Tag Archives: Revival history

Review: The Light in the Prison Window

The Light in the Prison-Window: The Life Story of Hans Nielsen Hauge (1926) by Wilhelm Pettersen is a biography of Hans Nielsen Hauge, a Norwegian evangelist and social reformer who had a tremendous impact on the Scandinavian religious landscape.

In the late 1700s, as described by Pettersen, Norway was Protestant (Lutheran) in name, but steeped in cold scholasticism and hypocrisy. The Bible was treated as a mythology or a mere handbook for tradition. Pettersen names several priests and bishops of the time that had no concern for Christian piety, and some influential leaders did not even believe basic Christian doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ. In churches one might hear lectures on Greek classics instead of the Bible.

At the age of 25, Hans Nielsen Hauge had a lone conversion experience in an open field—a moment he described as his “spiritual baptism”. Though Hauge was definitely evangelical, much of the language he used has even pentecostal overtones.

Hauge in time became a force in evangelizing Norway’s villages, and many joined him in his task, including many young women, who preached and evangelized.

Not content with an inward renewal alone, Hans Nielsen Hauge also sought social reform and worked as an entrepreneur. He is generally regarded to have had a tremendous impact on both religious and secular life in Norway.

Hauge did not reject Lutheran doctrines; rather, he sought to apply them where they had become merely the traditional intellectual background to their religion. As some tell the story, Scandinavia had joined the Protestant Reformation in name in the 1530s, but it had not yet reckoned with justification by faith. This living faith was renewed with the Haugean movement.

Hauge was imprisoned many times for lay preaching under the Conventicle Act. A “conventicle” was an unauthorized religious meeting, such as a house church, and Scandinavian countries, until long into the 1800s, were cracking down hard on unauthorized meetings. It would be many decades before such meetings were legitimized, and even longer before they were able to perform marriages and burials recognized by the government. (Since 2000, Sweden and Norway have both legislated for a separation of church and state—perhaps the final chain in a long history of decline in the state churches, growth in the free churches, and growth in the non-religious.)

On the European landscape, the scene had been set for all this change by groups like the Methodists and the Moravians. The Moravian revival had started in 1727, and the Methodists had begun to organize in the 1740s. Like Hauge, these groups appealed to lower classes, partially by having either looser hierarchies, or no hierarchy, compared to the corrupt priesthood they were accustomed to. The keynote, though, was individual conversions.

Hauge didn’t teach major doctrinal shifts from Lutheranism; but he invited his countrymen to a living and personal faith.

In a way, Hauge represents in his person the evangelical renewal of Norway. But there were many who joined his work, and likewise faced arrest and imprisonment for leaving the established churches.

One downside to The Light in the Prison Window was the very long roll call of Norwegian evangelicalism. It felt like being at a family reunion, but I didn’t know anyone. The sheer number of obscure Norwegian theologians and clerics mentioned boggles the mind. It is understandable, though, that the author wants us to acknowledge how many souls assisted and followed Hauge in the renewal of Norway.

Note: It is rather difficult to find biographies of Hans Nielsen Hauge. The Light in the Prison-Window is quite brief, and the only other biography I could find is Joseph Shaw’s Pulpit under the Sky (1955), which is quite rare. If you know of a substantial biography of Hauge, please share it in the comments!