Iceland—The Saga Continues

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“Iceland—The Saga Continues,” Liahona, June 1997, 35

Faith in Every Footstep 1847–1997


The Saga Continues

More than 1,100 years ago, Viking explorers settled an isolated island located midway between North America and Europe and just south of the Arctic Circle. This was Iceland—a place both inhospitable and beautiful. Life could not have been easy for these settlers as they endured the harsh weather and struggled to tame the rugged land.

All the Nordic countries shared a common language during this early period, and many stories, or sagas, relating heroic episodes in the founding and settling of Iceland were written. Modern Icelanders, who still speak essentially the same language as their Viking ancestors, can read these medieval sagas with little difficulty.

Little has really changed in Iceland today. Life is still not easy, but another saga is unfolding—another chapter in the history of this land is being written—even now.

In 1851, almost 150 years ago, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ was first taught in Iceland. The Church flourished for a while, but in 1914, after a difficult period of persecution, missionary work was discontinued. It was not until 1977 that Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, then a member of the Seventy, officially dedicated the country for missionary work. Today, a comparatively small group of devoted Latter-day Saints is working hard to keep the commandments and to share the gospel message with friends and neighbors.

Their work has not been without its challenges. The language itself was one of the first obstacles—Icelandic is spoken nowhere else in the world. One of the major needs of the fledgling Church in Iceland was translated Church materials. They had no scriptures and no manuals—all the lesson materials had to be translated each week.

When missionaries returned to Iceland in 1975, Sveinbjörg Gudmundsdóttir was one of the first Icelanders to investigate the Church. She spoke fluent English, and soon after her baptism in 1976, she began her 20-year career as a translator for the Church. “My first assignment was to translate the Book of Mormon,” she recalls. “I knew I wasn’t qualified—I had never really translated anything but pamphlets for the missionaries.” She spent many hours on her knees in humble prayer. “I knew I could not do it without the help of the Lord,” she says. The task was overwhelming, but Sister Sveinbjörg felt the guidance of the Holy Ghost. The Icelandic Book of Mormon was published in June 1981.

With the Icelandic scriptures now in their hands, the Saints in Iceland found a new strength and determination. The desire to obtain the blessings of the temple became foremost in their hearts, but to those who spoke only Icelandic, the goal seemed distant. Some members who spoke English did make the long and expensive journey to visit the temple in London, England. Others with a limited knowledge of English also went, but the difficulty of understanding the words sometimes made the experience overwhelming and frustrating. They dreamed of the day when the translation of the temple ceremony would be available.

Waiting for the realization of that dream was an exercise in faith. In 1981, Sister Sveinbjörg had been assigned to go to Salt Lake City to translate the temple ceremony; However, that translation was never recorded. A decade passed before she made that long journey once again—this time to update the translation and prepare it for recording.

During those 10 years of hoping and waiting, the Church in Iceland was growing. Testimonies were being nurtured, and new members were continually adding their strength. Gudmundur Sigurdsson and his wife, Valgerdur Knutsdóttir, were baptized in 1982. He was called to be the Reykjavík Branch president in 1983, and he became the first Icelandic district president in 1986.

Gummi (as he likes to be called) remembers the struggles they faced as the Church was gaining a foothold in Iceland. “We felt so isolated because we had no background for the Church in Iceland—we had no one to ask how things should be done. Sometimes people would offer to help me, but the problem was, I didn’t know what to ask for! Now we have built a base of leadership, and they are ready to be of assistance as new leaders are called.”

One of those more recently called leaders is Bárdur Á. Gunnarsson, current president of the Reykjavík Branch. He, too, first heard of the Church in 1982, but that was a time in his life when his thoughts were far from religion. Even though his lifestyle was not so different from most other young men in his country, he had many obstacles to overcome. “I tried several times to quit smoking and drinking, but I didn’t have the strength to do it,” Bárdur recalls. He had a family, but it was one that began without the blessing of a marriage ceremony. Finally, four years after the elders first knocked on his door, his desire to unite his family and to seek forgiveness led him to be married to Ólöf Bjarnadóttir, the mother of his three daughters. Ólöf was not ready to be baptized at that time, but she did give her consent for him to take their three little girls to church every Sunday. “My patriarchal blessing told me I would go to the temple with my wife and children, and I worked very hard to make this happen,” said Bárdur.

Bárdur’s dream of uniting his family began to come true in 1994 when word was received that the Icelandic temple ceremony was scheduled to be recorded in the Salt Lake Temple. In May of that year, Ólöf accompanied him to Salt Lake City, along with the small group who had been called to make the recording. While there, surrounded by their friends, Bárdur baptized his wife in the baptistry of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. They were sealed in the London Temple one year later.

After five days, the recording project was completed. Before the group who did the recording left the temple, they were allowed to view a small portion of the finished product. “Seeing just a part of the film and hearing those first few words in our own language touched me deep in my heart—it was something I will never forget,” said Gummi. “That increased our fervent desire to share this wonderful experience with all our brothers and sisters at home.”

It was now possible to think about organizing a trip to the temple for the members of the Reykjavík Branch. There was much preparing to be done—in addition to becoming worthy for temple recommends, branch members had to do genealogical research to find family names, and they had to save money for the trip. When whole families were planning to go, this became a sizable amount!

“There was a wonderful excitement, an extra amount of love and care shown among the members as they prepared for this experience,” recalls district president Ólafur Einarsson. “It brought a feeling of unity to the branch that we had not felt before.”

The necessary preparations were completed, and 38 members of the Reykjavík Branch—adults and children—journeyed to the London Temple in June 1995. For a week, they devoted themselves to the work of the Lord. “It was an unforgettable experience to see the joy on the faces of our group as the Spirit touched our hearts,” recalls one branch member. “The love and kindness we felt toward one another continued to grow as we shared the joy of our temple experiences.” They returned to their homes and families with strengthened testimonies and a renewed love of the gospel.

As the Church becomes stronger, the saga of the Saints in Iceland continues. In June 1996—still filled with memories of their experiences the previous year—some of the members of the Reykjavík Branch made a second trip to the London Temple. There, they once again were blessed to participate in holy ordinances as they renewed their covenants with the Lord—in the language of their Viking ancestors.

Photography by DeAnne Walker and Janet Thomas, except as noted

Left: A rainbow highlights the colorful buildings in downtown Reykjavík. Right: Following her baptism in 1976, Sveinbjörg Gudmundsdóttir became a translator for the Church. Her first assignment was the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Right, above: Bárdur Á. Gunnarsson and his family were sealed in the London Temple in 1995. (Photograph courtesy of Bárdur Á. Gunnarsson.) Right: Iceland District President Ólafur Einarsson.

Gudmundur Sigurdsson and his wife, Valgerdur Knutsdóttir, have been members of the Church since 1982. Parents of five children, they became interested in the Church because of its teachings on the importance of the family.

Since their trip to the London Temple in June 1995, members of the Reykjavík Branch have enjoyed stronger bonds of unity, strengthened testimonies, and a renewed love of the gospel.

Above: In 1996, some members of the Reykjavík Branch made a second trip to the London Temple. (Photograph courtesy of Sveinbjörg Gudmundsdóttir.) Center: Large areas of moss-covered volcanic rock are found throughout Iceland. Right: Ólafur Einarsson and his wife, Björg Marteinsdóttir, find joy and peace through the gospel.