Dr. James J. S. Johnson
LEIF EIRIKSSON: VIKING EXPLORER OF VINLAND & GREENLAND’S EVANGELIST
Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare His praise in the islands.Isaiah 42:12
A common misconception is that the Leif Eiriksson statute, given by the USA to the nation of Iceland in A.D.1930 (in celebration of the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s ALTHING at Thingvellir), was positioned to be in front of the Lutheran cathedral-looking parish church (Hallgrimskirkja) that stands majestically behind Leif’s statue. Magnus Sveinn Helgason, an Icelandic journalist-historian (who hopefully knows Icelandic history better than his recent attempts at understanding current events in American politics), reports:
“Leifur Eiríksson’s statue was not erected in front of Hallgrímskirkja, but rather the other way around! While the [Reykjavik] statue of Leifur Eiríksson was presented as a gift to Iceland in the year 1930, it was not until the summer of 1932 that it had been erected in its current location. The statue was unveiled on July 17 1932 by the US Ambassador to Iceland.”Magnus Helgason
(Quoting Magnus Helgason’s “Ten Fascinating Facts about the Statue of Leifur EirÍksson”, Iceland Magazine, 11-2-A.D.2015.) The 244-feet-tall Evangelical-Lutheran church (Reykjavik’s tallest building), built of concrete with a white granite veneer, was not built until after World War II, being 41 years in construction from A.D.1945—A.D.1986, after its commission in A.D.1937!). The church’s pipe organ weighs 25 tons sporting 72 stops and 5,275 pipes!
Yet it appears, to the casual observer, that Leif Eiriksson’s statue guards the front entrance of Hallgrimskirkja!
Obviously, Iceland proudly claims Leif Eiriksson as one of its noblest natives. Leif was born in Iceland, but he emigrated therefrom to Greenland, while young, as a result of his father (Eirik the Red) being banished as punishment for some killings. This follows an earlier family history emigration, because Thorvald, Eirik’s own father, was himself banished from Norway, for killings, so Thorvald relocated his family to Iceland – as is reported in 2 sagas, both contained within THE VINLAND SAGAS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA (Penguin, 1965), translated and edited with notes by Magnus Magnusson & Hermann Pálsson pages 49 & 76-78.
So Leif’s boyhood and youth includes his earliest years in Iceland, followed by growing up into Viking manhood in Brattahlid, Greenland. As a young man Leif decided to travel abroad—first to the Hebrides and afterwards to Norway. In the Hebrides Leif met Thorgunna, a local noblewoman; by her Leif became father to a boy named Thorgils (who later came to Iceland). Then Leif sailed to Norway. There Leif met and became friends with its amazing Viking king, Olaf Tryggvason, the evangelistic Christian Viking king who emphatically promoted (and aptly defended) the Christian faith in Norway, plus Iceland, Orkney Islands, Faroe Islands, and the Hebrides.
HOW LEIF EIRIKSSON BECAME PART OF CHRIST’S GREAT COMMISSION
Providentially, Leif Eiriksson would become part of the Lord Jesus Christ’s “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20; see also Mark 16:15 & Acts 1:8). While Leif spent time in Norway, King Olaf Tryggvason persuaded Leif to become a Christian—which required rejecting the Thor-worship of his father (Eirik the Red). King Olaf also urged Leif to return to his homeland in Greenland, as a Christian missionary, to promote King Olaf’s faith there. Despite initial reluctance (and doubts expressed about how successful such evangelistic efforts would be), Leif agreed to go back to Greenland as a Christian missionary—in obedience to King Olaf Tryggvason’s commission. (See Magnusson & Pálsson, The Vinland Sagas, at 85-87 & 95.) Soon there was a division in Eirik the Red’s family: Eirik the Red remained a pagan Thor-worshipper, as did Leif’s half-sister Freydis; but Leif’s mother (Thjodhild) and 2 brothers (Thorvald & Thorstein) became serious Christians. In fact, to this day, the remains (i.e., foundation) of the prayer chapel, that Thjodhild had constructed at Brattahlid, can still be viewed by tourists, vindicating Eirik’s Saga on this historical detail.
Regarding Thjodhild’s Christian prayer chapel (at her family’s homestead in Greenland), Magnusson & Pálsson comment:
“Eirik the Red’s farmstead at Brattahlid (now Kagssiarssuk) was meticulously excavated by the National Museum of Denmark in 1932, revealing a large complex of buildings of Norse design. But no trace of ‘Thjodhild’s Church’ was found—a negative fact that [arguably] tended to discredit this section of [Eirik’s] saga. But in August 1961 a workman digging foundations for a school-hostel at Kagssiarssuk came across a human skull, which was soon [determined] to be that of a [Viking Age] medieval Norseman. The following summer, in 1962, full-scale excavations were carried out which revealed the foundations of a tiny medieval church, only sixteen feet long by eight feet in area, with four-foot-thick walls of turf and timber, set inside a small churchyard containing some eighty graves. The church stood some 200 yards from Eirik’s home, and was concealed from it by a fold in the rising ground. The other medieval Norse churches discovered in Greenland were all built of stone. This very primitive and humble turf church can only be identified with ‘Thjodhild’s Church’, which was built ‘not too close to the farmstead’ of Brattahlid.”Magnusson & Pálsson
(Quoting Magnusson & Pálsson, The Vinland Sagas, pages 86-87, in Footnote # 3.)
Thjodhild’s chapel is now reconstructed, for the benefit of tourists visiting Brattahlid.
Eirik’s Saga reports how the Gospel of Christ is divisive: “Leif came across some shipwrecked [travelers] and brought them home with him and gave them all hospitality throughout the winter. He [i.e., Leif] showed his great magnanimity and goodness by bringing Christianity to the country [of Greenland] … [for which] he was known as Leif the Lucky.” (Quoting Magnusson & Pálsson, The Vinland Sagas, page 86.) When Leif arrived home, at Brattahlid by Eiriksfjord, he was welcomed. Leif immediately “began preaching Christianity” and transmitted “to the people King Olaf Tryggvason’s message, telling them what excellence and what glory there was in this [Christian] faith. Eirik was reluctant to abandon his old [Norse pagan] religion; but his wife, Thjodhild, was converted at once, and she had a church [i.e., chapel] built not too close to the [family’s] farmstead.
This building was called Thjodhild’s Church, and there she and the many others who had accepted Christianity would offer up prayers. Thjodhild refused to live with Eirik after she converted, and this annoyed him greatly.” (Quoting Magnusson & Pálsson, The Vinland Sagas, page 86.)
Leif’s Gospel-sharing with his brothers also left an everlasting mark, as is evidenced by the dying declaration of Leif’s brother Thorvald, who—knowing his death was imminent—wanted his body’s burial to testify his Christian faith and identity: “’I have a [Skraeling-shot arrow] wound in the armpit,’ said Thorvald. ‘An arrow flew up between the gunwale [i.e., the boat-brim of their knarr longship] and my shield, under my arm—here it is. This will lead to my death. I advise you now to go back [to Greenland] as soon as you can. But first I want you to take me to the headland [i.e., a specific promontory shoreland of Vinland] I thought so suitable for a home. I seem to have hit on the truth when I said that I would settle here for a while. Bury me there and put crosses at my head and feet [to mark my burial place as the grave of a Christian], and let the place be called Krossaness forever afterwards.’ … With that Thorvald died, and his men did exactly as he had asked of them.” (Quoting from chapter 5 of the Grænlendinga Saga, in Magnusson & Pálsson, The Vinland Sagas, page 61.)
Thorstein (Leif’s other brother), became a Christian, thanks to Leif. Thorstein’s faith was commended once by a Norse pagan who admitted that Thorstein’s Christian faith was “better” than his own pagan faith. (See Magnusson & Pálsson, The Vinland Sagas, page 62.)
LEIF EIRIKSSON’S ROLE ADVANCING THE GEOGRAPHIC (“FILL THE EARTH”) ASPECT OF THE GENESIS MANDATE
Leif’s exploits, in discovering and in initiating Viking settlement-based harvesting of timber (and other natural resources) from America’s northeastern coasts, are summarized by Dr. John Haywood, Viking historian:
“Leif Eiriksson set out from the Eastern Settlement in Greenland to investigate Bjarni’s sighting [of North American coastland]. Sailing to the northwest, he first came upon a land of bare rock and glaciers which he called Helluland (Slab Land). Sailing south he next reached a low, forested land. This he called Markland (Wood Land). Leif pressed on still further south and spent a winter in a land with a mild climate, where grapes grew wild and rivers teemed with salmon. Leif called this Vinland (Wine Land). The locations of his discoveries will probably never be established with absolute certainty. Helluland was probably Baffin Island; Markland was almost certainly Labrador. Identifying Vinland is more difficult. The only Norse settlement so far discovered [archaeologically speaking] in North America is at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, but this is too far north to fit the saga descriptions [which include information on the relative number of daylight and nighttime hours in the 24 hour cycle]. Vinland probably lay south of the Gulf of St Lawrence, the approximate northern limit of the wild grapes, but north of Cape Cod, the southern limit of the Atlantic salmon. Leif’s voyage was followed up by attempts to settle permanently in Vinland, occasionally voyages from treeless Greenland to collect timber from Markland continued as late at 1347. The only Norse artifact so far found south of Newfoundland is a coin of King Olaf [III] the Peaceful of Norway (1066-93) from an Indian site at Goddard Point in Maine.”John Haywood
(Quoting from Haywood, Penguin Historical Atlas, page 98.)
Obviously, Leif Eiriksson’s greatest fame, in the eyes of most folks, is his historic role as the discoverer of North America—boldly leading the earliest historically-attested landing onto to North American soil, by pioneers from east of North America. The eastern shore of North America was seen by Bjarni Herjolfsson, who was storm-blown from Greenland in A.D.985, and sighted—but did not land upon—a shoreline of North America. It was Leif Eiriksson, 15 years later (A.D.1000) who intentionally sailed to find and to land upon North American shores—and his discovery began traffic between tree-starved Greenland and forest-filled North America—mostly for valuable “Markland” [Labrador] timber (but also “Vinland” grapes)—that would last for more than 3 centuries, only to be curtailed by the eclipsing of the “Medieval Warm Period” (approx. A.D.900—A.D.1250) into the regional climactic cooling called the “Little Ice Age” (approx. A.D.1400—A.D.1850) that made such subarctic oceanic travel impracticably perilous. (See John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings (Penguin, 1995), pages 98-99. Regarding reports of “Markland”, see also Paolo Chiesa, “Marckalada: The First Mention of America in the Mediterranean Area (c. 1340)”, Terrae Incognitae, 53(2):88-106 (July 2021).At the end of the worldwide Flood, God renewed the Genesis Mandate to Noah’s family (Genesis 9:1-7), to be fruitful, to multiply, and to “fill the earth”—this third aspect requiring geographic dispersion from the mountain range of Ararat. That geographic dispersion mandate was temporarily resisted by Nimrod and other rebels, with the tower-building at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), yet the earth’s filling was catalyzed by the miraculous division of post-Flood mankind into diverse language-groups (i.e., ethnolinguistic “nations”).
Some think that Vinland matches part of (what is today called) eastern New Brunswick, as the northern range of the “butternut” walnut, which was found at the L’Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland) Viking settlement site, which excavated site also contained remains of “butternut” walnut wood. Farther south, a Norse (i.e., Viking Age Norwegian) coin was found, identified with the reign of Norway’s Viking king Olaf III (“Kyrre”, meaning “Peaceful”). That silver coin (sometimes called the “Goddard penny”) was not minted until the timeframe of AD1067-AD1093 (when King Olaf II ruled Norway).
Does the “Maine penny” prove that Greenland-based Vikings, a couple generations (or so) after Leif’s Vinland visit, explored part of Maine? Or, does the Goddard coin illustrate how a Norway-minted silver coin was traded by American natives, such that it eventually reached a part of Maine where the Vikings themselves never went? More forensic evidence could help us to answer such questions. Maybe someday we’ll know. 😊 😊
LEIF EIRIKSSON’S ENDURING LEGACY
So, as we rightly remember and honor Leif Eiriksson (each October 9th especially) for his adventurous and historic achievements, we should also appreciate that Leif—as a godly Christian Viking—made his own contribution to advancing the Genesis Mandate (which involves “filling the earth”) and the Great Commission (which involves sharing the Gospel)
“Sing unto the Lord a new song, and His praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. … Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare His praise in the islands.” (Isaiah 42:10,12)
Dr. James J. S. Johnson is certified in Nordic History & Geography by the Norwegian Society of Texas. ><> JJSJ