Hans and Giertrud Egede: Sharing Christ in Disastrous Times

Hans and Giertrud Egede: Sharing Christ in Disastrous Times

Christians have been responding to disasters since the New Testament times, when house churches sent relief to brothers and sisters living in famine affected regions (e.g., Acts 11:27-30). As Christians, we do not “put our theology on the shelf” when we respond to disasters. Instead, we put our theology to work! Identifying with and assisting individuals and communities affected by disasters, whether of human or natural causes, are ways we follow Jesus Christ. This month, we spotlight a remote area and a medical disaster that might have decimated an entire population, were it not for the Christians who determined to stay and help.
Hans Egede was born on 31 January 1686, the son of Danish civil servant Povel Hansen Egede and Kirsten Jensdatter Hind. His hometown was Harstad, Norway, located 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Hans's paternal grandfather was a Lutheran pastor, and Hans was educated by his pastor-uncle at a Lutheran school. When he was old enough, Hans was sent to the University of Copenhagen, where he earned a degree in theology in 1704.

In 1707, Hans made two major life moves. First, in April, he was ordained and took responsibility of his first parish in Vagen, a tiny village located on the western side of the remote string of Islands of Lofoton in the Versteralen archipelago. The Lofoten Islands are a long, prominent island chain marked by a row of steep mountains rising directly from the ocean. Here he began to preach, tend his parishioners, and courted a bride. That same year, he married Giertrud Rasck, who was thirteen years older than himself. In the years ahead, they had four children together - two girls and two boys.
While pastoring in the Islands, Hans heard strange tales of fellow-countryman, Lief the Lucky (son of Eric the Red), who had taken the gospel to the old Greenlanders about the year AD 1000. It had been more than three hundred years since the world had heard from them. What had become of that effort? Were there churches and Christian settlements still there? Hans began to feel his heart stirred. If any of the native peoples were Christians, they would be Catholics, and Hans wanted to share with them his Lutheran understanding of salvation by grace through faith. He petitioned King Frederick IV of Denmark-Norway to support him to travel there on a mission, both to search for Lief's spiritual descendants and bring the gospel to the Inuit peoples who lived there. It became a strong dream, and then a passion.
After thirteen years of fund-raising, on 3 July 1721, Hans Egede arrived in Greenland aboard the sailing vessel, The Hope, with his wife, four children, and forty passengers willing to be new settlers. The experimental mission was supported by merchants from Bergen, financial grants from the king, and a new trading company they launched. Hans was also given the official status of a missionary. The next years were harsh, with icy winters and scurvy driving most of the colonists back to Scandinavia. Hans and Giertrud stayed. For seven years, from 1721-28, they struggled to set up a mission and a whaling station. He also explored the coast of Greenland in search of descendants of the old Norse colonists. Ruins of church foundations remained, but neither descendants nor any memory of Christian teachings were found among the people. After a decade of work, Hans's commercial aspects failed. The old king had died, and the new monarch closed the mission in 1730. Yet Hans and Giertrud stayed.

The work had been slow. The local Kalallit Inuit (Eskimo) people had not responded to Hans's gospel preaching, primarily because of the language barrier, although they loved to hear him sing. As time went on, Hans's sons helped him to learn the complex language. He used pictures to illustrate Bible stories and adapted his daily prayers for the Kalallit context. For example, “Give us today our daily bread,” became “Give us today our daily seal,” because the Inuit people had no concept of bread.
A critical point came in 1733 when the new king, Christian VI of Denmark-Norway, sent a messenger to tell of his renewed support for the mission. Unfortunately, the messenger brought with him a visitor who had smallpox, which immediately spread like wildfire and ravaged the villages. So many of the Greenlanders died. Again, Hans and Giertrud stayed, nursing the ill around the clock for months. In the period that followed, the Kalallit people began coming to ask about spiritual things. Hundreds were born again because of the tender and sacrificial care Hans and Giertrud had given to their people, despite the physical toll it had taken upon them both. Giertrud died in 1736, and Hans took his wife’s body back to Denmark. He continued to administrate the mission from there, and left the daily work to his sons.

Paul and Niels carried out an effective ministry in the area of Disko Bay, where a religious revival broke out in 1738. People came from great distances to hear Paul preach. Hans remained faithful to his life’s work and established the Greenland Mission Seminary in Copenhagen. In 1740 he became the Lutheran Bishop of Greenland and, seven years later, his Catechism for Greenland was published and became the doctrinal foundation for Christianity in that region. Hans died in 1758. 
Throughout the years, Hans and Giertrud Egede, their sons, and other missionaries, primarily the Moravians, successfully spread the gospel. They undertook mission trips along the west coast of Greenland, established mission and trading stations, published books, mapped the region, and wrote the Greenlandic language's first dictionary. It is to the servant-hearts who labor and love sacrificially, particularly in the midst of disasters, that this month's PeaceWeaver article is dedicated.

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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