Andersen and Those of Other Faiths

That Andersen believed in God is beyond dispute. He says so in no uncertain terms at the beginnning of Mit Livs Eventyr (The Fairy Tale of My Life) when talking of a kind God who will bring everything to the right conclusion. Mit Livs Eventyr was originally published in 1855, and that same year saw the publication in Danish of the fairy tale "Et Blad fra Himlen" ("A Leaf from Heaven"), originally published in English two years previously. That fairy tale contains a very similar statement along with a reference to a biblical text of a comparable nature, Genesis 50.20, in which Joseph says to his brothers who have opposed him: "ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day". The quotation is slightly adapted, the continuation "to save much people alive" being omitted, while Andersen's text starts with "they" rather than "ye".

Beyond this, Andersen says little specifically about his beliefs, though some impression of them can naturally be gained in the course of his work, perhaps for instance in the summary of Japetus Mollerup's Christian beliefs early in the novel At være eller ikke være (To Be or Not to Be). In addition, although Andersen might not entirely have shared his father's rationalist conception of religion, he was clearly influenced by it. He strongly disapproved of being accused of not being a proper Christian, as happened on more than one occasion. Thus, in June 1870 at Basnæs, he embarked on what was obviously a series of heated discussions on religion with Mrs Scavenius, in which he was criticised for his liberal approach and his refusal to accept the existence of a personal Devil. He notes in his diary that the argument has been made against him that " if you did not believe in a personal Devil, you could not believe in Christ, for then you didn't believe 'your Creed"'. Andersen was clearly angered by this well-established argument, adding: "- you have constantly to keep in mind the uniquely kind heart of the person making this assertion in order to put up with it".1 Nor was that all; although the diary does not say it in so many words, Andersen seems to have argued on that same occasion - or later the same day - very much in his father's spirit that he was not interested in the literal dogmatic interpretation of Christ as the Son of God, and he now notes:

A major and unpleasant disagreement this evening with all three ladies on the subject of Christ and religion; I said that the teaching came from God and that was a blessing, but that for me circumstances regarding birth and family relationship were of great interest, but not essential. Then the storm broke that in that case His teaching was of no significance if His birth and His death were not brought into the picture. This last addition was necessary to confirm His assurance of the truth. If I did not believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I was not a Christian. I answered that I believed in them as concepts, not as persons, physical beings - I was almost given up. However, on leaving, Mrs Scavenius pressed my hand warmly and understandingly, she is a kindly soul, but 2

Andersen's rationalistically inclined faith also produced problems with others, as when, on 3 March 1868 he comments " almost came into conflict with Ingeborg Drewsen, but changed the subject as she cannot tolerate getting into a temper; she believes in 'the resurrection of the body', I do not".3

In October 1861, while in Granada, Andersen writes in his diary an attack on Søren Kierkegaard's concept " of the secret path of genius, the presence of Fate, that God in Heaven (in a certain sense) does not understand genius! I said it was un-Christian and Jonas [Collin] that 'God and Christianity were two different things' - I said that God was master, that He was the only one; that is not Christianity, the Jews also believe in a God, but not in Christ! - here I was given a clear statement, God's expulsion from Christianity in favour of the new God Christ. Jonas went to a bullfight".4 This was obviously a hopeless discussion - but Andersen's view here expressed of Christ's significance is again not far from that put to him by his father - at least as seen and formulated in Mit Livs Eventyr.

In a further confrontation, this time with a pastor Knudsen who had been a missionary in Tranquebar, and whom he met at Lerchenborg, Andersen again revealed the rationalistic aspects of his own faith, which were very different from those of Pastor Knudsen:

At dinner there was a Pastor Knudsen with his wife. He has been a missionary in Tranquebar; very eloquent, well read and from the start inclined to argue; he touched on ghosts first and opposed my doubts and gave examples he had experienced. Then he turned to religion, hitting out in all directions with biblical quotations which he saw as infallible. Condemned Judas to eternal torment, despite his repentance and despair; he used science where it supported the word of the Bible, made use of recent discoveries where they agreed with what the pious men of ancient times had said, but rejected them when they did not agree with the Bible. He made use of a host of biblical quotations which became thorn bushes between me and God's love; I said that in God's Nature I could feel more spiritually refreshed than by a poor sermon. "But Nature does not preach Christianity", he replied.

It seems clear from this that Andersen was capable of doggedly holding his own even in discussions with professionals - and one senses, too, that the reference to poor sermons touched Pastor Knudsen to the quick. However, the pastor's final remark is particularly interesting in that it suggests that he, too, doubts Andersen's Christian credentials - and indeed, Andersen's words do look a little like a confession of pantheism, a view close to that of other romantics and certainly found elsewhere in Andersen's writings. For instance, in En Digters Bazar (A Poet's Bazaar), on arriving in Piræus he expresses himself in rhapsodic terms which suddenly turn into the suggestion of a pantheistically inclined religious experience:

... Multitudes of stars appeared, more and more, as if the vastness of space wanted to be filled with worlds, as if the blue background was to be overwhelmed by a single brilliant light. The stars shone in the air, they shone in the water, with the bluish sheen of precious stones. The singing of sailors could be heard from Piræus; a fire was lit on the shore; people were going about carrying torches outside their houses; occasionally you could hear an oar splash in the water as a boat was rowed past, otherwise everything was silent, even the gulls, which had been circling around us screeching, had gone to rest.

What a sacred church of the divinity with memorials, graves and huge monuments! The silence of the evening was the most beautiful requiem for the dead.5

That Andersen felt himself to be a Lutheran is clear from his diaries and letters, though once more, he appears nowhere to define what he really means by that. However, his Lutheranism was closely related to his sense of Danishness - and so in Rome in 1841 he seems to have almost felt slighted when St Knud did not receive the attention he felt should be due to him on his feast day - though saints' days were not exactly everyday fare to a nineteenth-century Danish Lutheran of Andersen's persuasion. His diary for that year says it all:

The Feast of St Knud - went this morning to the church of Trans Montana; it is the Feast of St Knud! On his altar only four small candles were lit, and the lamp in front; I asked the monk why there was no better celebration for the Danish martyr, and he said our monastery is poor, we could not do anything!6

It is perhaps not easy here to decide whether this is Andersen the Dane speaking, or perhaps Andersen the local Odense patriot, but it is difficult to believe that he is interested in the actual liturgical significance of the day. (It is also interesting to note here that he appears not to understand the significance of the sanctuary lamp.)

Andersen's Danishness can under certain circumstances also give rise to a kind of antipathy towards Catholicism, with the clear implication that if you are a Dane, you are a Lutheran: On 24 August 1865, he visits a certain Pastor Hansen:

Went to visit Pastor Hansen, he was a Catholic and for the Catholic festival on 9 or 10 September he wanted me to translate some Latin verses into Danish for him; he said that I was the only Danish poet he would ask to do this as he did not think that I, like Øehlenschlaeger (sic!), had anything against Catholicism. I wriggled out of it.7

One wonders in the first place what was the occasion of the visit to Pastor Hansen, and then it is impossible not to be a little surprised that Andersen was less than forthcoming when asked a small favour, but preferred to "wriggle out of it".

The same kind of implied resentment against the presence of a Catholic in Denmark emerges in a letter written in August 1856 to Jonas Collin from Glorup, where Andersen was a frequent guest:

They are good people, the Countess is witty and gracious, but just fancy she cannot live in Denmark, but must be in Dresden or Paris; that is what her nature and her health require. Now from the Greek religion she has converted to the Catholic; the clergy appear to have made it hot for her being out in the country in a Protestant land without one of their priests and so now this year there is an abbot there, that is to say a Jesuit in old Glorup; if she were staying there for several months, I could imagine this to be necessary for a soul with a strong faith, but for a few weeks it seems to me to be too much to have such a one here. Meanwhile, he will not do any harm, but he will damage their reputation, and it distresses me that the Count and Countess will be badly spoken of if I know the world aright, and they are both noble and good. I think it is all oppressive to the Count, a pious need for the Countess, and highly unpleasant for the local pastor who is deeply devoted to the family.8

This implied criticism of the Countess' need to have a priest present even for a relatively short stay, stands in quite stark contrast to a comment by Erik Lassen to the effect that Andersen was at his happiest in Glorup when the Russian-born countess was present. He certainly wrote of her in positive tones to Edvard Collin, but his delight in her company and talents clearly did not extend to her religious needs. According to Lassen, Andersen quarrelled with the priest when they were left alone for a time.

However, it seems that Andersen could well have problems with other Protestants, too. In 1866 he was in Amsterdam, where he stayed at the home of Andreas Ludvig Brandt. For all Andersen says in Mit Livs Eventyr about enjoying the comforts of a home, there were obviously religious tensions in the family - to which Andersen himself seems to have contributed. Brandt had a Dutch wife who, according to diary entries of 10 February and 18 February 18669 was a Minorite, as was her son. Andersen has in fact got this wrong: Mrs Brandt and her son were Anabaptists, members of the Dutch Doopsgezinde Gemeente.10 Brandt, on the other hand was a - very Danish - Lutheran. Andersen says of Mrs Brandt that she "made a particularly pleasant impression, the 18-year-old son also delightful". On this first day, Andersen merely comments that "Brandt spoke a good deal about Christianity and read a warm and spirited piece he had produced against Koefod-Hansen"11 - though he says nothing of what he said, or of the occasion for this pamphlet or article. Nevertheless, the nature of Koefod-Hansen's criticism of the Danish Lutheran Church (he is, of course, today remembered mainly as an enthusiastic admirer of Kierkegaard) must surely provide a clue to the qualities in him that would upset a patriotic Lutheran. (20 years later, Koefod-Hansen himself became a Catholic.) So far, so good - it must have been an interesting conversation for a first evening. The following day, the whole family went to church - but not Andersen!

Meanwhile, things became more heated on the following Sunday:

I had my hair done and accompanied Mr Brandt to the Episcopal church [i.e. the English Church], charming, small and neat. The altarpiece only the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Our Father. It was all reading, the priest did not interpret the Word of God, fairly lengthy, the Our Father was read three times, Mrs Brandt and her son, who both belong to the Minorite community, remarked on this at home. I was of the same opinion. Brandt expressed himself vehemently and mercilessly in opposition to his wife and son in matters of faith; I sought to calm things and as I adopted the same point of view that I was tired by the length of the service and wanted one that was short and pithy, he was polite enough to say that I was on a superior level of development and did not need this lengthy instruction; I asked if his wife were not on the same level. Later, the son came to see me in my room. He wanted to talk and was upset because he could not accept his father's views in all matters and could not always keep silent about it 12

And on 4 March there were further developments:

Great dispute with Brandt, who sees in the Danish people a community closer to Christ than others; he is very unfair or at least very hard on the Dutch; today I could take it no longer and spoke out against his idealistic view of everything in Denmark and his opposition to the country he now lives in and to those closest to him; his wife is infinitely kind and excellent, as he probably is, too, but he wants to make everything conform to his view and provides examples and results that are far too extreme.13

It is not easy to discover exactly where Andersen stands in all this. He obviously has a purely human sympathy with the Anabaptist members of the family, though he makes no comment on their beliefs. His picture of Brandt himself is considerably less sympathetic, however much for his own reasons he might have agreed with him on Koefod-Hansen as a follower of Kierkegaard. But the interesting feature here is that he seems to reject Brandt's identification of religious faith and patriotism, not to say nationalism.

What does emerge is that while Andersen, as seen above, apparently takes exception to the presence of Catholics in Lutheran Denmark - certainly to shun them - he is at the same time critical of too nationalistic an element in the religion to which in theory he adhered himself.

The next question, obviously, is what attitude Andersen otherwise adopts to Catholicism when he comes across it abroad, as he often does. Again the answer is less straightforward than might immediately be expected, though he certainly disapproves of the painter Küchler's decision to become a Catholic: "God grant him the peace and happiness which, misunderstanding a loving God, and surely on a wrong path, he seeks and - will find."14 However, in general terms Andersen is at times emotionally affected, in much the same way as he was by the scene on arriving in Piræus, but he takes care not to let others realise this. He is for instance carried away by the organ music being played when visiting one old church together with Bødtcher: " I could have knelt behind the column"15 - i.e. where no one would notice the Lutheran giving in to the emotions produced by Catholic surroundings. In Schierbech in 1861 he is in a church which he describes as "black, large, and magnificent", where "everyone was kneeling, I knelt along with them, but hurried away embarrassed".16 Under these circumstances he is clearly the Lutheran who while being emotionally affected by Catholic ceremonies and the atmosphere in the Catholic churches he visits, is unable to surrender himself to it. He had already undergone a similar experience on his first visit to Rome, where he talks of entering an almost dark church in which the only light came from candles burning at the altar: "Involuntarily, and gripped by the sense of holiness, I sank down behind the column" - but he goes on: "that moment there was the sound of drums and pipes outside, and my sense of devotion was gone".17 And there are other times, too, when he finds aspects which disturb him. On the Feast of the Epiphany 1836, he tries to get out of the church he is attending, but is prevented. Then:

... when I later emerged on to the lofty steps, a bishop came immediately after me and showed a doll that signifies the child; I had to bare my head, the crowd knelt, my religious sensitivity was offended: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.18

The key is perhaps again found in En Digters Bazar, when Andersen describes his feelings on arriving in Mantua: "It was the Feast of the Madonna! Music and singing sounded so jubilantly beautiful, it was joy it was breathing, a joy which we citizens of the North could not imagine in a church, and yet, when we hear it here and see the devout crowd of people, we feel inspired by it."19 He clearly feels the fervent power of the occasion, but he is a spectator, and what he sees here is something of which he can never really feel a part.

Later in the same work, in the chapter entitled "Religiøse Skikke", he complains at too much ceremony in the Catholic church, at least for the ordinary people. Likewise, on attending a service in Greece, he finds that: "The religious customs seemed to me to be curious and alien rather than really solemn."20 In Naples in 1846 he stays only twenty paces from a church, where, he says in a letter to Jonas Collin, the bells ring virtually every hour: "no, it is enough to drive you mad".21 Yet at Easter in Rome that same year, his resentment seems to have been of the opposite kind:

... at the Easter festivities I saw large crowds of the population standing in front of St Peter's Church, standing, like a Protestant foreigner, when the Pope pronounced his blessing. This was contrary to my feelings, I felt a need to kneel before this invisible holy presence. When I was here thirteen years ago, everyone knelt, now understanding has conquered faith.22

For all this, he is tolerant, observing during a journey in a coach together with a priest who is constantly praying that: "The way in which every people, every sect, approaches God is sacred to me"23 (p. 67) - and then complaining later at what he feels to be the lack of that tolerance on the part of an old Islamic cleric in Hagia Sophia (where Andersen seems to resent the loss of this building to Christianity): "Do not look so angrily at us, old priest, your God is also our God! The temple of nature is our common temple, you kneel facing Mecca, we facing the East"24 - a curious combination of offended Christianity and a new touch of pantheism.

The one thing he never does is consider doctrine. He never asks the question: Why? Nowhere in his work does there appear to be any attention to what the fundamental doctrinal difference is between Protestantism and Catholicism, and still less the difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Throughout his comments, whether in travel books, autobiography, letters or diaries, there is merely a clear tendency, amid the contradictions, to a Romantic, aesthetical attraction to it, often counterbalanced by a negative reaction to certain practical manifestations.

Nevertheless, Andersen reveals an unusual interest in Catholicism for a mid-nineteenth-century Dane, and it plays, if not a central role, at least a significant part in his novels Improvisatoren (The Improvisatore) and Kun en Spillemand (Only a Fiddler), both of which, of course, take place partly in Italy. Improvisatoren in particular is filled with the externals of Italian Catholicism, but there is little sign of a serious preoccupation with the phenomenon, the most interesting perhaps being the discussion early in the novel of whether non-Catholics are damned, where it is curious that Andersen, himself a Lutheran, projects what purports to be the Catholic view of Lutheranism at the time, seeing Lutherans as being ethically good because, being ipso facto damned already, they are not subjected to temptation.25 As a general motif in the novel, however, the Virgin acts as a kind of fate, and the book is full of phrases such as "with Madonna's help",26 'Madonna has been good to him"27 , "yes, she has saved you, the holy Mother of God".28 In contrast, but quite unrealistically, there is then the ironical scene in which Domenica crosses herself in front of what she thinks is a statue of the Virgin, but in fact is one of Vesta. For all the Catholic background to this novel, it contains very little real understanding of Catholicism, and even the devout Antonio's piety is in fact only surface piety.

There is a little more attention to the subject in Kun en Spillemand. The Romantic element is still there as in the references to the old church in Thorseng, where we are presented with a brief glimpse of the medieval remains in the church: "On the wall there were still half erased frescoes with monastic writing around Jesus hominum salvator still stood there in iron letters on the old church door".29 29 There is, too, the highly unlikely reappearance of Christian's father towards the end of the novel as a Capuchin friar, and here it is impossible not to agree with Kierkegaard's scornful dismissal of this version, as he puts it, of the old trick of putting someone in a monastery in order to get rid of him. However, Kierkegaard sees a difference in that whereas love is usually behind such moves, here he sees someone undertaking it in order to avoid starving to death: "a new and poetical motive for becoming a Catholic".30

However, while Andersen shows little understanding for the nature of Catholicism here or elsewhere, there is an underlying discussion in this novel about the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism, which comes to a head at the end of the book when Christian is discussing the question with Luzie's schoolteacher husband, a conversation which in many ways can be seen as the expression of Andersen's view as opposed to the orthodox Lutheran: Catholicism in Christian's eyes, has been the source of much good, though in fact he limits himself exclusively to its cultural significance and still ignores doctrinal problems completely: "In the monasteries the sciences flourished and were safe in the face of the raw strength that reigned outside, they developed for a coming summer time. And that is what we now live in: the spirit and freedom now have warm sunshine outside."31

However, Kun en Spillemand is not concerned only with the relationship between the two kinds of Christianity, but it also touches on that between Christianity and Judaism. Andersen's attitude towards the Jews in general is a chapter on its own, a fairly complicated chapter at that, but in certain respects it must be seen as a foil to his feelings towards Catholicism: he again looks on it as a phenomenon, something by which he is fascinated, but with which he has not and by the nature of things cannot have a personal relationship. Erik Dal has talked of Andersen's respect for Jews, Bruce Kirmmse of his "condescending tolerance". I see his comments on them as being ambivalent, with his attitude to Jews he knew personally being positive, but his comments on "Jews" in the abstract being more ambiguous. However, this may be, Andersen was very much aware of the presence of anyone Jewish - as, indeed, he was aware of the presence of a Catholic - and he was awake to the differences as well as the links between the Jewish and Christian faiths. He shows throughout, however, that he is convinced of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, and in fact his analysis of the relationship between the two religions forms a parallel to his view of that between Catholicism and Lutheranism. Just as Catholicism has laid the foundations for Lutheranism and the spiritual freedom Andersen sees residing in it, so Judaism has laid the foundations for that superior religion called Christianity. This is reflected in the entire development of Kun en Spillemand, in which Naomi, originally portrayed as Jewish and as a child certainly endowed with certain traditional Jewish traits such as her wish to play at "selling money", is shown to be half gentile, under the influence of her non-Jewish relatives accepting a Christian baptism and confirmation, although at the same time attacking the narrow, dogmatic Christianity of Herr Patermann. She puts to Patermann the bold rationalistic questions about Christianity that without doubt were Andersen's own. Patermann, who calls Naomi "an Antichrist in faith", represents a contrasting view to that expressed in the dying Joel's last words to Naomi: "Is Judaism not the father of Christianity, a wandering Oedipus mocked by the younger generation?"32 The entire structure of the novel points to a certain preoccupation with the relationship between the two faiths.

For all this, the implication is clear throughout the book that Christianity is the superior religion, and this conviction is also suggested in Improvisatoren, where Annunziata, who has been ascribed the exotic beauty of Romantic Jewish maidens, turns out not to be Jewish at all, so that Bernardo is able to say of her: "Annunziata is of our faith and shall go to our Paradise." In other words, as the heroine of this novel, she has to be brought to the right faith and assured of the rewards of that faith. So, too, must Esther in At være eller ikke være, and so, too, in a way does Sara in the fairy tale "Jødepigen": both of these women undergo a kind of pentecostal experience, in the case of Esther leading to baptism proper, and in that of Sara being what in fact is a spiritual baptism. A promise has been made, of course, that she shall not be baptised, and she respects that promise throughout her life, but she is drawn more and more to Christianity and without herself being able to take the decisive step, she becomes a virtual Christian before dying. It is surely significant that none of Andersen's Jewish or half-Jewish heroines in fact end their lives as Jews.

That Andersen also talks a great deal about visiting Jewish districts and synagogues, not always in glowing terms, should probably not be seen as reflecting more than the same superficial curiosity as obtains when he visits cathedrals and shrines and monasteries. He seems to have respected Jews in much the same way as he respected Catholics and, on the few occasions on which he met them, Muslims - but he fits them into a hierarchical philosophical pattern, a pyramid, in which Lutheranism in its Andersenian, non-dogmatic guise, undoubtedly occupies top position.


1. Diary, Vol. 8, p. 381f. back

2. Diary, Vol. 8, p. 382f. back

3. Diary, Vol. 8, p. 31. back

4. Diary, Vol. 5, p. 256. back

5. En Digters Bazar, in H. C. Andersen, Romaner og Rejseskildringer, Vol. 6, Copenhagen 1944, pp. l69-70. back

6. Diary, Vol. 2, p. 107. back

7. Diary, Vol. 6, p. 270. back

8. Erik Lassen, H.C. Andersen og Herregaardene, Copenhagen 1993, p. 112. back

9. Diary, Vol. 7, pp. 30 and 37. back

10. See Hans Reeser, Andersen op reis door Nederland, De Walburg Pers, Zutphen, 1976, p. 45. Information kindly provided by Dr. Henk van der Liet, University of Groningen. back

11. Diary, Vol. 7, p. 30. back

12. Diary, Vol. 7, p. 37f. back

13. Diary, Vol. 7, p. 48. back

14. Diary, Vol. 5, p. 37. back

15. Diary, Vol. 1, p. 236. back

16. Diary, Vol. 5, p. 220. back

17. Diary, Vol. 1, p. 383. back

18. Diary, Vol. 2, p. 96. back

19. En Digters Bazar, ed. cit., p. 47f. back

20. Mit Livs Eventyr, ed. H. Topsøe-Jensen, Vol. 1, Copenhagen 1951, p. 191. back

21. Breve til Jonas Collin den Ældre, p. 311. back

22. Mit Livs Eventyr, ed. cit., Vol. 1, p. 359. back

23. En Digters Bazar, ed. cit., p. 67. back

24. Ibid., p. 244f. back

25. Improvisatoren, in H. C. Andersen, Romaner og Rejseskildringer, Copenhagen 1943, Vol. 1, p. 12 back

26. Ibid., p. 20. back

27. Ibid., p. 38. back

28. Ibid., p. 50. back

29. Kun en Spillemand, in H. C. Andersen, Romaner og Rejseskildringer, Copenhagen 1943, Vol. 3, p. 41. back

30. Søren Kierkegaard, Af en endnu Levendes Papirer, in Samlede Værker, Copenhagen 1962, Vol. 1, p. 56. (Now also available in Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, Vol. 1, Copenhagen 1997; with commentaries by Finn Hauberg Mortensen in Vol. K1, pp. 77-116.) back

31. Kun en Spillemand, ed. cit., p. 278. back

32. Ibid., p. 175.back

Bibliographic information about the text:

Jones, W. Glyn: "Andersen and Those of Other Faiths", In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.