Print Article

For You My Heart Yearns

Written by: Valborg Lindgärde |

In the seventeenth century there were women, particularly of the nobility and of the Arndtian piety tradition, who made records of devotional literature.

Through his books Vier Bücher vom Wahren Christentumb and Paradiesgärtlein aller christlichen Tagenden, Johann Arndt (1555-1621) exercised great influence on godly life in the Nordic region. German devotional literature was imbued, through his work, with the medieval tradition of piety.

They translated meditations and prayers, or they copied into their prayer books the texts they found in handwritten or printed books belonging to others. Women also sometimes recorded hymns and sacred songs in this way, either from collector’s zeal or for use in private worship, and on occasion perhaps purely as material for a translation or writing exercise. These manuscripts are valuable in that they are the oldest source material for hymns that continued to be used for centuries. Anna Gyldenstierna’s (b. 1596) collection of hymns, now in Karen Brahe’s Library, is a good example of this. In Drottning Sofias visbok (Song-Book of Queen Sofia) the Swedish noblewoman Karin Ulfsparre (d. c. 1650) recorded a number of sacred songs, often with a lament over the inconstancy of life and a yearning for the kingdom of heaven: “but dwelling among the spheres of heaven/are delight and joyous days.” She had possibly translated some of them herself, and her acrostic initials in the verse lines would suggest that she wrote a number of songs with an autobiographical content. Danish Sophie Bille (1634-1693) added eighty-one hymns, some of which she had translated herself, to her devotional book En Ny BønneBog med nogle faa Psalmer (1678; A New Prayerbook with a Few Hymns). This devotional book, under the title De udvalgtes uforgængelig Krone i Himmelen hand erlanges ved denne HimmelNøgel til Guds SkatKammer paa Jorden (The Everlasting Crown of the Select in Heaven is Obtained through this Heavenly Key to God’s Treasure-House on Earth), was published in a total of seventeen editions, the last one in 1805. Some of the hymns that were only included in the first edition are not known in earlier versions; the following, for example:

My soul shall rise from its very depth
In the name of Jesus Christ
O God grant good fortune and profit
Jesus he is my salvation
In need/sorrow and strife
Through your arduous death O sweet Jesus.

Mourids Brun: Fruentimmerets Conterfey udi det Gamle Testament, 1682. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

In Aandelige HvileTimer (1696; Hours of Spiritual Contemplation), Sophie Bille collected a further 150 hymns for publication.

Early seventeenth-century Denmark could boast one named woman hymn writer: Elle Andersdatter (d. c. 1643). It is thought that she was a townswoman in Maribo. To her is attributed authorship of a few of the hymns, including “O, my soul is most fervently gladdened”. They are part of the common treasury, above all in Denmark and Sweden, and have travelled from the one hymnal to the next.

As the bird rejoices in the bright of day
I rapturously enter the Kingdom of Light.
Surrounded by angels’ songs
And vibrating harps
I behold the sunrise of eternity.

Towards the turn of the century (1700), an increasing number of women, primarily in Denmark, not only made copies of other people’s hymns but also wrote their own. One reason for this can presumably be found in the new spiritual movements that arrived in the Scandinavian countries from Germany. These movements gave women a place within the piety tradition: their religious experiences were respected on a par with those of men and their voices were heard.

I denna s. k. “nävervisa” – psalmen enligt traderad uppgift en gång nedtecknad på näver – bildar begynnelsebokstäverna i originalets 15 verser ett akrostikon, som kan ange diktens upphovsman eller tänkt mottagare. Enligt många forskare är det senare här det troligaste.

It was not unusual for these new spiritual movements to highlight the first Christian Church as an ideal model, and to attempt to put into practice its perceived gender equality. The Herrnhuters’ need for women’s hands played a role in forging a new view of women within these religious communities. The ideal situation was one in which both sexes could hold the same offices – God was not thought to have called exclusively on men to work in his service. Spiritual liberation, and thereby greater independence and increased social awareness, joined forces with all the female modesty and domesticity the era demanded.

Singing became an increasingly significant element of devotional life. The Pietists gathered in order to sing, and through song they expressed religious experiences and feelings about the life of the community. Early hymns became the object of renewed interest; new hymns were written and sung to old or new tunes. The Pietist hymnbooks are evidence of how the function of the hymn was no longer instructive, and the ecclesiastical year was no longer pivotal. The hymn was primarily of importance to the community of believers. This led to a new style in which rhetoric as a means of persuasion or of inspiring wonder was replaced by artlessness and spontaneous simplicity.

It would be wrong to locate all the women hymn writers within the new religious communities of the era, but it would seem that a milieu and a breeding ground had evolved in which women ventured to write hymns. It is not easy to determine whether their intention was to write for use in church services or in private worship. In all probability, very few wrote with a view to church singing, and in most cases the hymns were not included in the more generally used hymn books. The women often wrote specifically for private devotions and for other women in the same situation. The female hymn writers simply gave voice to a marginalised social group. One wrote a “widow’s song”, another wrote to “sorrowful widows and other of God’s children of upright disposition” or more generally to sisters and brothers in the same distressful situation. By writing “Come, my (Son and Daughter) seat yourself here” in a communion hymn, Anna Borrebye surely intended to indicate that God also speaks to women.

There is a marked difference between women’s hymn writing in Denmark and in Sweden in the late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century. In Denmark we can find the names of writers with an extensive output, women who published a number of collections in their own name. These women found themselves in the contemporary spotlight, the subjects of tribute poems and requests for reprinting of their song collections, and occasionally they were even named in registers of outstanding and learned Danish women. The majority of them came from clergy families and were either the daughters or wives of ministers. In Sweden, on the other hand, women primarily wrote single hymns for Pietist and Herrnhuter communities. The hymns were included in hymn books published from around 1730 onwards, starting with Spiritual Songs about Diverse Matters and on Various Occasions. Matters of Church politics might explain these differences. Danish Pietism was closely linked to the court and the royal family, and was a clerical movement, whereas Pietism in Sweden was primarily a layman’s movement. Also, a law aimed at regulating separatist tendencies – “Konventikelplakaten” – took effect in Sweden in 1726, fifteen years before it came into force in Denmark.

Danish Hymn Writers

Elisabeth Pedersdatter Heeboe (1643-1703) was the daughter of Peder Claussen, a clergyman, and was born at a vicarage in Ål in Jutland. She married Niels Nielsen Heeboe, and it was not until she had been a widow for nineteen years that she published two collections of sacred poems and songs. Enkens Suckog SangOffer (Sigh and Song Offering of the Widow), containing twenty songs, was printed in 1687, and two years later Aandelige BrudeHarmonie (Spiritual Bridal Harmony) was published. The latter contained a number of poems based on the Song of Solomon, followed by a “supplement” of sixteen songs in the form of, among other things, a conversation between Christ and the soul. Based on her personal life story, the texts outline a process moving from grief to deliverance:

Then I straightway sped off into the arms of GodAnd there found love to kindle in my breast.

She had been a widow for many years, and the period following her husband’s death in 1667 is portrayed as a time of grief and loneliness. It is characteristic of many of the hymn writers here under discussion that they depict their actual life situation in religious language. For Elisabeth Heeboe, however, it was also a case of religious breakthrough, in which anxiety was replaced by trust and serenity in relation to God. This new life was expressed in her writing by means of an abundantly sensuous language:

I was nearly frozen dead from hardship and the hammer of the law
Which was so hard and cold now I am aflame
Now am I warmed Yes more than merely glowing
I now feel so sweet a burning love.

In her day, Elisabeth Pedersdatter Heeboe was clearly numbered among the renowned Danish women writers. An extremely large number of laudatory poems attest to this, not only those written by her three children – Anna, Marie and Peder – but also those by high-ranking men in the ecclesiastical and scholarly world, such as the learned professor and poet Elias Naur.

Girls were admitted to several of the schools set up in Sweden and modelled on Die Franckeschen Stiftungen, Francke’s institutions in Halle. While imprisoned in Russia, some of Karl XII’s (Charles XII) soldiers had set up a school in Tobolsk, influenced by the Francke system, at which girls also attended lessons. When these soldiers later returned home, the school was moved to Moscow, but the educational ideas accompanied them to Sweden, and the Pietists and Herrnhuters established schools in a good many places in the country during the 1700s.

Two other hymn writers from the period should be mentioned. Inger Jens-Datter Sønberg (1648-1728) finished her Sielens Daglige Røg Offer, For Herren optændt (The Soul’s Daily Incense Offering, ignited to the Lord) in 1698 at the Vang rectory in Aalborg diocese, where she lived with her half-brother following the death of her father. Up until his death in 1690, her father, Jens Andersen Sønberg, had spent forty-two years as rector in Visby and Heltborg. Inger Jens-Datter Sønberg’s devotional book contained morning and evening worship for each day of the week, with songs to match. Her devotional book was reprinted a number of times in the course of the eighteenth century. Like Kingo, Inger Jens-Datter Sønberg gives thanks for the repose of the night and for protection against darkness and Satan, and she prays for the coming day. The lovely “Aften-Sang om Løverdagen” begins:

Evening clads itself in black
The burning torch of day is quenched
The nighttime star-watch comes out
my Jesus
to your bride
My heart yearns for you
Which for you is wholly uplifted
I bow to your approch
To embrace you my Dear Love.

Elisabeth Pedersdatter Heeboe: Aandelige Brude-Harmonie, 1689. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Kirsten Jensdatter’s (1648-1728) second husband, Rasmus Pedersen Bruun (1641-1713), had been a clergyman in Klinte and Grindløse, in the county of Odense; according to his posthumous reputation, he was “learned and respected”. She was a seventy-year-old widow when she wrote Enkens Skærv i Templen (The Widow’s Mite in the Temple) in 1718, a publication that went on to be reprinted numerous times. Kirsten Jensdatter’s hymns deal partly with Creation, but mainly with the struggles of a Christian life. In the preface, with reference to one of Jesus’ parables, she writes that the widow’s mite she can cast consists of “Sighs and Songs”. Formerly, she says, “I used my Pen and Hand” to record housekeeping accounts, but being now an old woman she has stopped that and “turns her pen around” to higher reckoning with God.

Anna Jacobs Daatter Borrebye (1708-1762) was the daughter of Jacob Mortensen Borrebye (1683-1753), clergyman in Nakskov and Branderslev on the island of Lolland, and she was the second oldest of eight siblings. She said that she began to write when, aged sixteen, she lost her mother and had to work to earn her living. Her grief and sense of loss were great, and in order to cope with that, she said, she wrote hymns and songs in the evening at the end of the working day. Zions Sukke ved Babylons Floder, Eller Guds Børns TrøsteTanker I denne Verdens Modgang (Zion’s Sighs by the Rivers of Babylon, or Comforting Thoughts for God’s Children in the Adversity of this World) was published in 1743 and was reprinted three times, the last time in 1851. Unlike the other Danish hymn writers from the first half of the eighteenth century, Anna Borrebye was represented in the more commonly used hymn books. Magnus Brostrup Landstad included her in his Hjertesuk til hver dag i Ugen (1841; Deep Sighs for Each Day of the Week), and she was one of the ten Danish writers who Landstad also included in the first officially endorsed hymn book in Norway (1870). Her Easter hymn is the only one of her hymns still in Landstad’s revised hymn book:

Blissful Easter, blissful Easter,
With victory sweet,
The misery of Good Friday
God turned to joy
For Jesus rose from the dead, for Jesus rose from the dead.

The 1797 edition of Zions Sukke is supplemented by her “Afskeds sidste Svane-Sang” (The Final Song of Parting). She tells how, on Christmas Eve 1761, she had to abandon her struggle against pain and illness and go to bed – never able to get up again. But she is thinking of all those people she has touched through her book, and she is delighted that she “is esteemed throughout Scandinavia”.

In 1724, and on several later occasions, three short sacred songs were printed in a little booklet. About the writer, Else Henrichs Daatter, we know no more than what she tells us: she is “a poor Girl, who bears God’s heavy Cross”. Perhaps she is the exception in this catalogue of clergymen’s daughters and clergymen’s wives.

Anna Dorthea Crondahl, née Panch (c. 1684-1761), was one of the more productive eighteenth-century women hymn writers. She was married to the clergyman Joachim Crondahl (1693-1750), who took up a living in Lyderslev and Frøslev on Zealand in 1730, and sixteen years later moved to a living in Nyborg on Funen. All that is said of him in S.V.Wiberg’s Almindelig dansk præstehistorie (Clerical History of Denmark) is that his wife wrote sacred songs, and that he left a large debt that could not be paid. In dedicating Aandelige Sange to the Queen, in 1754, the writer refers to herself as a “poor and miserable widow” and “a poor and care-worn clergyman’s widow”; in the preface addressed to the reader, she refers to her husband’s death, “by which bread and everything were as if all at once taken from me, all but a sore small mite for my sustenance”. As a widow she received a pension of fifty rigsdaler (rix-dollars), which was later reduced to forty. The town paid half and the poor box the other half, we are told. Her need of material assistance is quite clear in the foreword to her last collection of songs. However, it would seem that she had already suffered difficulties at an earlier stage of her life. She had fallen ill aged forty-five, and she tells us that all her visits to the doctor were to no avail. She returns to this illness in each new preface, and it would seem that she never recovered from it. The illness meant, she writes, that she could no longer manage housework, but that she was therefore better able to seek comfort and strength in reading the Holy Scripture and devotional literature. In the preface to the last of her song collections she wrote:

“I considered it a sorely burdensome Cross, but I have learnt that it is in a person’s best interest to be satisfied with the lot assigned us by God; what does it benefit us to grumble against God?” This is the context in which her writing was conceived.

Elias Naur (1650-1720) was the headmaster of Odense Grammar School, and Professor of Greek and Hebrew. His publications included the epic depiction of the Passion, Golgotha paa Parnasso (1689; Golgotha on Parnassus).

Three collections were published in Anna Dorthea Crondahl’s name. Siælens Lyst og Trøst, forestillet udi nogle faa Gudelige Sange og Aandelige Psalmer (The Desire and Comfort of the Soul, Presented in some few Devotional Songs and Sacred Hymns), containing thirty-eight hymns, was printed in 1742, 1744, and 1762. In the same year as the first edition, she also published Den Pæniterende David (The Penitent David), a versified commentary to each of the ten verses in Psalm 6. In 1746 she published En Fortsættelse af Siælens Trøst […] befattende en liden Nye Samling av XX Aandelige Psalmer (A Continuation of The Comfort of the Soul […] comprising a small new collection of XX Sacred Hymns), which was also later printed in two new editions, in 1750 and in 1762. Her last collection, Aandelige Sange Til Sinds opmuntring For eenfoldige Christne (Sacred Songs to the Encouragement of Simple Christian Minds), was published in 1754. In gratitude for her husband’s clerical living, she dedicated the first collections to Princess Charlotte Amalie, who was known for her devoutness and for her affiliation with Pietists and Herrnhuters.

In his Samling af Danske Lærde Fruentimmer (1753; Collection of Learned Danish Women), Frederik Christian Schønau mentions Anna Dorthea Crondahl’s many poems and hymns. He says, however, that he does not know much about this interesting woman. “I would have wished that good fortune to have been informed of so sorely tried a Christian’s life,” he writes. He would prefer to have met her himself, but despite his inquiries he has not been able to find out if she is still alive, and if so, where she is living. He hopes to return to the matter. Mrs Crondahl certainly lived for some years after Schønau wrote this, but it is more questionable whether he met the ailing and impoverished clergyman’s widow. At all events, he did not return to the subject.

Combining the Pursuits of Martha and Mary. On the Defence of Hymn Writing

Both a woman, as well as a man,
He His gifts doth give.
He shares His wisdom with those
Who write to His glory.
(Kirsten Jensdatter).

In the prefaces to their collections, the women hymn writers often emphasise the fact that they are of the female sex. They frequently defend the fact that women also take up the pen in order to “versify”. “He does ill who entertains the notion/ that nothing good may be heard from the female sex,” writes Anna Jacobs Daatter Borrebye. Both in their own prefaces and in their tribute poems, they use not only the endeavours of contemporaneous learned women as illustrations and arguments, but also women from the Bible. Prayer books became increasingly specialised during the seventeenth century, and devotional works and prayers were also written for the various specific needs of women.

Salomon Liscovius: Christelig FruenTimmers Aandelig Dygde Spegel, 1695. Universitetsbiblioteket, Lund University

In this, as well as in the sermons, women from the Bible were identified as examples and potential figures of identification; forewords in the hymn books show that the female writers used these figures from the Scriptures to reinforce their own self-confidence and that of their fellow women. Argumentation from this kind of literature often appeared in the women hymn writers’ own introductions, perhaps in defence of their writing, or in the tribute poems. There was much discussion about a woman’s place, her proper areas of occupation and the appropriateness of writing hymns. Biblical figures were often mentioned in her defence. “Although some they do not like / That women have this gift,” wrote Kirsten Jensdatter, and defended her own hymn writing by referring to Deborah’s song, which was as dear to God as David’s psalms and “Moses’ heartfelt sighs”. Biblical examples are similarly used in a tribute poem to Anna Dorthea Crondahl, to illustrate the significant roles played by women in various arenas. The daughters of Salem helped to build the walls of Salem, for example, and they also helped to decorate the tabernacle in the Lord’s temple. Moreover, there would seem to be some discussion of St Paul:

Well then ! he who would say: a woman must keep silencein our church: would he ask the Spirit to refrain?

When Kirsten Jensdatter writes about the woman’s conflict between housework and the care of her own soul, and thereby the right to formulate her thoughts in writing, the ‘mirroring’ interpretation of the story of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary is quite definitely hovering in the background:

For even if I, as woman ought,
Take care of the housework
With wool, linen, hemp and flax
And draw thread in sewing needle.
Yet heaven I will not forget,
Nor drop from my mind and thoughts.

However, the lines could also be read as a comment on, and perhaps in opposition to, the much-read chapter 31 from the Book of Proverbs, which praises the capable wife: “She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. […] She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.”

Tobias Borrebye’s poem to his sister, which also alludes to the story of Jesus visiting Martha and Mary, praises the author, and her poetic zeal is defended on similar terms in discussion with the author of Proverbs:

It would be much better, they do say, the learned
To wash, to cook, to bake bread and tarts
To spin, wind, sew, to scutch, hackle flax
To make lace, make malt, to brew, churn butter
En fin to know how to run a household well,
Than to sit quietly at a table and meditate.

Help is also at hand here, however, from the contemporaneous Biblical interpretations found in sermons and devotional literature. Where the Book of Proverbs asks “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies,” the Swedish dean and poet Kolmodin states: “A sensible woman, of faith and piety,/ Will always outweigh any amount of riches.” The individual woman’s worship and intellectual occupation is justified in the ‘mirroring’ of women, and thereby in the hymn-writing women’s own attitude to the occupation of writing. One of Jesus’ parables might be applied: a calling has to be taken seriously; we have to use the talent we have been given and not bury it. “Shall the woman then bury her pound in the ground?/ Shall the Lord have no Fruit and Interest thereof?” wrote Anna Borrebye’s brother. The pound we have been given might be, both for women and men – to cite Kirsten Jensdatter – to write to the glory of God.

King David’s Psalms, and particularly his so-called penitential psalms, were the object of many meditations and the occasion for much writing. The pastor of Thisted, Johan Thorson, wrote Den grædende og pæniterende David (The Weeping and Penitent David), which Mrs Crondahl cited as her inspiration.

Longing for Release from this World to the Wedding Feast in Heaven

To my bridegroom is my yearning
For all my troubles he doth soothe
In Him is my greatest desire.
(Anna Dorthea Crondahl).

These hymn writers would seem to have shared illness, deprivation and perhaps poverty. Elisabeth Pedersdatter Heeboe had been a widow for nineteen years when she published her songs. Anna Jacobs Daatter Borrebye was, when she took up her pen, a young girl grieving over the loss of her mother, and at the end of her life she wrote that for twenty-three years she had carried a heavy cross of which the world knew nothing.

Kirsten Jensdatter was a widow; Else Henrichs Daatter was in all probability a poor and poorly girl; Mrs Crondahl suffered from a protracted illness, and once widowed she was also poor.

Although the forewords to the song collections might reveal that a number of the writers were grieving over the death of someone they held dear, the hymns themselves rarely address this directly. The titles, however, bear it out: Enkens Suckog SangOffer (Sigh and Song Offering of the Widow), Enkens Skærv i Templen (The Widow’s Mite in the Temple) – and, indeed, even the title of Anna Borrebye’s poems Zions Sukke ved Babylons Floder, which alludes to the yearning of the children of Israel for the Promised Land, has the subheading Guds Børns TrøsteTanker i denne Verdens Modgang (Comforting Thoughts for God’s Children in the Adversity of this World). Perhaps writing hymns had a therapeutic or compensatory effect, and the Bible and devotional literature provided a language that made it possible for these women to voice their innermost feelings and their experience of outer distress. “Who will counsel me/ Against the evil works of sin/ And its heavy burden?” wrote Anna Borrebye in one of her hymns. In thus identifying with the weeping sinner in Bethany, she displays both an inner pain and an outer, physical powerlessness:

O! no, my soul, forsake me not,
While the gate of grace stands open!
Your Jesus never doth refuse,
Any sighs and calls;
He himself calls out
To sinner-thralls:
I will lighten your burden;
I will therefore
To Jesus go
And wash his feet in tears.

In both her collections, Elisabeth Heeboe described a way of getting through the depths of despair to find peace of mind in God. But her grief and outer distress are also couched in a traditionally biblical, religious language. This is also the case in the following stanza by Kirsten Jensdatter, where she too identifies with the weeping Mary as she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears:

At the feet of my Jesus
I now shall prostrate myself,
Wet them with repentant tears
He will not refuse me,
He will hear my prayer,
He knows my hurts,
His gates of help he opens
To me of womankind.

The author’s personal situation frequently intensifies the contempt for this world and longing for the heavenly home which, in various forms, was a prominent feature of much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious writing. This longing was often manifested in the bridal imagery of the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, to which seventeenth-century devotional books liked to refer, and which made a major contribution to the religious language of the period. A warm and emotive figurative language in which a religious experience is expressed in erotic terms therefore colours many of the poems and hymns. According to its subtitle, Aandelige BrudeHarmonie revolves on the relationship between the bridegroom Christ and the Christian Church as bride, but Elisabeth Heeboe facilitates expression of a highly individual ‘I’ in this bridal role:

Yet I waited and longed for the bridegroom’s coming
God blessed and determined how some would fare
My heart longs / Is afflicted by longing
That the flame of love is given form by sighs.

Nor wanton / nor wrangling / nor din may be heard
Nor rumbling / nor tumbling where God shall reign
My bridegroom he comes / But not with drums drumming
But behold the loveliness and grace of his coming.

The same bridal symbolism frequently occurs in the works of the other writers too. Mrs Crondahl often writes about patiently bearing one’s cross following Christ’s example, but also about the longing for deliverance and the impending wedding feast in heaven. A hymn entitled “Siælens Forlængsel efter Jesu Foreening og Samfund” (Longing of the Soul for the Union and Communion of Jesus) states:

O! sweetest Jesus my lot and my fortune,
My wreath of honour and my finest jewel,
How you have impressed my mind and my heart,
I am not afflicted by any pain at all.

O! sweetest God my bridegroom and lord
How precious and dear You are to me,
When I but think of Your ardent desire
To lead me, sinner, from the dungeons of Hell.

God awaken my heart in the flame of love,
Until I behold You God in Heaven,
O! let me hear Your comforting words:
Come to me my dove! I will grant thee succour.

For only then will all sorrow and misery cease
Then shall I be admitted to my bridegroom’s chamber.
Then shall I be redeemed from all want and all distress
And shall be led in the whitest of bridal gowns.

Come bridegroom, my soul-companion, abandon me not,
With trusting arms I do You embrace
Indeed hold You so fast You shall not let me go,
I know that this hope will not founder.

The first prayer book for women in Swedish appeared in 1695 and was a translation of Christlichen FrauenZimmers geistliche TugendSpiegel (Leipzig, 1675) by Salomo Liscow or Liscovius (Swedish: Andelig DygdeSpegel; Spiritual Mirror of Virtue). The book provided women with illustrations of various situations in life, taken primarily from the Old Testament. Not surprisingly, Susanna is a model for honest wives, while Sarah, who marries Tobias, is an example for brides, and Hannah for pregnant women.

In Denmark, a good ten years before this, books of versified texts had been published, in which women of the Bible, their virtues and piety, were presented as examples to be followed. Det rette Aandelige QwindeSmykke (The True Spiritual Jewel of Womanhood), in which the women of the Bible were listed in alphabetical order, was published in 1682 by Christian Gertsen, and in that same year Mourids Brun published Fruentímmerets Conterfey udi det gamle Testament (The Countenance of Woman in the Old Testament). The latter had a successor in Peder Møller’s writings on women in the Old Testament. In 1697, Peder Møller also translated Johann Quirsfeld’s German-language collection of prayers for women, designed for use in various situations to which women might be exposed.

Danish Female Hymn Writers and Hymn Tradition

The yoke of Christ is yet light to bear
And for the soul a dish so sweet
Sweeter yet than honeycomb,
O! that the soul doth rightly savour.

Antoni da Firenze: Kristus på korset, 1415. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Although personal circumstances can be discerned behind the choice of topic for the hymns, the overall hymn tradition of which the women writers are a part is nonetheless clear. It is not only a case of yearning for the beyond and an eroticising Jesus-love. The Danish hymn tradition of Kingo and, especially, Brorson is identified by its use of concrete and frequently unconventional imagery, with special appeal to the senses of taste and smell.

To me the world seems bitter, dreary, / I am like a solitary bird in a cage. / Unknown to the teeming world. / God is my friend, that will suffice.

(Mrs Crondahl).

That He will soon be here, wedding day to hold / And release me from the torments of this world, / And thus lead me to the bridal hall of Heaven / There to sing sweetly among angels thousandfold.

(Else Henrichs Daatter).

While words such as ‘sour’ and ‘bitter’ not only signify this transitory world, but also sin and evil, in this imagery everything to do with sweetness symbolises divine goodness and glory. With the following hymn from her last collection, Aandelige Sange, Anna Dorthea Crondahl inscribes her name in this literary tradition:

Sweet Jesus! Lord of life
Behold, how I do thirst
For the wellspring of life,
O! how my soul now longs,
That it could once move
From here in Bochim’s Weeping-Vale
And from this tent of Kedar
Into the joyful hall of Heaven.

I cast off my worldly being,
I am become more discerning,
I am desirous of Heaven,
Of my bridegroom, the soul’s companion,
I will lovingly embrace him
And hold him to my breast;
For I shall surely reap reward
For seeking succour in my Lord.

To my bridegroom is my yearning
For all my troubles he doth soothe
In him is my greatest desire.
For him I have shed sighs,
Jesu’s lips, honeycom
BJesu’s sweetness I do savour,
Wherefore I shall all my days
Forever, Jesus! trust in You.

The Gospel of the Kingdom of God / Is sweet as honeycomb, / Once permitted room in the heart, / It may be tasted fully, / Being honeyed sustenance for the soul, / Making the heart light, replete and glad / And fair to Jesu’s eyes.

Thus wrote Brorson in 1739. In The Song of Solomon 5:1, we read: “I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk […].” In St Luke 24:42, the disciples give the resurrected Christ a piece “of an honeycomb” to eat.

This Danish hymn tradition often draws on empirical everyday experience and thus has a figurative specificity that influenced, for example, Anna Dorthea Crondahl. In one of her hymns she compares the vanity of this world to “a hut without roof,/ A tasteless dish for the soul”; in another, the pleasure of the world is likened to “golden butterflies”.

“I must admit that my woman’s writing is not for perspicacious minds, which often seem to have no shortcomings, but solely for simple and concerned Christians,” wrote Mrs Crondahl, with the humility required of good manners. These women wrote their hymns in an unaffected style, without “any poetic ornament”. This is the same ideal as is manifested in Brorson’s hymns, where the artistic ambition is precisely that of finding the right word and expression for a feeling or experience.

I see that she has minded cadence in her verses,
I see she has aspired to composition,
I see she has shunned the apostrophe,
Who could find fault with such verse?

Lorentz Storm, teacher at Thurø school and author of this tribute poem to Mrs Crondahl, obviously sees the omitted rhetorical capacity – use of apostrophe (formal address), for example – in a positive light. We can nonetheless, he goes on, be moved more by these songs than by many from the pens of the most learned writers.

The women hymn writers were compared, often in discussion concerning the writing women of the times, with other, either earlier or contemporaneous, female authors. Anna Dorthea Crondahl was compared on a number of occasions with the Norwegian Dorothe Engelbretsdatter. In a laudatory poem to mark her last song collection, we thus read:

But now she affirms anew, in poetic words
That Dorthe Engelbrecht has her name, her sister,
In she who assumes an equal place among bard-maidens.

In other poems she is called “Our other Dorothe”, “our Engelbrett”.

Translation of Hymns

In the early seventeenth century, a number of women were occupied with translating hymns, and later on we also find hymns that are very close to their non-Danish source, without the original text being credited. In 1733 the Norwegian Birgitte Christine Kaas (1682-1761), whose married name was Huitfeldt, was reportedly encouraged by Christian VI’s mother-in-law, Margravine Sophie Christiane of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, to use her writing skills – of which there were numerous examples in drawers around the house – in the service of sacred poetry. The following year she published Nogle Aandelige Psalmer, Oversatte udaf det Tydske Sprog paa Dansk af den, Som inderlig begiærer at have udi sit Hierte Bestandig Christi Kierlighed (Some Sacred Hymns, Translated from the German Language into Danish by one who intensely desires to have in her Heart the Constant Love of Christ). The author’s initials are concealed in the three last words of the title. The book contained twenty-eight translations, of which, during the author’s lifetime, eighteen were included in Pontoppidans psalmbok or Den nye PsalmeBog (1740; Pontoppidan’s Hymn Book, or the New Hymn Book), the so-called “Slotssalmebog” (Palace Hymn Book). Several of these hymns are still sung in Danish and Norwegian churches today. Her translations are notable for the fact that she, a woman, tackles the ‘female’ hymn of thanksgiving. At least fifteen of the twenty-eight hymns are translations of texts written by female German hymn writers. She seems to have particularly valued the work of the German Countess Emilie Juliana (1637-1706), one of the most productive of the German women hymn writers, to whom some 600 hymns are attributed; she wrote thirteen of the hymns Birgitte Kaas translated. Birgitte Kaas’ own writing was consumed by flames when her home, the manor house of Elingaard, burnt down in 1746, and to posterity she is known solely for her translations.

Reaction, “Guldberg’s Hymn Book” and Birgitte Boye

Unlike the other female writers of the times – apart from Anna Borrebye – Birgitte Christine Kaas’ work was included in the official hymn books. She is an exception to the rule that women hymn writers’ hymns were seldom used in the general church services or included in the generally used hymn books. However, we have now reached the end of the eighteenth century and new standards of style came into play, with expectations of a new, vigorous and dignified language.

In 1773, the barely fifteen-year-old “Selskabet til de skønne og nyttige Videnskabers Forfremmelse” (Society for the Promotion of the Fine and Propitious Branches of Scholarship) arranged a competition for anyone who had the ability and the desire to work with “the sacred poetry”; the winner was an obscure writer, Birgitte Hertz, for the twenty hymns she had submitted. She had based the first ten on Psalm 104, going through it verse by verse and celebrating the Creator’s greatness, power and wisdom. The content of the remaining ten concentrated on St Luke 9:18-36, and thus dealt with Jesus’ life and work. Later, nineteen of these twenty hymns were included in the new hymn book prepared, on the directions of the king, by Høegh-Guldberg, a leading figure in the Society and one of the originators of the competition, together with Ludvig Harboe, Bishop of Zealand. The purpose of what became, in 1778, “Guldbergs salmebog” (Guldberg’s Hymn Book), was to modernise the stock of hymns, to replace Pontoppidans psalmbok and to weed out the hymns that were seen as being “historic” (outdated) and “wretched” (unlearned). The hymn writers by and large rejected were indeed Kingo and Brorson, but several of Luther’s hymns were also considered no longer appropriate. The German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), who had for some years been living at Fredensborg Palace on Zealand in order to work on his religious epic Der Messias (The Messiah), left his mark on these new hymns. Birgitte Hertz, better known by the name she took from her second marriage, Birgitte Catharine Boye (1742-1824), was the choice of principal writer for the hymn book. God had given “a poor forester widow from Vordingborg district,” wrote Guldberg to the king, “a singular gift for this sacred poetry”, and she ended up contributing no fewer than 149 hymns, including some translations, for the new hymn book. In 1778 Guldberg’s hymn book was introduced at the royal court and in the market towns, while the rural areas continued to use Kingo’s hymn book.

Bochim is a participle form of the Hebrew verb for ‘weep’, in the Book of Judges 2:5 applied as a place name. Of “the tents of Kedar” see, for example, the Book of Psalms 120:5.

However, the new hymn book had a short life span in Denmark, whereas in Norway it remained the preferred collection for a century. In Norway, therefore, Boye’s hymns have had a completely different existence and role in the ecclesiastical tradition. Quite a number of her hymns are traditionally sung at the major celebrations of the ecclesiastical calendar or at weddings, and are sung at the beginning of the service with the congregation standing. “Os er i Dag en Frelser født” (Today is Christ, Our Saviour, Born!), “Han er opstanden, store Bud” (He is Arisen! Glorious Word!), “O, Lue fra Guds Kierlighed” (O Light of God’s Most Wondrous Love) are but three examples.

Bernhard Olsen: Vemmetofte Slots have efter forlæg af et klosterskilderi, from: Illustreret Tidende, 1880

It has been said of Mrs Boye that she wrote alongside an open Bible. In the only one of her hymns still included in the Danish hymn book, “Alvidende! dit øje mig ransager” (All-knowing God! Your eye doth search me), her familiarity with the Bible and her love of nature come through quite clearly. Her meditations on nature take the form of a hymn of thanksgiving for God’s wisdom and goodness. With her partiality for King David’s Psalms, and particularly for those that are usually called the Penitential Psalms, however, she is working within the earlier tradition. Here, for example, Mrs Boye is adapting Psalm 139, “Herre, du ransager mig og kender mig” (O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me):

Whither shall I go, and thou cannot follow?
Could any flight obscure me from thy sight?
O God! should I ascend up where angelic tones are heard,
There is thy throne.

And crept I down in the sombre pit of the grave,
Could Hell itself conceal me from thy sight?
And were I where the morning breaks
In crimson skies.

And would I cloak myself in night,
It should reveal me as the light of day;
For the darkness in which thou shroudest nature,
Thou fathomest.

There were a number of reasons why this hymn book was never officially introduced throughout Denmark. In the coup d’état of 1784, Guldberg lost his influential political position. An economic recession after three years of crop failure meant that funding a new hymn book was not seen as a priority. Furthermore, there was disagreement among clergy and bishops, and, finally, in 1795 the main stockpile of the hymn book was lost in a fire. It was said to have been introduced “in Trankebar, but not in Ballerup”.

Birgitte Boye was born in 1742 in Gentofte, north of Copenhagen, the daughter of Jens Johansen, royal gamekeeper for the hunting area of Jægersborg. When she was thirteen years old she became engaged to Herman Michelsen Hertz, but the couple did not get married until 1763, when he became a royal forester. They had four children, and Mrs Hertz appears to have been the good wife and mother in a large household. In her free moments, however, she started learning the major European languages for the purpose of reading German, British and French poems in their original versions. Her success in the hymn-writing competition was followed by a period of tribulation. Her husband was on the verge of losing his job as forester, but Birgitte Hertz asked Guldberg for help and he stepped in as their protector. He took the case to the heir presumptive, Frederik, who promised to pay for the forester’s sons to receive an education. But Herman Michelsen Hertz died in 1775 and his estate was handed over to his creditors. Guldberg again came to Mrs Hertz’s rescue and secured her financial support from the queen dowager and the heir presumptive. It was at this time that Guldberg also commissioned her to write for the hymn book he was preparing. She wrote hymns and she translated. In 1778 she remarried, her second husband being Hans Boye, supervisor at the malt mill, later customs clerk at the customs house in Copenhagen. Having completed her work on the hymn book, she moved on to subjects of a national and dramatic character. She later returned to hymn writing, however, when her old love of King David’s Psalms drew her to work on Psalms 1-89. Davids Psalmer i en fri Oversættelse (The Psalms of King David in a Free Translation) was published in three instalments between 1781 and 85.

In her day, Birgitte Catharine Boye was respected and her writing was admired. The posterity that no longer sings her hymns has chiefly discarded her sacred songs for their grandiose and stilted rhetoric. As early as 1793, H. J. Birch wrote in Billedgallerie for Fruentimmer (Picture Gallery for Women) that not all her works need be included in the new hymn book, “as many of her songs are more like the flourish of the ode than the simple tone of the hymn writer”. Furthermore, in his opinion, many of them were not written for use in public worship, but for private devotions. Her Easter hymn demonstrates something of this high-flown rhetoric:

He is arisen! Glorious word!
Now reconciled is God, my Lord;
The gates of heaven are open.
My Jesus did triumphant die,
And Satan’s arrows broken lie,
Destroyed hell’s direst weapon.
Oh, hear
What cheer!
Christ victorious
Riseth glorious,
Life He giveth–
He was dead, but see, He liveth!

It may seem an irony of fate that a woman was the principal writer included in the hymn book designed to challenge the earlier Danish hymn tradition, in which women’s voices were heard relatively loudly.

Women Hymn Writers in Eighteenth-Century Sweden

Women’s hymn writing is an unexplored area both in Denmark and in Sweden. There might well be more hymns penned by women than are demonstrably attributable. Hymns in the early hymn books and song anthologies mostly lack both the name of the writer and, where applicable, information about translation or adaptation based on a foreign source text; the origin of the hymns is therefore often a grey area. In certain cases, however, acrostic initials can be interpreted as information about the author, just as initials after a hymn can be used as clues.

Psalm 139:7-12: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? / If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. / If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; / Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. / If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. / Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

One of the women who penned most hymns in Andeliga Wijsor (Sacred Songs), printed in Gothenburg in 1739, and who was most strongly influenced by the radical Pietistic milieu in Stockholm, was the merchant’s wife Gunilla Grubb (1692-1729). The poet Jacob Frese paid her his respects when she married his cousin, Nils Grubb, in 1716. Contemporaneous reports tell us that their home was a meeting place for people seeking a spiritual community outside the parameters of the established Church. The couple had five children. Gunilla Grubb did not reach any great age; she suffered prolonged illness, and apparently experienced a hard spiritual struggle on her deathbed. According to her own words, however, she found peace in her belief in Christ and his atonement. She abandoned radical Pietism, most likely along with many of her friends, in favour of the teachings of the Herrnhuters. One of her friends, mining councillor Erland Fredrik Hiärne, wrote about her in his diary. He visited her on her sickbed in order to talk with her and to sing. It is said of this merchant’s wife that she was an “organ pipe […] powered by the breath of the Lord”.

Precious hero red and white
Gentle Jesus, to you I pray
Release me from my chains
That I may eternally praise and honour you,
Let my soul rest in your wounds,
Surrender to you where’er I go.

Then shall I, my dear groom,
Exalt you with eternal praise
Among all your angels here
Ceaselessly rejoice.
And among the hosts of seraphim,
Sing the new lamb’s song.

Johann Scheffler: Hellige Seelen-Lust, 1657. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

In Sweden, the Strömfelt family played an important role in the religious persuasion of the Herrnhuters. Their home was a rendezvous for the devout and a place of support for the Herrnhuters. Many prominent Pietistic and Herrnhutic men spent a period in the service of the president of the Svea Court of Appeal, Otto Strömfelt. One of his devout daughters, Hedvig Strömfelt (1723-1766), wrote a number of songs expressing a fervent blood and wound eroticism: in one of the surviving songs, only the nails prevent Jesus’ tearing himself from the cross in order to clasp Hedvig in his embrace. This intoxication at the sight of Jesus’ wounds was, for a while, typical of Herrnhutic writing, injecting renewed vigour into the language that had characterised the earlier Passion piety.

Oh take my heart
Sprinkle it with your blood.
Oh let me be purified,
And strengthen my feeble courage,
With faith to approach you,
My friend, my Lamb
To kiss your holy wounds,
Which is my desire.

From the song collections made in the Pietistic and Herrnhutic communities of the 1740s, a few songs went on to be included in hymn and song books used by the religious communities. One of these texts was penned by Brita Hedvig Wijnblad (1733-1800). She was married to the Dean of Skara, Anders Knös, and she was influenced by early Herrnhutism in Sweden. Rooted in medieval devoutness, Christ’s Passion is here seen to project a suffering Jesus to the inner eye of faith, often in a realistic manner. The wounds on Christ’s body, and particularly the wound in his side, have been popular motifs of sacred writings for centuries, and Brita Hedvig Wijnblad’s image of the Crucified Christ – the notion that we can enter through the wound in his side – inscribes her work in these old traditions:

When I see Jesus in faith
I fall deeply in love
And never wish for more,
Than to be near him.
His hand and foot, the wounds in his side,
His heart is open to me,
There I hide both body and soul
And feel so gloriously whole.

Oh most radiant Immanuel
Keep me forever,
Until spirit, life and soul
Can flee to where you dwell,
Where neither force nor wretchedness,
Can deprive me of the bliss,
Of praising you for blood and adversity,
For torture, wounds, and death.

During the period in which these hymn writers lived and worked, there might indeed have been a degree of resistance to women commenting on matters of faith. Anna Borrebye compared her writing with a pregnancy during which the woman tries so hard to hide her condition that the foetus is almost stifled. It was in pain that the poems on which she had worked for more than fifteen years were brought forth and printed. When Martin Ohnsorg, in a laudatory poem to Mrs Crondahl, discussed women’s right to learning, he stressed that the woman ought to have the same rights as the man, but that she should use her knowledge in private and not in a teaching post. “To stand publicly before the congregation / To teach the word of the Lord, becomes her not.” A writer such as Mrs Crondahl is not working within an earlier educational hymn tradition. Instead of dealing with Scriptures relating to the ecclesiastical year, the subject matter is mostly the religious experiences of the individual, and the struggles and joys of the inner life. This forum provided an opportunity for the woman who felt it her mission to write hymns for personal use and for others to use.

Otherwise, in most cases, women’s late-eighteenth-century desire to write could find an outlet beyond the realm of religion. Books of a more ‘useful’ nature were written in a new enlightened spirit. Carolina Weltzin (d. 1812), daughter of the controversial preacher and Herrnhuter Anders Rutström, did not follow in her father’s footsteps by writing hymns – her Anwisning till potäters mångfaldiga begagnande (1802; Directions for the Diverse Uses of Potatoes) ushered in a new epoch.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch