Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, looking towards the National Cathedral, built as the Church of Our Saviour (Vor Fresler Kirke) in 1849.
The people of Greenland have voted for greater autonomy in a recent referendum seen as the latest step towards independence from Denmark for the Arctic island country. Many people already think of Greenland as a country in its own right, and although it is a part of Denmark it has been outside the European Union since 1982.
At 2.1 million sq km, Greenland is the world’s largest island. Geographically it is part of the North American continent, but politically and historically it has always been a part of Europe, closely tied to Iceland, Norway and Denmark.
If an independent Greenland returned to EU membership it would be the largest member state in terms of land area, but the smallest in terms of population. With about 50,000 people, it barely ranks ahead of the smallest European states – the Vatican (911) with the smallest population in the world; San Marino (30,800) which is landlocked by Italy; Monaco (33,000), the smallest UN member state and the most densely populated country in the world; and Liechtenstein (35,365), landlocked by Austria and Switzerland – and just behind Andorra (83,137). Like Greenland, however, none of these microstates is a member of the EU.
Greenland was home to some ancient Eskimo cultures, and in AD 984 was colonised by Erik the Red and Norse or Viking people from Iceland, who built two settlements on fjords near the south-west coast of the island.
The Saga of Erik the Red says he “named the land Greenland, saying that people would be eager to go there if it had a good name.” When he was exiled from Iceland for murder, he explored Greenland’s coasts and returned to Iceland to bring settlers back to Greenland. His son, Leif Eirikson, left Greenland in 1000 to discover Vinland, generally believed to be present-day Newfoundland.
The settlements in Greenland thrived for centuries, and the Vikings and their descendants enjoyed a prosperous life. The climate was in an extraordinarily warm phase, and the name Greenland may have been more appropriate than it is today. The people wore contemporary European fashions and trade with Europe was brisk: walrus tusks from Greenland almost pushed elephant ivory off the market, animal hides were popular exports, Greenland eiderdown was in great demand, the island’s falcons – considered the best in the world – were sold as far away as Baghdad, and Greenland’s polar bears were prized exotic pets among Europe’s nobility.
By 1200, however, climatic change brought the arctic ice pack further south, and navigation in Greenland’s waters became increasingly hazardous, even in summer. In 1261, the Greenlanders accepted union with Norway in return for Norway sending two ships to Greenland each year. This shut off other markets from Greenland, and sometimes even the promised Norwegian ships failed to make it through the ice.
The once independent Greenlanders were soon reduced to the status of serfs and tenant farmers, and the Norse settlements went into decline with famine, increasing conflicts with the indigenous Inuit, and the onset of the Little Ice Age. By 1340, most of the Western Settlement’s 190 farms had been expropriated by the Church in lieu of payments for indulgences and masses for the dead. Two years later, the people of the Eastern Settlement left en masse, abandoning their houses, churches and livestock. The Greenlanders were excused from paying tithes in 1345 because of poverty, and the Western Settlement was abandoned around 1350.
The last reported ship to reach Greenland was a private ship blown off course in 1406. There was correspondence between the Pope and Bishop Bertold of Gardare in 1408, and the last written records of the Norse Greenlanders are of a marriage that year in the church of Hvalsey – today the best-preserved of the Norse ruins. The ship finally left Greenland in 1410 with the last news: the marriage of the ship’s captain, the burning at the stake of a condemned witch, and the insanity and death of the woman the witch tried to seduce.
Christianity survived in Greenland throughout the early 15th century and human remains found in the churchyard in Herjolfsnes include bodies dressed in 15th century clothing with crucifixes around their necks and their arms crossed in prayer. Some voyages may have reached Greenland as late as the 1480s, but by the 16th century all the settlements had been abandoned. The only visitors in the 17th century were whalers hunting in the pack ice off the east coast who came ashore for drinking water.
Renewed trade contacts
In 1721, a joint missionary-merchant expedition to Greenland led by Hans Egede (1686-1758) opened up Greenland to Danish merchants once again, but it remained closed to all other foreigners. A new colony settled at Godthab (“Good Hope”) on the south-west coast, and later became Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.
When Norway and Denmark separated in 1814, Greenland and the other colonies remained Danish. The first local elections were held in 1862-1863, but there was no assembly for the island as a whole and most decisions were made in Copenhagen, where Greenland had no representation.
American explorers mapped out northern Greenland at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; they discovered that Greenland was an island and those discoveries were used to advance US territorial claims. Norway occupied uninhabited parts of East Greenland in 1931, but the International Court ruled in Denmark’s favour.
With Germany’s occupation of Denmark in 1940, war-time Greenland forged closer links with Canada and the US, and the US built military bases on the island. After World War II, the US offered $100 million for Greenland, but Denmark refused to sell.
Greenland’s colonial status ended in 1953 when it was integrated into the Danish kingdom. A modern welfare state was introduced with state health care and state education. In the decades that followed, the population became more concentrated in the towns, and people who once depended on fishing had a hard time finding work. The changes contributed to rising unemployment and other social problems that continue to trouble Greenland.
In the Danish referendum in 1973, 70% of Greenlanders voted against EEC membership. A campaign for self-government began, and Greenland was given home rule in 1979. Feeling threatened by European fishing fleets and quotas and fearing trade with neighbouring Canada and the US was threatened, a majority (53%) voted in 1982 for Greenland to leave the EU.
An historic church
Lief Erikson brought Christianity to Greenland from Norway in 999, and the first church was built by his mother. In the early 12th century, plans for a separate bishop for Greenland were approved by the King of Norway. Arnaldur, who was consecrated by the Archbishop of Lund in 1124 as Bishop of Greenland and Vinland in partibus infidelum, arrived in Greenland in 1126 and built Greenland’s first cathedral, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. In all, 16 churches were built on the island, the biggest being the sandstone cathedral at Gardar (Igaliku), which was cross-shaped, 84 ft long and 60 ft wide.
The Diocese of Gardar was subject to the Archbishop of Lund until 1152, when the dioceses in Greenland, Iceland, the Isle of Man, the Orkney Islands and the Faroe Islands became subject to the new Archdiocese of Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway.
The devout King Magnus Eriksson of Norway donated a large sum to Gardar Cathedral in 1347. In 1354, Paul Knutson was sent to restore the people of Greenland to Christianity and took with him as his navigator Nicholas of Lynn, an English Franciscan friar and astronomer. The last Bishop of Gardar, Álfur, was consecrated in 1368 and held office until 1378.
The return of Christianity
By the 18th century, people in Norway and Denmark wondered whether people were still living in Greenland, whether they had retained pre-Reformation Catholicism, or whether they had abandoned Christianity. In 1721, the Norwegian Lutheran priest and missionary Hans Poulsen Egede led a joint missionary-trading expedition to Greenland.
Egede found no survivors from the original colonies, and started a mission among the Inuit. He used his imagination in some of his translations – the Inuit had no bread and no word for it, so he translated the Lord’s Prayer with the equivalent of “give us this day our daily harbour seal.”
When King Christian VI of Denmark called all Europeans back from Greenland in 1730, Egede stayed on, and in 1733 he was joined by Moravian missionaries from Herrnhut. Egede, who was named Bishop of Greenland in 1741, died in 1758. The town of Egedesminde was named after him, and he is known today as the Apostle of Greenland.
The Church of Greenland today
More than 90 per cent of Greenland’s people are Lutherans. The Church of Greenland is part of the Church of Denmark, but with its own diocese and bishop. The Diocese of Greenland, divided into three deaneries, has 40 churches, 19 parishes, and 25 vicars or priests.
Greenland was part of the Diocese of Copenhagen until a new Diocese of Greenland was formed in 1993. The Church of Our Saviour (Vor Frelser Kirke), built as the parish church of Nuuk in 1849, became the cathedral.
Bishop Sofie Petersen was consecrated Bishop of Greenland in 1995.
In 1995 Bishop Sofie Petersen, then only 39, became Bishop of Greenland and the second woman to become a bishop in the Church of Denmark – in 1987, she was the second woman to be ordained in Greenland. She has been vocal on the rights of the indigenous Inuit people, who are more than 80 per cent of the population, on the effects of global warming on their environment and livelihood, and on the need for more men in the priesthood in her Church.
“I decided to become a pastor when I was 11 years old. My father was a pastor,” says the bishop, who is divorced and has one son. Bishop Sofie, who is Inuit, says: “I am proud to be indigenous.”
She describes the melting of snow and ice in her diocese as a major challenge to the traditional way of living for the Inuit people who live close to the ice cap.
Ordained women outnumber ordained men by almost three to one in Greenland. “In my church, there are 25 pastors, but only nine of them are males,” she says. “What’s more there are three deans in our church and two of them are women … I really think that we miss our male pastors.”
Although Denmark continues to control foreign relations, self-governing Greenland sees itself as an Inuit nation. Danish place-names have been replaced, and Godthab, which was founded by Egde, has been renamed Nuuk and is the capital of a country close to sovereignty.
The flag of Greenland was first raised in 1985
However, the economy is dependent on fish exports and substantial support from the Danish Government, with the public sector dominating the economy. Full independence for Greenland may not be as imminent as some voters hoped in the referendum at the end of November.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the January 2009 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe)