Map of Bornholm

Photo: D.C. Fester og I. Haas

Sentenced to live on Bornholm

Get the story of how the 18th century pietist Christian Thurah was first imprisoned on the Norwegian island Munkholm and later sentenced to exile on Bornholm.

Christian Thurah was born in Copenhagen around 1730. We do not know much about his childhood, except that his father may be brewer NP Thurah. We do however know that he grows up in a deeply religious Copenhagen that is characterised by Pietism. It is a religious movement that had its heyday in Denmark in the period 1730-1746.

On a sunny day in April 1779, Christian Thurah stands looking up at the clear blue sky over Munkholmen - his Norwegian prison. A child's hand pulls his sleeve: "What is Master Thurah thinking?" Thurah sighs and replies, "On the grace of God, my boy." Thurah has not abandoned the fervent pietistic religion of his childhood. In his prison, he teaches the garrison children about Christianity. It is a sacred duty, Thurah believes, to help the poor, live as the Bible prescribes and to spread the true faith. He can not let go of it, despite the fact that it is the same religious fervour that has sent him to prison. But how did he end up there?

Christian Thurah's history actually begins in the autumn of 1770. On the 14th of September that year, Struensee, who at that time was on his way to becoming a de facto regent in Denmark, introduced freedom of the press. Now everyone can write and print what he or she wants, even anonymously. There are no rules. It is completely new, and the Danish freedom of the press is the most unlimited in all of Europe. Thurah has at that time become a graduate of theology, but he has for some reason failed to get employment as a priest. He possibly still lives in his father's house. At least, we do not know that he has a job or any income at this time.

Thanks to the freedom of the press, there is an overflow of pamphlets and writings sold in the streets and the Copenhagen pubs. Struensee dreams that the Danes will use the freedom of the press to discuss the topics of the time in an enlightened and noble way. The reality is different. One of the first writings to be published comes from the hand of habitual provocateur Jacob Christian Bie. And like many of the other writings, it is highly polemical and certainly not noble. Jacob Christian Bie takes jabs at the priests, and it causes the devout Christian Thurah to grab his pen and ink. But it is not the answer to Bie's criticism of the priests that sends Thurah to prison.

On Munkholmen in 1779, Christian Thurah straightens his clothes a bit and looks wearily at the assembled children. "Let us begin with the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Almost before the words are out, the children respond in an echo of catechism: "We should fear, love and trust in God above all things." Silence ascends, Thura looks over the fortress wall once more, and then a girl's voice says: "Shall we also fear and love God more than we love and fear father?" Thurah widens his eyes and looks directly at the girl: “Your lips must tremble for fear of the Almighty God. Your knees must shake under the worry of your soul. Thou shalt fear the Lord more than thou shalt fear the King, yea, more than thou shalt fear the Devil himself. And Thou must love him higher than anything else on this earth, higher than life itself.” Thurah's next words come as a whisper: “Trust in His grace, children. Trust in him! ” But in actuality, it is the King's grace that can get Thurah released from prison, not God's. What has caused the King to imprison Thurah?

After the dispute with Bie, it is difficult for Thurah to put his pen away. Several more writings spring from his hand. But it is when Struensee, in line with the enlightenment ideals of the time, removes a number of public holidays that Thurah really gets into deep water.

Thurah becomes furious and ignited by religious fervour. He writes: "For if one were to claim that the King's Sovereign Authority extended itself to matters of faith, doctrine and religion, then I do certainly not see that there was any difference between our King's sovereignty and the Papacy itself, and then I do not know what our forefathers fought when they abolished the authority of the Roman pope in our lands.”
These are not trivial writings. It seems that Thurah is almost on the verge of calling the king and his government papists, and that is the worst accusation one can make against anyone in 18th century Denmark. Thurah has not sensed that the mood in the country has changed. The freedom of the press is abolished step by step and disappears completely in 1773, when Thurah's writing happens to be published. At the same time, Struensee falls from grace and a new government is formed. The new government does not take criticism of the King or the government lightly, and Thurah is imprisoned.

In 1779, Christian Thurah has reached the third commandment, “Remember to keep holy the Lord's day,” when Munkholmen's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Einer Einerssen, places his hand on Thurah's shoulder. "The king has shown mercy. The master is going to Bornholm,” is the only thing he says before he turns and leaves. In the middle of the grass under the blue sky, with his students surrounding him, Thura falls to his knees and thanks his God. For six years he has been imprisoned on Munkholmen for the writing that tested the limits of freedom of the press. The king has pardoned him on the condition that he lives the rest of his life on Bornholm, but there, Christian Thurah can at least walk around freely.

And this is how Christian Thurah is sentenced to live the rest of his life on Bornholm. It was not until the constitution in 1849 that it once again became legal to write what one wants in Denmark.

We have digitised all the writings from the time of freedom of the press with the help of the Carlsberg Foundation.