Soren Kierkegaard, known as the “melancholy Dane” and as the founder of existentialism, was born in Copenhagen, into a strict Danish Lutheran home. There he absorbed Lutheran orthodoxy, laced with a strong pietistic influence.He inherited a melancholy disposition from his father and suffered through an unhappy youth. His frail and slightly twisted frame made him an object of mockery throughout his life. Still, his father was sufficiently wealthy that he never had to keep a job but was free to spend his life as a writer and philosopher.
Kierkegaard was an extremely reflective person, who from an early age struggled with feelings of guilt and depression. The causes for this seemed to stem in large measure from his relationship with his father, who also struggled with guilt and what was then termed “melancholy.” This was aggravated by a series of deaths in the family: five of Søren’s brothers and sisters died within a relatively short time.
He attended the University of Copenhagen to prepare for the Lutheran ministry, but it took him ten years to earn his degree, and he never was ordained. It was philosophy, not theology, which captured his imagination. He fell in love with a young lady, Regine Olsen. They became engaged, but Kierkegaard had doubts and quickly broke off the engagement, though he admitted he was still deeply in love.
His influence was primarily locally, until Karl Barth publicized his works. In 1933, Barth wrote: “If I have any system, it consists in this, that always as far as possible I keep in mind what Kierkegaard spoke of as the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity … God is in heaven, you are on earth.”