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.

Saint of the Week: St. Juvenaly, First Martyr of America & Alaska

When I saw that the Rev. Edmund James Peck was “Apostle to the Inuit,” I thought this interesting, since there had been a Russian Orthodox presence among the Inuit of Alaska for a century before Peck made his way into the Canadian Arctic.

St. Juvenaly was the first missionary to the Arctic and Inuit of North America.  In 1793, he and seven other monastics organised a missionary trip to the Inuit from the Monastery of Valaam in northern Russian.  The group was led by Archimandrite Joseph with four priest-monks (aka “hieromonks”) in whose ranks Juvenaly was numbered, one “hierodeacon”, and two lay monks, including St. Herman.

Alaska was 8000 miles away.

These tough Russian monks set out and reached Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794.  There was a Russian settlement there, apparently primitive, full of violence, and lacking a church.  Archimandrite Joseph worked on helping this settlement in its leadership while the other monks engaged in missionary activity.

In 2 years, 12000 Alaskans came to faith in Christ.  Most of these Alaskans were not Inuit but of the other native peoples of North America.  In 1796, Juvenaly began work on the mainland of Alaska, baptising hundreds of converts, mainly of the Chugach Sugpiag and Athabascans.

St. Juvenaly’s work took him Northwest towards the Bering Sea.  Eventually, he disappeared.  No one has found evidence of his disappearance, but the native peoples say that as he moved, he encountered some Inuit.  The Inuit were disturbed and confused by his gestures, including the sign of the cross.  This oral tradition has it that the shaman of the Inuit he encountered declared that this new stranger be attacked, and St. Juvenaly was killed by spears and arrows.

I wonder about this unspectacular martyrdom.  The first thing that comes to mind is Alexander Mackenzie’s journey of exploration up the Mackenzie River (or, as he termed it, “River of Disappointment”) to the Arctic Ocean.  When they set out, this intrepid crew of French-Canadien Voyageurs and Scots was on good and friendly terms with the local Chippewa.*  As they went further North, they encountered the Inuit.  The Inuit were not on friendly terms with the Chippewa, and things were dangerous for the unsuspecting white men for a while.  The reminder that comes from both of these stories is the fact that North America is full of multiple peoples who are not identical to each other and sometimes even hostile with one another (before Pan-Indian movements such as that led by the Prophet).  Not being aware of different alliances and hostilities could get a white man into trouble back in the day.

The second is the hazards of mission.  Seven monks roving about evangelising for two years can do a lot of good.  However, if these men do not establish themselves in the communities, as Rev. Peck would do 100 years later, the commitment to Christ may only be skin-deep.  Yes, Christianity is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of shamanism.  Yes, Christ is fuller and deeper and better than animist spirituality.  But if people only gain the veneer of Christianity and are not transformed into His likeness, what is the point?

Furthermore, sometimes white men do dumb stuff.  St. Juvenaly had already brought the Gospel to 100s of native people on both Kodiak Island and the mainland of Alaska.  Why not stay and train the new Christians in the faith, bringing them to fulness?  Why keep wandering into places where you do not even know the language and culture, into places where things you do simply because you are an Orthodox monk may get you killed?  Doing dumb stuff for the sake of the Gospel is still doing dumb stuff.

*Rumour has it they are the same people as the Ojibwe.  Is rumour correct?

Saint of the Week: Edmund James Peck, Apostle to the Inuit

This week’s saint is Edmund James Peck (1850-1924).  Peck was an Anglican missionary to the Inuit, who called him Uqammaq (he who speaks well).  After spending some years working on freighter ships, in 1876, his calling as a missionary was confirmed, and he went to the Arctic under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. John Horden, Bishop of Moosonee.  He studied Inuktitut, using materials from the Moravian missionaries who were already established on Hudson’s Bay and in Greenland.

His first missionary trip lasted from 1876-1884.  He made sure that he learned Inuktitut and Cree, believing that a knowledge of local languages was essential to evangelism.*  On February 3, 1878, he was ordained to the priesthood at Moose Factory; at this occasion, he preached the sermon in Cree.  He also used the Cree syllabery developed by James Evans to give new impetus for the Inuktitut language, with greater accessibility of the Scriptures in Inuktitut.  To quote the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

In 1877 he distributed catechisms. His Portions of the Holy Scripture for the use of the Esquimaux on the northern and eastern shores of Hudson’s Bay was published in London in 1878. This first volume was followed in 1881 by Portions of the Book of Common Prayer: together with hymns, addresses, etc., for the use of the Eskimo of Hudson’s Bay and by St. Luke’s Gospel translated into the language of the Eskimo of Hudson’s Bay.

If you have studied the history of mission, you will know how important those items were.  If a people is to truly come to the full knowledge of Christ and who He is, if a people is to truly become and remain Christian, then they must have the Bible available in their language.  Peck set a precedent for Anglican activities in the North; today, in many towns, the Inuit only go to the Anglican church because the others do not offer services in Inuktitut, whereas the Anglican Church has translated both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, as well as various hymns, into the language of the people.  This is one aspect of Anglican Reformational zeal that has yet to wane.

After an exploratory trip, Peck left the North in 1884, ending his first journey.  He went to England and got married.

His second journey with the Inuit was from 1885 to 1892.  Based in Fort George, Que., he carried out the work of evangelism amongst the communities nearby, sort of like a John Wesley of the North, I imagine.  During this time, three children were born to him, but in 1892, the Pecks were forced to return to England; his wife was suffering to ill health due to the isolation.  This is not uncommon, from what I understand.

On August 21, 1894, having acquired free passage across the Atlantic, he and Joseph Calder Parker, established the first Anglican mission on Baffin Island.  They were now able to reach Inuit who had not yet heard the gospel.  They built their first church out of sealskin on Blacklead Island.  Between 1894 and 1905, he made various missionary journeys amongst the different Inuit communities.  Teaming up with other missionaries, he also continued his work of translation, including all four gospels and more selections from the Book of Common Prayer.

Peck moved to Ottawa where he worked at publishing an English-Eskimo Dictionary and Eskimo Grammar.  He made several more journeys to the North and also gathered ethnographical materials.

Part of the strategy of the CMS, for which he worked, was to train local leaders and get Bibles into people’s hands as quickly as possible.  Peck did this, often ordaining converted shamen to be pastors.  To this day, many of Canada’s Inuit are Christians of the Anglican tradition, due in large part to the efforts of Peck and others like him.

His feast day is today, August 10.

*Ray Aldred, a current leader amongst indigenous Christians, says that we must communicate the Gospel in the heart language of the people, which includes vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but also much more.  You can read the transcript of his talk from Urbana 03 here.