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The History Of Religion In Iceland

There are so many factors that truly define and properly explain the history of a specific location. Cultural practices, language, dressing, sports, religion and environment are some of the most important. Understanding these factors about some specific locations, help individuals from other locations truly define other locations. For many countries and locations, there are different practices that have become archaic and obsolete. However, they are also, important when remembering the history of that specific location.

In Iceland, there are many factors that distinguish it from many others. The beautiful terrain filled with glaciers, volcanoes, lakes and other beautiful natural factors. These factors have a great influence on their way of life; like the way they dress, what they eat, occupation, and generally how they live. However, there is a certain part of the culture that the environmental factors do not affect and that is the religion. The religion of a specific place is just as important as every other factors discussed. Hence, this article will give you an in depth description about the religion practiced in Iceland. In a nutshell, it will go deep into the history of religion in Iceland, while providing you with other important information.

What is The Religion In Iceland?

The most predominant religion in Iceland right now is Christianity. Christianity has become the general religion since its adoption by the Althing under the influence of Olaf Tryggvason. Olaf Tryggvason was the king of Norway and he helped in the adoption of Christianity in the years 999/1000 CE. However, prior to this period, during the 9th-10th century, the early Icelanders, practiced a religion called the Northern Germanic Religion. This religion is believed to be influenced by Norwegians fleeing from the monarchical centralization by Harald Fairhairs.

Iceland Religion

The religion of Iceland continued to dwindle as the years progressed, as the accepted religion formally switched to Lutheranism in 1530. The Lutheran church of Iceland has since then become recognized as the state church. It is, also, very well supported by the government.The history of religion is generally broken down into the above stages, with freedom of religion approved in 1874. Here’s a proper summary of each stage in the history of religion in Iceland.

Northern Germanic Religion (9th-10th Century)

In the mid 9th century, Iceland was inhabited by Norwegians who had fled and escaped the centralization by Harald Fairhair. Harald Fairhair hoped to unify the whole of Norway, however, some settlers declined and fleed. They moved in a colony and called themselves the Althings, which meant an assembly of free men. The Althings governed Germanic societies and were led by a holy kingship, thus mimicking that of their prior dwelling place.

Even though they couldn’t pledge allegiance to a king, they stayed faithful to a law code composed by Ùflljót. He was made the first law speaker and was in charge of presiding the meeting of the Althings annually in Thingvellir.

The practices of this early religion were labelled to be pagan, as there were certain factors that depict this belief. For instance, the Icelanders who owned lands, were divided into goðorð (god words). They were each led by a goði (god man), who were part time priests and oversaw the use of sacrifices in the temple. These temples were believed to be influenced by the Scandinavian practices, which involved building temples and enshrining gods.

The religion was called the Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (The truth of gods) and the followers worshipped gods like; hof and hörgar. There were several other gods and spirits worshipped, amongst which Thor was the most popular. He was worshipped in the form of high pillars, while Odin was worshipped by poets.

Religion in Iceland - Thingvellir Iceland

The Advent Of Christianization

The first set of Christians in Iceland was influenced by the Norse people in Britain, where Christianity had a presence. However, because a majority of the Icelandic population was deep into the Northern Germanic Religion, it died out. One of the known devout Christians at the time was named Aud the deep minded. Aud the deep minded was a baptized and devout Christian, who built a cross and prayed to it fervently. Her kinsmen, also, prayed to her God and the hill on which the cross was built is now considered sacred.

The Icelanders lived with a type of Syncretic attitude towards religion, which made it easy for both Christianity and the Northern Germanic religion to survive. Even though the adoption of Christianity was pushed forward by Olaf Tryggvason, it was still considered a minority religion. The belief in the Northern Germanic religion was still very strong. However, all of this was changed by Thorgeir Thorkelsson. Thorgeir Thorkelsson had to step in when there was a huge conflict between both religious practices. In 930, a missionary of Christians burned down a lot of shrines and temples, which caused a conflict between both religions.

However, Thorgeir Thorkelsson was trusted by both religions and was asked to decide which religion they would all stick to. After some considerable amount of deliberation, he decided they would all be Christians. He then ordered for all pagans to be baptized and switch to Christianity. In the advent of this law, all of the goðorðs, were transformed into catholic priests and were taught the necessary practices.

Even though, this law was generally agreed upon, some Northern Germanic practices were still prevalent. However, after several years, it all went extinct.


In the 16th century, there was a rise in Lutheranism in Iceland. The Lutheran faith takes its doctrines from Martin Luther, as he was the first to reform the catholic church. Even though, the Althings and other councils had agreed to stick to only Christianity, Lutheranism was gaining grounds. Bishop Gissur, a man who was ordained, by a Danish bishop, reorganized the church to fit Lutheran principles. This was after the death of the last two Christian bishops. The Lutheran practices involved suppressing Catholic practices, as well as, the promotion of clergy marriages.

However, in 1548, Bishop Gissur passed on and in 1552, the diocese accepted and imbibed the Christian practices again. The downside of this era, was the fact that church literature and teachings were in bad translations. The Lutheran religion, however, were clear and precise. Hence, it took a longer time for the Lutheran practices to be abolished. However, with the help of Gudbrandur Thórlaksson, the translation of Christian literature were easier to understand. He also, devoted his time to training new clergy members and educating the community.

Eventually, in 1584, the first translation of the Icelandic bible was published and open for purchase.

Present Religion In Iceland

Religion in Iceland is very diverse and the population have come to embrace different types of religion. Although in the 19th and 20th century, Christianity was the predominant religion, other religions were being introduced.

Around 1900-1920, the religion known as Theosophy was introduced to Iceland. Theosophy is somewhat founded from the folds of Lutheran principles. Theosophy believes in a brotherhood religion found in Tibet, which also, involves certain practices like Lutheranism. Theosophy believes that the religions of humans comes from spirituality.

Another religion, which can be found in Iceland is the Neopagan religion, like Heathery. Also, called Asatru. Asatru translates to “The truth of the gods”, which believes there was a god before Christianity came into being. Asatru or Neopagan religions can be traced back to the Northern Germanic religions, which are still being practised by some Icelanders. As a matter of fact, in 1972, four men took to the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastic Affairs demanding for the recognition of this religion. They were apparently successful, as in 1973, Asatrú became a registered religion.

Another religion that was brought in to light in 2010 was Zuism. Zuism can be traced back to the reestablishment of the Sumerian religion. The Sumerian religion believed that the universe was created via a series of cosmic births. They also, hold their divinties responsible for both the natural and social status of things.

Overall, there are 41 religions in Iceland alone, ranging from Christianity, Islam, Paganism, Buddhism, Zuism, and a lot of other religions. Every Icelander is a part of a religious group who believes in one religion or the other. This fact makes Iceland one of the most religiously diverse groups on earth. Their ability to accept every religion side by side is the reason why so many religions can survive for this long. However, of all the Christian groups present in Iceland, the National Church of Iceland called the Hallgrimskirkja is the largest.
The Hallgrimskirkja is one the most popular church in Iceland located in Reykjavik. This landmark is amongst the tallest structure in Iceland. Also, its tower can be seen from any part of the country. Standing at 74.5 metres high, it is considered the largest church in the whole of Iceland and has over 245,184 members. This number makes up for 76.2% of the population in Iceland, leaving just 24% in other religious groups or paganism. However, this number cannot be said for the church attendance in Iceland. According to research, only about 10% of the population actually attend church services in the entire country. This fact makes you wonder if Christianity is truly accepted or it just has to do with following the crowd. Also, most children born in Iceland are immediately registered into the National Church of Iceland.

Hallgrímskirkja Iceland - Religion in Iceland

What’s mostly astonishing, is the fact that there are a lot of churches in Iceland. There are numerous churches making them easily accessible, but with little attendance.

Icelanders are very religious people, however, their religion is so diverse, because of their religious past. With so many option of religion, which have exposed them to a lot of beliefs, it is normal for them to have so many religious groups. It is, therefore safe for anyone to assume that religion in Iceland is definitely based on faith.

You can see Icelands greatest church in one of Reykjavik Outventure tours, Guided Reykjavik museum, food & drink walking tour.

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