Kaj Munk was born Kaj Harald Leininger Petersen on January 13, 1898, at Maribo on the South Danish island of Lolland. He was the only child of Carl and Anna Mathilde Petersen. His father died when he was only eighteen months old and his mother when he was five and a half years old. He was adopted and reared by his mother’s cousin, Marie Munk, and her husband, Peter. The Munks had no children of their own, and Marie had promised Anna Mathilde, as the latter lay on her deathbed, that she would rear the child and would love him and care for him as her own. The Munks were yeoman farmers, and Kaj was brought up in a wholesome, healthy environment, full of love and close to the land, and was instilled with a love for learning and a deep and lasting faith.
Munk, though rather frail, was an inquisitive and talented student who demonstrated unusual literary abilities at a very early age. When he was eight years old, he was visited during an illness by his schoolmaster, who wrote: “What a surprise when I turned the paper over and found it covered from top to bottom with poems. I nearly fell over backwards at the sight of what had been written there by a boy of eight years. The contents were naturally immature, but the rhyme, as well as the arrangement of the words, was witness to a very real sense of language.”
Munk was educated first at the country school at Vejleby, then at Maribo Realskole, and later at the neighboring Nykøbing Latin School. While he was enrolled at the Realskole, under the remarkable tutelage of an unusually capable headmaster and a young, talented staff, Munk first became truly excited about learning. Munk was especially impressed by the poetry of Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger. While in his last year at the Nykøbing Latin School, Munk wrote his first play, Pilatus, which is of particular interest not only because it is the first example of his dramatic talent but also because it contains the seeds of the later important work He Sits at the Melting Pot.
At the age of nineteen, Munk enrolled at the University of Copenhagen. During his years at the university, he experienced some of his most carefree, happiest times, although he never lost sight of his educational goals and was a very serious student. He lived at the prestigious student residence Regensen, where he became “Klokker,” or head student. He continued to be active as a writer and, though enrolled as a student of theology, underwent considerable inner turmoil regarding his own faith and whether his life should be spent as a priest or a writer. He ultimately became both.
At the University of Copenhagen, Munk began to write his first publicly produced play, Herod the King. He was preparing for his finals in theology when a professor happened to remark, in a lecture on Herod the Great, that it was too bad that William Shakespeare had never tried his hand at this material. The chance comment was taken as a challenge by the receptive student, and before finishing his finals, Munk had written four-fifths of the play, which he finished soon after assuming his duties as village priest at Vedersø.
Munk became pastor at Vedersø, a small village on the west coast of the Danish mainland, in 1924. His friends could not believe that, having been so happy in the city, he could tolerate for long the life of the small town. In fact, life was somewhat difficult for a time, but he became very fond of the area and beloved by its people. He was married to a young woman who was a native of the area, Lise Jørgensen, on January 13, 1929. During the years that followed, Munk’s fame—as a playwright, public speaker, and journalist—increased. Nevertheless, he was always a pastor first. He never neglected his duties toward his flock and, in spite of his increasing fame and wealth, remained humble and dutiful in visiting his parishioners and in carrying out his duties where they were concerned. He even took a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that his words and thoughts,...
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