Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Foreign mission work became final resting place

He thought he was going to India. He wasn’t even supposed to be in North America, but he ended up dying there, and never did make it to Asia. One thing, however, makes us remember the name of Rasmus Jensen, the very first Lutheran pastor in North America.

In the 17th century, all the European nations were establishing trading posts in Asia, and King Christian IV of Denmark wanted to do so as well. So in 1619 the King sent out two expeditions to India. One traveled the usual route, around the southern tip of Africa, and established a Danish colony in India. The other, under the command of an adventurer and explorer, Jens Munk, went the other way, trying to force its way through the legendary Northwest Passage. At that time, it was believed that you could sail between Greenland and Canada, across the Arctic, and into the Pacific, in a shortcut to the riches of India, China, and Japan.

Among his crew, Munk was assigned a young Lutheran pastor named Rasmus Jensen. Jensen had studied at the University of Copenhagen, and was appointed by the King to be a “Ship Pastor to the East Indies,” in charge of the spiritual life and condition of the expedition itself, and to the Danish colony in India after he arrived. He was promised a salary of $100 a year.

The Munk expedition through the Northwest Passage was neither the first nor the last of such attempts, but it did share one thing in common with the others: It ended in tragedy. Munk’s ships sailed into the Canadian Arctic regions in the summer of 1619, entering Hudson Bay in August. Despite their constant attempts to do so, they could not find a suitable water route to the riches of Asia. In late September, with the Arctic winter quickly upon them, Munk made the fateful decision to spend the winter in Hudson Bay, hoping to find the fabled route west the next spring. They moored their ships near the present town of Churchill, Manitoba.

Leading worship and preaching in less than idyllic circumstances

Initially, the winter was not too bad. The holidays of the Christian year were regularly celebrated, including St. Martin’s day on November 10, in honor of the fourth century saint and his namesake, Martin Luther. At Christmas time Pastor Jensen celebrated the customary religious services, using the traditional liturgy of the Church of Denmark. Captain Munk recorded the following entry: “The Holy Christmas Day we all celebrated and observed solemnly, as a Christian’s duty is. We had a sermon and chanting, and after the sermon we gave the pastor an offering, according to the ancient custom.” Since they did not have money, they gave Pastor Jenson white fox skins.

Those fox skins came just in time, as the winter suddenly turned frigid with the New Year. The expedition was short on food and supplies, and the men’s health began to decline rapidly. Before Christmas, Pastor Jensen had already presided over the funerals of two crew members, a boatswain and the ship’s surgeon. The funeral of the surgeon was postponed for two days due to the cold, and even then Pastor Jensen abbreviated the service, as the cold was so bitter.

Among his crew, Munk was assigned a young Lutheran pastor named Rasmus Jensen [who] was appointed by the King to be a “Ship Pastor to the East Indies,” in charge of the spiritual life and condition of the expedition itself, and to the Danish colony in India after he arrived.

After Christmas, Pastor Jensen became so weak from poor food and illness that he, like the rest of the crew, barely survived. By January 23, Pastor Jensen was confined to his bed, and the log records, “Then the priest sat up in his berth and preached a sermon for the men, and that was the last sermon he made in this world.” Munk later recorded on February 20, 1620, “In the evening died the ship’s chaplain, the said Herr Rasmus Jensen, who by this time had long lain sick.” Thus ended the career of the first Lutheran pastor in North America. Only Munk and two other men survived that brutal winter, and made their way back to Denmark.

Believing that he had been called to India, Pastor Jensen instead found himself stranded in the harsh winter of the Canadian Arctic. He ministered faithfully to the crew for as long as he was able, leading worship and celebrating the sacraments, and even preaching from his sickbed, until he could no longer do so. He was buried in an unmarked grave on a foreign shore far from home, the first of many brave Lutheran pastors to serve in this New World.

Mark Granquist is professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, The American Society of Church History, and the Norwegian American Historical Association.

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