In 1853 the Danish court chaplain Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-1884) wrote to a close friend and colleague the following lines:
pastors from Schleswig have confided to me, that they have been so involved in politics and language questions that by now they feel hollow and long for a return to theology and strictly religious duties.
The quotation stems from a letter that had been written during Martensen’s vacation in the duchy of Schleswig, the region of his childhood. He was born in the major city Flensburg in 1808 of a German mother and a Danish-speaking father from Schleswig. The family moved to Copenhagen, where Martensen studied theology at the university. He continued his studies in Berlin and became a professor of theology in Copenhagen in 1837. In 1845 he was appointed court chaplain and was to succeed his mentor, the bishop J.P. Mynster (1775-1854), in 1854. In the preceding years, Martensen had been asked to become the bishop of Schleswig, partly because of his familiarity with the region. He had declined the offer, as he feared becoming involved in the political and nationalistic struggles in this duchy.
In 1848-1850, and again in 1864, Schleswig had been the object of battles between the Danish army and the restive inhabitants of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, who received help for their revolt from the German League. In the Danish capital, Copenhagen, serious suggestions had been put forward aiming at separating the duchies and tying Schleswig closer to Denmark. For a growing number of inhabitants of the duchies though, the bonds between Schleswig and Holstein outweighed in importance their relation to the Danish kingdom. In the duchies as well as in Denmark, an explicit sense of national identity had developed amongst the higher social strata in the first half of the nineteenth century. These feelings were politicized by the citizenry from the 1830s on and succeeded in mobilizing large parts of the population. The construed ‘Schleswig-Holsteinian’ and Danish identities and the opposite positions they had taken by the 1840s were especially problematized in the differences between the spoken languages and highly tangible in the Duchy of Schleswig, where the Danish-German language-border was located.
The Danish ethnologist Bjarne Stoklund pointed out in his introduction to Kulturens nationalisering that the relation between religion and nationalism, as problematized by Martensen, constitutes an interesting field of research. In this volume as well as in other contemporary literature on nineteenth-century nationalism, this topic is addressed, at the best, only marginally. This is remarkable, since N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), one of the most prominent figures in the construction and dissemination of Danish culture, was a theologian, for many years a pastor and eventually a bishop. He was very successful in bringing Lutheranism and Danishness together.
However, in those cases where academic research addresses the relation between religion and nationalism, there is a clear tendency to regard religion and nationalism as two poles. In Denmark, Ole Feldbæk, the editor-in-chief of a large project on Danish identity published in the beginning of the 1990’s, discussed Danish nationalism, or proto-nationalism in the period 1720-1800. According to Feldbæk, the disestablishment of the church in modern times and a declining religiosity paved the way for national identity and nationalism. Ove Korsgaard, among others, has argued in favour of this transformation from religion to nationalism, too, and connected this movement with a supposedly declining importance of the clergy for the nation-state from the 1840’s. The relation between religion and nationalism is predominantly regarded in terms of a succession or a replacement of religion by nationalism. This position implies that the two poles can not be united.
These opinions fit in with a long tradition which regards national identity and the nation-state as manifestations of modernity which do not mix with religion. This is due to the functioning of the secularization-thesis as a master-narrative, defining the separation of church and state, the privatization of religion and a decreasing church attendance as main criteria for modernity. Recent developments have made abundantly clear though, that religion and nationalism or politics are neither incompatible nor incommensurate. One can think of the growing importance of religion in the nation-states emerging after the demise of the USSR, or of the role religion plays in American politics. The increasing presence of religion in the third millennium, calls for a reconsideration of the relation between nationalism and Christianity in the nineteenth century too.
The discussion of the secularization-thesis gives Martensen’s statement from 1853 an interesting position. It appears to advocate the view that theology and nationalism do not mix, especially not within the setting of the church. On the other hand, it is a clear reaction to the actual involvement of Danish pastors in the nationalistic upheaval of this period. Religion and nationalism do not necessarily succeed each other and one may ask how nationalism relates to theology in nineteenth century Denmark. This question will be discussed in this article by studying a number of published Danish sermons held on the annual day of national prayer [almindelig eller store bods- og bededag] during the two Schleswig Wars (1848-1851 and 1864).