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Icelanders and orthodoxy

Although they were never a sizable part of the Lutheran community in North America, Icelandic Lutherans nevertheless formed their own distinctive portion of it. Mainly centered in the areas of Northeastern North Dakota and Southern Manitoba, Icelandic Lutherans formed their own synod in 1885, which remained independent until uniting with a larger denomination in 1940. Congregations with Icelandic roots today are generally associated either with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

A small island in the North Atlantic between Norway and Greenland, Iceland has been Lutheran since the Reformation. Icelandic immigration to North America between 1870 and 1900 is estimated at about 15,000 people out of a total population of only 70,000. Though their main settlements were in and around the colony of New Iceland (near Winnipeg, Manitoba), other groups formed scattered communities, especially in the Puget Sound region of Washington.

Mark Granquist

The Icelandic Synod was noteworthy for being the first Lutheran denomination in North America to allow women to vote and hold congregational offices.

The first Icelandic settlers struggled to establish local Lutheran congregations in North America, led by two Icelandic pastors, Pall (Paul) Thorlaksson and Jon Bjarnason. Thorlaksson was a part of the Norwegian Synod, and educated at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, while Bjarnason was educated in Iceland. Eventually in 1885 Bjarnason, along with a newly ordained pastor Hans Thorgrimsen, organized the Icelandic Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America, with a total of 12 congregations. This synod remained independent for the next 55 years. Because of its small size, it had to rely on larger Lutheran groups (usually Norwegian) for ministerial training and other assistance.

When, in 1940, the synod voted to become a separate ethnic synod within the larger United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA), it consisted of 15 pastors, 46 congregations, and 6,760 baptized members. In 1962, the ULCA merged with other Lutheran groups to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA); the separate Icelandic Synod was then disbanded.

A theology: Lutheran and beyond

Icelanders have a general reputation for being tough, independent-minded, and sometimes stubborn people, perhaps coming from their centuries-long struggle to survive on a barren, wind-swept island in the North Atlantic. Those who came to North America have generally shown these traits; one Icelandic-American writer bemoaned the fact that his people walked over hundreds of miles of rich farming territory in the Midwest, settling instead in a sandy-soiled region that reminded them of home.

Iceland has strong democratic institutions and traditions going back to the tenth century, with equally strong traditional rights for women. The Icelandic Synod was noteworthy for being the first Lutheran denomination in North America to allow women to vote and hold congregational offices, and to be voting delegates to synodical meetings. Lay people took control in the synod, far outnumbering clergy delegates at synodical meetings.

These traditions worked to keep the synod independent as long as it could, but often resulted in internal conflicts, as well. When, in the 1870s, early pastor Thorlaksson wanted to affiliate with the Norwegian Synod, lay leaders of the congregations refused, fearing that the synod “would be in complete control, and we would have no say.” The immigrant colony in New Iceland held a two-day, community meeting in which religious issues and organization were vigorously (and at time, heatedly) debated. Historian Valdimir Eylands commented, “People who hardly had shelter over their heads and in many cases didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, spent two whole days to hear debates on … scholarly (religious) themes.”

The tendencies toward strong and independent thought within the Icelandic community also led some members of the community toward free and radical thinking, challenging the Christian orthodoxy within the congregations. In the 1880s one such Icelander, Björn Pétursson, adopted liberal, Unitarian views, and became the first Unitarian “missionary” to North America, gathering a small following of scattered groups in the upper Midwest.

In 1891, Icelandic Synod pastor Magnús Skaptason preached a series of sermons calling into question various parts of traditional Christian theology; he was expelled from the synod, and several of his congregations followed him. These elements formed the Icelandic Conference of Unitarian Churches in North America in 1891.

Another pastor in the Synod, Frederik Bergmann, came under the influence of the new Liberal theology during ministerial study in Norway during the 1880s. He soon came into theological conflict with Bjarnason, and in 1909 Bergmann and six congregations left the Synod. Eylands commented, “The ardor of the battle led both of these eminent leaders to extreme positions which they no doubt regretted in later life.”

Besides the establishment of congregations, the legacy of the Icelandic Synod is a distinctive form of Lutheranism in North America, where lay people took theological issues seriously, and debated them passionately. Although conflict like this can at times be debilitating, it can also be a sign of religious vitality, where ordinary Christian take ownership of the faith once given to them.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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