kafli5.6_Thingvellir

The History of Christianization

In the year 1000, it so happened that the Icelandic nation was divided into two factions: pagan worshippers and those who embraced the Christian religion. There was tension amongst people and both sides rode to the Alþing, most likely prepared to fight. Wise leaders of the both sides persuaded the Law Speaker Þorgeir “Ljósvetningagoði” to settle the matter. There is a famous account of this in the Old Icelandic literature. Þorgeir declared his decision: the country would adopt the Christian belief as it was essential, in order to guarantee peace, that all people have the same religion.
    These events occupy a very important place in Icelandic history, and a lot has been written about the Christianization in all the most important accounts of the history of Iceland.
    Adam of Bremen was the first of the medieval authors to record the Icelandic conversion to Christianity in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (from 1073-1076). The most important Icelandic source concerning the Christianization is Ari Þorgilsson the Wise’s Íslendingabók (from 1122-1133). There the conversion is described as an important episode in the history of the nation and its people. Another source is the thirteenth-century Kristni saga. The conversion is mentioned in a few of the Icelandic family sagas, such as Laxdæla saga and Njáls saga, as well a number of other works.
    Most indications suggest that the Christian mission to Iceland began just a short time before 1000, and that few missionaries were at work. The mission was organized by the Norwegian king with the help of Anglo-Saxon and Saxon clergy. The mission was, first and foremost, directed at the Icelandic chieftains (“goðar”, sg. “goði”): its aim was particularly political in nature. As the chieftains took such decisions on behalf of their followers, the mission lead to the conversion of groups rather than changes in the beliefs of particular individuals. Although the adoption of Christianity at the Alþing marks a watershed in Iceland’s history, it should be regarded as one part of a long-term development. The mission continued and gradually church and Christian culture developed in the country; a long time passed before Christianity took root with the people.

Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði´s Speech


And then he began his speech when men came there, and said that the situation of men had come into a useless state if people were not to have the same law in the land, and he spoke to men in many ways that they should not let this happen, and said that that could lead to such disagreement that it was certainly to be expected that manslaughter would come about between men, and the land would become desolate. He told about how the kings from Norway and Denmark had had war and disagreement among themselves for a long time, until the landsmen made peace among them, whether they wanted it or not. And that course was brought about, so that they immediately sent each other presents and the peace held while they lived. “And now it seems to me advisable,” said he, “that we not allow those to determine the matter who most want to fight one another, but that we mediate between them, so that each may have some of his wishes and that we may all have one law and one custom. This may come true, that if we tear the law asunder, we may also rend the peace.” And he ended his speech such that both sides agreed to it, that all should have one law, the one that he decided to announce.