Can You Be Danish But Not Lutheran?

Julie K. Allen discusses her new book, Danish but not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Cultural Identity, 1850-1920.  

PROVO, Utah (May 17, 2017)— No other religion besides Lutheranism was possible for 17th and 18th century Danes. After the Protestant Reformation, all Danes were required to become Lutherans and the King’s Law of 1660 defined the religion of the king as the religion of the people, which meant that the Danish Lutheran church and the Danish state were inseparable entities. Until the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1849) drafted by D.G. Monrad established religious freedom, to be Lutheran and Danish was one and the same. “If you were Danish, you were Lutheran,” explained Julie K. Allen, BYU professor of comparative arts and letters. “You couldn’t get out of it or change your mind, it’s just what you were.”

That all changed with the establishment of religious freedom in 1849 and the arrival of four LDS missionaries in Denmark in 1850, which led to roughly 30,000 Danes becoming Mormons, to their countrymen’s dismay. They worked through their concerns in the public sphere, through theological, literary, musical, and cinematic responses to Mormonism. Allen’s newest monograph, Danish but not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Cultural Identity, 1850-1920 (May 2017), focuses on Danish perceptions of Mormonism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how Danish Mormons expressed their cultural heritage.

The first LDS missionaries in Denmark included Peter O. Hansen, a native Dane who had converted to the Church in the early 1840s after emigrating to America. “[The missionaries] really didn’t speak much Danish. Peter had been in America for nearly ten years and apparently his Danish was a little rusty,” said Allen. “Erasmus Snow didn’t speak any Danish, George Parker Dykes knew some Norwegian, and John Forsgren was a native Swede.”

Despite this handicap, the missionaries benefitted from the groundwork that had been laid by the Baptists who had really lobbied for religious freedom. “In the late 1830s, the Baptists had started to form congregations in Copenhagen and Aalborg. They were the ones who ran into trouble with the state and found themselves in conflict with the law,” said Allen. The tense situation between the Lutherans and Baptists came to a head in the early 1840s when Lutheran pastors began to take children away from their Baptist parents and baptize them in the Lutheran Church so they would not be condemned by their parents’ heresy.

When Danes began converting to Mormonism in large numbers, it came as quite a shock to Danish society. “Nobody really expected a big wave of people changing their religion [after the adoption of the Constitution]. Mostly they just thought that the laws wouldn’t be quite so strict,” explained Allen. “The first several dozen converts were Baptists, which really annoyed some of their leaders because they had just received the freedom they had fought for.” Peter Mønster, leader of a Baptist congregation in Copenhagen who had served jail time for his Baptist religion, became so disillusioned by his congregation leaving en masse that he eventually converted back to Lutheranism.   

The missionaries’ encouragement that converts gather to Zion meant that the wave of people changing their religion to Mormonism led to a wave of Danes immigrating to America, which had not happened previously in Denmark. Allen commented that when Mormon Danes began leaving in large numbers, “it destabilized Danish society in a way that would have been different if there had already been large scale emigration from Denmark as there had been from Norway and Sweden.” “Mormon” became synonymous with “emigrant,” and they were often made fun of in popular media for believing they could find a better life in America.

Aside from the converts themselves and their families, the people most directly affected by the large number of conversions to Mormonism were the clergy, including Peter Christian Kierkegaard, brother of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Peter came into direct contact with the Mormon missionaries preaching in his parish, which prompted him to defend Danish Lutheranism against them at the same time as his brother Søren was critiquing it in his final philosophical work. Søren’s Christian philosophy focused on the importance of fulfilling a personal relationship with God instead of mediated through the state church. “[Søren] Kierkegaard has been claimed by the existentialists, but he himself was actually a very spiritual person,” said Allen. Though Kierkegaard apparently never met with missionaries directly, some of his contemporaries compared his views to Mormon doctrine. Allen commented that the reception of Mormonism provides a way to “triangulate the positions [of the two brothers], who were estranged from each other, and put them into conversation with one another.”

Another Danish writer affected by the Mormons was Baroness Elise Stampe, whose parents mentored Thorvaldsen, the sculptor of the Christus. Stampe wrote her book Mormonism after one of her dear friends converted to Mormonism, in part to convince that friend she had made a mistake. “[Mormonism] is a unique document, written by a woman. It is thoughtful, tolerant and empathetic,” commented Allen. “To explain the misstep of Mormonism, Stampe had to really understand it and why someone would choose to convert.”

As Allen documents in her book, Mormon immigrants were depicted negatively in the Danish media for the most part, in street ballads, newspaper articles, and silent films. They were even charged with being associated with the white slave trade in the early 1910s, which led Scandinavian mission president Andrew Jenson to go on a lecture tour to refute the allegations. However, such accusations softened over time into casual jokes about polygamy or emigration by the 1920s, suggesting that Danes had gradually found a way to accept their countrymen as both Danish and not Lutheran.

On the other side of the ocean, although many people assume that Danish convert-immigrants in Utah simply gave up their native culture, Allen explained that this did not happen. “People didn’t surrender their identity when they came, they didn’t abandon their culture,” she said. “Most of the Danes who came to Utah still kept Danish traditions, such as cooking Danish food, speaking Danish, and celebrating Danish holidays. They were wholeheartedly converted to Mormonism, but they weren’t necessarily wholeheartedly converted to Americanism.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.