Recently I had the opportunity to lead a study trip to Iceland as part of an ongoing effort to reflect on the legacy of Protestantism in light of the Reformation’s quincentenary in 2017. Like other Scandinavian countries, Iceland has possessed an established Lutheran church since the sixteenth century, even if growing levels of secularity characterize the island republic today. But though I set out to discover Protestantism in Iceland, what first smacked me in the soul was Iceland itself: a geologic peculiarity, a cultural storehouse, a clump of aching beauty plunked down in the heart of the Atlantic.
Iceland’s beguiling landscapes are well known: a plethora of active volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, lava beds, vast tundra, thermal baths, geysers, fjords, and more. An infant in geologic terms at just 70 million years old, Iceland invites beholding, not inhabiting. Civilization boasts a toehold, and little more, around Reykjavik, where two-thirds of the country’s scant population of about 330,000 dwell. The remainder of the island, though pocked with smaller towns, basks in rugged, uninhabitable splendor. This is not Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw”—the Norwegian-imported horses and sheep roam unmolested by natural predators—but rather nature expansive, enrapturing, imponderable. Our study team felt this most piercingly when we traveled on Snaefellsnes peninsula on Iceland’s western coast. Walking along the lava-crust cliffs at the peninsula’s end, one can look up and see the glistening glacial ice cap of mount Snaefellsjökul, immortalized in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and then turn to take in the vast Atlantic. I’m not sure if beauty can save the world, as Dostoyevsky claimed, but if so, deliverance might well start here. Indeed, I’d like to think we had an intimation of what C. S. Lewis memorably described in Surprised by Joy as “Pure Northernness,” a longing that “engulfed [him]: a vision of huge, clear spaces standing above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity.”
While in search of Protestantism, we anticipated finding Odin, Thor, Loki, and other Norse gods. We were not disappointed. On the same trip on Snaefellsnes peninsula, for instance, we stopped at Helgafell, a sacred hill venerated by Thor worshipers centuries ago. In Reykjavik, one can’t miss streets with names such as Odinsgata, Thorsgata, Baldursgata, Tysgata, Freyjugata, and Lokastigur. A short walk from a restaurant named after Odin is a health food store called Yggdrasil, the great World Tree in Norse mythology.
Along with Lutheran confessional documents, we packed Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, a key source of knowledge about the Norse gods, written around the year 1220. What especially struck me was its brooding melancholy, even fatalism, epitomized by the events of the world’s end, Ragnarok, which most of the gods do not survive. Thor is slain by the sea serpent Jormundgand. The bound wolf Fenrir, Loki’s child, escapes to wreak havoc, and ultimately devours Odin. Then,
The sun grows black,
the earth sinks into the sea.
The bright stars
vanish from the heavens.
Steam surges up
and the fire rages.
But today the old gods live on, and not only on street signs and in our weekday names. A relatively recent, fascinating development in Iceland has been revival of interest in pre-Christian beliefs. In 1972 the Ásatrúarfélagið or Ásatrú Association (Ásatrú, “faith of the Æsir,” i.e. the Norse gods) formed to rekindle knowledge and veneration of the old gods. Largely the brain child of the farmer and poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, Ásatrúarfélagið gained legal recognition in 1973 as a registered religion according to provisions in Iceland’s Constitution. For most of its early history, the group consisted of hardly a hundred members. But today, under the “high priest” Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, its membership has climbed to around 2,500, making it the largest non-Christian religious group in Iceland. Ásatrúarfélagið does not have a fixed theology; members can understand the pagan gods however they please. Presumably for most members involvement has an antiquarian motive, but a pagan temple is under construction for cultic use, and the group has revived a central ritual: the communal blót or outdoor sacred feast, a rite officially abolished in 1000 with the Christianization of Iceland. Ásatrú priests (or goðar) also conduct name-giving ceremonies, coming-of-age rituals, and weddings and funerals. As a registered religion, the group receives a portion of the state’s “church tax” to fund their activities, and they even have their own burial plot. Fortunately, unlike some neo-pagan movements in other European countries, Iceland’s has no neo-Nazi undertones.
While lingering on the old gods tempted, we pressed on in search of our quarry: Protestant Christianity in Iceland. Today, despite record levels of atheism, most Icelanders still belong to the Lutheran Church. Its individual churches, usually small white structures with a red roof, dot the rugged landscape, tiny, forlorn outposts of the divine. Lutheranism in Iceland is necessarily understood in light of the island’s earlier Christianization, about which our group learned from Sverrir Jakobsson, a historian of medieval and early modern history at the University of Iceland, and from Reykjavik’s impressive National Museum.
Uninhabited for eons, Iceland witnessed the coming of Irish hermits, possibly as early as the 700s, to seek out a solitary life of prayer. Only the scantiest evidence remains of these pious squatters, who brought with them the ascetic impulses that once drew restive Christians to the deserts of Egypt to seek the face of God. Since the Norse gods arrived with subsequent emigration from Norway, Iceland is the only country in the world that, due to the hermits, can pay honest, if mischievous, lip service to having been founded as a “Christian nation.”
Christianization proper began in 999–1000, according to the Book of Icelanders (ca. 1200), a key source of early Icelandic history. At this time, Iceland stood under the influence of Norway, whose king Óláfr Tryggvason, a convert, enjoined the new faith over the old Norse gods. The directive divided the Icelandic chieftains. Resolution came at Althing (“parliament”), the annual summer meeting of all chieftains at Thingvellir (which we visited) where matters of common concern were discussed and justice meted out. Remarkably, the chieftains agreed to have the “Lawspeaker,” one Thorgeir of Ljósavatn, consider the matter and make a decision binding on the whole island. According to the record, Ljósavatn retired to his booth and lay under a hide for a whole day and night to meditate on the knotty question. He then rose and gave a speech in which he said that it would be intolerable for the country to divide over religion and that the new faith should be accepted. But he offered these caveats: the old gods could still be worshipped privately without penalty, and the eating of horseflesh and the exposure of infants (two criticisms made by Christians) should be allowed to continue. With this verdict, conversion took place as a peaceful and almost unique historical event.
Eventually two bishoprics came into existence: one at Skálholt in the south, and the other at Hólar in the north. The first bishops were foreigners. But in 1056, a native Icelander, Ísleifr Gizurr, was consecrated. The ceremony took place in Bremen, then a key ecclesiastical post for all of northern Europe, and was performed by Bremen’s Archbishop Adalbert. Reportedly, Iceland’s first native bishop traveled to the continent with a captured polar bear from Greenland to offer as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor. From roughly this time, a handful of monasteries began to crop up throughout Iceland’s vast landscape.
Compared to other parts of Europe, Christianity was still young in Iceland when the Reformation erupted. In the 1500s, Iceland stood under the colonial rule of the Kingdom of Denmark, which had embraced the still newer faith emanating from Wittenberg. At first the new faith was practiced in Iceland only by traders and merchants, mainly Germans and Danes; the first Lutheran church was built for them in Hafnarfjördur, south of Reykjavik. In 1537, however, Christian III of Denmark issued the so-called Church Ordinance, reasoning that what was good for the motherland was good for the colony, and top-down efforts to Protestantize all of Iceland got underway. In some instances, this went peacefully. More often it encountered resistance, as anything imposed by sheer force by a distant ruler might elicit.
The last holdout was the northern Bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason, an epic figure in Iceland’s religious history and the last Catholic bishop in all of northern Europe. Allied with two of his sons, Ari and Björn (celibacy was not Arason’s strong suit), the three men with a band of armed followers defied the Danish crown until 1550, when they were captured and brought to Skálholt, where the Reformation had found more fertile ground. Fearful of Arason’s popularity and unwilling to wait on official instructions from Copenhagen, the Danes and Protestant Icelanders who had captured the three men decided, without trial, to put them to death. Records indicate that on November 7, 1550, it took one blow of the axe to sever the head of Ari, three to do the same for Björn, and no less than seven to finish off their father—a stiff-necked man in every respect. Our present-day motley group visited the site of the execution in Skáholt, the beauty of which today resides uneasily with memory of the grizzly event.
The last bulwark against Lutheranism fell with Arason’s head. Soon thereafter, following the script of events on the continent, church and monastery lands were expropriated by the crown. Medieval practices such as veneration of saints and relics, masses for the dead, and the sale of indulgences soon fell by the wayside. Printing took off as well—the first press was actually introduced by Arason—and soon Bibles appeared in the vernacular, shaping modern Icelandic, which is closer to Old Norse than any Scandinavian language. And not least, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) became the confessional benchmark for the entire island with its well-known theological accents: “People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith...”
At first an elite phenomenon, Lutheranism spread and took more popular root in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet despite the island’s thoroughgoing Lutheranization, Arason himself became something of an Icelandic hero. This happened not so much for his religious proclivities but because during the nineteenth century—when Iceland still chaffed under Danish rule—the renegade bishop seemed an apt symbol for Icelandic national independence. This political movement gained steam in the early twentieth century and was achieved in 1944 when Denmark lay under Nazi control. Shortly after independence, Arason’s image, complete with crook and miter, appeared on one of the first postage stamps.
Today, Lutheranism is a state religion, institutionally located under the Ministry of the Interior. Religious freedom is practiced, but only Lutheranism enjoys a privileged place in Iceland’s Constitution. Article 62 reads: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland and, as such, it shall be supported and protected by the State.” Interestingly, in today’s more secular climate, 72 percent of Iceland’s population opposes this arrangement and desires separation of church and state, but, according to the same 2015 poll conducted by the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, 73.8 percent of the population remains registered in the national church.
Permit me to draw two lessons from our journey. First, while many in 2017 will celebrate the Reformation as the font of modern liberalism and freedom of conscience, people in the sixteenth century often did not experience it this way. Throughout northern Europe, the Reformation, as the case of bishop Arason attests, was often imposed by royal fiat and resistance was crushed. Or else, absent a powerful sovereign, violence occurred or civil war broke out—for example, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre or the English Civil War.
Second, unlike in math, many things in history simply do not add up. One would think that a predominantly Lutheran country might vilify its last Catholic bishop. But, again, this is not the case: even as Lutheranism became ensconced in Iceland, the defiant bishop emerged as a national hero. And today, an increasingly secular population still nods to Luther’s faith as well as to the memory of its staunchest resister—even while welcoming the pagan gods from their 1,000-year sleep.
Go figure, and get thee to Iceland before Ragnarok.
Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanties and history at Valparaiso University, where he holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics. He is author of Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford, 2016) and editor (with Mark A. Noll) of Protestantism after 500 Years (Oxford, 2016).