Ah, but is it church history? It is according to Leigh Churchill, who in his 2004 volume, ‘The Age of Knights & Friars, Popes & Reformers’ (Authentic, UK) notes that it was Christian leaders from Scandinavian countries who were the first Europeans to ‘discover’ North America.
Leaders of Denmark, Norway and Sweden had all embraced the Christian faith by the 11th Century. The government of Iceland declared Christianity to be the national religion in 1000AD. Greenland received missionaries in the same year and, while the message was resisted by its founders, the second generation of Viking settlers in Greenland embraced the Christian faith.
As the drive to colonise new islands continued, it was one of these Vikings who led the exploration of what is now Newfoundland, Canada.
Our hero’s name? ‘Leif the Lucky!’ (that’s true!). To those familiar with the story he will, of course, be remembered as the son of ‘Erik the Red’ (also true)!
He called the newly found ‘island’, ‘Vinland’, or Wineland, because of the profusion of vines there. The first group of settlers built houses and spent a winter there. Other groups from Greenland followed.
‘Many small pioneering parties made temporary settlements in Vinland – most in fact used Leif’s vacant houses – but they invariably returned to Greenland within a few years of their arrival. The days of Viking exploration were at an end, and this last outpost was just too far from the rest of the Norse world to really blossom.
Within twenty years the Norsemen left Vinland for the last time; none of them had any idea of the significance of the colony that never quite happened…It was to be five hundred years before Europeans again set foot upon its shores, but it is fascinating to reflect that Christianity was first brought to the New World by these ancient Viking seafarers, themselves the first generation of converts among their people.’ (Churchill, p. 3)
For those of us not familiar with early American Christian history, this ‘breaking news’ may come as a surprise. Our earliest picture of Christianity coming to North America tends to have been one in which a thoroughly decent, modest English puritan held the Bible in one hand and tentatively raised his other hand half way up to heaven, pointing men to God. However, we may need to revise that picture and replace our puritan friend with a hairy, war-like bearded Viking booming out both the wrath and mercy of God!
© 2008 Lex Loizides