« Prev Landstad, a Bard of the Frozen Fjords Next »


This is the story of a man whose chance purchase of two books at an auction sale for the sum of four cents was probably the means of inspiring him to become one of the foremost Christian poets of the North.

Magnus Brorstrup Landstad was a poverty-stricken student at the University of Christiania (now Oslo), Norway, when he happened to pass a house in which a sale of books was being conducted. Moved by curiosity, he entered the place just as a package of old books was being offered. We will let him tell the remainder of the story:

“I made a bid of four cents, the deal was made, and I walked home with my package. It contained two volumes in leather binding. One was ‘Freuden-Spiegel des ewigen Lebens’ by Philipp Nicolai. On the last few pages of this book four of Nicolai’s hymns were printed. The other book was Bishop A. Arrebo’s ‘Hexaemeron, The Glorious and Mighty Works of the Creation Day.’ In this manner two splendid hymn collections, one German and the other Danish-Norwegian, unexpectedly came into my possession. I was not acquainted with either of these works before. Nicolai’s hymns made a deep impression on me, and I at once attempted to translate them.... My experience with these hymn collections, I believe, gave me the first impetus in the direction of hymn writing. Furthermore, it gave me a deeper insight into the life and spirit of the old church hymns.”

Two of the hymns of Nicolai that Landstad attempted to translate were “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and 204 “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” noble classics that have never been excelled. The young student was so successful in his rendering of the former hymn that it subsequently found a place in the Norwegian church hymnary.

Landstad was born October 7, 1802, in Maaso, Finnmarken, Norway, where his father was pastor of the Lutheran church. This parish is at the extreme northern point of Norway, and so Landstad himself wrote, “I was baptized in the northernmost church in the world.” Later the family moved to Oksnes, another parish among the frozen fjords of the Norse seacoast.

“The waves of the icy Arctic,” he writes poetically, “sang my cradle lullaby; but the bosom of a loving mother warmed my body and soul.”

The stern character of the relentless North, with its solitude, its frozen wastes, its stormy waters and its long months of winter darkness, no doubt left a profound and lasting impression upon the lad whose early years were spent in such environments. The Napoleonic wars were also raging, and it was a time of much sorrow and suffering among the common people. When the boy was nine years old the family removed to Vinje. Although they continued to suffer many hardships, the natural surroundings at this place were more congenial, and in summer the landscape was transformed into a magic beauty that must have warmed the heart and fired the childish imagination of the future hymnist.

Magnus was the third in a family of ten children. Although sorely pressed by poverty, the father recognized unusual talent in the boy, and at the age of twenty years he was sent to the university in Christiania. During his first year at the institution two of his brothers died. Young Landstad was greatly cast down in spirit, but out of the 205 bitterness of this early bereavement came two memorial poems that are believed to represent his first attempt at verse-writing.

In 1827 he completed his theological studies at the university and the following year he was appointed resident vicar of the Lutheran church at Gausdal. During his pastorate at this place he wrote his first hymn. In 1834 he became pastor at Kviteseid, where he continued the writing of hymns and other poems. Five years later he became his father’s successor as pastor of the parish at Seljord. It was here, in 1841, that he published his first work, a book of daily devotions that has been highly prized among his countrymen.

For centuries Norway and Denmark had been closely connected politically and culturally. The Lutheran Church was, moreover, the state church of both countries. As a consequence of this relationship Norway had always looked to Denmark for its hymn literature, and no hymnist of any note had ever risen in the northern country.

Now, however, it began to dawn on the Norwegians that a native singer dwelt in their own midst. The political ties with Denmark having been broken as a result of the Napoleonic wars, the spirit of nationalism began to assert itself and the demand for a new hymn-book for the Church of Norway constantly grew stronger. In 1848 the Norwegian ecclesiastical authorities requested Landstad to undertake the task, but not until four years later could he be prevailed upon to assume the arduous duties involved in so great an endeavor.

In 1861 the first draft of his “Kirke-Salmebog” was published. It did not meet with universal approval. In defense of his work, Landstad wrote: “We must, above all, demand that our hymns possess the elements of poetic diction 206 and true song. We must consider the historical and churchly elements, and the orthodox objectivity which shows respect for church tradition and which appreciates the purity, clearness, and force of confession. But the sickly subjectivity, which ‘rests’ in the varying moods of pious feelings and godly longings, and yet does not possess any of the boldness and power of true faith such as we find in Luther’s and Kingo’s hymns—this type of church hymn must be excluded. Finally, we must also emphasize the aesthetic feature. Art must be made to serve the Church, to glorify the name of God, and to edify the congregation of worshipers. But it must always be remembered that art itself is to be the servant and not the master.”

Nevertheless, Landstad continued for several years to revise his own work, and in 1869 the hymn-book was finally published and authorized for use in the Church of Norway. Within a year it had been introduced into 648 of the 923 parishes of the country.

In 1876 Landstad retired from active service after the Norwegian parliament had unanimously voted him an annual pension of 4,000 crowns in appreciation of the great service he had rendered his country. He died in Christiania, October 9, 1880.

Among the hymns of Landstad that have been translated into English are, “I know of a sleep in Jesus’ Name,” “I come to Thee, O blessed Lord,” “There many shall come from the East and the West,” “When sinners see their lost condition,” and “Before Thee, God, who knowest all.”

Although Landstad’s hymns do not attain to lofty poetic heights, they are marked by a spirit of unusual intimacy, deep earnestness, and a warmth of feeling that make a strong appeal to the worshiper.

« Prev Landstad, a Bard of the Frozen Fjords Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection