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The Reformation fires kindled by Luther and his contemporaries in Wittenberg spread with amazing rapidity to all parts of Europe. In the year that Luther nailed his famous theses on the chapel door at Wittenberg, two brothers—Olavus and Laurentius Petri—arrived from Sweden to study at the university made famous by Luther and Melanchthon. They were sons of a village blacksmith at Örebro, Sweden.

In 1519 they returned to their native land, full of reforming zeal. Olavus was the more fiery of the two brothers, and he lost no time entering into the political and spiritual storm that was threatening to break over their country. In the Stockholm massacre the following year Olavus almost lost his life when he cried out in protest at the cruel beheading of his friend, the bishop of Strengnäs. Only the intervention of a Wittenberg acquaintance, who asserted that Olavus was a German citizen, saved the young man from a similar fate. The massacre had been instigated by Roman intrigue.

Olavus preached boldly against the sale of indulgences and other abuses of the papal church, and, when the Swedish revolution placed Gustavus Vasa on the throne in 1523, the young reformer found a powerful ally in the new monarch. Despite protests of the ecclesiastical authorities, the king ordered a pulpit placed in the cathedral church of Stockholm and gave Olavus permission to preach to the populace in the native tongue.


The following year the two brothers were summoned to appear before the papal authorities at Upsala, but, when neither threats nor bribes could induce them to desist from their high-minded purpose, they were placed under the ban. This, however, made them only the more determined to carry out their Reformation plans.

Laurentius Andreae, archdeacon of Strengnäs, also had been converted to the principles of the Reformation and powerfully espoused the cause championed by the Petri brothers. In 1523 he was appointed by Gustavus Vasa as chancellor to the king, and it was largely through his influence that the Lutheran teachings were approved by the Diet af Vesterås in 1527. The younger of the Petri brothers, Laurentius, was named Archbishop of Upsala, Primate of Sweden, in 1531.

The Swedish reformers were apt pupils of Luther and quickly made use of the same spiritual weapons in their own country that he had found so effective in Germany. It is significant that the Word of God and a hymn-book in the vernacular were given to the Swedish people in the same year. It was in 1526 that Laurentius Andreae published his translation of the New Testament in Swedish, and simultaneously Olavus Petri issued a little hymn-book entitled, “Swedish Hymns or Songs.”

This marked the beginning of evangelical hymnody in Sweden. The little book contained only ten hymns, five of which are believed to have been original productions of Olavus Petri himself, and the other five translations from Luther’s first hymn-book of 1524. Although no copy of the first Swedish hymn-book is now known to exist, it is believed that Petri’s beautiful hymn, “Our Father, merciful and good,” appeared in this historic collection. It occurs 151 in a second edition, called “A Few Godly Songs Derived from Holy Writ,” published by the Swedish reformer in 1530. A few fragmentary pages of this hymn-book were discovered in 1871.

How far Olavus Petri had imbibed the spirit of Luther is reflected not only by the fiery zeal with which he proclaimed the doctrines of the Reformation in Sweden, but also in the character of his hymns. “Our Father, merciful and good” is so strongly suggestive of Luther’s style that it was regarded for a long time as a translation of one of Luther’s hymns. It is now known that there is no such hymn of German origin.

Most of Petri’s hymns, however, are translations of German or Latin originals. One of these is the beautiful Advent hymn:

Now hail we our Redeemer,

Eternal Son of God,

Born in the flesh to save us,

And cleanse us in His blood.

The Morning Star ascendeth,

Light to the world He lendeth,

Our Guide in grief and gloom.

Although this hymn was translated by Petri from the German, it is believed that it dates back to a Latin hymn by Ambrose in the fourth century. Another of Latin origin is the glad Easter hymn:

Blest Easter day, what joy is thine!

We praise, dear Lord, Thy Name divine,

For Thou hast triumphed o’er the tomb;

No more we need to dread its gloom.

Petri, like Luther, never ceased praising God for restoring His Word to the Church through the Reformation. This 152 may be seen in one of his more polemic hymns, which is regarded as original. A translation by Ernst W. Olson reads:

Thy sacred Word, O Lord, of old

Was veiled about and darkened,

And in its stead were legends told,

To which the people harkened;

Thy Word, for which the people yearned,

The worldlings kept in hiding,

And into human fables turned

Thy truth, the all-abiding.

Now thanks and praise be to our Lord,

Who boundless grace bestoweth,

And daily through the sacred Word

His precious gifts forthshoweth.

His Word is come to light again,

A trusty lamp to guide us;

No strange and divers teachings then

Bewilder and divide us.

The last hymn-book published by Olavus Petri appeared in 1536. It contained some thirty new hymns, most of them translations from German sources. In addition to his labors in the realm of hymnody, Petri must also be credited with the authorship of the Swedish Church-Book, which appeared in 1529. He was the creator of the liturgy of the Church of Sweden.

His hymnological endeavors were continued by his brother Laurentius, who, as archbishop, brought out in 1567, and later in 1572, the most important of all the earlier hymn-books of the Swedish Church. Laurentius is sometimes given the title, “Father of Swedish hymnody,” but the honor more rightly belongs to his older brother, Olavus.

The latter years of Olavus were darkened through an 153 unfortunate misunderstanding with the Swedish king. As a consequence of the reformer’s sturdy opposition to Gustavus Vasa’s plan to make himself the head of the Church, he fell into royal disfavor. When a plot against the king’s life was discovered in 1540, Olavus was convicted of having guilty knowledge of it, and was condemned to die. Through the intervention of the populace of Stockholm, he was pardoned, but the king never forgave him. He was permitted to resume his work in 1543, and continued to preach the gospel with great zeal until his death in 1552.

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