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When service seems fruitless – the story of Hans Egede

May 2006 | by Faith Cook

Hans Egede was absorbed in a book. Scarcely could he raise his eyes from its pages. Meals and sleep were forgotten as he roamed in imagination through the wild wastes of a strange and beautiful land, following the steps of the Viking explorer, Eric the Red.

He closed The saga of Eric the Red witha sigh. Crossing to the window, Hans Egede gazed westward, wandering in thought through the unknown country Eric had called Green Land.

Born in Harstad, northern Norway, in 1686, Hans Egede studied theology in Copenhagen and at the age of 21 was appointed pastor of a small Lutheran church in Vaagen, in the Lofoten Islands, north west of Norway.

Here Hans diligently served his people. Sunday by Sunday he preached to this rugged fishing community whose menfolk daily ventured into the turbulent waters of the Norwegian Sea.

He loved his people and they responded warmly to him. And Hans soon won the affections of a local girl, Gertrud Rask — who proved a fine, unselfish wife to the young pastor.

Explorer’s exile

But Hans could not banish the Viking explorer from his mind. Seven hundred years earlier, so the story ran, Eric the Red (named for his flaming red hair and beard and perhaps his temper) was exiled for three years from his Iceland home on charges of manslaughter.

Where could he go? Then he recalled that half a century before, a Norwegian explorer had told of a new land far to the west of Iceland. Eric set out to find that land. After sailing 500 miles he came at last to a frozen wasteland. Rounding the tip of what would prove to be the world’s largest island, Eric discovered a pleasant habitable area on the west of this new country. Here he decided to settle and live out his exile.

On his return to Iceland, Eric claimed to have discovered a pleasant fruitful land — which he called Green Land to make it sound more appealing than Ice Land. Setting sail once more in the year 985, he took twenty-five ships of hopeful colonists with him, although eleven ships either sank or turned back.

Unbearable burden

Eric the Red spent the rest of his life exploring and colonising Greenland. It is said that his son Lief, a Christian, set up the first church in Greenland. Soon a colony 3000 strong was built up, but an epidemic of smallpox in the year 1002 virtually wiped out the whole community.

No one knew what had happened since to the surviving colonists. Were any Christians left in Greenland? Egede wondered. The thought of their need preyed on his mind and burdened him night and day.

At last Hans could bear the strain no longer. He told Gertrud that he must go to Greenland, discover what had happened and preach the gospel of Christ to the people once more.

To his grief, Gertrud said, ‘No’. She could not face the thought of uprooting from her Vaagan home and travelling in search of unknown Christians. But gradually she saw that the weight of concern was destroying her husband. At last she agreed to go. But long years would pass before Hans and Gertrud could realise their objective.

No company would risk providing ships, nor would anyone offer support. But never one to be denied, Hans Egede agitated ceaselessly, with the vision of those needy Christians ever before him.

Icy wilderness

At last in 1721 Egede’s prayer and persistence won the day. The Danish king provided three ships and a salary for the would-be missionary. But if Hans thought his problems were over when the small party set sail from Bergen, he was mistaken.

The journey was hazardous, and one of the three boats foundered in the icy waters. What did Hans expect when at last he arrived? Far from discovering the ‘green land’ of Eric the Red’s exaggerated description, he discovered an icy treeless wilderness.

Sailing on round Cape Farewell at the tip of the island, the situation seemed more hopeful when he came to the deep and beautiful Eriksfjord and finally went ashore. But where were the descendants of those first Christians?

As suspicious Inuit people gathered around the newcomers, Hans soon realised that these people knew nothing of any such settlement, nor of any Christian gospel. Three hundred years had passed since the last of the Viking colonists had died out. If Hans Egede was to bring the Christian message to the hardy Arctic peoples he would have to start again right from the beginning.

Impervious hearts

Many were the hardships Hans and Gertrud faced. First there was the language barrier. Slowly and painstakingly Hans began to learn the Inuit (Eskimo) tongue. But still the people seemed unable to take in the basic concepts of the truths that burned in Egede’s heart.

Where no gospel light has penetrated for countless generations, crude and evil habits master a people. The priests, or Angekoks, quickly saw Hans Egede and the message he taught as a threat to their way of life. Murderous plots were often hatched, and only the hand of God saved the missionary and his family from a violent end.

For many months of the year the Greenland sun never rises and the gloom of continual night shrouds the land. As temperatures plummeted during those long winter days, it seemed that Hans, Gertrud and their children might well starve to death, for they were not skilled hunters like the Inuit people.

Sometimes even water put on the coals to boil would freeze. But the greatest chill was the one that rested on the hearts of the people. They seemed impervious to the earnest pleadings of the ardent evangelist.

Devastating smallpox

When a smallpox epidemic decimated the population, Egede was obliged to move further north, founding a small colony which he named Godthåb (now called Nuuk, capital of Greenland). Slowly, very slowly, he began to see some improvement in the attitudes and habits of the people among whom he lived.

Realising their basic need of teaching, Egede translated Luther’s Small Catechism into the Inuit language and began work on the New Testament. And still he looked and prayed for conversions and spiritual fruit for his labours.

After some years a small church was built and in 1733, when Hans had been in Greenland for twelve years, the first missionaries from Count Zinzendorf’s brave Moravian settlement arrived to strengthen Egede’s lonely witness.

But two years later another devastating epidemic of smallpox swept through the community. One dark December day in 1734 Gertrud herself, his courageous wife, succumbed to the illness and died.

Heartbroken, Hans found this trial more than his forlorn spirit could bear. He laid his wife’s body in a coffin, but could not bring himself to bury it. Like the Israelites of old who carried Joseph’s remains back with them to the promised land, he too would take Gertrud home one day.

Deep depression

Left with four children, through the dreary months of the Arctic winter, the pioneer missionary found a deep depression settling on his spirit. He seemed unable to face the hardships without Gertrud. And before long he decided he could stay no longer.

In August 1735, eight months after Gertrud died, he preached his final sermon to the small gathering of Inuit Christians. The verse he chose was a sad one indeed: ‘I have laboured in vain and spent my strength for naught’ (Isaiah 49:4).

Leaving behind his oldest son, Paul, Hans Egede took his second son Neils, his two small daughters and the coffin, and set sail for Copenhagen. Had all that suffering, all the prayers, tears and sacrifice really been in vain?

Certainly not! Hans’ farewell text continues: ‘Yet surely my just reward is with the Lord and my work with my God’. Though seed may lie dormant for long years the promise of God is that one day it will yield a plentiful harvest.

Delayed harvest

Gradually Hans Egede recovered something of his old spirit, and realised that he could still serve his struggling converts in Godthåb. First he gathered resources to finance projects to aid the work. Then he established a school to train other missionaries to labour in that difficult field. And lastly he completed his translation of the New Testament into the Inuit language.

When Hans Egede’s second son Neils returned to Greenland, determined to carry on his father’s work, he discovered an amazing change had taken place. The fruit of that long-delayed harvest was beginning to be gathered in.

He found that the name ‘Egede’ was revered among the Inuit people. ‘He was more than our father’, they declared simply. Neils established another colony further north, calling it Egedeminde (‘In memory of Egede’) — a name which still appears on modern maps alongside its Inuit counterpart.

Called ‘the apostle of Greenland’, Hans Egede died in Copenhagen in 1758. His labours were ‘not in vain in the Lord’ and only eternity will show the extent of blessing still resulting from them.

And it may be that other unknown servants of the Lord, working today in trying and unpromising circumstances, will likewise be vindicated in years to come.

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