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Jewels of the North Atlantic

July 2017

Great Britain came very near to owning the Faroe Islands. King Henry VIII was twice offered the 18 small, mountainous islands located between Scotland and Iceland, as security for a loan, but both times he turned them down. By default, the Faroes archipelago became part of Denmark’s crown jewels.

As far back as the 6th century, Irish monks were drawn to the isolation of the North Sea islands. Vikings were the first to settle permanently, however, and in 1035 the land became part of Norway, which was united with Denmark for almost 500 years. When the two countries separated in 1814, the Faroes became Danish.

State church

Today, although Denmark still claims ownership, the nearly 50,000 Faroese are now self-governing. A parliament in the small capital of Torshavn exercises control of internal affairs, while the Danish government continues funding for such things as education, health and social services. It also provides the housing and salaries of clergy belonging to the state Lutheran church.

Christianity has been entrenched in these far islands for 1,000 years and, like the tradition of seafaring, continues to take a prominent role. Everyone is born into the state religion by virtue of being Danish citizens, and nearly every village boasts a Lutheran church.

The Home Mission is the more evangelical branch of the state church, attended by about 20 per cent of Lutherans. Its three focuses are evangelising people on the islands, a seamen’s mission which visits foreign and Faroese vessels, and foreign mission.

For tax purposes, Faroese who wish to convert to another faith or denomination must sign themselves off the state church books. About 20 per cent have done so.

Only one Roman Catholic church exists, and there are a sprinkling of Salvation Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Bahai followers. Pentecostals now attract about 5 per cent of the population, and a strong 15 per cent are Christian (or Plymouth) Brethren.

William G. Sloan

Islanders still speak with respect of Brethren missionary William G. Sloan. Sloan originally went to the Shetland Islands in the mid-1800s as a colporteur for the Religious Tract and Book Society of Scotland.

In 1863 he left the Church of Scotland and became associated with the Open Christian (Plymouth) Brethren. A few years later, the Scotsman visited the Faroes on a fishing smack. The widespread evidence of spiritual darkness so troubled Sloan that he returned for more permanent ministry in 1865.

All too often his preaching met with hostility. Brethren were (and still are) often called ‘Baptists’ because they practice ‘believer’s baptism’ by immersion. This was obviously a challenge to the Lutheran practice of baptising infants. The other divisive point was the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation.

In spite of persecution, Sloan tirelessly carried on distributing tracts and speaking in the open air until his death at the age of 76, in 1914. By that time, there were six assemblies in the Faroes, and he had carried the gospel even further, to Iceland.

Brethren assemblies

Thirty Brethren assemblies now flourish in the Faroes, and evangelism and missions are still a primary focus. Besides nine or ten missionaries who work full-time in the islands, about 40 other families, couples or singles have been sent out by island assemblies to other nations. As a matter of fact, the average percentage of missionaries sent per congregation in the Faroe Islands is the third highest in the world.

According to Zacharias Zachariassen — one of the first full-time Faroese missionaries for the Brethren and a respected preacher, author and publisher — three boats actively shared the gospel throughout the islands from the 1940s to the 1960s. In the 1960s the Brethren began a summer camp which has now extended to a year-round ministry attended by about 4,000. Faroese Brethren have helped to set up and run similar camps in the Shetland Islands, Iceland and Greenland.

Greenland

With over 2 million inhospitable square miles, largely covered by ice and no roads between villages, travel in Greenland is only possible by air or sea. A summer boat mission to Greenland has been operating from the Faroes since 1977, although visits have only become consistent more recently.

In 2008 believers purchased a larger boat at an auction in Denmark, a former coastguard cutter more appropriate for Greenland’s rugged conditions. The Juvel (Jewel) II carries a Bible emblem on the funnel and with its up-to-20 volunteer crew plies between the tiny communities of the west coast, from June through September, holding programmes and distributing Bibles, shoes and clothing.

Alcoholism is a widespread problem that has created much deprivation, especially among children. However, crew members have reported a growing response.

Danish was the legal Faroe Islands language until 1938 and predominated in churches. In the 1940s a Brethren scholar called Victor Danielsen undertook a Faroese translation based on other available versions.

5,000 copies of the first Faroese Bible were published in 1949 and quickly sold out. Danielsen also translated 900 hymns and 18 Christian books, writing a few of his own, by the time of his death in 1961.

The Christian publishing company managed by Zacharias Zachariassen, Forlagid Leirkerid, now has 120 Faroese titles to its credit as well as a quarterly magazine.

Changing culture

Although newcomers are struck by the thriving Christian community in the Faroes, local believers are quick to admit that it isn’t paradise.

The introduction of television in the early 1980s had a definite negative impact on society, they say, since viewers tended to watch programmes uncritically. The media has now become more openly anti-Christian and reverence for the Bible has lessened. At the same time, the divorce rate and alcohol and drug-related problems have grown.

Zachariassen observes that the generation gap is also widening as many young people seek higher education in other countries: ‘Some settle abroad. Others who return to the islands often want to see changes in our church services. Some have been affected by liberal theology and secular thinking. Of course, we’re concerned, but I hope the Lord gives us wisdom’.

But it is the underlying moral erosion of Faroese society that is most troubling. Zachariassen would urge Christians everywhere to pray that ‘God will keep the churches pure, both in doctrine and moral life, and that the Lord will continue the missionary vision among believers here. We have been so blessed. We need to share our blessing with the rest of Europe — and the world!’

Debbie Meroff