Special Report

An American, Unawares

Hans Nielsen Hauge's crime? He held religious meetings without state church sanction.

By 10.16.07

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In the year 1809, the British Navy blockaded Norway. England had nothing against the Norwegians as such, but their country was united with Denmark at the time, and Denmark was allied with Napoleon.

Norway has never been able to feed itself. There isn't enough tillable ground among all those mountains. Famine came, along with all kinds of shortages. One of these was a lack of salt. Sea salt was an obvious solution, but no one capable of organizing a refining operation could be found in the country.

At last they located a man. But he was a prisoner, a notorious threat to public order. The need was great, though, so they paroled him and permitted him to set up refineries along the west coast. After he'd built a few, a grateful government clapped him behind bars again.

This dangerous man was named Hans Nielsen Hauge (pronounced "HOW-gheh"). His crime was holding religious meetings without state church sanction.

Hauge was a farmer's son with limited education. Born in 1771, he experienced a Christian conversion in 1796 while plowing his father's field. Soon he was traveling all over the country on foot, holding religious meetings in private homes, distributing books he wrote and had printed himself. Local authorities regularly arrested him for his meetings, but always let him go again. A constitutionally optimistic man, Hauge was sure it all had to be a misunderstanding.

His activities weren't only religious. He was a born engineer, with a knack for understanding how things work. Wherever he went he suggested new farming techniques and implements, and he set up factories, often water-powered, in economically depressed areas. He also made good money (which he mostly gave away) trading northern fish for southern grain in his own boats.

That all stopped in 1804, when he was arrested and imprisoned in Christiania (now Oslo). Years of legal delays followed, witnesses being questioned in a desultory manner. The robust, Type-A Hauge withered in a dark, cold cell, denied all exercise and most books for much of that time. He developed jaundice and scurvy, and his teeth fell out.

His success with the salt project motivated the government to finally dispose of his case, and he was sentenced at last to two years hard labor and a ruinous fine (reduced on appeal to time served plus a fine). After his release in 1813, friends raised funds to buy him a farm, where the bent, white-haired man lived until his death in 1824, aged 51.

Today it's hard to understand a state church in a western country enforcing a religious monopoly. But the Norwegian/Danish state church was doing nothing unusual for the times. Clerics all over Europe, arrogant and narrow-minded as they might have been, had reasons for such policies -- and not entirely selfish ones.

Revolution was in the air in those days. There had been two great revolutions in the West already, and their final outcomes remained in doubt.

There had been the American Revolution. So far the young republic was surviving, but there were troubling stories from over there, about strange practices and the breakdown of social norms. It was even said that papists were allowed to operate freely in America, carrying out their Jesuitical schemes and spreading superstition.

Then there was the French Revolution, closer to home. The horrors of that blood carnival kept clergymen and nobles all over the continent awake at night. Could it happen here? Of course it could. All it would take would be a few rabble-rousers, a few silver-tongued scoundrels to stir up the mobs.

Men like Hauge, for instance.

If one of those clergymen had read President John Adams' words in 1798, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other," he would have told Adams to prepare for failure.

"The common people cannot be elevated, regardless of their religion and education," he would have said. "The common people are a mob. They can be controlled like animals, but they will never be self-governing citizens. Without a strong hand on the leash, they will revert in time to their innate savagery."

Hauge had a different vision, an unconsciously American one (perhaps that's why so many of his followers joined the immigration that started about a generation later). Hauge was on John Adams' side. His Bible told him that every person in Christ was a child of God, an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. He believed that common birth was no barrier to becoming great and good, under God's grace.

And in fact, one of the things that brought grudging respect for Hauge and his followers, even (in time) among the officials and the clergy, was that they did in fact have a way of becoming respectable, prosperous citizens. They learned to read for the Bible's sake (their popular nickname was "The Readers"). But they didn't stop with the Bible. They studied and thought about issues, and often had things to say worth hearing. It grew harder and harder for the upper classes to maintain their privileges based on claims to superior intelligence and morality. In time, followers of Hauge helped to found the Liberal (Venstre) party in Norway.

Still, the officials and clergy would have said, the democratic experiment was bound to fail. The common people are beasts, they would insist, and even if a generation or two rises above its origins, in time the peasants will turn from morality and religion, and call for masters to feed them and tell them what to do.

I was born into Hauge's tradition, and I believe in his dream.

But sometimes, nowadays, when I look at Hauge's Norway, as well as my own America, I wonder if the clergy and officials might not have the last word.

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About the Author
Lars Walker is a librarian and Norwegian translator, and the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book called Troll Valley, available for Kindle or Nook.