Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 20th July 2011
Unlike most hymnwriters, Berhard Ingemann was neither a professional religious person, nor someone who wrote chiefly on Christian themes—he is not a Charles Wesley or a Fanny Crosby, rather he is a teacher, a novelist, whose work is still in print, a playwright and a poet, yet his hymns were very popular in his native Denmark.
Born in 1789 on the Baltic island of Falster, Ingemann was the son of a Lutheran pastor who died while he was still young—a fact that may have shaped much of Ingemann’s thinking and writing. Initially educated at the Latinskole1 in Slagelse, where he graduated as a student in 1806. He went on to study at the University of Copenhagen where he published his first collection of poems in 1811, when he was 22.
Ingemann was very influenced by the Romantic movement in Germany, a movement that looked back to medieval times as purer and simpler, a movement that valued beauty and art. It was a movement that was an expression of dissatisfaction with the present time.
It is perhaps understandable that Ingemann was attracted by the Romantic movement when you think that he was writing against the background of the Napoleonic wars. The British had attacked the city of Copenhagen in 1807, killing 2,000 civilians and destroying 30% of the buildings. During the bombardment of the city, Ingemann had been on guard duty as a member of a student corps, while his house and his earliest writings had been destroyed by the fires caused by the shelling. For Ingemann, the city was a great contrast to the quiet pastor’s house on Falster where he had spent his childhood years. When Ingemann looked at his childhood and the devastation of the city in which he studied, an ideal of a time past might have sounded very attractive.
His poetic endeavours were followed by a series of six plays before he published his first novel in 1817. Ingemann’s travels through Europe in 1818-1819 were in the tradition of the Grand Tour, an activity that at the time was very popular amongst wealthy Protestant young men from Northern Europe.
Ingemann never completed his studies, but in 1822 became a master in Danish language and literature at Sorø Akademi, a school founded in the 16th Century. He and his wife Lucie moving into a house in the school grounds.
The setting of the school and the proximity of the local monastery provided inspiration for Ingemann’s writing and he continued writing in the Romantic tradition of his earlier years; this harking back to earlier times when it was felt that the world was somehow a better place and, along with his poetry and prose, he was author of numerous hymns which were incorporated into the Church of Denmark hymnbook.
Ingemann drew on the English writer, Sir Walter Scott—some of us may remember ‘Ivanhoe’ from our younger days—for inspiration in writing a series of historical novels. His novels are not strong in historical accuracy but were best sellers and, with the epic poems he wrote, were very important in helping shape a Danish sense of national identity, just as the works of people like Scott helped shape a sense of national identity in England. Doing an internet search for ‘King Eric and the Outlaws’, one of his most popular stories showed that the book could still be bought new from booksellers and also that it was available free to download; clearly, there is still a demand for Ingemann’s work, just as there is for the work of Hans Christian Andersen, his more famous friend with whom he used to exchange correspondence.
Ingemann’s work had a number of common strands, including a call to the people of Denmark to remember their greatness in times and a strong sense that the nation would thrive if the monarch and the people kept their faith in God. Ingemann retained a love for past and place throughout his life and when he died in 1862, was laid to rest beside his wife Lucie in the churchyard just outside the monastery church at Sorø, a place that had been his home and his inspiration for forty years.
When we think about the themes in Ingemann’s novels, we can find a very strong biblical base for his idea that all would be well in the land if the king and his people held onto their beliefs. If we read the story of the kings in the Old Testament we see a recurring cycle of the nation straying from the right paths, repenting of its wrongdoings, and being restored to its former prosperity. Perhaps one of the weaknesses in the way in which we read Scripture in church is that we do not read those gory stories of bloodshed, murder and conspiracy—perhaps they are too much for our contemporary sensibilities.
Maybe Ingemann’s work with its Romantic influence and strong moral sense would sound naïve and innocent to present day ears, but the question of national morality is as relevant as ever. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in our country are now paying for the reckless greed and avarice of a small group of very rich people—people are suffering, and, with the cutbacks in healthcare, will die, because of injustice. Ingemann’s belief was that ruler and people needed to have moral integrity for the country to be prosperous; we do not need to read novels to see what happens when honesty and a concern for others is lacking. We might smile now at novels from the past that carried a very strong moral message, but perhaps they were not so naïve after all.
Looking at Ingemann’s hymns: just one appears in our hymnbook, ‘Through the night of doubt and sorrow’, written in 1825 and translated into English by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1867, yet it is a hymn in which we can see the themes that dominated Ingemann’s writing and which asks us questions about our own Christian life.
‘Through the night of doubt and sorrow’ conveys the sense that the present time is a time of difficulty, but a time that will pass; it’s a time of looking forward to the rewards of the life to come. There is certainly a very strong Scriptural basis for seeing this life as a time of darkness, but there is a balance in Scripture where there is a thanks for blessings received and a confidence to live life in the present world.
Ingemann’s hymn strikes that balance, acknowledging that while there may be darkness in our world, there is also “the light of God’s own presence, o’er his ransomed people shed, chasing far the gloom and terror, brightening all the path we tread”.
Amongst Christians, there is often tendency to go to one side or the other. On the one hand, there are Christians who see the world as a bad place, full of sin and darkness, as a place from which Christians should retreat; on the other, there are Christians who do not take seriously the challenges of our world, who don’t recognize that there is evil as well as good, who fail to recognize that wrongdoing amongst rulers affects the welfare of the nation. Ingemann takes the Biblical way between those who reject the world without recognizing that God is present within it, and those who accept the world without recognizing that there is a need to combat the evil that is a very present reality.
There are lessons for Christian living in Ingemann’s work—lessons in discerning the right way for our nation and lessons in discerning the right way in our lives.
“Soon shall come the great awaking,
soon the rending of the tomb;
then the scattering of all shadows,
and the end of toil and gloom”.
There cannot be greater inspiration for learning those lessons.