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Interior of Skálholt cathedral
Lutheran church in Stykkishólmur, western Iceland
Traditionally-built church at Hellnar, Snæfellsnes

Religion in Iceland was initially the Norse paganism that was a common belief among mediaeval Scandinavians until Christian conversion. Later, the nation became half-Christian and then more fully Christian. This increasing Christianization culminated in the Pietism period when non-Christian entertainments were discouraged. At present, the population is overwhelmingly, if nominally, Lutheran. However, Baptist, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Bahá'í, neopagan, Mormon, Muslim and other faiths exist. [1]

Contents

The Reformation

The Reformation almost completely obliterated Catholic Iceland. Two local men, Oddur Gottskálksson and Gissur Einarsson, became disciples of Luther and soon secured followers, particularly after King Christian III of Denmark and Norway declared himself for Lutheranism and began to enforce the change in his kingdom.

The Reformation proved to be more violent in Iceland than in most of the lands ruled by Denmark, partly from Arason's proto-nationalistic resistance, which escalated nearly to the point of civil war. Jón Arason and Ögmundur Pálsson, the Catholic bishops of Skálholt and Hólar respectively, opposed Christian's efforts at promoting the Reformation in Iceland. Ögmundur was deported by Danish officials in 1541, but Jón Arason put up a fight. Opposition to the reformation ended in 1550 when Jón Arason was captured after being defeated in the Battle of Sauðafell by loyalist forces under Daði Guðmundsson. Jón Arason and his two sons were subsequently beheaded in Skálholt on November 7, 1550.

With the bishops gone, a religious transition was inevitable. Following the usual pattern of the Reformation, Catholicism was outlawed and loyal Catholics persecuted. Meanwhile, the rulers of the land pounced upon Church property and divided the loot among themselves and their supporters. Though Latin remained the official language of the Lutheran Church of Iceland until the year 1686, and a good part of the former Catholic terminology and other externals were retained, the doctrinal substance was obviously very different. Moreover, the rigorous laws of Denmark, which were enforced in Iceland, prohibited, under severe penalties, the celebration of Catholic services. Those Catholics who refused to convert eventually fled, generally to Scotland. For more than three hundred years, no Catholic priest was permitted to set foot on that soil.

Catholic revival

The Catholic Church established on December 8, 1855 a jurisdiction under the name Prefecture Apostolic of the North Pole (Praefectura Apostolica Poli Arctici) that included Iceland. Several years later, the two French priests Bernard Bernard (1821-1895) and Jean-Baptiste Baudoin (1831-1875) settled in Iceland in 1857 and 1858 respectively. They met with a difficult reception and in 1862, Bernard left the country, while Baudoin persevered until 1875. On August 17, 1869, Pope Pius IX set up Prefecture Apostolic of Denmark, to which Iceland passed. Freedom of worship was enacted in 1874. After an interval, Catholic missionary efforts were resumed, with church, school and even a hospital run by nuns by the turn of the century.

The former jurisdiction became a Vicariate Apostolic of Denmark on March 15, 1892. Thereafter, the island territory became for the Catholic Church an independent unit, first as the Prefecture Apostolic of Iceland on June 23, 1923 and then, not many years later, on June 6, 1929, as the Vicariate Apostolic of Iceland. It was on October 18, 1968 that this entity matured into the Diocese of Reykjavik. Even though the Catholic population remains small as a percentage of the overall population and in absolute numbers, it grew from about 450 in 1950 to 5,590 in 2004, during which time the total population grew from 140,000 to 290,000.

Pietism

Starting in the eighteenth century, Pietism rose in importance due to activity from Denmark. The pietists expanded printing and literature in Iceland. However, education and literacy for the Pietists was primarily or solely to have a religious function and they discouraged anything without religious meaning.[2] This led to encouraging a certain dourness to Iceland by discouraging dancing or other entertainments.

Modern Iceland

In modern times, the Icelanders are a secular people with rather low church attendance. However, some religions, mainly Christianity, still influence the culture.

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Christian

Officially, the nation is religiously homogeneous. Non-Christian religions account for about 1% of the population and the vast majority of Christians are Lutherans. Church attendance, however, remains low.

Lutherans

Official statistics place Iceland as overwhelmingly Lutheran. The main church is the Church of Iceland which represents 79.1% of the population (2008). The Church of Iceland is also the State Church, but religious freedom is practiced. There are several "free Lutheran" churches as well which total 4.9% of the population. In recent years, there has been an increase in the proportion linked to the free Lutheran churches. In total, some 90% of the population are registered as some form of Lutheran. However, these statistics are by some considered misleading since most people are automatically registered as members of the Church of Iceland. Estimates indicate that 11% of the population attend religious service regularly and 44% never attend.

Catholics

In contemporary times, Catholicism has had a greater acceptance and success in Iceland. It is perhaps the largest non-Lutheran faith in Iceland, but at the same time remains a small minority (2.5% of the population). There is a Roman Catholic Diocese of Reykjavík with Pierre Bürcher as Bishop.[1] It is estimated that half of the nation's Catholics are foreign born with the main groups being Filipinos and Poles.

In the twentieth century, Iceland had some notable, if at times temporary, converts to the faith. For a time Halldór Laxness was Catholic. Although this did not last, his Catholic period is of importance due to his position in modern Icelandic literature. A more consistently Catholic writer in Icelandic was Jón Sveinsson. He moved to France at 13 and became a Jesuit. He remained in the Society of Jesus for the rest of his life. He was well-liked as a children's book author (writing in German) and even appeared on postage stamps.[3]

Pentecostals

The Pentecostals are the third largest religious group in Iceland. There are Pentecostal churches in Keflavík, Akureyri and the capital. A website, Gospel Iceland a site in Icelandic, also exists for the movement in Iceland.

Anglicans

The Anglican Church is in an unusual position in Iceland. Although significant as a world faith (with 80 million members), there is a limited presence in Iceland, and future expansion has been effectively ruled out by entering instead into an "agreement of full communion" with the Lutheran Church of Iceland, known as the Porvoo agreement. Thus, Anglicans may effectively consider themselves to be Lutheran whilst in Iceland, and the two bodies have a full inter-recognition of each other's faith and practice, sacramental life, and ministry. Nonetheless, a single Anglican congregation meets monthly in Reykjavik, using the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja church building to worship in the English language according to the rites of the Church of England.

Seventh-day Adventists

The Seventh-day Adventists have some organization in Iceland. They have their own website and also a local conference. Gavin Anthony is a leading figure in Adventism in Iceland. [4] That said, growth has been static for ten years and the Adventists tend to indicate this is caused by the generalized secularism of the nation. The group represents less than .3% of the population.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Mormons have a fairly small presence in Iceland, but worth mentioning for historical reasons. In the nineteenth century, LDS missionaries came to Iceland and converted a few local residents. In 1855, these residents would become the genesis of the first Icelandic community overseas in Spanish Fork, Utah. [5]

As of year-end 2007, Iceland had 250 LDS members in 2 branches (Keflavik (a military branch) and Reykjavik) meeting at the same building in Reykjavik.[2]

Independent Baptists

Iceland's history has no record of Baptists establishing a church in Iceland until the 1980s, though not formally recognized in the Icelandic registry until 1994. Since the early 1900s fewer than 10 missionary families have attempted to start a church in Iceland. According to the national registry of Iceland, there is (and has only ever been) one Baptist church in the history of the island; It is appropriately named: The First Baptist Church (in Icelandic: Fyrsta Baptista Kirkjan). It is a Christian church that claims to follow the teachings of the Bible. It holds separate services in both Icelandic and English. Since 1999, the Pastor Patrick Weimer (BMFP Missionary family[6]and his wife Vicki [7]established a church (registered as the Baptistakirkjan á Suðurnesjum [8])to the Icelandic speaking nationals and later merged with the English speaking church in 2006 when the military base closed. The pastor and his wife are now dual citizens having Icelandic citizenship and have taken Icelandic names; Registered as: Viktoría Karlsdóttir and Patrekur Vilhjálmsson.

Johnny G. Wright (served in Iceland 1989 - 2006)was the first pastor of the First Baptist Church upon its formal registration in 1994. Michelle Harrison[9]is a Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF)[10]missionary serving with the First Baptist Church. The Baptist Church building is located on the southern peninsula of Iceland in Njarðvík, where some 25,000 people live. Weekly attendance (75% of which is youth) is usually 80–120 people (despite only 30 being registered).

Pastor Jeremy Gresham and Pastor Andy Hansen are Baptist missionaries who have labored to see a Church established in the Reykjavik area. It is called the Garðabæ Baptist Church. This area is home to almost 200,000 people. Though the Church is not a government registered church, they have 20 adults attending regularly.

Other Christian

The Watchtower states the nation has 289 Jehovah's Witnesses in five congregations [11]. The National Registry (see below) estimates them at over twice that number.

Eastern Orthodoxy, both Serbian and Russian, has a small presence on the island. Various other Christian denominations are represented with fewer than 1,000 registered adherents.

Non-Christian

Membership in registered non-Christian religions in Iceland. The red line represents the Bahá'í faith, the green line represents neopaganism, the dark blue line represents Buddhism, and the light blue line represents Islam.

A small minority practice a variety of non-Christian faiths, whose total numbers account for about one percent of the population.

Paganism

From the 1970s, there has been a revival of Norse paganism in Iceland. As of 2009, Ásatrúarfélagið had 1395 registered members, corresponding to 0.4% of the total population.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith in Iceland (Icelandic Bahá'í samfélagið á Íslandi) began when American Amelia Collins visited in 1924 and the first Icelandic Bahá'í was Holmfridur Arnadottir. The religion was recognized by the government in 1966 and the first Bahá'í National Spiritual Assembly was elected in 1972.[3] Currently around 400 Bahá'ís in the country governed by 8 Local Spiritual Assemblies. The number of assemblies is the highest percentage, by population, in all of Europe,[3] Danish scholar of religion Margit Warburg speculates that the Icelandic people are culturally more open to religious innovation.[3]

Buddhism

Buddhism in Iceland has existed since the 1990s after immigration from countries with Buddhist populations, mainly Thailand. As of 2009, there are three Buddhist organizations in Iceland officially recognized as religious organizations by the Icelandic government. Collectively they have 1082 members.

Islam

Iceland has 402 members of The Association of Muslims in Iceland (2008). Most of the nation's Muslims live in or near Reykjavík, but there is a small number of Kosovar Muslim refugees in Dalvík.[4]

Judaism

The number of Jews is uncertain, but generally agreed to be very low. The Jewish population is small enough that it has not registered and is listed as unspecified/other groups. There is no synagogue or prayer house.

There was no significant Jewish population or emigration to Iceland until the twentieth century, though some Jewish merchants lived in Iceland temporarily at times during the nineteenth century. Icelanders' attitude toward the Jews has ranged from sympathy for their plight to blaming them for "Bolshevism", among other things. Although most Icelanders deplored their persecution, they usually refused entry to Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany, so the Jewish population did not rise much during the Second World War. [12]

Today the Jews remain a minor element of Iceland. Up to 60 people do attend occasional Jewish holiday parties or lectures by Jewish immigrants, but this does not necessarily reflect the actual Jewish population. The World Jewish Congress had no figures for Iceland in 1998, suggesting that the numbers are under 120 (and likely well under that figure). [13] The web site for the Catholic diocese indicated there are only 30 Jewish people in Iceland [14], but as their estimate of Muslims is unusually low they might be underreporting Judaism as well. Still, it seems that, save for the European micro-states, Iceland might have the lowest Jewish population of any European nation.

Despite the small population, the First Lady of Iceland, Dorrit Moussaieff, is a Bukharian Jew and is likely the most significant Jewish woman in Icelandic history. Moussaief was born in Israel and carries both Israeli and Icelandic citizenship. She still follows some aspects of Judaism – lighting, for example, the first candle of the menorah on the eve of Hannukkah and teaching her husband about the holiday. [15] She has introduced Jewish culture to the country in a positive way in order to counter anti-Semitism.[16]

Non-religion or secularism

Eleven percent of Icelanders "don't believe in any sort of spirit, God, or life force", according to a 2004 Eurobarometer study Social Values, Science and Technology. [17] This is lower than in Norway or the United Kingdom, while expressed belief in God was about the same in Iceland as in the UK and higher than in most of the Scandinavian countries. The plurality (and near majority) of Icelanders express a belief in a "spirit or life force" rather than in God or a generalized disbelief.

Siðmennt [18] is the largest organization promoting secularism in Iceland. It is similar to the Human-Etisk Forbund in Norway, although it only claims a membership of "well over 200" members (0.06% of the Icelandic population), a far lower proportion of the nation than the Norwegian organization. Unlike the Human-Etisk Forbund, Siðmennt is not recognized as a religious community by the state and thus does not receive any funds from the state like registered religious organizations do. People outside religious organizations still pay the "church tax" but the money goes to the state (previously it was earmarked for the University of Iceland).

There are other Icelandic institutions for the secular branches within society, such as the SAMT or Samfélag trúlausra. Vantrú is a vocal association of atheists that criticizes all things supernatural.

Religious affiliation in 2007 according to Statistics Iceland

Religious group number  % of population
Christian organisations:
Church of Iceland 252,461 80.7
Reykjavík Free Church 7,498 2.4
Hafnarfjörður Free Church 5,024 1.6
Reykjavík Independent Church 2,768 0.9
Roman Catholic Church 7,977 2.5
Pentecostal Church 1,963 0.6
Seventh-day Adventist Church 757 0.2
The Way, Free Church 734 0.2
Jehovah's Witnesses 682 0.2
The Cross 669 0.2
The Icelandic Christ-Church 249 0.1
Parish of St. Nicholas of the Russian Orthodox Church 200 0.1
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 178 0.1
Serbian Orthodox Church 167 0.1
Kefas - Christian Community 158 0.1
Betania 155 0.0
The Church of Evangelism 94 0.0
Sjónarhæð Congregation 59 0.0
First Baptist Church 28 0.0
The Believers' Fellowship 33 0.0
Homechurch 11 0.0
Other religious groups:
Asa Faith Society 1,149 0.4
Reykjavíkurgoðorð (Asa Faith) 20 0.0
Buddhist Association of Iceland 758 0.2
Bahá'í Faith 399 0.1
Muslim Association 371 0.1
Zen in Iceland - Night Pasture 68 0.0
Family Federation for World Peace and Unification International 4 0.0
Other and not specified 19,524 6.2
Outside religious organizations 8,714 2.8

Eurobarometer Poll 2005

According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll 2005,[5]

  • 38% of Icelandic citizens responded that "they believe there is a God".
  • 48% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force".
  • 11% answered that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force".
  • 3% responded that they "don't know".

See also

Notes

External links

Roman Catholic Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

References


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