Hans Egede was born into the Norwegian home of a civil
servant on the Island of Hinnoy,
several hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle. Life was hard and, for a boy destined to live
a harsh life in one of the worst climatic areas in the world, perhaps there
could have been no better training ground.
He was schooled by an uncle, a
clergyman in a local Lutheran Church. In 1704, as an 18-year-old, he left for far
off Copenhagen to enter
the university to train in theology. At
that time, at the University, there was a renewed interest in overseas
missions. He studied hard, and after 18
months, earned the bachelor's degree of theology. He returned to Hinnoy but was saddened when
his father died a few months later. In
April of 1707, he was ordained and assigned to a parish on an equally remote
island of the Lofoton group, famous for Viking days. The same year he married Grutrud Rasch, 13
years his senior; but it was a love match.
In 1708 together they sailed for Lofoton. They found the parsonage and church very
dilapidated and sadly in need of repairs, but the island itself was a place of
unsurpassed natural beauty.
They were well-versed in Norse
folklore, particularly of Eric the Red, who in 983 with family and a few
retainers, colonized Greenland. This colony survived into the 1400s. No word of the survivors had come to Norway for
several centuries. What had
happened? Was there still a remnant left
One day, as he stood looking west, he thought of his countrymen. Were there any there? What was their
state? He heard an inner voice that he
was the one to search them out and to be their pastor. That call never left him. His wife said "He looked as one who had seen
a vision." He determined to go to Greenland.
Wife, family, friends all
discouraged him from such a "hazardous enterprise." He appealed to the church, to the local
government, and to the king, all to no avail.
Later he records "We both (referring to his wife and himself) laid the
matter before God in prayer, and the answer was the bending of her will so that
she confidently promised to follow me wherever I went-like a true Sarah-thus
strengthening my will to persevere."
Indeed it was from that time onward that his wife was the leading spirit
in the "hazardous enterprise." He said, "By
her faith and constancy, I cannot say how much she encouraged me. She, a frail woman, showed greater faith and
manliness than I." In a second letter to
the king, he wrote boldly pointing out that "all Christians have a duty toward
missions so long as any heathen exists. Christians will be called severely to
account if they content themselves merely in carrying on in trading with the
A pattern of evangelization of Greenland began to
take shape. It would of necessity have
to be what we would today call a tent-making program. It would need to involve trade with the
natives for furs, blubber, and spermaceti.
After several years of correspondence, which was so very slow in those
days, he determined that he would have to go to Bergen, Norway, to
further his plan of reaching Greenland with the
Gospel. He had been trying for six long
years and thus far everything seemed to have failed in stirring any interest in
such a hazardous enterprise. On his last
Sunday on the Island of Lofoton, Hans preached his farewell sermon choosing for
his text words from Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians: "for we have hope to preach the Gospel in
lands beyond you."
In Bergen, he
studied all that he could find concerning Greenland,
particularly from the journals and the logs of whaling and fishing vessels of
those who had plied those waters. After
13 years a merchant financed the expedition.
Several sailing vessels left Bergen on the 12th of May, 1722, and
arrived in Greenland early in July. By this time, Hans and Grutrud had four
children-two sturdy boys and two young girls.
Since the sailing vessels would have to return very quickly because of
the icebergs and floes, the first order of business was to build a sturdy house
in which to live and that was accomplished speedily. After 13 years, through the energy and
perseverance of one man, the "hazardous enterprise" had become a fact-a goal in
sight, the dream a reality.
Their first contacts with the
Greenlanders was less than encouraging.
Hans wrote "Their first appearance seemed to me very miserable. They were untaught, pagan savages, and a
heart of compassion went out to them. As
they stood on the deck of the ship that had brought them, Hans and his wife
stood hand-in-hand, silently. To both it
was not only a moment of thanksgiving but of holiness, of
rededication-dedication to the land of which they had dreamed so long and come
so far to serve.
After the house had been built, the
trading ship set sail on its return voyage.
A group of sailors stayed behind as a part of the "colony" along with an
accountant for the trading firm that had financed the enterprise. The first Sunday a proper service was
held. Hans took his text from words from
the Psalms: "Praise the Lord, all ye
heathen, praise him all ye nations." He
was disappointed that none of the local Greenlanders had attended the service. In fact, he soon learned that they were not
at all happy with his being there. They thought that he was just coming as had
other traders and would soon return and in pantomime told him that he was to go,
but Hans had come to stay.
They had brought supplies
sufficient for a year which they had anticipated augmenting from the sea and
from hunting wild animals. The boys soon
took to wearing clothes made from furs of deer just as the Greenlanders
did. They became initiated into the
living quarters which, in the summertime, were leather tents; but these were
very stifling and extremely foul with the odor of tanning hides, spoiling meat,
and offal of the animals and humans.
They could hardly stand even a few minutes in one of these little
huts. The Greenlanders never bathed.
They spent the long winter days and
nights studying the language and attempting to communicate with the local
people. Their boys picked up the
language very quickly and were a tremendous asset to them in that regard. He began to teach some of the more aggressive
of the Greenlanders, and one intelligent young man was the first to be baptized
in 1725. One of the difficulties of the
ministry was that of the unregenerate colonizers who had stayed behind. The continual fighting and grumbling among
them was a constant burden to Hans.
There was the uncertainly of whether the trade vessels would return the
following year and what the news from Norway might
They continued to work with the
language, gained real rapport with the people, and began to see some fruit from
their labor. During these years, he
always entertained the possibility of being able to find some of the long lost
Norsemen of Eric the Red's days. These
were never found, nor any sign that they might have intermarried with the local
Greenlanders, but at several places he did find ruins of houses and a church
that most certainly had been built by the Norsemen. He often contemplated what happened-why had
they become extinct? Were they
massacred? Were they wiped out by some
plague? The local Greenlanders always
seemed to be very hesitant to give any details about what might have caused the
demise of those brave colonizers of five centuries earlier.
The east coast of Greenland had never
been explored, and one man was sent out by the king to try to explore that area
in hope that they might find some remnant of the original colonizers
there. They were not found, but this man
gave this testimony. He said "I've taken
the greatest possible pains to find out the reason why the minister and his
wife year-after-year keep on doing this work in Greenland and suffering such
inconvenience from it, besides having spent everything they possessed in Norway
in order to be able carry it out." He
quoted Hans as saying that "He wished to live and die here in order to teach
the savages the knowledge of God." He
goes on to say "He only tries to work for the honor of God even if it should
cost him his life" and that "such a man is worth his weight in gold."
Small pox was brought to Greenland from some
of the trading vessels, and it was extremely devastating with the loss of
almost half of the population. Hans
worked day and night ministering to the sick and burying the dead. It was now that the true character of this
steadfast man was seen. His patient love
was demonstrated. In a dark hour, the
"apostle of Greenland" had been born. In this still darker one, the lasting affects
and reverence in which he came to be held had its birth. The look of hope in his eyes had become a
living expression of the new way of life about which he had been trying to teach
them. It was a sermon easier to
understand than all his sermons or books.
The Greenlanders said "You would have done for us what not even our own
kinfolk would have done. You have fed us
when we were famished. You have buried
our dead who otherwise would have been the prey of foxes and ravens. Above all, you have told us of God, and we
may now die happily in hope of a better life hereafter."
Grutrud Rasch Egerde had given of
herself unstintingly during this ordeal, and she began to weaken. During the winter of 1734 she rarely left her
bed, and on December 21 she died. He
wrote of her as his "dear and faithful helpmeet and wife who, when she
understood that I had resolved to forsake my native country, for the love of
God and me, like a faithful Sarah, accompanied her Abraham to a strange, nay,
hard and heathen country." She was held in as much regard by the local people
as was her husband.
In 1735 it was determined that he
would return to Denmark. June 29, Hans preached his farewell sermon at
the settlement. In his diary he wrote
that day "As I came here not for temporal benefits and gain, in the like manner
I do not leave Greenland for temporal benefit and
gain. Only the honor of God and the
teaching of the poor, ignorant people have been and always will be my one and
only aim, nay, the eternal wish of my heart until my death. He had served in Greenland for 15
On his return, he gave himself to
writing about the experiences that were his in Greenland. He taught at the missionary college, and then
as years passed spent his final days with his daughter Kristen and her husband
who was pastor of a small parish in southeast Norway. His two sons had returned to Greenland and
ministered in his place until both of them eventually likewise returned to Denmark.
He died November 1758 at the age of
72. The words chosen as the text for his
funeral were "There was a man sent from God whose name was John. The same came to bear witness of the light
that all men through him might believe."
Although we do not agree with the
polity of the Lutheran Church in many areas, it did appear from the account of
this great man's life that he did preach the Gospel in sincerity and in truth,
and I present him not so much for the church in which he served but for the
obedience to a call that was given to him and his steadfastness in the task to
which the Lord had commissioned him in an area and among a people in perhaps
one of the most difficult places on earth to live and a people to evangelize. Would to God that we had men and women today
with such determination to be obedient to the call of God no matter the