Explorer, Colonizer, Missionary
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 in Greenland? 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 heathen."
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 be.
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 years.
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 circumstances.