Saint of the Week: Hans Egede, Apostle to Greenland

As it turns out, St. Juvenaly and his abortive attempt to evangelise the Eskimos of Alaska that ended with his death was not the first person to bring the Gospel to the Inuit.  That person was Hans Egede, a Norwegian Lutheran missionary.  On May 21, 1721, he set out to find the lost Norse colonists of Greenland.

I’ll let Rt. Rev. John R. Sperry, retired Anglican Bishop of the Arctic pick up the narrative:

Upon his arrival in Greenland, Egede found no Norse colonist survivors, but did find Greenlandic Eskimos.  Once he knew them, he urged that they no longer be referred to as “Skraellings”.  Reverend Egede found them to be authentic subjects for the sharing of the same Gospel message that had been proclaimed in Greenland so many years before [by Leif Eriksson to the Norse colonists].

He and his family built a mission and settled in.  They worked in Greenland for fifteen years — years of study, learning the language, and offering a compassionate ministry.  However, after that time, broken in health through much hardship, Hans Egede returned home, accompanied by his family.  He died shortly thereafter, but is remembered as the “Apostle to Greendland.”  (from Igloo Dwellers Were My Church, p. 44)

The next missionaries to the Inuit were the Moravian Brethren, initially in Greenland with the Lutherans, but as of 1752, with the Inuit of Labrador.  We have already heard of St. Juvenaly and the Rev. Edmund Peck.  Missions to evangelise the Inuit of the Central Arctic were not to begin until after 1910, with efforts both by the Roman Catholics and by the Anglicans.

The North American Arctic is enormous.  To give perspective, let’s note that the farthest North I’ve been (which is far from the Arctic) is Peace River, AB, 56°14′02″N.  The Canada-US border is 49° N.  A mere seven degrees.  To get to Peace River from Rocky Mountain House (52°22′31″N), where I grew up, is over six hours and a mere four degrees further North.

The Arctic Circle is 66°33′ N.  The islands of the Canadian Arctic go all the way to 83°.  Kugluktuk (Coppermine) where Bp. Sperry spent most of his days is at 67°42’32″N.  Pond Inlet, on the northern shore of Baffin Island, is 72°41′57″N.  And from the Bering Strait to Greenland is more than 3000 miles.  If there were a highway that did that (there isn’t and I don’t think there can be), it would be 50 h of straight driving at 60 miles/hour.  The distances grow much longer when you consider the lack of proper highways through most of the Arctic and the difficulties of how strangely-shaped the whole place is, with Hudson’s Bay in the way and the jagged shoreline and the lakes.  Take also into account the mosquitoes.

Anyway, the Arctic is huge (it’s huge in Europe and Asia as well).  The distances are enormous and the settlements remote.  The people, the various Inuit groups as well as the other native peoples, are very isolated.  Thus, one could possibly argue that Edmund Peck, Juvenaly, Hans Egede, and the later missionaries of the 20th-century were all apostles to the Inuit, since they brought the Gospel to Inuit who had never encountered it before.

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