Is Pietism Legalistic?

The following post was originally published on brandywinebooks.net, the blog of Lars Walker, and republished here with permission. Walker is an author of historical fiction, avid historian of Norwegian Lutheranism, and longtime friend of FLBCS.


July, 2023

Hauge and Haugvaldstad

I hope this little essay won’t be too provincial to interest our readers. I’m writing, as I do so often, about the Lutheran “sect” in which I was raised, the Haugeans. I came to some realizations about the Haugeans this past weekend, based on reading I’d been doing and some conversations I had with other members of the Georg Sverdrup Society. The wider implications, I think, touch all Christians.

The Haugean movement, especially as it developed among Norwegian-Americans in this country, was probably best known for its legalism. We were the kind of people who (by and large) did not drink or smoke, did not play cards, did not attend the theater or dance. There were great revivals among the Haugeans in America, especially in the 1890s and the 1920s. After that, the rains never seemed to come again. My own observation, based on what I know of people who grew up in my church in the 1920s, was that the young people were embittered and driven away by all the rules. Being “awakened” seemed to mean (to those young people) a commitment to following the rules. Forever.

Bust of John Haugvaldstad outside the Mission School in Stavanger.

Based on some recent reading, I think the fault for this probably lies, not with Hans Nielsen Hauge himself but with another man, John Haugvaldstad (1770-1850). I suppose I bear some familial guilt for this development, since Haugvaldstad was a neighbor to my Hodnefjeld ancestors on Mosterøy Island (before he moved to Stavanger), and they were close friends and supporters of his.

Look at the excerpt from Hauge’s memoirs:

“My mind was so uplifted to God that I had no consciousness, nor can I express what occurred in my soul. For I was outside myself, and as soon as I had come to my senses again, I understood that I had not been serving the beloved God who was good above all things, and that I now thought nothing in this world worthy of esteem. That my soul experienced something supernatural, divine, and blessed, that it was a glory that no tongue can express. I remember it to this day as clearly as if it had been a few days ago, though 20 years have now passed since God’s love visited me so overwhelmingly. Nor can anyone dispute this with me: for I know that everything good in my spirit followed from that moment, especially the sincere, burning love for God and my neighbor, that I had a wholly altered attitude and a sorrow over all sins, a passionate desire that people should share with me in that same grace, a particular desire to read the holy Scriptures…”

Hans Nielsen Hauge’s memoirs, translated by Lars Walker

That’s not the testimony of a rule-bound soul. It’s the testimony of a man in love. I think Hauge ought to be imagined as a man with a big smile on his face. All his work, all his rugged foot-journeys, his long days and hard work, even his imprisonments, were experienced with joy, because he’d fallen in love with Jesus. For Hauge, the Christian life was fun. That was how the movement began.

But when Hauge went to prison, John Haugvaldstad arose as leader of the movement – at least in Stavanger, an important Haugean center. And Haugvaldstad was a very different soul from Hauge. Haugvaldstad struggled with temptation. At last he decided that the only way to handle temptation effectively was to avoid all questionable activities (“if it’s doubtful, it’s dirty”). Debauchery and fights happened at parties, so avoid parties, dancing, and drinking. In fact, avoid all music other than hymns. Don’t play cards. (Smoking was acceptable in some circles; it depended.) Don’t attend the theater. Don’t read worldly literature. And on and on.

It was Haugvaldstad who made the Haugeans teetotalers. Hauge himself was always opposed to drunkenness, but he sometimes seems to have served brandy at social gatherings and he served beer to his household at Christmas. In a famous conversation, he said to John Haugvaldstad, “Ditt Væsen er taget, ikke givet!” Which means, “Your temperament is taken [upon yourself], not given [by God]!”

But Hauge went to prison, and he died young, and Haugvaldstad prospered as a businessman in Stavanger. He was highly regarded (he’s considered one of the founding fathers of modern Stavanger), and not without reason. He was a very good man, a man with great concern for the poor. He did much good for his neighbors, and for Christian missions. The esteem in which he was held led many people to make him their role model. The “temperament” of Haugvaldstad became the Haugean norm.

Today, in our situation, I would very much like to see the spirit of Hauge return. I think we could use it.

Lars Walker

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