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Bibles in the Icelandic Immigration to North America: Part Two

by Doreen M (Borgfjord) McFarlane


Can we prove the Bibles and religious books were brought in the immigration from Iceland? Yes! I located many of them in Winnipeg at the Elizabeth Dafoe Library of the University of Manitoba which houses a 30,000-volume library of Icelandic books and other related materials. To my delight, I was able to view (and almost touch) two of the most valued Bibles brought over from Iceland in the immigration.


The first was the most famous Icelandic translation, the Guðbrandur Biblia, mentioned earlier, an intact complete Bible: translated from the Luther Bible of 1548, published and distributed in 1584 throughout Iceland by Lutheran bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson (IR# II134464). (I also learned along the way, through the website Icelandic Roots, that he is my 10 times great grandfather, direct line.)


This amazing man translated the entire Bible into Icelandic, prepared the woodcuttings and, along with paper from Denmark, six assistants, and the printing press, created what is now known as the Guðbrandur Bible! Thirty-five of the original five hundred copies remain in Iceland today. I recently viewed one of them in the Church at Hólar, where this bishop served for 56 years! 


The church at Hólar where Guðbrandur lived and worked.
The church at Hólar where Guðbrandur lived and worked.

A copy of the second Bible which made its way to North America in the immigration is also at the Dafoe Library Icelandic collection in the University of Manitoba. This one, known as the Þorlákur Biblia, was published under the leadership of Guðbrandur’s grandson Þorlákur Skúlasson (IR#I67182) , also a bishop at Hólar, in 1638 and 1644. This Bible follows Guðbrandur’s translation with a few corrections made upon orders of the Danish king. This time, the Bible was divided into verses for the first time. I did not have to go far to discover (and to lay my eyes upon) this Þorlákur Biblia, because it too had been lovingly carried in someone’s small trunk across the ocean to Canada.


Þorlákur Bible donated by Jon Magnusson Borgfjord
Þorlákur Bible donated by Jon Magnusson Borgfjord to the Dafoe Library Icelandic collection in the University of Manitoba

Having started this project in complete innocence of any possible connection to my own Icelandic Canadian family, I was thrilled to discover that this very Þorlákur Bible from 1638 had been brought over from Iceland in a small trunk as a treasure by my own family members and, many years later, donated to the library by my grandfather, Jon Magnusson Borgfjord, along with one brother and one sister. No one had ever told me this. I only, by accident, discovered his name there, on the dedication page.


Other religious materials that were brought, as I mentioned earlier, were the deeply beloved Passion Hymns of Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674, IR# I45949)[1] and collections of sermons written for home devotions by the highly revered Pastor Jón Vídalín (1666-1720)[2]. The Icelandic people were indeed literate, and they greatly treasured their written materials. For centuries the people of Iceland had found these hymns and sermons, along with biblical texts, to be comforting, empowering, and a vital part of their daily lives. Upon immigration to America, it was only natural that they would carry with them and protect their precious written word. Upon arrival, their tradition of “home readings” was resumed and lay services were conducted. These gatherings continued at least until churches were built and pastors brought over from Iceland. Over time, the new immigrant farmers came to realize that the isolation of individual families on the vast prairies of America made virtually impossible the larger multi-family evening gatherings, and the beautiful tradition of the faith-filled reading, sharing, and Bible study came to an end. 

But churches were being built and were well attended, especially by the city dwellers. There was a serious fire in the sanctuary of First Lutheran Church in Winnipeg on December 23rd, 1904 (a church whose congregation had been conceived in 1878). During the height of that blaze, their most precious item was valiantly rescued and carried out to safety by a parishioner. That precious item, as you might guess, was, none other than their beloved Guðbrandur Biblia of 1584 that had been so carefully and lovingly carried in a small wooden trunk from Iceland in the immigration!




Notes:

[1] These hymns are available today in the book entitled Hymns of the Passion (Passiusalmar) by Hallgrímur Pétursson, translated into English by Gracia Grindal, published by Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik and Skalholt Publishing.


[2] These sermons are available today to read in the book entitled 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.  


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.       

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