This Saturday is the 503rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. So it is fitting that we return to a favorite subject of ours, the Reformation. But we’ll be talking about a place I’m sure we’ve never visited here at Five Minutes in Church History: Iceland.
The first Reformed church in Iceland was built in 1533 by German Lutheran fishermen. They were traders with the Hanseatic League, a commercial coalition of Northern Germany (and across Northern Europe) that was involved in fishing and trading. So Germans were regularly in Iceland, and they brought the Reformation with them. Also, young men from Iceland would go to Germany’s universities to study, where, in the sixteenth century, they were exposed to the Reformation and Reformation theology.
So how did the Reformation come to Iceland? Through these fishermen and through two heroes of the Icelandic Reformation, Gissur Einarsson and Oddur Gottskalksson. Prior to this time, Iceland was Roman Catholic. It had been Roman Catholic since AD 999. Throughout its history, it had two dioceses and two bishops, and often these bishops were rivals and would contend against each other. Rarely were they partners together. But when they saw the Reformation coming, they came together in an attempt to fend it off. But alas, they were not able to do so.
Let’s look at the efforts of Gissur Einarsson and his friend Oddur Gottskalksson. Einarsson was trained in Hamburg. He was one of those youth that went off to Germany, studied, and learned of the Reformation. He was appointed the first Lutheran bishop in 1542 in Iceland. He died six years later, but not before he saw Lutheran churches pop up all over Iceland and Roman Catholic churches convert to Lutheran and become Reformed.
Oddur Gottskalksson also studied in Germany, and at the age of twenty, in 1535, he began work on translating the New Testament. Five years later, in 1540, the very first book in Iceland was printed, and it was the very first book printed in the Icelandic language. It was the New Testament. It was produced on a German-made printing press that was shipped across the Norwegian Sea. Icelandic language type was created, and the type was set for the pages of the New Testament.
Forty-four years later, in 1584, the whole Bible was printed.When that whole Bible was printed, it was six hundred pages long, and five hundred copies were produced. The cost of each copy was valued at the price of three cows. Each church across Iceland was required to buy one. They had to raise the money and send that money in, and then they would get their copy of the Bible. To this day, many Lutheran parish churches across Iceland still have their Bible from 1584.
But people also needed to learn to read. So in the sixteenth century Iceland embarked on a rigorous literacy program. Tutors traveled across the country to the farms and dales of Iceland to teach Icelanders how to read and, specifically, to read the Bible.
So on the 503rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we look back to that great sixteenth century Icelandic Reformation.