It is the 18th of January 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Tucked away inside the Lutheran World Almanac and Annual Encyclopedia for 1921 is the short reference to the first baptism in Greenland by Lutheran missionaries on this day, the 18th of January in 1728. Further research suggests that it was likely in 1724 when the first Lutheran missionaries baptized 2 native children. However, further research also reveals a fascinating and sometimes baffling story of Christianity on this gargantuan ice sheet of an island. Today on the Almanac, let’s look at the history of the church in Greenland.
Greenland is the world's largest island that is not itself a continent (that’s Australia). To think about its size, if you superimposed the island on the United States, it would reach from the southern tip of Texas to the northern border of Minnesota and would stretch as far west as Wyoming and as far east as Kentucky. Its population of 57,000 makes it analogous to Cheyenne, Wyoming. 80% of the island is covered by an ice sheet, the second largest in the world, second only to Antarctica. While it is, today, relatively autonomous under home rule Greenland is part of Denmark. But the stat that might interest us most on this show is the percentage of the population that claims to be Christian- it is a whopping 95%, although some have criticized this number- let’s take a look at the history of Christianity in Greenland.
The early history of Greenland is, not surprisingly, not recorded. The paleo-Eskimos were likely of Siberian origin and traveled over land bridges of navigable ice before they melted. The earliest written history of Greenland comes from the Saga of the Greenlanders- part of the mythology of Erik the Red. Erik and his father fled Iceland over a murder charge and settled on the eastern and southern tips of the island. Erik’s son Leif was purported to travel westward to Vinland- or modern Newfoundland in Canada, making him the first European to set foot on North American soil.
While this took place in the 1000’s the story was not written for another 300 years. It is from this saga that we hear the story that Erik the Red called the land “Greenland” to entice foreigners to emigrate. The people would practice Norse Christianity and spread the religion amongst the natives. The Catholic Church would send missionaries, but the “Little Ice Age” starting around 1300 made travel to Greenland difficult. The Black Death in the Nordic Countries brought Christian expansion to a standstill. Excavations from the 1400 and 1500s show natives still breed according to some Christian tradition, but the old Norse Christianity was all but extinguished.
Enter Hans Egede (spelled EGEDE. It can be pronounced Egede (egg-a-day) or, in Greenlandic, according to their phonetic alphabet, “eelhe”). Egede was born in 1686 in Norway- then part of the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. He was raised a Lutheran and attended the University of Copenhagen, graduating in 1707 with a degree in theology, looking to serve the church. His first call was to Lofoten- a remote Norwegian Archipelago. Here he heard the legends of Erik the Red and his son Leif, and more importantly, the various Christian missionaries and Christian communities cut off from the rest of the world.
Egede founded a trading company to support his missionary efforts to Greenland. IN 1721 Hans and his family left for the West Coast of Greenland, where the old settlements were believed to be. Upon arriving, Hans, his family, and the crew soon learned that there were no old Norse settlements. It was a land inhabited by the local Kaalallit (in fact, while we call the place Greenland, they call it Kalallit Nunaat. Egede decided that they were worthy of evangelization and set out to learn their language. His first baptisms, likely in 1724, would inspire the Moravian Count Zinzendorf to send Moravian missionaries who, despite sometimes clashing with Egede and the Lutherans, were able to eventually publish a Kalallit to Danish encyclopedia and a translation of the Gospels.
With the independence of Denmark, it would take ecclesiastical control of the big island, officially making it part of a diocese of the Church of Denmark- a Lutheran church.
And as went Denmark, so went Greenland. “How many Danish Christians are there?” asked Kierkegaard, “just look at the census,” was his cheeky response. Officially everyone was, and this is still reflected in Greenland, with its 95% population claiming to be Christian- although Baptist and Catholic Missionaries have suggested the number is, in reality, under 10%. That’s a big spread and a conversation about self-reporting for another day. Today we remember the reintroduction of Christianity to Greenland by Hans Egede, beginning in 1721.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Psalm 40:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened— burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come— it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.”
I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly; I do not seal my lips, Lord, as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help. I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of January 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Leifs include Ericson, pop sensation Garret, and the Toronto Maple…. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who was once punched in the nose by a Norwegian named Hans, I was 12. 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.