The Hans who rocked Catholicism to reform the church

Remembered today by Lutheran congregations as an “angel”, Hans Tausen was a gifted theologian, preacher and agitator

November 12th, 2012 8:07 am| by admin
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Throughout history, religious reformations have changed the way people look at the concept of faith and a higher power. Denmark has been no exception in this respect. In the last 1,100 years, the country has experienced two major religious reformations that have changed the course of its history. And today, with church attendances dwindling and calls growing for a separation of church and state, the country would appear to be on the verge of a third.

While the first reformation took place when King Harald Bluetooth embraced Christianity in the 10th century, it is the second − which saw a religious insurgency and the subsequent adoption and spread of Lutheranism across the Scandinavian region − that we are looking at in this article, and specifically the instrumental role played in this movement by Hans Tausen. As the main protagonist of the Danish reformation, he went on to become the architect of today’s Lutheran Denmark.

Denmark officially adopted Lutheranism as its official religion in its constitution in 1537 (Photo: Lars Ahlmann Olese)Born into a peasant family in Birkende on Funen in 1494, Tausen went on to question the very foundation of Roman Catholicism with his revolutionary preaching. A gifted teacher and writer, he was a powerful preacher and agitator. He was one of the first reformers to use Danish instead of the conventional Latin in church services. He also went on to take a special place in Danish history as the first priest to get married.

Tausen attended schools in Odense and Slagelse before becoming a friar at the monastery of the Order of Saint John of Antvorskov. He then completed his university studies at Rostock and was ordained as a priest. He also attended the University of Copenhagen for a brief period of time before being sent overseas by his abbot to accumulate further knowledge in his field. By this time, Tausen had mastered both Latin and Hebrew and was considered a good linguist of his times.

In 1523, Tausen went to Wittenberg where he met Martin Luther, the founder of the then controversial Lutheran church. The length of the stay is debated – as are many of the facts concerning his life, presumably by conflicting Protestant and Catholic historians. But some time into his second year there, he was called back to Antvorskov by his superiors, who had heard he had joined the Martin Luther reformation movement.

On his return, Tausen was kept under a close watch at Antvorskov and then transferred to the Grey Friars’ cloister in Viborg in Jutland. Once again, the nature of how close a watch is debated, with some historians even suggesting he was imprisoned, although it seems more likely that he was merely, as most monks were, encouraged to stay within the confines of the monastery’s walls. One story, detailing how an ever-increasing crowd of followers nightly congregated outside his ‘prison cell’ to listen to his ‘Even song’ and Lutheran preaching, is straight out of the pages of the Lutheran version of the New Testament!

Thanks to his preaching, and no doubt the kind of propaganda religions have been spouting for aeons, his popularity among the masses grew to such lengths that the church relented to him using the podium of the monastery’s Saint John’s Church.

From here, Tausen’s efforts went into overdrive. With the help of Hans Vingaard, a former priest, he printed and distributed pamphlets of Luther’s ‘Opuscula’, translated into Danish with a few unmistakeable Tausen additions.

Tausen meanwhile married Dorothea, the sister of his colleague Jörgen Viberg (a locally-based kindred spirit, also known as Sadolin). The act was looked upon by some as the greatest scandal of all time to hit the Catholic church, and it brought more fame, and infamy, to Tausen’s Lutheran ambitions.

Tausen’s preaching appealed so much to the local populace, particularly the youths, that they swiftly ousted their young bishop, Jörgen Friis. Tausen, meanwhile, left the confines of the Grey Friars’ cloister – he had begun to feel vulnerable among the Franciscans (in an atmosphere not dissimilar to the one that prevails in ‘The Name of the Rose’) and sought protection from the burgesses of Viborg.

Nevertheless, Tausen continued to preach at the church of the monastery, while Sadolin, whom he had ‘consecrated’ a priest and had left Viborg, presided over the church of the Dominicans. But soon, his following was so large that the church was no longer big enough, and he started addressing everyone gathered in the market area from the church tower.

However, the Franciscans banned him from preaching from their church – a decision that led to riots. A bizarre compromise ensued in which the friars would preach in the morning and Tausen in the afternoon. The shared-congregation scheme then came to a head when a senior member of the Danish Catholic Church sent armed men to the church to arrest Tausen, who were driven back by armed bourgeoisie. The church, now it would seem, was Tausen’s.

From his base, Tausen started to change the way people worshipped. Hymns were sung in Danish rather than in Latin, church services were also translated, and the liturgy was reformed.

And Tausen’s efforts attracted the attention of the most important person in Denmark, if not Scandinavia. King Frederick I, the Catholic king of Norway and Denmark, was apprehensive that his ‘Lutheran’ predecessor, his nephew King Christian II, a religious mercenary who changed his faith to suit his needs, would use Lutheran support to try to win the throne back he lost in 1523 – the fears weren’t unfounded, as Christian attempted to invade in 1531!

So this explains why Frederick, during a visit to Aalborg in the autumn of 1526, took Tausen under his wing and appointed him as a Lutheran chaplain.

With his open support for Tausen’s teachings, the king of the land had legalised Protestantism and embraced the religion. Three years later, in 1529,

Tausen accepted the king’s invitation to take over the pulpit of the church of St Nicholas in Copenhagen. With the king’s support and Tausen in the capital, the Reformation was gathering pace.

However, upon the death of Frederick in 1533, Tausen was convicted of blasphemy and banished from the dioceses of Sjælland and Skåne by Bishop Joachim Rønnow at the Assembly of Nobles. Once again, there were riots, which were only dispelled by Tausen himself – an intervention that probably saved the life of the bishop.

This act of nobility gave Tausen a friend and supporter in Rønnow. The bishop withdrew his condemnation and granted Tausen permission to preach in the diocese on the condition that he used a moderate tone.

Meanwhile, Tausen was increasingly busy at his writing desk. Among his achievements was a full translation of ‘the Pentateuch’, the first five books of ‘The Old Testament’, which are often accredited by theologians to Moses.

Denmark officially adopted Lutheranism as its official religion in its constitution in 1537. Tausen was appointed professor of Hebrew at the University of Copenhagen in the same year. Six years later he was made the Lutheran bishop of Ribe, a position he held for the next 20 years until his death.  

Tausen is well remembered by the church. One of his psalms, ‘Fra himlen kom en engel klar’ (From heaven came an angel clear), is still sung today, and in 2004, to celebrate the 475th year of the reformation of the town of Viborg, a modern monument was constructed in memory of the leading reformist theologian at the place of the now demolished church of the Franciscan monastery.
 

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