With God and His Friendship
When I was appointed to the hymn text committee that compiled the “Lutheran Book of Worship” (1978) I asked my pastor father, who grew up speaking Norwegian and who learned to love the hymnody of the Scandinavian tradition, which hymns should I push for inclusion. I knew full well I would be lucky to get anything in the hymnal since it was dominated by Germans of the Missouri persuasion. I was not surprised by his first choice: “My Heart is Longing to Praise my Savior” (O at jeg kunne min Jesus prise). It was brought to this country by the Norwegian pastor and songbook compiler Lars Oftedal, brother of one of the leading professors at Augsburg Seminary.
Because Augsburg came out of the Scandinavian Augustana Synod (1860-1870) our founders knew the Swedish revival songs well and this was a folk song, whether Swedish or Norwegian is hard to tell, used by the Swedish songwriter Fredrik Engelke. Oftedal took the tune and wrote his own text to it and brought it to America in 1875 when he came to celebrate the dedication of Augsburg Seminary’s main building. He and his brothers traveled around the upper Midwest singing this hymn among many others in his newly published book, Basunens Røst (“Sound of the Trumpet”).
The second was Rosenius’s “With God and His Friendship” (Med Gud och hans vänskap). It had also come with that tradition and made it into our hymnal, “The Concordia.” I also knew it well, but not as well he did. So I started going to the week-long meetings in 1973, held four times per year, and would continue until 1976, when we put the hymnal to bed. It became my mantra, “My Heart is Longing to Praise my Savior” and “With God and His Friendship.” The one Swede on the committee scoffed at me. No one sings that anymore, he’d say. It is as dead as the dodo bird.
I had a soft spot in my heart for the whole tradition. My father grew up in a very strict Haugean tradition, but every morning they read Rosenius’s “The Believer Free from the Law,” a book which I now treasure in my library. And they sang from songbooks like Hjemlands Sånger by M. Falk, Gjertsen, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Congregation in Minneapolis. My grandfather Sjur Grindal had told my dad, sort of on the side, that no matter how much it pained him to say it, the Swedish songs were more beautiful than ours.
As I was growing up, my attendance at Sunday evening services and Wednesday night Bible studies was required. Getting an interesting program for the Sunday services always was a chore. Visiting evangelists would come and we would show, if we could get the darn thing to work, old shaky 16 millimeter films on the evils of drunk driving, and hear the North Dakota prairie winds howling against the country churches where we were huddled against the storm. One of the best entertainments was to get a singer to come, often a Swedish or Norwegian tenor. The highlight of the evening was almost always Rosenius’s “Wheresoe’er I roam.” Frequently in the absence of a star appearance like Odd Wannebo, my mother would open up the old songbooks of our tradition, rich in the songs of the Swedish revival, and favor the gathered with a solo in her fine mezzo. Favorite was “Jeg har en venn” (“I have a friend”) or “Wheresoe’er I roam.” The Lutheran incense of coffee would waft up from the basement, as tears rolled down the cheeks of these stoic farmers from Norway.
To my surprise and gratitude, the committee accepted both of the songs, despite the grumbling of the Swede.
When the book came out and it started getting reviews, one reviewer complained, “Where did those two pietist songs from Scandinavia come from?” They were inappropriate in a Lutheran hymnal, something the Swede had argued as well.
Two years later I was in Stockholm for a January interim. It was dark and cold and lonesome. I was working in the Visarkiv to learn Swedish and the Swedish tradition of folk songs and hymns. On a snowy Sunday I went to Gamla Stan to see what was going on in Storkyrkan, the great church. It was an ordination service, high as a kite, as only Swedish Lutherans can do. I walked in to enjoy the service. Suddenly a long line of candidates started processing in with crosses, bibles, banners held high. The song they marched to was “Med Gud och hans vänskap.”