Saving Our Heritage

As an identifiable community in the Canadian mosaic, we face what every other community faces, assimilation, integration and a growing loss of our immigrant culture. We’ve held onto our identity for a long time. It’s changed, of course, because to adapt is to survive and prosper. The process is inevitable. As each generation grows old and dies, a new generation more distant from Iceland appears.

However, we are not helpless, hopeless items subject to the forces of time or society. We do have resources. We’ve just got to organize and use them. How well we will maintain our identity depends on us and what we do.

Our ancestors were devout. Religion mattered to them. In an environment where they were subjected to the vagaries of the weather, where their lives could end at any moment from disease because there were no effective medications, where there was virtually no control over their daily lives (they had to be attached to a farm; they could only change jobs once a year), they had to put their faith in the Lord.

I’ve seen how important religion was to them. Space and weight were critical to people emigrating, yet they brought Bibles. Years ago, when I was collecting Icelandic books to keep them from going to the garbage dump at Gimli, I had a box of Bibles. No one wanted them. People couldn’t read them anymore. As well, church attendance had fallen off so there wasn’t any great demand for any Bible, never mind those printed in Icelandic.

The box of black Bibles in my basement was ironic because when Ebenezer Henderson went to Iceland and spent the years 1814-15 there, he was there because Icelanders didn’t have Bibles. He has seen to the printing of Icelandic copies of the Bible and with the help of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he traveled to Iceland. The Icelandic merchants at Copenhagen allowed him to send the Bibles to Iceland without charge. A Westy Petræus, Esq. takes 1183 Bibles and 1668 New Testaments to Iceland as a favour to Henderson.

When Henderson arrives, he is met by a crowd. A man carried Henderson to shore on his shoulders and the crowd called out ‚Peace! Come in peace! The Lord bless you!‘

He, like all other travellers, immediately pays his respects to the Right Rev. the Bishop of Iceland. He then rides to the residence of the very Rev. Marcus Magnusson, the archdeacon of Iceland, and dean of Guldbringé and Kiosar Sysséls.He is told that “the peasants would have paid double the price, if it had only been in their power to obtain them.“

At Tiörnabæ, the farmer buys both a Bible and a New Testament. Henderson has just turned to re-enter his tent when two servant girls came running with money in their  hands to pay for a New Testament each. A number of people collect at the door of his tent and a young man to whom he has given a Bible reads from the third chapter of the Gospel of John. The people sat or knelt on the grass to listen, tears running down their cheeks.

At Kiarné, about two miles south of Aukeryri, there was no service planned for Sunday. However, Henderson heard some singing that came from a cottage. “The inhabitants, consisting of two families, had collected together for the exercise of social worship, and were sending up the melody of praise to the God of salvation. This practice is universal on the island. When there is no public service, the members of each family (or where there are more families they combine, join in singing serveral  hymns, read the gospel and epistle for the day, a prayer or two, and one of Vidalin´s sermons. Where the Bible exists, it is brought forward and several chapters of it are read by the young people in the family.

Today, I see no families so devout that they will ride on horseback or even in a car for miles to purchase a Bible. Nor, do I see families gather together to worship in the absence of a minister. The church, in its social role, held the community together, provided an opportunity to gather, to participate in group behaviour. It provided leardership.

The ministers, in spite of often being poverty stricken, were still important figures. Today, they are in short supply, still paid badly, preach to half-empty churches, are collateral damage to scandal, are no longer the best educated individual in the community, and no longer have the social status they once enjoyed. Society grows more secular by the day and while sects appear whose beliefs and behaviours, while claiming to be Christian, are bizarre.

We can support the religious aspect of our  heritage by going to church. If parishoners want, if there are enough of them of Icelandic background, it can become a centre for the learning of the Icelandic language and history and genealogy. If parishoners want.

We can make an effort, through the church, or through the Icelandic clubs, to actually learn about Iceland‘s church history. The same is true for the church history of religion in the Icelandic population in North America. However, even after all this time, there are still sensitivities over religious conflict from earlier times. The unspoken choice has been to avoid our religious history rather than risk inciting old conflicst. It seems a strange choice given that our problem is that most people don‘t care. When was the last time you had a serious discussion about the importance of the church in daily life in Icleand or New Icleand?

Unfortunately, we‘ve lost the physical evidence of our religous heritage. I grieve the loss of the wooden churches at Gimli, Riverton and Hnausa. Many years ago, I saw the Hnausa church. It was small, beautiful, surely an act of art to God. I saw it after it was vandalized. One would have thought it had been overrun by the bitter enemies of Christianity.No church stands there now. What was lost was not just a place of worship but a symbol of our heritage.

We are fortunate in having the Unitarian church in Gimli preserved. It was built in 1905 and, at least, gives an indication that religion did play an important part in the Icelanders daily life. Here, we need to take a lesson I was taught in the catacombs under Kiev by my Communist guide. We had travelled for a long time along the tunnels, with bodies on every side, then came to caves filled with gold and silver religous items. I was amazed. I said to my guide, “How is it that they are here?“ He replied, “It is not because they are religous. It is because they are our history.“ I think that the members of our Icelandic North American community need to take that lesson to heart. Lutheran, Unitarian, United, Catholic, Agnostic, Heathen, whatever, we need to preserve our history. Support the preservation of our history.

The same is true for the Vikur Lutheran church in Mountain. Our ancestors, only nine years after the settlement in New Iceland, thought having a church was so important that they built this church. Now, it needs a new roof. The cost shouldn‘t fall only on the local people. Or only the Americans. It is our history. It is our heritage.

Thank goodness the people of Markerville have preserved the Markerville Lutheran Church.

Today, we get DPT shots. Mothers and fathers don‘t have to pray to God that their children don‘t die in their arms from diptheria. Read Wasteland with Words to find out what that was like when they had nothing but prayer. But just because we now have science to ask for help, doesn‘t mean that understanding and preserving our religious past can‘t help preserve our heritage. If we don‘t, we‘ll never understand who we are or why we are the way we are.

Paradise Lost, Jon Thorlaksson



All heroes have feet of clay. Or, in the case of a lot of male heroes, it’s not their feet that are a problem, it’s usually a problem with keeping their flies buttoned. As the latest tell-all book on John Kennedy, “Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath,” by Mimi Beardsley Alford makes clear, as busy as a president is with deciding on whether or not to start a nuclear war, there’s always time for a little nooky with the hired help.
  That was Jón Þorláksson´s problem. He was a Lutheran minister but it didn´t keep him from getting Jórunn, daughter or Brynjólfur Bjarnason, a wealthy and influential local farmer, pregnant.  Given his poverty and his need to work night and day getting in the hay, you wouldn´t think Jón would have time to lie down in the meadow with Jórunn.  Of course, there are those long Icelandic winter evenings when one might meet in the dairy. Given living conditions in Iceland, it´s hard to imagine where a couple found the privacy for sex. According to Laxness in Paradise Reclaimed, a butter box would do for a momentary moment of passion. 
Jón Þorláksson would have made the farmer´s daughter an honest woman but her father considered Jón such a hopeless case that he wouldn´t agree to her marrying him. It must have been a hot affair because they started it up a second time.
Jón got tossed out of the ministry, then got let back in. He would have been better off to have gone to the farmer and said, give me the fare to Denmark and your daughter will never again be tempted. Life in Denmark couldn´t have been worse than Jón´s life in Iceland. He ended up with a lousy job, an unhappy marriage and dreadful pay.
Why do we care about the love life and living of some country preacher living in a hovel? Why is he a part of the Icelandic heritage of which I´m proud?
When he quit messing around with the farmer’s daughter, he got busy making hay, tending to his flock (both the sheep and the parishoners), he also got busy translating Milton into Icelandic. He did it brilliantly. So brilliantly that he was revered in England. In spite of his moral lapses, he was highly intelligent, gifted, talented, dedicated.
To England’s credit, an English literary society raised the equivalent of six year´s income and sent it to him. The fact that an English literary society knew about Jón and his work, revered both him and the work, makes it clear how interested the English educated class was in Iceland. They held Iceland and the accomplishments of Icelanders in greater esteem than the Icelanders did themselves.
In 1814-15, the Scots divine, Ebenezer Hendersen lived in Iceland. His passion was the distribution of Bibles. He travelled extensively in Iceland, selling Bibles, giving them away, always engaging the Icelanic clergy in theological discussions.
In his travels, he came he says, to “Bægisá, the dwelling of the poet, Sira Jon Thorlakson. Like most of his brethren at this season of the year, we found him in the meadow, assisting his people in haymaking. On hearing of our arrival, he made all the haste home which his age and infirmity would allow and, bidding us welcome to his humble abode, he ushered us into the apaprtment, where he translated my countryman into Icelandic. The door is not quite four feet in height, and the room may be about eight feet in length, by six in breadth. At the inner end is the poet´s bed, and close to the door, over against a small window not exceeding two feet square, is a table …. On my telling  him, that my countrymen would not have forgiven me, nor could I have forgiven myself, had I passed through this part of the island without paying him a visit, he replied, that the translation of Milton had yielded him many a pleasant hour, and often given him occasion to think of England but as his residence was so far north, and he had now lived so long without seeing any of Milton´s countrymen,he had not entertained the most distant idea that ever he was to be favoured with such gratification.“
„Of his translation of Paradise Lost, only the three first books have been printed. They are inserted in the xiii, xiv and xv. Volumes of the publications of the Icelandic Literary Society but as this society closed their labours in the year °1796, our poet was deprived of a channel through which he might communicate the remainder of his translation to the public. To print it at his own expense was altogether out of the quesiton, as the whole of his annual income from the parishes of Bæisá and Backa does not exceed thirty rix-dollars (Danish dollars), and even of this sum he must give nearly the one half to Sira Halgrimr, who officiates for him in the latter parish.“
In 1834, John Barrow visits Iceland. Jón is dead by this time but Barrow feels compelled to mention the dreadful  poverty in which Jón lived and, in spite of his poverty, the magnificent work he did in his translating.  He says, ” This venerable pastor, when nearly seventy years of age, had just completed a translation of Milton´s Paradise Lost into his native tongue, having previously translated Pope´s Essay on Man.”
Barrow then quotes from Henderesen:
“This description of the deplorable condition of so superior a genius as Thorlakson unquestionably was, being fully corroborated by inquiries made of Mr. Bourke, then Danish Minister at the Court of London, was not unheeded by our countrymen. At the instigation of one of the most active members of that liberal, humane, and highly beneficent Society known as the ‘Literary Fund,’ the case was immediately taken up, and having, as the committee state, ‘discovered the venerable bard of Iceland where he patiently reclined beneath the shed of poverty,’ they at once resolved to raise money to help Jón. The contribution was 30 pounds,  “equal to five years´ income of his miserable pittance” .
According to Hendersen, the richest living in Iceland didn’t produce 200 rix dollars, and some paid twenty or thirty a year with a few paying as low as five. This meant that the ministers, like Jón, had to  support themselves with farming and the success of that depended on the land the minister was given. How little Jón´s pay was can be seen in that a good riding horse cost five pounds sterling. That would translate into Jon´s yearly salary.
It may be that he had a difficult personality, that his sometimes scathing verse made enemies, that, more importantly, in a society where family connections were all important,  he wasn´t connected to the important people in Reykjavik, but in a country that claimed that literature was all important , that the love of poetry was supreme, it is passing strange that not a penny could be found to publish Jón´s translation. Genius is often unrewarded but that it should go so unrewarded is shocking when it is foreigners who recognized Jon´s genius and accomplishment and raised money to help him in his old age. It is true that the stranger often has a keen eye.
 So, yes, when I say, I´m proud of my Icelandic heritage, Jón Þorláksson, in spite of his faults, is part of that which I am proud. And I’m proud that, today, his accomplishments are recognized and celebrated.  

 (Quotes from Iceland, or the Journal of a Residence in that Island (2 vols, 1818) and A Visit to Iceland by Way of Tronyem in the Summer of 1834)