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The Fire Priest - September's Interesting Icelander

Jón Steingrímsson IR#I71175 10 September 1728 – 11 August 1791

For September we are profiling Jón Steingrímsson also known as The Fire Priest; a man who is revered by volcanologists still today for his detailed journaling during and after the 1783-84 eruption of Laki.

Jón Stengrimsson, was born in 10 Sep 1728 in Blönduhlíð, Skagafjarðarsýsla. After graduating school Jón was appointed deacon at Reynistaður church. The pastor, Jón Vigfússon, was married to Þórunn Hannesdóttir, and sometime later died under suspicious circumstances. Speculation rose in the community that Jón may have been involved with the pastor's demise because Jón kept company with the pastor's widow. The court case determined Jón was innocent and any charges against him were dismissed. Despite his innocence, Jón was still not released from scandal.

He and Þórunn became a couple and had two daughters prior their marriage in 1753; this meant Jón could not be ordained, which did not serve his clerical aspirations. Jón and Þórunn moved their family to the south. In 1761, Jón would be ordained at Skálholt cathedral.

Jón later became the pastor at Felli in Mýrdal and after seventeen years, in 1774, he was appointed provost for the district of west Skaftafell and later for both east and west districts.

Jón was also an avid farmer making many improvements to the farm at Felli despite it being owned by the Danish crown. Jón was an avid student of medicine through books and a physician friend. He often travelled to those who were sick, or brought them into his home for care. For his humanitarion efforts the Danish King awarded Jón a medal as well as granting him Danish citizenship.

In 1778, Jón moved to the parish of Kirkjubæjarklaustur when the position of pastor became vacant in. It was here the family found themselves when the Laki volcano began to erupt in June of 1783. It was here where Jón had the most impact on his parishioners and the community around him. For eight months as the Laki eruption continued to spew and throw poisonous gas and ash, Jón ministered and cared for his people. He was a pillar of strength to the community.

Laki volcano area
Laki volcano area

It was also here where Jón began recording the events of the Laki eruption; information that is still used by volcanologists today. Jón recorded intricate, eye-witness details of the events as they happened, all the while tending to his people. His book Fires of the Earth captures eight months of volcanic activity where over 130 volcanic fissures erupted.

Location of Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Location of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Photo Credit:

On 20 July 1783, as the lava flow threatened Jón’s church at Kirkjubæjarklaustur, he gave his most famous sermon Eldmessa or “Fire Mass”. Delivering that sermon with such vehemence and passion, Jón has been attributed with summoning a miracle; the lava flow stopped before it reached the church itself.

Jón was dubbed the “fire preist” and his “fire sermon” is recorded in Icelandic history. This event has been celebrated every year by those serving as clergy at Klaustur.

There were many deaths in 1784, including Jón’s beloved Þórunn. Jón never lost hope and continued to care for his parishioners. He also continued his research and journaling. The book Island on Fire (English Translation) states that during his lifetime, Reverend Jón Steingrímsson baptized 309 children, buried 358 of the dead, confirmed 300 souls, married 69 couples, and medically ministered to thousands.

Inside the fly leaf of Æfisaga, Jón;s autobiography.
Inside the fly leaf of Æfisaga, Jón's autobiography. (Photo credit:

Jón also dedicated time to write his

autobiography. His daughters kept the manuscript. Years later, one of the daughters passed it to a nephew in Reykjavik for him to read and requested it be destroyed due to the personal nature of some of the entries. The nephew, Bishop Steingrímur Jónsson, didn’t do as requested, but rather kept that manuscript, called Æfisaga. It was published in its entirety in 1913 and is considered to be one of the greatest autobiographies in Icelandic literature. In more recent years, Michael Fell translated the Icelandic into English. A Very Present Help in Trouble: The Autobiography of the Fire-priest, is available for purchase.

The chapel at Kirkjubæjarklaustur was consecrated in 1974 and is situated a little to the east of the old church site. It was built in the memory of Reverend Jón Steingrímsson, fire cleric (1728-1791). The old cemetery where so many parishioners were buried was fenced in with a concrete wall. There are a few gravestones in the cemetery, among them one at the grave of Reverend Jón Steingrímsson and his wife Þórunn.

The Chapel at Kirkjubæjarklaustur
The Chapel at Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Photo credit:

As always with our Interesting Icelanders, there is so much more to their story. Please continue to learn about Jón Steingrímsson and his work.

Here are a few links of interest:

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