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Monday, October 20, 2014

ICELAND Church History / Þjóðkirkjan -


From the very beginning of human habitation in Iceland, Christianity was there. In that respect, Iceland is unique, at least in European context. The first people setting foot on Icelandic soil were Celtic hermits, seeking refuge on these remote shores to worship Christ.

Later, Norse settlers drove them out. Some of the settlers were Christians, although the majority were heathen, worshipping the old Norse gods. When Iceland was constituted as a republic in year 930, it was based on the heathen religion. In the late 900s missionaries from the continent sought to spread Christianity among the population.

Adoption of Christianity

Soon the nation was deeply divided between the adherents of the different religions that would not tolerate each other. At the legislative assembly, the Alþingi at Þingvellir, in the year 1000, the country was on the brink of civil war. The leaders of the two groups realized the danger and found a solution. They chose a person that everybody respected for his wisdom, the heathen priest and chieftain, Þorgeir of Ljósavatn, to decide which way the people should go. Þorgeir retired to his dwelling and lay there all day meditating. The next day he called the assembly together and made his decision known. "If we put asunder the law, we will put asunder the peace," he said. "Let it be the foundation of our law that everyone in this land shall be Christian and believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." The people agreed and many were subsequently baptized. This remarkable story marks the beginning of the church in Iceland. Ever since it has been an important part of the Icelandic culture and identity.

Through the centuries

At the inauguration of Christianity in Iceland, the church was undivided. Missonary bishops and priests from Germany, England and Eastern Europe worked among the population until the church was organized under the Roman Catholic church order. The first Icelandic bishop, Ísleifur, was consecrated in Bremen in 1056, and he made Skálholt the episcopal see. Thereafter, Skálholt was the center of Christian learning and spirituality in the country through the 18th century.

In spite of all the upheavals of history there is a marked continuity within the church of Iceland. For the first five centuries the Icelandic church was Roman Catholic. In the beginning, it was part of the province of 1056 in Bremen. Later, the Icelandic church came under the archbishops of Lund and in 1153 it became a part of the province of Nidaros. Iceland was divided into two dioceses, Skálholt, established 1056, and Holar in 1106. These continued until 1801, when Iceland became one diocese under one bishop of Iceland, residing in Reykjavík.

The country was an independent republic from 930 until 1262. Then Iceland, having suffered civil war and anarchy, came under the rule of the Norwegian king and in 1380 with Norway under the Danish crown. In 1944 Iceland regained its independence as a republic.

Holy men and venerable books

Three Icelandic churchmen were revered as saints, even though none of them actually canonized. The most famous of them is Þorlákur, St. Thorlac of Skálholt (1133-1193). He was educated in Lincoln, England, and in Paris. Returning to Iceland Þorlákur became an abbot of the monastery of Þykkvibær, soon gaining a reputation for his sanctity. As a bishop of Skálholt, he sought to enforce the decrees of Rome regarding the ownership of church property and morality of the clergy. The Icelandic calendar has two days dedicated to Þorlákur, July 20th and December 23rd. The other two saintly bishops are Jón Ögmundsson (1106-1121) and Guðmundur Arason (1203-1237).

There was great literary activity during the 12th and 13th centuries producing extensive religious literature in the Icelandic language as well as the well known sagas. Clergy doubtless wrote most of them. Parts of the Bible were already translated into Icelandic in the 13th century. This powerful and enduring literary tradition with its strong national character has shaped the Icelandic language and inspired literary activity. Icelandic has had a continuity that makes it the oldest living language in Europe. Every child in Iceland can read texts dating from the 13th century. The Icelandic hymnal contains hymns from the 12th century and the 14th centuries in their original linguistic forms.


In 1540 the Lutheran Reformation was established in Iceland, enforced by the Danish crown. Monasteries were dissolved and much of the property of the episcopal sees confiscated by the King of Denmark who became the supreme head of the church. A dark spot in the history of the reformation is the lawless execution in 1550 of the last Roman Catholic bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason and his two sons. Most of the Roman priests continued in their parishes even under the Lutheran church ordinance. The reformation unleashed a renewed literary activity in the country. The publication of the Icelandic translation of the New testament in 1540 and the entire Bible in 1584 marks important milestones in the history of our language and is a major factor in its preservation. The "Hymns of the Passion," 50 meditations on the cross by the 17th century poet and minister Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), were for generations the most important school of prayer and wisdom. The same can be said of "The Postil", the sermons of Jón Vídalin, bishop of Skálholt (1698-1720). His eloquent and dynamic sermons were read in every home for generations.

The Icelandic Bible Society was founded in 1815. Its foundation was the fruit of the visit of the Scottish clergyman, Ebenezer Henderson, who travelled around the country distributing Bibles and New testaments.

The nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of a national revival in Iceland and a movement towards a political independence. Many churchmen played an important part in that movement.

The Modern Era

The constitution of 1874 guarantees religious freedom. But the constitution also specifies that the "Evangelical Lutheran Church is a national church and as such it is protected and supported by the State." This provision is still in the constitution of the Republic of Iceland of 1944. Around the turn of the last century the church legislation was reformed, parish councils were established and the congregations gained the right to elect their pastors. A new translation of the Bible was printed in 1912, and revised in 1981. A new translation will be published in 2007. In the early 1900s liberal theology was introduced in Iceland, causing great theological strife between liberal and conservative adherents. Textual criticism of the Scriptures and radical theological liberalism was quite influential in the Department of Theology within the newly founded University of Iceland. Spiritism and theosophical writings were also influential in intellectual circles. Opposed to this were the inner mission, the YMCA/YWCA, and missionary societies with a pietistic leadership. This conflict marred church life in the country well into the 1960s.

At the turn of the century two Lutheran free churches were founded, based on the same confessions as the national church and using the same liturgy and hymnal, but structurally and financially independent. Earlier Roman Catholic priests and nuns established missions and founded hospitals. In the early decades of the 20th century Seventh Day Adventist and Pentecostal missions were quite successful.

Until this century the population of the country was predominately rural, farmers and fishermen, whose lifestyle was traditional. The church was a part of this way of life, prayers and devotions in every home and religious customs surrounding everyday life and work of the people taken for granted. Modern social upheavals have brought with them problems for the church in Iceland. Iceland is a modern and highly urbanized society, highly secularized with increasing pluralism of belief.

Even though Iceland is becoming increasingly multicultural with a variety of faiths, 82% of the population belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland and over 90% of the popular belong to Christian churches. Nine out of 10 children are baptized in their first year, more than 90% of adolescents are confirmed, 85% are married in the church and 99% of funerals take place in the church. Regular Sunday morning worshipers are a much lower percentage of the population, even though church festivals and special events frequently draw large crowds. A recent Gallup poll shows that 10% of adults in Iceland attend church service at least once a month. Most children are taught evening prayers in their homes. The primary schools teach Bible stories and children services are an important part of the worship life of every parish. The National radio transmits church services every Sunday morning, and daily devotions morning and evening.