top of page

Bibles in the Icelandic Immigration to North America: Part One

by Doreen M (Borgfjord) McFarlane


At the time of the immigration, 1875–1914, nearly all Icelanders were baptised and confirmed in the Lutheran Church.[1] “Most . . . were peasants the poorest of Icelandic society, but by no means an ignorant and illiterate lot. Far from it. All of them were literate and had received an elementary education.”[2] 


Nelson Gerrard notes that “Literacy was of a higher order in Iceland than in many other nations, and for centuries, especially after the Reformation, children were taught the rudiments of religious doctrine, reading, writing, and arithmetic as they reached the age of “wit and wisdom.”[3] For this reason, it should not be surprising that the Icelanders would have carried with them to the new land their most precious possessions: books and, in particular, religious books.


They arrived in the United States and Canada with their copies of Norse Sagas but, even more importantly, the books their families had treasured and kept safe for generations: Bibles from the sixteenth and seventeenth century written in their own Icelandic language, hymn books and religious poems by Icelandic composers, and collections of sermons written specifically for family and group devotions.


The immigrants had undergone great hardships back home, due to volcanic activity, extreme hunger, bitter winters, and all this under strict Danish rule. The Icelanders, having survived all this, must have been convinced that their faith would help sustain them in the new land, and understood the importance of their Icelandic Bibles.


Back in Iceland, the people had lived on large farms which would include two, three or more families (one owner family and tenant farming families). They would gather every evening in a large room called the baðstofa, where they would engage in Bible readings, readings of religious poetry, singing of hymns and, importantly, sharing in conversation. This conversation included all ages, richer and poorer alike, to discuss what they had read! Children, early on, were given the opportunity to express themselves and to be heard, on these nightly occasions. As there was always much work to do, the people brought along their knitting and their carving projects, and everyone worked while also listening to the readings.


Guðrandur Biblia
Guðrandur Biblia

The Icelanders' precious and well-loved books used for these evenings together included the Guðbrandur Biblia and the Þorlákur Biblia, passed down for generations since their first publications. They also included the long beloved Passion Hymns by Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674),[4] and the collection of sermons for home devotional readings by Bishop Jon Vidalin (bishop of Iceland from 1698–1720).[5] 


These and other religious books were lovingly carried from Iceland to America in the immigration and became the foundation upon which their continuing Christian faith was based in the new land.



Regarding the Guðrandur Biblia, it had been a bishop named Guðbrandur Þorláksson (1541–1627) who, having received a particularly good education in Iceland and Denmark, single-handedly translated the entire Bible into good Icelandic, and published it himself in the year 1584, only 34 years after Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. Guðbrandur printed 500 copies, on paper that had to be brought from Denmark, using the very printing press that had been appropriated from the belongings of Iceland’s last Roman Catholic bishop Jón Arason, who had been beheaded along with his two sons in the year 1550 when Catholicism was eliminated, and Iceland became officially Lutheran. 


Guðbrandur who produced this Bible, was a respected scholar of Hebrew and Greek. To pay for the printing, one copy was distributed to each church in Iceland and the churches paid for them. We know that Guðbrandur engaged the Hebrew text when doing his translation because there exists a Hebrew version of the Bible at Guðbrandur’s church in Hólar Iceland that contains handwritten quotes from Guðbrandur himself.[6]  Guðbrandur’s Bible is praised for its typography and for being a “faithful mirror of Luther’s German version.”[7] Gudbrandur’s translation is credited with being the main reason the Icelandic language remained intact and was not subsumed into Danish.   


The so-called Þorlákkur Biblia, mentioned above, was produced by Guðbrandur’s grandson, Þorlákur Skúlasson (1597–1656). It largely follows Guðbrandur’s version, with some corrections required of him by order of the Danish king. Its main difference is that the chapters were divided into verses. For both of these Bibles, copies that were over two hundred years old have been proven to have been lovingly brought to America in the immigration.  


Early groups of Icelanders immigrated to Spanish Fork, Utah in 1854 (these being converts to Mormonism) and a few to Brazil 1863–1873. The majority of the immigrants to the U.S. arrived in Wisconsin, later moving on to Minnesota and Pembina County, North Dakota. Those coming to Canada were sent first to Kinmount, Ontario, a settlement that failed due to bad timing and bad luck. Others went to Nova Scotia. The majority after that went to Winnipeg, a thriving city in Canada’s Midwest. From there, they branched out into surrounding farming areas of the province of Manitoba and later also Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Numbers of them also moved on later, to the west coasts of the U.S. and Canada.  


An Icelandic trunk used when emigrating to North America
An Icelandic trunk used when emigrating to North America

The Icelandic immigrants were only allowed to bring one trunk each which would have to hold all their valued possessions plus immediate needs for survival in the new land. As direct evidence, I have photos taken of these actual trunks. One in Winnipeg belonged to a couple named Helga Jonsdottir and her husband Arni Jonsson Reykdal who departed Reykjavik Iceland in 1887. (Helga, was the sister of my great-grandmother Sigridur.)  The dimensions of the trunk are 31” by 15 ¼” tapering down to 12 ½” at the bottom. Customs officials at the ports of entry were surprised to see upon opening these small trunks: books and more books, and mainly religious books.[8] 


After arriving in Winnipeg, these books were used during “home readings” as mentioned earlier. We read, for example, that “Jon Thordarson and his wife Rosa Jonsdottir welcomed the new arrivals at their home and Jon led devotions there on Sundays and read a sermon from one of the postillas or sermon books brought from Iceland. The Icelandic Society in Winnipeg was created in 1877 and they organized lay services and a Sunday school. This was a forerunner of the First Lutheran Church in Winnipeg Canada. The first Icelandic church service took place on October 28th, 1877 with Rev. Bjarnason as the officiating minister. [9] This church is still thriving and only its most recent pastor is not directly from Iceland.

 

[Read Part II of "The Bible in the Icelandic Immigration to North America" in the next issue]

 

Notes:

[1] Isfeld, Ingthor, First Lutheran Church 1878-2003, self-published, 2003.

[2] Thor, Jonas, Icelanders in North America: the First Settlers, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2002, 17.

[3] Gerrard, Nelson S., The Icelandic Heritage, Arborg, Manitoba: Saga Publications and Research, Eyrabakki Icelandic Heritage Centre, 1986, 80.

[4] Isfeld, Ingthor, “Jon Bjarnason”, In The New Icelanders: a North American Community, David Arnason and Vincent Arnason, eds., (Winnipeg, Canada: Turnstone Press, 1994), 43. 

[5] Whom Wind and Waves Obey: Selected Sermons of Bishop Jon Vidalin, transl. into English with an introduction by Michael Fell, American University Studies, Series VII, Vol. 195, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing (1998) 

[6] Icelandic Bible Society – version Information.

[7] www.icelandicroots.com quotes from Islandingabok. 

[8] A trunk that held mostly books was brought to Canada in 1888 by Helga Jonsdottir (Reykdal) and is now in the possession of her great-granddaughter Paula Lamoureux and husband Paul in Winnipeg Canada.

[9] Isfeld, Ingthor, First Lutheran Church 1878-2003, p. 2.


Bibliography:

Arnbjornsdottir, Birna, Thrainsson, Hoskuldur, and Bragason Ulfar, eds., Icelandic Heritage in North America, Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2023.

Bertram, L.K., The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans, G&H Studies in Gender and History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

Gerrard, Nelson S., The Icelandic Heritage, Arborg, Manitoba: Saga Publications and Research, Eyrabakki Icelandic Heritage Centre, 1986.

Houser, George J., with Paul A. Sigurdson, ed., Pioneer Icelandic Pastor: The Life of the Reverend Paul Thorlaksson, Winnipeg, Canada: Manitoba Historical Society, 1990.

Isfeld, Ingthor, First Lutheran Church 1878-2003, self-published, 2003.

Isfeld, Ingthor, The New Icelanders: A North American Community, David Arnason and Vincent Arnason, eds., Winnipeg, Canada: Turnstone Press, 1994. 

Pétursson, Hallgrímur, Hymns of the Passion (Passiusalmar) translated into English by Gracia Grindal, published by Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik and Skalholt Publishing.

Thor, Jonas, Icelanders in North America: The First Settlers, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2002.

Vídalín, Jón, Whom Wind & Waves Obey: Selected Sermons of Bishop Jón Vídalín, translated into English with an Introduction by Michael Fell, American University Studies, Series VII, Theology and Religion, Vol. 195, New York, Boston: Peter Lang Publ., 1998.  

Acknowledgement:

Icelandic Roots   This magnificent website offers a massive amount of accurate information about all things Icelandic: individual and family genealogies, maps, histories, photographs, ship manifests, blogs, stories, book clubs, travel opportunities, and more. Membership opens more doors.       


Kommentarer


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

bottom of page