Today, the church and its ministers are barely tolerated or totally ignored. At one time, they held an important place in society and, particularly, Icelandic society. The ministers were educated, having gone to upper classes in Reykjavik and even Copenhagen. Society, having thrown over God for the newer god of Technology, now has little time for religion in Iceland or North America. The Lutheran church has, I’ve been told, a need for thousands of new ministers and less than a handful graduate each year. Churches, unable to even meet basic expenses, close down and become restaurants (Bru) or they are kept open in summers when the weather is good (Grund). In places like Gimli and Selkirk, the Lutheran churches struggle, constantly needing more parishioners, more money and ministers. The story is the same everywhere.
In 1874, in England and in Iceland, ministers were still community leaders with both religious and secular power. They still determined if you knew your Bible lessons well enough to be confirmed and, if you didn’t, there were serious repercussions for both you and your parents. If a minister examined children and they didn’t know their lessons, he could recommend that they be removed and sent to somewhere where they would be prepared properly. Many country ministers were paid very badly but those near the top of the hierarchy in Reykjavik were well paid and usually had strong Danish connections. They were part of the ruling elite of rich farmers, Danish traders and highly placed Divines.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that on the first day of the millennial celebration, August 2, the day began with a church festival. The American visitors were fully aware of how important it was to attend. Samuel Kneeland says that he didn’t understand a word of the sermon and that the audience wasn’t the slightest bit interested in what the minister was saying. He also does not know the hymns sung but he was greatly affected by the music. He describes it as “sweet, solemn, and slightly plaintive, the chorus of “Iceland’s thousand years,” words and music of Icelandic origin, brought tears into most eyes, and I am sure it did into mine.“
He is so affected by “Iceland’s thousand years” that he includes both the music and the song in his book.
He is not so impressed by the church. He describes it as an old building of brick, stone, and stucco; dingy and dilapidated; capable of seating some twelve hundred person; the interior is dismal, the colors faded, and the light and ventilation poor…Thorwaldsen, the famous sculptor, claimed by Denmark, was the son of an Icelander, born at sea, Nov. 19, 1770; and a baptismal font made and presented by him in token of his birth, in no way beautiful, is the only noteworthy object in the cathedral.
Not being able to understand either the service or the music, he spends his time looking over the congregation. He enjoys the opportunity to observe the national costume, especially the headdresses and “gaily embroidered jackets and veils of the women.” Like nearly every other visitor to Iceland, he comments on the strange helmet like head coverings of the women. The men’s clothing he dismisses by saying they’re dressed like the men in the Faroes.
However, he has come a long and dangerous way to participate in what he hopes will be the birth of a new republic, and he isn’t going to miss a moment of it.
Think on him, an American, having travelled with great effort and hardship to the Reykjavik of 1874, sitting in a pew listening to an Icelandic sermon, to Icelandic singing, being moved to tears, caught up in the exotic quality of it all. How fortunate we are for his curiosity, his determination for he has left us a picture of events we can all share as we approach June 17.