Wergeland, champion of freedom

An advocate for Jews in Norway and 17. mai

Image: Wikipedia / public domain
A portrait of Nicolai Wergeland (1780–1848) by Christian Olsen.

Michael Kleiner
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

It was Article 2 of the Norwegian Constitution, sometimes called the “Jew Clause,” one of the most argued amendments at Eidsvoll in 1814, a stain on a constitution considered the “freest.” A constitution that claimed influence from the American document, differed on the issue of  freedom of religion.

“The Evangelical-Lutheran religion is the state’s public religion. The inhabitants who practice it are obliged to raise their children in the same. Jesuits and monastic orders must not be tolerated. Jews are excluded from access to the Kingdom.”

Wrote lawyer Christian Magnus Falsen, considered the “father of the Constitution”: “How useful it is to have only one ruling religion. I do not have to demonstrate. If there are two or more ruling religions side-by-side, it may create parties that could prove dangerous to the state.”

Pastor Nicolai Wergeland declared:  “No person of Jewish creed must cross Norway’s national borders, and [they] must certainly not live here.”

Professor Georg Sverdrup and the lawyers Wilhelm Christie, considered the “father of the nation,” and Christian Adolph Dirks were in favor of the clause. Provosts Peter Hount and Christian Middelfart, Herman Wedel Jarlsberg, and poet/pastor Jonas Rein were against banning Jews. The pro forces wanted to maintain a religious autocracy that had existed since the Lutheran Reformation came to Denmark–Norway in 1536.

Dag Thorkildsen, professor of church history at the University of Oslo, wrote in his article in the book 1814-2014: Red, White and Blue, Norwegian Constitution, American Inspiration, “Christian sects were allowed to observe their religion… Freedom of religion was not included in the constitution. They talked of a ‘public religion of the state,’  but not ‘state church.’ That terminology didn’t appear until 1845.”

Portuguese Jews had special privileges because of trade, but Jews could be fined heavily for not having the right papers.

Nicolai Wergeland’s oldest son, Henrik, was only 6 years old when Norway’s constitution was ratified. He grew up to be one of Norway’s most renowned poets, although his style was criticized by some as “subversive.” He was also a playwright, fighter for justice, and the loudest advocate for allowing Jews into Norway. His interests included literature, history, contemporary politics, social issues, and science.

He studied theology at the Royal Frederick University, graduating in 1829. He was only 21 years old but quickly gained notoriety in literature and politics. He praised the doctrines of the French July Revolution of 1830; the rights afforded Norwegian citizens in the constitution; benefits of a simple life; fought against the poverty afflicting Norwegian peasants; disparaged foreign luxuries; created libraries, as well as argued for a national day of celebration for 17. mai. Royal decree forbade any celebration. Henrik led protests in the “Battle of the Square” in Christiania. Therefore, he became a hero to the people.

In his short life—he died at 37 in 1845—he worked tirelessly to repeal Article 2. He had been anti-Semitic but travels in Europe swayed him. What he drew from Christian teachings was fighting for social justice, morality, and charity. That formed the basis of his argument against the Jewish ban.

Henrik professed his admiration for the constitution, except for the Jewish clause, in Norges Konstitutions Historie (History of the Norwegian Constitution, 1841–43) and newspaper articles. He first submitted a proposal to the Storting in 1839 arguing for “justice and reconciliation.” He railed against anti-Semitism, praised Judaism, Jews’ philanthropy, occupations, activities and high moral values in Indlæg i Jødesagen (Essays About the Jewish Question). He wrote two books of poetry, Jøden (The Jew) in 1842, and Jødinden (The Jewess) in 1844, which contributed to changing people’s opinions. The poetry is used in schools today.

The first vote for repeal was on Sept. 9, 1842, with the yeses 51 to 43, but it was not  the two-thirds necessary. Henrik convinced Nicolai to support repeal.

The Storting passed the Disssenter Law in 1845 that removed the requirement that a Norwegian citizen be a member of the evangelical Lutheran religion. “A state church was established consistent with Article 2 and lasted until changes to the constitution in 2012, which altered distinction between church and state,” wrote Thorkildsen.

Image: Wikimedia / public domain
A portrait of Henrik Wergeland (1808–1845) by Carl Peter Lehmann.

On Aug. 12, 1845, a month after Wergeland’s death, the constitution committee recommended repeal of Article 2. The parliament voted on several versions, but the closest vote was 52-47 to repeal. The vote in 1848 was 59-43 in favor. Finally in 1851, repeal was successful 93-10, six years after Henrik’s death.

His funeral was attended by thousands. Scandinavian Jews, a majority of them Swedes, had a memorial built at his gravesite. A large crowd attended the unveiling in 1849, including three Swedish Jews, who had to travel with safe conduct papers, as the Jewish ban hadn’t been rescinded yet.

The Jesuit ban was repealed in 1956.

Generally, attitudes changed. In 1938, the Norwegian government and organizations helped Jews escape from Germany and Czechoslovakia. During World War II, Norwegian traitor Vidkun Quisling put the Jew Clause back into the constitution, and prohibited celebrations of Wergeland. After the war, not only was Quisling executed for treason, but for illegally altering the constitution.

Though much of the Jewish community in Norway perished, 900 escaped to Sweden with the help of the Norwegian Resistance. The Church of Norway spoke out against the deportation of Jews in 1942. Oslo’s Jewish community was quickly reestablished on August 31, 1945, with Crown Prince Olav attending the ceremony.

Article 2 reads much differently now: “Christianity and humanism as the fundamental values of the Norwegian state, and its intention to create a more inclusive community and to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights.” Thorkildsen notes, “it mentions the Norwegian Church in a new Article 16, where the church is defined as an Evangelical Lutheran Church and a National Church.”

On the 150th anniversary of the constitution in 1964, the line “All citizens of the state have the right to free exercise of religion,” was finally added to Article 2.

In efforts to be inclusive, the state provides support to the Church of Norway and other religious communities,

There are close to 2,000 Jews in Norway, most in Oslo. There is one synagogue in Oslo, with a senior citizen living facility and community center all on the same hilly street.  Since the 1920s—except during the occupation—on every 17. mai, members of Oslo’s Jewish community place a wreath at Wergeland’s gravesite and a Jewish youth delivers a speech. In recent years, speeches have touched on continuing Wergeland’s work by speaking out against prejudice in the world today. There is a statue of Wergeland in the city center between the royal palace and Storting. Students adorn his statues and gravesite on 17. mai.

There is a synagogue in Trondheim, which the Nazis confiscated for barracks. The Methodist church hid the sacred artifacts and a pastor officiated at Jewish funerals during the occupation. In front of former Jewish homes, Trondheim residents carved in stone the names of the people who lived there. The synagogue reopened in October 1947. There are Holocaust museums in Oslo and Trondheim.

Many Norwegian poets who followed Wergeland revered him. The Norwegian poet Ingeborg Refling Hagen began annual celebrations on Wergeland’s birthday and said, “When in our footprints something sprouts, it’s a new growth of Wergeland’s thoughts.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.