Kristoffer Janson (1841-1917)

Nowadays few people have heard of the poet-minister Kristofer Janson. Unfortunately for his posthumous reputation, he is best known as the model for Henrik Ibsen’s (1828-1906) characters Huhu in «Peer Gynt» and Hjalmar Ekdal in «The Wild Duck» than for his works, but, in his time he was considered an important author being also among the four first poets to receive a state salary from the Parliament and being in incredible demand as a lecturer.
Born in Bergen, Norway, by a prominent merchant, Janson graduated with a degree in theology from the University of Christiania in 1865 but, although having trained in theology, he was not ordained into the Church of Norway.
He traveled extensively in Europe and, upon his return to Norway, he became popular as a teacher and author. In 1876, Kristofer Janson’s three-act drama, «Amerikanske fantasier», was issued in Chicago by Skandinaven, which hailed this
publication by Jansen, whose father had also been the American Consul in Bergen, as a red-letter day for the Norwegians in America. Both Rasmus B. Anderson and H. H. Boyesen were, subsequently, instrumental in arranging a lecture tour of
the author for the Norwegian immigrant community in the United States. Janson arrived to the United States in September 1879 and had of a successful six month lecture tour.
Janson was a close friend of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910),Nobel prize for literature, whom he knew from his days in the «Vonheim Folk High School», a center of Grundtvigian liberal Lutheranism near Aulestad. It was in winter 1880,
while Janson was in Rome, Italy, for an holiday, that Bjørnson encouraged him to move to USA to become pastor for the Norwegian settlements in Minnesota: Janson decided to accept the idea and moved his family at first in Chicago, where
his home soon became a cultural center and where he wrote several novels and short stories often attacking the orthodoxy of the Synod of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
In November 1881, anyway, something happened in his soul: he got in contact to Unitarism and was ordained pastor in a ceremony which took place in 1881 in Third Unitarian Church in Chicago. He was subsequently asked also by the American Unitarian Association to serve as minister among the Scandinavian settlers in Minnesota. He finally decided to move to Minneapolis, where he became an important and well known Unitarian minister.
During his initial pastorship he gave a strong emphasis to the production of Hymns, which he considered very important as they could follow the faithful in his daily life and as they could contribute to teach the correct way to start a relation with God. In this sense, it is very important to notice the subtitle of his collection «The Norwigian Unitarian Hymn Book», including many songs by the Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845), in which we read: «Hymns and Songs for Church and Home», to underline the task of the book to follow men all along their life, in church and at home.
He, therefore, founded congregations in Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota and in Underwood, Brown County and Hudson in Wisconsin, where he was called by a group of farmers who were in disagreement with their minister. The description by Janson of the meeting with the farmers tells us much of the pastor’s ideas: «I told them openly and honestly that I did not agree with the Gospel that they were used to, and the reason I believed that. But to judge by the looks on
their faces, they thought it was pretty funny. They looked around at each other, and one simply could not keep from smiling and nudging his neighbour with his elbow. Finally, it was as if a liberating breath went through the entire congregation, and some the bravest members confided to me that secretly, deep inside, they had thought the same as I had explained, but they had simply not dared to express it at loud voice. They readily put aside the old idolatry about Bible texts, the contradictory trinitarian dogma, the bloody teachings about atonement and eternal Hell. The hardest part was giving up their faith in Jesus as a God, but I reassured them with the thought that …… what we should agree about is to love Jesus and follow him. Then our opinion as to whether he was a God is a little detail that should not divide us».
For a certain period, Janson also had the young Knut Hamsun [1859-1952, famous Norwegian author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, as his secretary, and Samuel Garborg, brother of the poet and freethinker Arne Garborg [1851-1924, famous author who revived Norwegian literature], directed the church choir. Garborg subsequently became a Unitarian minister himself, while Hamsum rejected not only Unitarianism, but theology as well, though later writing, in the Danish publication «Ny Jord», a good, but sharply critical article about Janson’s abilities as an author and as a minister, saying:»Janson does not ignite [ people], he does not set them on fire – he warms them. To lead people, you have to be able to rule, and Janson cannot rule. He can cheer and comfort and help, but he cannot strike. He is a camp doctor who has been given the post of a battlefield commander».
In Fall 1891 the relation between Janson and his wife entered in a definitive crisis, so that he decided to go back to Norway, which happened at the end of his sons’university courses, in 1893.
Once back in Norway, Janson started a big tour of lectures, many of which were devoted to Unitarism. In example, in a lecture of December 1894, he described many important aspects of Unitarism, encouraging «all open-minded people to establish a Church», which he would like to lead. This was an old idea he had already had in the past, but, generally, this speech, which had a large audience, is considered the seed of the following birth, a few months later, of the Norwegian Unitarian church, the so-called «Church of Brotherhood».
Rev. Rob

(Revision by: Rev. L. Sudbury)