Hans Tambs Lyche

Probably the first very notable figure of Norwegian Unitarism was Hans Tambs Lyche (1859-1898). Born in Kristiania, since 1876 he took engineering training at Kristiania Technical College (Kristiania tekniske Skole), obtaining his degree four years later. After university he took the decision that would change his life, moving to USA, where he found work on a railroad in Iowa.

The following year 1881 was crucial for his decision to move to Chicago and take inscription to Meadville Theological School (Pennsylvania). Here, during his studies, he came in conctact with the local debate on Unitarism, joining the radical and humanistic wing of the movement. After graduating, he served as a Unitarian minister in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, holding services in English and lecturing on Norwegian literature.

In this period he also published articles in Norwegian on «Dagbladet», «Nyt Tidsskrift» and other Norwegian journals, as well as in English on some American magazines. His main interests were related to women’s rights, universal suffrage, library services and electric railways, believing that more leisure time and greater social and technical progress would provide more time and desire for reading and education.

In a way we can easily understand his progressist position by a letter he wrote in December 1886 to the publication «Unity», concerning the Haymarket riot:

«Dear Unity, Will you give room for the following lines, prompted by that brute and savage howl of revenge and hatred, which today goes up from the American press against the condemned anarchists and their brethren in spirit? … Let us be frank and fair! – if [the anarchists] sincerely see in the present social order the cause of the greater part of the misery and degradation of the masses and the millions, and that a new social order based upon principles of equality and brotherhood can create happiness, freedom and glory where now is only degradation – is it any more wonderful that they preach war than that Garrison did it in slavery times? The slavery and misery the socialist would free the world from is surely a hundred times deeper and blacker than Negro slavery. Why then is John Brown a hero, and the bomb-throwing socialist a monster? Why? The condemned anarchists have not, of course, thrown any bombs … It is easy enough to preach patience, and peaceable means, and gradual reforms, when we sit in our armchairs, surrounded by the comforts of civilized life, seeing about us only the better side of life; but it looks very different, be sure, to him who from early morning till late at night lives in the whirl of misery, enslaving drudgery, even starvation. For men do starve here, even among us and in this nineteenth century … Let us share that kind of life for a while, and we shall better understand anarchism … But the fact is these men have done much. The Haymarket meeting marks quite a step in the progress of the world. We dare no longer be quite so blind as before to existing wrong and misery. The light from their bomb may be the signal of danger and need … And say what we will about it, there is grandeur and glory, a halo of growing light around that red flag, which today runs up in every civilized land, up above our national and partisan colors … Who knows but that that red flag may wave on the breeze when the stars and stripes are long forgotten?


In 1893 he decided to go back home to Kristiania (nowadays Oslo) where he found a very receptive cultural atmosphere.His idea was clearly to establish a Unitarian church in Norway and he whole dedicated himself to this project, first of all starting an impressive activity as author of leaflets and creating the international magazine «Kringsjaa».

In a way, we can, moreover, consider Lyche the writer of the first Norwegian printed work about Unitarism with his «To whom it may concern! I take the liberty of suggesting that a Unitarian Church society in Kristiania and at the same time and connected to this a «Norwegian society» should be established».

Politically, he was a left-wing supporter of the Liberal party, which wanted an independent Norwegian republic with unrestricted voting rights for both men and women. In 1893, he published a brochure with the title «A Unitarian Church in Kristiania» and in the debate that followed, he defined Unitarianism as: «Liberal thinking about life, reason and nature».

Actually he soon became the leader of a 30 member Unitarian group but he considered this result not enough to establish a formal Church: today a 30 member group in Europe seemslike being a good result and many scholars have later tried to understand the reasons of Lyche s hesitations but actually we lack data enough to hazard any answer.

It is important to notice that during his activity he opened an interesting debate with the Lutheran pastor Horvald Klaveness (1844-1915) (whose grandnephew, Knut Klaveness Heidelberg will later become the pastor and leader of the new Norwegian Unitarian society, The Bet David Unitarian Association) about the relationship between State, Church and Culture: this discussion took place on the magazine «For Kirke og Kultur» (For Church and Culture) and can be considered the first Unitarian Norwegian printed discussion.

Anyway, the best result of Tambs Lyche’s activity was the foundation, with the help of the editor Axel Sabro, of the first Unitarian newspaper, the «Free Words», which he directed for two years.In it, he published excerpts from authors like Emerson and Carlyle, poems of Walt Whitman, a special issue about the poet Henrik Wergeland [1808-1845], defined by him as «the «patron saint of the Norwegian left, our Jefferson/Paine/Emerson/Whitman» and considered (with some justifications) as a Unitarian.

He also included translations of sermons from Unitarians and (the closely related) Universalists, as well as speeches of Ethical Culture leaders.

On the pages of «Free Words», Lyche paid much attention, as a critical observer, to Janson adventure in The Church of Brotherhood (about which we will later discuss). Actually, better than any other in Kristiania, he knew Janson

Unitarian positions and their background in the previous american debate, so that he could learn a lot from Janson’s mistakes. Even if critical towards many of the personal positions of Janson, he deeply helped the birth of the Curch of Brotherhood giving to Janson a list of names (not more than thirty) of possible Congregational members: remembering the foundation of his Church, Janson admitted that Lyche’s list was very usefull in the constitution of his first community.

In the 1896, due to some conflicts with Sabro, Lyche was forced to leave the direction of «Free Words», which went on being published for two years more (though loosing its Unitarian connotation) and founded the magazine «Norderhov».

Since 1897 he was also subeditor of the newspaper «Dagbladet» and went on editing «Kringsjaa» until his untimely deathat the age of 38, for tubercolosis, in 1898. After his death, two of his books were published with a foreword by the editor of «Nyt Tidssrift», Christen Collin (1857–1926).
Rev. Rob

(Revision by: Rev. L. Sudbury)