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Holger Danskes Briller

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 24, 2010

Once upon a time – no, even longer ago than that, because he appears in European literature at least as early as 1060 – a Danish boy named Holger appeared at the court of Charlemagne and offered his services as a knight. Holger Danske – Holger the Dane – they called him. He was a good warrior, tall and strong and brave, and legend reports that he never lost a battle in his entire life.

Did I say that Holger Danske was tall? That was an understatement. One tale reports,

Holger Danske came one time to a town named Bagsvoer, in the isle of Zealand, where, being in want of a new suit of clothes, he sent for twelve tailors to make them. He was so tall that they were obliged to set ladders to his back and shoulders to take his measure. They measured and measured away, but unluckily a man, who was on the top of one of the ladders, happened, as he was cutting a mark in the measure, to give Holger’s ear a clip with the scissors. Holger, forgetting what was going on, thinking that he was being bitten by a flea, put up his hand and crushed the unlucky tailor to death between his fingers.[Source]

On another occasion, a witch gave him a pair of glasses – Holger Danskes Briller, or Holger Danske’s Spectacles – which were so powerful that he could see through the very ground.

Holger Danske served Charlemagne well, but this boy from the north grew ever more homesick, and finally he left the French king in the south of France and walked all the way through Europe until he reached Kronborg castle at Helsingen (or Elsinor), just north of Copenhagen. Wearied from his long walk, Holger Danske sought the quiet of the stone stables, sat down at a table there, and fell asleep. While he slept, his beard grew, longer and longer until it grew into the very fibers of the table, and then into the stone of the castle itself. He sleeps there still, where he – or at least his statue – can be seen by visitors. There he dreams of Denmark. Legend says that whenever Denmark is threatened by a foe, Holger Danske wakes again and marches at the head of her armies, then returns to Kronberg Castle to dream until his country needs its hero again.

Before he fell asleep in the stables, Holger Danske must have stretched out on the Common in front of Kronborg Castle, because he left the imprint of his glasses in the grass there. For generations two tiny lakes, perfectly round and very near each other – one somewhat larger than the other, though – were located on the Commons. These were pools that fed the imaginations of older children, who in turn fed terrifying tales to younger ones:

Boys who had paddled in it had been bitten on the leg by leeches that sucked blood until they turned into round black sausages! And in the middle of the water there was a bottomless hole that led down to hell! The legends about this lake were indeed enough to send cold shivers up and down the spine of a little urchin of three or four, and it was some time before I got up enough courage to put this part of the world behind me. [Source]

The pools of Holger Danskes Briller were very familiar to 19th century Latter-day Saints. In fact, if your ancestors were members of the Copenhagen Branch conference anytime in the second half of the 19th century, they were almost certainly may have been baptized in the larger of the two pools, which served as the a Copenhagen [conference] baptismal font through the decades. [See comments 1, 9, 11 and 24.]

Mormon baptisms at Copenhagen were usually held on Sunday nights after the regular meetings, and usually after dark to avoid unwanted attention from strangers. The branch choir generally accompanied candidates to their baptisms, walking quietly on to the way there, but “on the return to the city … the beautiful songs of Zion would resound over the wide field and through the streets in the outskirts of the city.” Baptisms were held year round. When ice formed on the pond – sometimes a foot thick – the elders would borrow an axe from a Latter-day Saint family who lived near the Briller and chop a sufficient opening in the afternoon; if the pond froze over again during the evening meeting, the elders would chop a hole the second time.

One Sunday while Hans J. Christiansen was president of the Copenhagen conference (sorry, I haven’t researched the year), the baptism of a female convert was scheduled. Branch members walked quietly to the Briller – but apparently not quietly enough. Some local men, determined to disrupt services, summoned a police officer and trailed the branch members to the site. Even though it was a dark night, the sisters in the branch formed a circle around the convert to shield her modesty as she dressed for her baptism. the brethren in the branch surrounded President Christiansen as he changed into the clothes he would wear into the water. Just as they were about to perform the baptism, the burning glow from cigars announced the presence of the intruders.

”What’s going on here?” demanded the policeman.

“We have come here to perform a baptism,” replied Elder Christiansen.

“A baptism? Out here! Why, such are performed in the churches, not out in the open air, and in the dark!”

Elder Christiansen briefly introduced the party as Latter-day Saints, and explained Mormon beliefs and the custom of baptism by immersion, for the same reason that John baptized in the Jordan “because there was much water there.”

And after a little further conversation President Christiansen asked the officer if he had any objection to the ordinance being performed then and there.

“Not at all; go ahead with your baptism,” he replied.

Before the elder could take a step, the cigar-smoking observers began to whoop and holler and offer insults. But instead of joining them as the hooligans expected, the police office instantly rebuked them, “demanding [they] be quiet and respectful ‘while these people are performing their baptism.’” He made them behave themselves until the Saints had completed the baptism, dressed in dry clothes, and went on their way toward home, singing hymns into the night.

The pools of Holger Danskes Briller dried up sometime in the early 20th century. The smaller one has vanished; the larger one, the baptismal pool, remains in the form of a small slough. They served their purpose; baptisms have been performed for over a century now in fonts within LDS chapels in and around Copenhagen, and now in the temple there. Holger Danske slumbers on, to awaken when his people need him again.

[Quotations not otherwise attributed are from Hugo D.E. Peterson, “Holger Danske’s ‘Briller,’ or ‘Specs,’ Improvement Era 1923, 151-52.]



27 Comments »

  1. Very interesting. I have been to all these places and never knew this story. None of the members ever told it to me. Helsingoer is actually quite a ways from Copenhagen. It would have taken people back then quite a while to travel up there for a baptism at that time.

    Comment by anon — March 24, 2010 @ 7:15 am

  2. I enjoyed this. I’m going to have to go back and check the records of my Danish ancestors to determine if they were baptised in Copenhagen.

    Just one question, though: was it Holger Danske that limited damage to Denmark during WWII, or was it the prophecy of Joseph F. Smith?

    Comment by Clark — March 24, 2010 @ 9:37 am

  3. Uh, it was Holger Danske responding to the prophecy of Joseph F. Smith. Yeah, that’s it. Must be.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  4. Ardis,

    I rarely comment but read daily.

    Thanks for this. It backs up an ancestral story of mine about my great’s being baptized in Copenhagen in the middle of the night in a hole cut in the ice of local ponds.

    Comment by bbell — March 24, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  5. Are there any records of a family getting baptized like this and then having a mob follow them home and burn their house down? This is one of the accounts in some of my family history

    Comment by bbell — March 24, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  6. Thanks, bbell. I haven’t seen any accounts like the one you describe, which sounds a little extreme for the level of anti-Mormonism generally pursued in Denmark, but then I haven’t actually hunted for such a story, either.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  7. My Danish ancestors were from up north and west of Copenhagen, so it’s unlikely that they were baptized there. But the reference to spectacles reminds me of another body of water, half a world away, which is crossed by a bridge called Megane Hashi–the spectacles bridge. This photo should explain where it got its name.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 24, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  8. Dare I say, “spectacular image, Mark”?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  9. Sorry, anon, you got trapped in the spam filter for some reason.

    Yeah, the sources say Kronborg Castle is 50 km. from Copenhagen, which obviously would have been too far for members to walk in the cold, after dark, regularly. Yet the sources I’ve used all fit together to make this the place referred to as the baptismal site. I don’t know where the Copenhagen Branch met, and wonder whether it was actually in a suburb or farm district well out of the city proper and in the direction of Elsinore/Helsinger. I can’t explain the discrepancy otherwise without the help of someone more familiar with the geography of early Latter-day Saint history in Denmark.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 11:42 am

  10. Briefly(am bereft of laptop so using phone,plse excuse lack of capital letters!) the copenhagen temple baptistry has an amazing mural of danish historical figures-wonder if the sleeping giant is there,i can’t remember. And it took about 30mins to drive from copenhagen to helsinger when i visited- those early saints were dedicated!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — March 24, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  11. I I know that one of the first branches met in a certain area of the city center. I really doubt they traveled all the way up to Helslingoer to be baptized, since they would have been surrounded by beaches. I would guess that only the Saints on that part of the island would have used that spot.

    Comment by anon — March 24, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  12. Thanks Ardis.

    Its always good to take family lore with a grain of salt. In this case we have a pretty good confirmation of icy baptisms and less likelihood of a home burning afterwards. Let me know if you ever run across stories of home burnings in Denmark

    Comment by bbell — March 24, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  13. What?! No jokes about Hamlet? No pithy quotes from Polonius?

    (I can’t think of any myself.)

    I can’t weigh in on the question about the location and distance of the baptisms, since all of my Danish people were from Jutland. I just did a quick search in the missionary journal of one of them, and none of the dozens of instances of baptisms mention a venue for the ordinance.

    The Danish converts brought some of their culture with them to America; there is an Elsinore, Utah, down in Utah’s Danish country (Sanpete County).

    Comment by Researcher — March 24, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

  14. One Sunday while Hans J. Christiansen was president of the Copenhagen conference (sorry, I haven’t researched the year)

    I enjoyed the post. Jenson’s LDSBE (2:202) notes that H.J. Christiansen served as president of the Copenhagen conference sometime between 1880 and 1882. A couple of sources I checked indicate that the Copenhagen branch met in a hall on Store Regnegade 26 during this same time period.

    Comment by Justin — March 24, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  15. Thanks, Justin. I think it’s time to raise the amount in your pay envelope again.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  16. As always, wonderful stuff. Many of my ancestors came to Utah from Denmark.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 24, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  17. My ancestors were from the Danish Island of Bornholm, where some nasty persecution went on, including beatings and actually attacking the police station where a newly baptized member of the church was being held both on suspicion of certain trumped charges, and to protect him from a mob. No home burnings, but some mob violence just the same (ca 1854-1856). There is another story in there, but I may have to see if Ardis will let me do another guest post about it.

    I had never heard the story of Holger Danske. Good stuff.

    Comment by kevinf — March 24, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  18. Keepa Standard Operating Procedure 18.505: kevinf can contribute guest posts whenever he is so inspired. (Other subsections of this SOP apply to all other ‘ninnies who have guest posted.)

    The kind of violence you describe, kevinf, is about the limit of what I’ve seen in Europe: Legal harassment, fines, imprisonment, banishment, some beatings in Switzerland, denial of passports for emigration, loss of jobs, meetings being broken up. So far as I can recall, the only property damage I remember is broken windows/broken furniture in LDS meeting halls in England in the 19-teens. Europeans seemed to target the quality of life of members, rather than doing the kind of property destruction we saw so often on the American frontier.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

  19. Regarding house burnings, I found a reference to one incident: the burning of Jacob Bohn’s cottage by a mob.

    Comment by Justin — March 24, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  20. Wow. The level of violence indicated by that entire paragraph is startling. I had no idea. (Can I fall back on my standard excuse-for-ignorance that this seems to have occurred before 24 July 1847?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

  21. Now I understand why there are so many stories of Saints being baptized out of doors and in the winter months: less risk of leeches in that frigid water? Heh.

    Fantastic! Thanks for this.

    Comment by Hunter — March 24, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

  22. Actually, Elsinore, Utah is in Sevier County, not Sanpete County. Sevier County is just south of Sanpete County and many of the early settlers were Danish. My own English ancestors settled in Richfield and Aurora, also in Sevier County.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — March 24, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

  23. Thanks for the correction, Jeff. And now I have a question. Should I apologize to the good people of Elsinore, or to the good people of Sanpete County? :)

    Comment by Researcher — March 25, 2010 @ 7:15 am

  24. #11 — anon, my spam filter really doesn’t like you for some reason. Nothing personal!

    You may very well be right. On rereading Hugo Petersen’s account, he was speaking of the Copenhagen *conference* — not the Copenhagen Branch specifically. A conference comprised several branches, so given the distance involved, the Saints who went to the Briller pool quite likely were from a much nearer branch.

    Thanks for the catch. I’ll figure out some place in the OP to point to your comment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 25, 2010 @ 9:52 am

  25. Researcher: No apology needed. It is a common mistake.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — March 25, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  26. It’s funny. All those times I drove through Elsinore, Utah, and never once did I think of Hamlet.

    Even on those trips when our beagle Yorick was in the car with us!

    Comment by Mark B. — March 25, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  27. Mark: it was only as I stood on a ferry sailing from Helsinger to Helsingborg and passed the castle did my brain engage gear-too late!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — March 26, 2010 @ 6:21 am

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