Icelandic Bibles

I used to find boxes of Icelandic books and magazines on my doorstep. When it happened, I’d know that someone’s amma or afi had gone into a nursing home or died and the sons and daughters didn’t know what to do with her treasured books, probably didn’t read Icelandic, and because of my work with the Beck Trust, assumed that I’d know what to do. I also was given Icelandic books when I was in Gimli. Gradually, the books filled forty-five boxes–if I remember correctly.

There were, unfortunately, no unknown copies of the sagas. Most of the books were religious in nature. First, there were copies of the Bible. Boxes of them. Well worn from use. Black covers, different sizes; at some time, they’d sat in the trunk of a person emigrating from Iceland. Their owners often had few belongings, little money, the trip was long, the wooden trunks heavy, but the Bibles couldn’t be left behind. They’d provided solace in Iceland, where times were hard, death was frequent, hunger was always threatening, where individuals were helpless in the face of cold weather, avalanches, volcanic eruptions. The trip to Granton, from there to Quebec City, from there to Nova Scotia or Ontario and, finally, to New Iceland, was marked by graves. The Bibles got plenty of use.

Many of these Bibles may have started their journey in England. Ebenezer Henderson, went to Iceland in 1814, stayed over the winter, and left Iceland in the fall of 1815. His purpose was to find out if the Icelanders needed Bibles and, if they did, to distribute Bibles provided by the British and Foreign Bible Society. He wanted to establish an organization that’s purpose would be the distribution of Bibles.

Henderson was an amazing individual. Although Scottish, he lived in Denmark, and became pastor at Elsinore. From about 1806, he spent his time arranging the distribution of Bibles in Scandinavia. He visited Sweden, Lapland, Iceland and part of Germany.

He was a highly accomplished linguist. According to his biography in Wickipedia, “He made himself more or less acquainted, not only with the ordinary languages of scholarly accomplishment and the various members of the Scandinavian group, but also with Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, Russian, Arabic, Tatar, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Manchu, Mongolian and Coptic.”

Therefore, when he says things like the Icelanders have a high degree of religious knowledge, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s surprised at this knowledge, because few people actually have a Bible. However, “almost every family is in possession of a volume of excellent sermons, written by Biship Vidalin of Skalholt.”

He also says that the poverty of the Icelanders is such that a new edition of the Bible could not be printed locally.

He makes two extensive trips around Iceland. He lives in a tent. He faces unknown dangers but nothing is going to stop him from selling and giving away Bibles. At Tiörnabæ he sold a Bible and New Testament to the farmer. Then, as he was going back to his tent, “two servant girls came running with money in their hands, and wished to have each a New Testament.” He was short of copies and suggests that they read the farmer’s copies. He then sends for the two poorest people in the district and gave each of them a Testament. An old man and a young man come to see him. “He (the old man) thanked me with tears in his eyes, and rode home quite overjoyed with the gift he had received.”

A number of people had gathered outside his tent. Henderson then asked the poor young man to whom he had given a New Testament to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John. “He had hardly begun, when they all sat down, or knelt on the grass, and listened with the most devout attention. As he proceeded, the tears began to trickle down their cheeks, and they were all seemingly much affected.”

Later, Henderson arrives at Hals and finds the minister, Sira Sigurdr, the clergyman making hay. They retire to the house and the minister says that his three parishes could use a large number of Bibles and New Testaments. The next day Henderson goes to church and Sira Sigurdr gives the service. The service begins around two o’clock because “the Icelanders have their sheep to collect and milk, the horses on which they are to ride to seek and drive home, and themselves to dress”.

“The parish of Fliotshverfi, of which Sira Jon is the minister, contains only a population of about seventy souls; the tract having been much injured by the volcanic eruptions…yet, among that number of people, there only existed one Bible, besides the copy belonging to the church…they had ultimately given up all hopes of ever seeing them more.”

On Sunday, May 21st, Henderson is at Stadarhraun. There is no public service as nearly everyone is away fishing. However, the clergyman, his wife and children assemble around the altar of the church. Psalms were sung, a prayer was said, the women placed their hands flat on their faces so as to cover their eyes. A sermon was read from Vidalin’s collection, then there was singing and a prayer.

Many distinguished, notable visitors came to Iceland in the 1800s but Henderson is one of the few who risked staying over the winter. His passion for the distribution of Bibles overcomes everything, including the Icelandic darkness. If you have an old Icelandic Bible in the family, take it out, hold it, open it, look at it, wonder about where it has been. It is a far traveller. We now are mostly a secular society but that does not diminish the journeys your Bible has taken nor the meaning it held for your ancestors.