Allen, “Danish but Not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Cultural Identity, 1850–1920” (reviewed by Jenny Webb)


Title: Danish but Not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Cultural Identity, 1850–1920
Author: Julie K. Allen
Publisher: The University of Utah Press
Genre: Mormon Studies / European History
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 292 + xiii
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $36.00

Reviewed by Jenny Webb for the Association for Mormon Letters

Finding a study of the relationship between Scandinavia and Mormonism is not in and of itself unusual. By 1850, the early missions of the Church included various cities in Scandinavia, and the region provided a large number of the early Saints who participated in the call to gather to Zion, leaving their homes and traveling across the globe to settle in Utah and beyond. These migrations were part of a larger pattern of immigration from the Scandinavian countries to the northern midwest of the United States, and the early Mormon converts followed similar routes, faced similar challenges, and brought similar cultural traditions with them as they arrived in Utah. Works such as William Mulder’s classic Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia (1952; rpr. 2000) have traced the history of this migration, and yet as Julie K. Allen makes clear in her compelling new book, Danish but Not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Cultural Identity, 1850–1920, there is plenty of room in the field for continued inquiry and thoughtful historical and cultural analysis.

Allen orients her focus not on the immigrant journey, but on Denmark itself. She wants to understand how the political and cultural responses to Mormonism in Denmark through the latter half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth help to illuminate the various structures and forces at work in Danish culture more generally. By looking closely at Danish reactions to Mormonism within the broader context of the other cultural and social issues being negotiated by Denmark at the time (e.g., the forces of modernization, secularism, and democracy), Allen provides “a fascinating story of reaction, adaptation, and transformation on the part of both the Danish Lutheran majority and the Danish Mormon minority” (xiii). The decisions made during this transformative time in Danish society put into effect changes that still resonate today in both Denmark and the Church.

Allen organizes her project into four main chapters. In “Uncoupling Danish National Identity from Lutheranism: The Advent of Religious Difference in Denmark,” she traces the rise of religious difference in Denmark, which, until the June Constitution of 1849, held Lutheranism as its official religion. The fight to include religious freedom within the Constitution was fierce, and understanding the tensions already at play within Danish society helps put the initially vehement and even violent reaction against Mormonism in Denmark into context as opponents of religious pluralism saw their fears realized.

Allen then compares the specific reactions of several members of the Danish cultural elite in “A Tale of Two Kierkegaards: Responses to Mormonism by Denmark’s Cultural Elites.” Reverend Dr. Peter Christian Kierkegaard and his brother, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, provide distinct perspectives reflective of various intellectual reactions to Mormonism (PCK) and religious crises within Lutheranism (SK), and Allen moves through the nuances of their arguments with an ease and clarity that made this potentially dense chapter truly enjoyable to read. This reviewer also appreciated Allen’s analysis of an unpublished manuscript by Elise Stampe, a Danish noblewoman whose affinity for the thought of N.F.S. Grundtvig is apparent in her writings. Stampe was moved to compose her piece in response to a friend joining the LDS Church; the piece shows a considered engagement with Mormonism and its teachings, something that contrasts sharply with the more reactionary responses seen in chapter 1.

By chapter 3, Allen has built a convincing case that Mormonism’s initial emergence within and reaction with Danish society leads to a renegotiation of the construct of Danish identity, “crafting new definitions of Danishness that could encompass a greater range of difference than the automatic equation of Danish identity with Lutheran belief” (129). As the understanding of Danish broadened, the cultural response mellowed somewhat. The third chapter—”‘Mormons, Mormons!’: Provocative Portrayals of Mormonism in Danish Popular Culture”— takes up the various responses to Mormonism that emerge in the space opened by this ongoing renegotiation of national identity. As Allen puts it, the “alarming novelty of Mormonism had given way to familiar contempt” (131) as the Danes mocked Mormonism’s oddities in print media, popular street ballads, theatrical revues, and even early silent films.

The uniqueness of Mormonism provided a useful foil for self-definition: over and over again, Danish popular culture reinforced “true” Danishness by setting it against the otherness of the Mormons. In the final chapter, “The Price of Conversion: Cultural Identity Negotiations among Early Danish Mormons,” Allen then investigates the costs of such identity-driven divisions in the lives of several early Danish coverts to Mormonism. Just as the arrival of Mormonism within Denmark caused the Danish people to negotiate new cultural identities, the personal arrival of Mormonism through conversion precipitated similar negotiations within individual lives. Allen’s treatment of these personal histories is particularly deft, weaving a large amount of historical data into a compelling narrative that traces the evolution of conversion as cultural rejection to conversion as cultural integration.

Allen’s prose is clear, her arguments interesting, and her work is both responsibly and carefully researched. The volume is well produced and designed, with a number of photographs, notes, and bibliography. The work here holds value beyond the scope of those interested in either Danish or Mormon history. The book participates in the broader discussion surrounding cultural identity, a topic very relevant to present debates over immigration, difference, and identity.

But beyond this broad cultural/political application, Allen’s work here has, I believe, specific importance to Mormons interested in the ways institutional identities intersect with and are transformed by continued cultural regeneration. The questions negotiated in Danish society during the latter half of the nineteenth century were ultimately questions of difference: how much difference is too much? At what point does difference fracture identity? Can identity cohere while maintaining functional difference? As the LDS Church continues to grow within various cultural traditions, these same tensions between difference and identity continue to surface both institutionally and personally in the lives of its members. What is the role of cultural difference in building the kingdom? How is Mormon identity negotiated in conjunction with personal difference? Allen’s work here left me considering the tension between unity and difference in the body of Christ.

This is productive work for me, and I am grateful for the productive work provided by Allen that prompted these thoughts. Highly recommended for those interested in Mormon history, nineteenth-century immigration, Danish history, European history, and the construction of cultural identity.

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