Sunday, November 7, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we dig into the history of Christianity in Iceland.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 7th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

It was on this, the 7th of November in 1550 that Bishop Jon Arason was beheaded, along with his sons for refusing to implement the reformation as decreed by the King of Denmark, Christian III.

Don’t be scared. I’m not going to jump right into Icelandic history and assume you know much. We will use the death of Arason as an opportunity to zoom out to see a bigger picture.

The history of Iceland should start with its name. Was it named Iceland despite being green to keep people away? And was Greenland named such to get people to go there despite all the ice? While there are only a few sources and they tend to contain legend more than history, the story of Iceland's name has to do with a Viking called Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson. Apparently, he climbed a mountain in Iceland, saw a glacier, and decided to call it “Iceland”- Vikings had a tradition of naming the places they found with something they first saw and the world “land”.

Greenland was probably named with deception in mind. You might remember Leif Erricson being one of the first Norsemen to come to North America, but he only got there because he was exiled from Iceland after killing some guys. He went to Greenland, wanted to settle it but knew it needed an attractive name to convince people to go there.

(Fun fact: apparently women weren’t keen on making the trip across the Arctic Ocean and thus the Norsemen took women as slaves from Ireland and Scotland. Today most Icelanders have a bit of Irish or Scottish DNA)

The first people to inhabit Iceland may have been Irish missionaries. The first Scandinavians to make the trip across the Arctic intentionally and to settle came in the 900s.

In 995 King Olaf of Norway decided to Christianize his country and those countries with Norwegian settlers. One of the first missionaries to Iceland murdered some guys for making fun of him. So that made King Olaf mad and he closed his ports to Icelanders and arrested all Icelanders in Norway.

So, if Iceland wanted to maintain its relationship with its primary trading partner it would need to adopt the Christian faith. About half did. And this almost lead to a civil war except for the leader of the Christian faction decided to let the leader of the pagan faction decide the island's fate. The pagan decided to adopt Christianity for the sake of peace while letting pagans worship in their homes, secretly. The church began as an extremely localized institution but in time grew into a medieval bureaucracy as many European kingdoms had.

The story of Iceland is wrapped up in the story of its trading partners, primarily Norway, Denmark, and the British Isles. When the Reformation took hold in Germany it affected Iceland in two ways. First, the Hanseatic League was a northern European federation for trade. And as they traded goods with Iceland, so too did their ideas begin to spread. The Reformation came via Protestant merchants from Northern Germany. Iceland also had a tradition of sending its future priests to the German lands for theological education.

One man, Oddur Gottskálksson used Luther's New Testament and Erasmus’ translation to translate the Bible into Icelandic. Gizur Einarsson heard Luther and Melanchthon preach and brought back their ideas. Marteinn Einarsson translated the Deutsche Messe (Luther’s German Mass for Protestants). Never underestimate the importance of liturgy for forming the faith of the masses (no pun intended).

Christian III of Denmark had initially let the Icelander's transition to Lutheranism slowly, but a few Catholic Bishops refused, among them Jon Arason. Arason and his sons raised a small army and captured a Lutheran Bishop in order to claim authority over his diocese.

(yes, the Bishop had sons! Icelanders just ignored the canon law about celibate priests… it was very cold and so maybe they just liked to snuggle?)

Arason was captured with his sons, was offered the opportunity to recant his Catholic profession of faith and he refused. Arason was beheaded with his sons on the 7th of November in 1550.

Since then he has been rehabilitated into a popular national figure with the emphasis placed not on his Catholic faith but more so on his poetry as well as his bringing the first printing press to Iceland.

The last word for today comes from Psalm 90- the Psalm was the inspiration for the Icelandic national Anthem adopted in 1944:

Teach us to number our days,
 that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
 Have compassion on your servants.

Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
 that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
 for as many years as we have seen trouble.

May your deeds be shown to your servants,
 your splendor to their children.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
 establish the work of our hands for us—
 yes, establish the work of our hands.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Leifs include Erickson, 70s teen pop star Garret, and maple, he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a fan of Icelandic musicians Bjork, Of Monsters and Men, and especially Sigur Ros. I am Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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