Professor Speaks about Icelandic Saints at Pioneers in Every Land Lecture Series

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 25 August 2015

A local choir of Icelandic members of the Church perform during the installation of a museum exhibit at Vestmannaeyjar Folk Museum in Iceland on July 16, 2011.  Photo by Ryan Morgenegg, Church News.

Article Highlights

  • The history of the gospel coming to Iceland begins with a man named Guðmundur Guðmundsson, born on a farm in Artun, Iceland, in 1825.
  • In the spring of 1851, Elder Erastus Snow ordained Þórarinn Hafliðason a priest and Guðmundur a teacher and sent them home to Iceland to teach others.
  • A conference on the history of the connection between Iceland and Utah will be held September 9–13.

“[Latter-day Saints] should know there are wonderful, active members of the Church in two branches of Iceland.”—Professor Fred E. Woods, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine

Latter-day Saints “should know there are wonderful, active members of the Church in two branches of Iceland,” said Professor Fred E. Woods of the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine on August 13.

Brother Woods presented “Fire on Ice: The Story of Icelandic Latter-day Saints at Home and Abroad” during the most recent installment of the Pioneers in Every Land lecture series in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Iceland is a Nordic country with more than 100 volcanoes and thousands of miles of glaciers. That is why it is called the land of fire and ice, as reflected in the title of the lecture. The main point of the lecture comes from scripture: the Lord remembers “those who are upon the isles of the sea” (2 Nephi 29:7), said Brother Woods.

The history of the gospel coming to Iceland begins with a man named Guðmundur Guðmundsson, born on a farm in Artun, Iceland, in 1825. “At the age of 19, he left his native land for Denmark to refine his skills of goldsmithing, introduced in his youth,” said Brother Woods. “After four years in Copenhagen, he passed his journeyman’s exam and then worked for a time in Denmark.”

Brother Woods then shared the words of a letter from Guðmundsson detailing his encounter with missionaries in Denmark. “I lodged with a good friend Thorarin Haflidason, who had recently become a journeyman cabinet maker. … He was the first who talked to me about the wonderful sect called the ‘Mormons.’ … I promised I would come and hear them, which I did that following Sabbath. … Brother Erastus Snow spoke. Even though his preaching was very hard to understand because he still wasn’t perfect in the Danish language, his honest face radiated a fatherly love which made a deep impression on me.”

About this same time, Guðmundur’s childhood friend, Þórarinn Hafliðason, who had also come to Copenhagen to learn the trade of cabinetmaking, likewise joined the Church, said Brother Woods. Þórarinn’s wife (foster daughter of the local Lutheran priest), strongly opposed to her husband’s conversion, burned his Mormon literature and threatened to drown herself.

Professor Fred E. Woods gives a lecture titled “Fire on Ice: The Story of Icelandic Latter-day Saints at Home and Abroad” on August 13. Photo by Ryan Morgenegg.

In the spring of 1851, Elder Erastus Snow ordained Þórarinn a priest and Guðmundur a teacher. Brother Woods said that Elder Erastus Snow wrote, “In the spring … Icelanders who had embraced the faith in Copenhagen returned to their native land, with the Book of Mormon and pamphlets, … whom I ordained and commanded them to labor among their people, as the Lord opened their way.”

Even with two native missionaries, the work in Iceland was difficult. Brother Woods shared a letter from Guðmundur Guðmundsson about his work in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. “I expected that every person would believe a message so desirable … but they would not receive me. … I found some friends that were believing, and continued to be faithful, though the laws were hard against us, and so were the priests and the reports of the press. I was often rebuked and spit on and mocked, but I was full of the love of God. … I did not feel the least anger or indignation against any being.”

As a result of the missionaries’ preaching and conversions, they were summoned to appear before Vestmannaeyjar local court and were forbidden to preach, said Brother Woods. In December of 1851 Þórarinn Hafliðason died in a fishing accident, leaving no one with the authority to perform baptisms for 24 people.

In April of 1853, a conference was held in Copenhagen and John Lorentzen was sustained as president of the Icelandic Mission, said Brother Woods. He was sent to be Guðmundur Guðmundsson’s companion, and he ordained Guðmundur an elder.

On June 19, 1853, Elder Lorentzen organized the first branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Iceland at Vestmannaeyjar, consisting of six members and Elder Guðmundsson as branch president, said Brother Woods. As time went on, many people desired to immigrate to the United States and Utah for the gospel.

The first three permanent LDS Icelandic settlers in America and Utah were Samuel Bjarnason; his wife, Margret Gisladottir (from Vestmannaeyjar); and Helga Jonsdottir, said Brother Woods. Many of the Icelandic Saints are buried in the Spanish Fork city cemetery. Guðmundsson immigrated to Utah in 1857 and is buried in the Draper, Utah, cemetery.

“It is calculated that 381 Icelanders immigrated to Utah from 1855 to 1914,” said Brother Woods. “Latter-day Saint missionary work (in Iceland) was discontinued in 1914 at the dawn of World War I. This number of Icelandic immigrants represents only a small fragment of more than 25,000 Scandinavian Latter-day Saints who immigrated to Utah during this period of time. Most of the Icelanders settled in Spanish Fork, and a number of them also settled in Cleveland, Utah.”

Today the Church is still present in Iceland, said Brother Woods. The Church branches are in Reykjavik and Selfoss.

Brother Woods said, “The Icelanders of Utah have made great efforts to stay connected to their homeland and their people. Further, the people of Iceland have been wonderful in assisting me in my research the past 15 years.”

Brother Woods wrote a book, Fire on Ice: The History of the Latter-day Saints at Home and Abroad. It is available online through the BYU Religious Studies Center.

A conference running September 9–13 will be held at BYU. Registration for the conference can be done at icelander.byu.edu. “The conference will have top-notch scholars from Iceland and excellent speakers lecturing about the background of Mormons in Iceland. Entertainment will include the BYU folk ensemble and BYU international dancers, as well as field trips to Salt Lake City and Spanish Fork,” said Brother Woods.