a Kierkegaard scholar at The University of New Mexico in, Albuquerque. Dr Burgess is also a graduate of Minnehaha and was a student of Paul Holmer. I would like to share part of a letter which I wrote this past summer to Dr Burgess.

Dear friend Dr Burgess.

…I am writing to express my profound thanks for your inspiring and insightful essays on Kierkegaard that have opened up for me a new territory of treasures waiting to be explored. After she read your essays, Phyllis Holmer called me and said, “We have to talk soon about music”—referring to your essay, “Kierkegaard, Brorson and the Moravians.”

This is for me truly a journey of discovery. I have a significant shelf of Kierkegaard in my library but I have never read anything regarding the Moravian influence on him. Your research into this theme relates closely to the pietism of the Evangelical Covenant Church which has been my spiritual home.... Your essays have inspired me to look more closely at the Moravian influence in our own movement. Eighteenth century northern Sweden was the scene of a revival movement due in part to contact with pietism and the Moravians. Kenneth Scott Latourette in A History of Christianity indicates pietism was a movement that stressed free grace through the blood of Christ, personal conversion, lay preaching, and conventicle meetings outside the established church. The term “readers” became the designation for its adherents because of the use of the Bible and other Christian literature. The movement from which we came in 19th century Sweden sounds like a replay of the century before. The Rosenian revival people were also nicknamed “readers” with similar traits of pietism and Moravianism mentioned above. But despite the fact that the Moravians in Sweden had dwindled, as you indicate they had at an earlier time in Denmark, their influence has continued in our hymnody.

This brings me to your first essay and the amazing development you demonstrate of the role of music in Kierkegaard’s early life and in his writing Practice in Christianity.... I have never heard of the Moravian practice of hymn sings or “a song service” (Syngetime) which the Kierkegaard family attended on Sunday evenings following the Lutheran service in the morning. Your description of these song services and how they were conducted with a theme and related verses of hymns was most enticing. I also found your comment interesting that with Moravians, singing hymns with great poetry was more important than preaching. Then this lovely statement:

The song services guaranteed that Moravians everywhere would have an extraordinary facility for memorizing and adapting hymns. Kierkegaard’s special attraction to Brorson may have come from Kierkegaard’s exquisite ear for the sound and rhythm of words, as well as from his appreciation for the ideas expressed. Brorson is a poet of stature, and great poetry stays with a listener one’s whole life long.

The trio of composers you discuss: Brorson, Kingo, and Grundtvig have appeared in our Covenant hymnals. Brorson’s hymn with the Grieg setting, “Behold a Host arrayed in White” is often sung at our funerals. Likewise, Kingo’s hymns have appeared both in previous hymnals—“Dearest Jesus, Draw Thou Near Me” and “All who Believe and are Baptized” in our present hymnal. Grundtvig’s “Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand” has appeared in our last three hymnals and is often sung both by the choir and the congregation. I was amused by Kierkegaard’s preference for hymns by Brorson above those of Grundtvig speaking of the latter “as a jaunty yodeler or a bellowing blacksmith.”

The way you observe Kierkegaard’s preference for hymns by Brorson above those of Grundtvig with such nuance and hiddenness in the seven expositions of Practice in Christianity as well as your commentary on the content of the expositions, sent me back to a more careful reading of these lovely discourses. Then these moving words of conclusion:

The music from the Danish awakening movements, and particularly Brorson’s hymns, is playing in the background of Practice in Christianity. To listen is to hear songs of martyrs marching—strangely, a joyful sound. Kierkegaard, too, was attuned to that sound. Records of many other aspects of Kierkegaard’s life are lost forever, but we do know the kind of hymns he liked to sing.

In the undergrowth that has grown up around Kierkegaard’s writings and, in some sad sense, of his neglect today, you have cut a large swath opening up a pathway to new and fresh discoveries. For this I offer my heartfelt thanks.

Sources for further reading, The International Kierkegaard Commentary Robert L Perkins, editor. Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia. Two essays by Dr Burgess are in Volume 7. The primary source is Soren Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity based on the seven biblical expositions on John 12:32. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself.” Training in Christianity translated by Walter Lowrie is another title for the same book.

The Covenant Hymnal (1973) and The Covenant Hymnal: A Book of Worship (1996).