When Ole Ravn-Petersen was 16, he obtained his father’s permission to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The baptism took place in a neoclassical-style building in a quiet residential area of Copenhagen, a meetinghouse that had been dedicated in 1931 by Elder John A. Widtsoe (1872–1952) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Later, after serving a mission, young Ole would come back to this same building to baptize his father. For him and for many other Danish members, fond memories of the building became only sweeter when it was renovated and dedicated as the Copenhagen Denmark Temple in May 2004.
Many passersby seem to sense something of the majesty of the building, but Church members understand why it is a holy place. A member passing by might step into the small courtyard next to the temple and simply sit gazing at its tall windows and spire, thinking about the things of eternity.
Ole Ravn-Petersen now serves as bishop of the Århus Ward, Århus Denmark Stake, on the Jutland Peninsula, three hours away from Copenhagen by train. He visited his nation’s capital city recently and found himself thinking that the pace of life there was a bit hectic. And then he thought of the temple: “We have a place here in Copenhagen where we can get closer to our Heavenly Father.”
Danish members have found many reasons to rejoice in the nearness of a temple, but invariably their reasons come back to moving closer to Heavenly Father.
Tine Andersen of the Roskilde Ward, Copenhagen Denmark Stake, says, “You don’t have that closeness anywhere else. The Spirit is very strong.” A returned missionary, Tine is the daughter of two temple workers. Her father, Niels, speaks with reverence of opportunities he had while serving as a guide during the open house before the temple’s dedication. “It was a fantastic experience to see people’s reactions,” he says, and emotion overtakes him as he recalls the stream of visitors. “I have done missionary work for many years, and for the first time, I saw them come on their own. We did not have to knock on doors to find them.”
Some 25,000 people toured the temple during the open house. Brother Andersen remembers one of those people, an architect who had been involved in building many fine churches throughout Europe. But what the man felt in the temple touched him in ways he could not explain; he could only try to describe it in terms of the beauty and quality of the building.
This struggle to describe spiritual things is not unusual. Danish members will tell you that because their country is prosperous and its people content, most seem not to realize how much they need God.
Tine Andersen speaks of a friend, a young woman who lives with her boyfriend—a practice common in Denmark. The friend talks to Tine about problems in the relationship, but she clings to it because it is all she has.
The gospel “gives you another perspective,” Tine explains. “Others might be happy in a certain respect because they have what they need for daily life. But they don’t know what they did before they came to this life or where they are going.”
“It’s OK to Be Different”
It is important as a parent to use every opportunity that comes to teach your children, says Tim Jensen, bishop of the Frederiksberg Ward, Copenhagen stake. He and his wife, Karen, are the parents of two preteen girls, Pernilla and Mie. Bishop Jensen explains that if you pay attention to promptings of the Holy Ghost when you are with your children, “you will find a lot of great moments when you can bear your testimony in an informal way.” Sister Jensen explains that she often turns to the Lord for guidance. She recalls one day when she found herself praying to help her older daughter overcome a reluctance to go to church. Pernilla felt the effect; she later bore testimony of the loving promptings that came into her own heart.
Because of the challenges young people face, Bishop Jensen says, parents have to teach them “it’s OK to be different.” His wife underscores the point: “You have to teach children to stick by what they believe.”
Some social conditions can pose challenges. One example: a legal drinking age—16—was established only recently in Denmark. Still, some parents introduce their children to alcoholic beverages early, on the theory that they can teach youngsters to drink responsibly. It is a theory that does not work well in practice. Another example: pornography has been legal and widely available since 1970. A generation has grown up with it, many believing it is harmless.
Karen Jensen says, “It is really important that you teach your daughters to respect their bodies, that the body is sacred.” Bishop Jensen adds that youth need not only to know the law of chastity, but to understand the reasons for it. Where gospel doctrines differ from common practice, he says, children need to understand “that they don’t have to do the things the world around them does.”
Thomas Ringheim is a former bishop of the Allerød Ward, Copenhagen stake, and his wife, Heidi, serves in the ward Relief Society presidency. They have eight children, ranging in age from 4 to 24, so they know something of the challenges faced by young people. Parents must take advantage of every teaching moment, Sister Ringheim says, because all of those little moments help build testimonies. To help fortify her own testimony, she has set herself the goal of attending the temple weekly. “I can feel a difference in myself in everyday life, just in coping with people.”
“I think it’s a challenge for Church members to be so few” in Danish society, Brother Ringheim says. “But on the other hand, I think it’s a great blessing. We have to learn to stand up for something.” Latter-day Saints need not be fearful about expressing their faith. “Actually, most people respect us when we are outspoken about what we believe.”
The Church has a long history in Denmark. Missionaries first arrived in 1850. Danish was the second language, after English, in which the Book of Mormon was published (1851). But in the early days and again in the years after World War II, many converts emigrated to Utah. Denmark is a small country whose history, geography, and commerce all give it strong ties to other nations, and Danes may easily be drawn to other countries for employment or schooling. These factors, along with a tendency to keep religion a private matter, may account for the slow growth of Church membership over the past several decades. There are now about 4,500 Latter-day Saints in a nation of 5.5 million.
But the spiritual and leadership experience of longtime members is a valuable resource to the Church in Denmark.
Orla Rode Nielsen, baptized in 1956, served as branch president twice in Århus before that unit became a ward. Kirsten Bokhonko, another longtime member, says that Brother Nielsen and his wife, Esther (now deceased), are the kind of people who made it a habit to do good for others quietly, in the background. When the Nielsens discovered a love of family history, they devoted much of their own free time to helping more than 30 other members compile their family history. Brother Nielsen still goes to the city archives almost every day to gather information. “I love it. When you get started, you can’t stop.” From the time he joined the Church, he has felt that way about the gospel. On the day he was baptized, he sang all the way home for happiness. “Since my baptism I have never doubted.”
Sister Bokhonko, baptized in 1952, is another who has helped anchor the Church in her area. She has served in leadership positions in all the auxiliaries and also as a translator for Church materials. She knows from her own childhood experience that it may be difficult for the 25 children in the Århus Ward Primary to find friends who share their moral and ethical standards. But she also knows they need not give up their beliefs. When she was growing up, people always knew what her standards were, and those standards were respected.
The way members live their beliefs can bring blessings into their own lives as well as into the lives of others. Karin Messell of Århus, who grew up in the Church, met her husband, Jesper, at work. When they were married in 2001, he was not a member. Jesper now counts his wife’s example as a great blessing in his life. Partly because of it, he was baptized in 2003, and they were sealed in the Copenhagen temple a little more than two months after its dedication in 2004.
Jesper has embraced the standards and values of the gospel, including the importance of the family. As a couple, the Messells have chosen to sacrifice material things so Karin can be at home when they have children. Jesper says, “We can choose: do we want a big house, or do we want Karin at home?”
Johan and Lisa Koch of Copenhagen could tell them about the long-term rewards of setting the right priorities. The Kochs joined the Church as a young married couple in 1968 and reared their seven children in the Church. In 2004 when they served as guides during the open house for the Copenhagen temple, a man who had gone to school with one of their sons came on a tour. “I had to come,” the man explained, “because I know Christian, and I know what it would mean to him.”
The Kochs first went to the temple in Switzerland many years ago, and they set an example for their family by serving as temple workers when that meant an eight-hour trip to Stockholm. They kept a picture of the temple on a wall in their home. They used every resource to help their children grow strong in the gospel, including family prayer, home evening, and home-study seminary.
After years of having to travel outside their country, “to have a temple so close is a special blessing,” Sister Koch says. Her husband, who was released as president of the Copenhagen stake in 2001, sees the coming of the temple as a sign of growing maturity among members. But the Kochs are also impressed by its effect on those who are not members. When they talked of sealing during the open house tours, Brother Koch says, “you could tell which couples had a good marriage by the way they looked at each other. They would ask, ‘Could we do that?’”
Life in the Single Lane
Temple marriage is a goal, of course, for single members in Denmark, but socialization with other Latter-day Saint singles can be difficult because they are so scattered and so busy.
A young adult dance or party in Copenhagen usually draws 20 to 30 people, Tine Andersen says, unless the invitation is extended to include members from the Århus stake and from Sweden. Malmö, Sweden, is close; from the top of a tall building in Copenhagen you can easily see the bridge that crosses the narrow stretch of Baltic Sea between the two countries. While the languages of the two nations are similar, conversation at one of these dances is likely to be conducted in English, a language that many Europeans have in common.
Anne Christina Larsen of Århus could easily fit in whatever the language. In addition to her native Danish, she is fluent in German, English, and Spanish. Baptized while studying in Austria, she worked for a time in Guatemala and served a mission in the Washington, D.C., area. Currently studying psychology at a university, Anne attends institute classes. Regular attendance at the classes is no more than two or three.
But Anne has not put life on hold while waiting for marriage. She is continuing to fulfill personal spiritual goals—especially now that the temple is close. Going there “gives you new strength and peace—and perspective. You’re reminded of who you are.” She bases decisions about her life on gospel principles. “In everything we do, the gospel is the foundation.”
Building the Foundation
Britta Rasmussen, baptized with her husband in 1975, says she gained her testimony of the gospel by living it. When she first began attending Relief Society, she thought, “These ladies are doing what they believe.” She has always tried to follow that example.
For 45 years, she has been socializing with a group of friends she first met as a schoolgirl. She invited them to attend the open house at the temple while she and her husband were serving as guides, and she had the opportunity to bear her testimony to them. “All those people felt something,” Sister Rasmussen recalls, expressing the hope that what she said may someday touch their lives.
Her husband, Kjeld, first became acquainted with the gospel through a friend. Though Kjeld was more accustomed to the philosophical examination of religion, he developed a strong testimony through the witness of the Holy Ghost. He says, “Our challenge is to tell people, ‘This is not a man-made religion. We have authority from God.’”
Elisabeth Andersen, in her late teens and the only Church member in her school, is not sure yet whether she has a testimony. “Sometimes I feel like I do, and sometimes I don’t.” But she is in the right place and doing the right things to find one. Her father, Jens Andersen, is president of the Copenhagen Denmark Stake. In her home, there are family prayers and family home evenings. Her father and mother set examples of faithfulness, and Elisabeth is doing the spiritual things she has been taught to strengthen her testimony. She is quite willing to share gospel truths with friends who ask about her beliefs or the way she lives.
The living of basic gospel principles, such as faith, prayer, repentance, and obedience, brings a new perspective on life, President Andersen says. “The joys of life become more abundant. The joy I feel for my wife and children is clothed in an eternal perspective,” he explains. “Those families in the Church who are really enjoying the blessings of the gospel are those who are practicing these basic principles.”
The temple in Copenhagen has helped strengthen that eternal perspective, he adds. Members of every age can feel its influence. When his daughter Elisabeth has visited the temple, she too has felt it: “A peace. You can find it almost nowhere else.”
President Andersen says stake and ward leaders teach that temple service is the goal for every member. He explains that the growth in spirituality resulting from the making and keeping of temple covenants could be the key to helping the Church grow in numbers in Denmark. “I think that missionary work is a natural result of conversion in your own life.” When members are converted, he says, then they are able and eager to reach out to others.