After founding in 1821, DMS became involved in the Greenland mission - taking place in cooperation with the Mission College Board and e. g. including education of catechists.


Rev. Sejer Abelsen and the three ‘hunter catechists’ (Teachers from the settlements at Scoresbysund). Photo 1930.

Mission History Background

Greenland became the DMS first ‘mission field’ after its foundation in 1821. For many years the Greenlandic mission had experienced tough times. At the end of the 1700’s grants were reduced, and subsequently the war against England in 1807-1814 had put a stop to the maritime connection between Greenland and Denmark, thereby, literally speaking, putting a stop to the mission activities. As time went by, all Danish missionaries had returned to Denmark, so that in the whole of Greenland there was only one ordained pastor, the Greenlandic Catechist Frederik Berthelsen. In 1821, the number had reached six ordained pastors but they all suffered great difficulties in serving their widespread mission areas.

Catechist family from Angmagssalik, East Greenland.

DMS in Greenland

Very soon after its foundation, DMS had offered to pay the salary of one missionary, but the offer had been refused by the Mission College Board being responsible for the official Danish mission activities in Greenland. Instead DMS undertook to print 2,000 copies of the existing children’s Bible in Greenlandic translation. The copies were divided between the six pastors in the country. And in 1824 also the Moravian Church missionaries received a large contribution to establish their fourth mission station in Greenland, i.e. the station of ‘Friedrichs-thal’ in South Greenland, now known as Narsaq Kujalleq.

However, the Danish pastors sent out were not so unsympathetic towards DMS. In particular, the Rev. Peder Kragh, who was missionary in Egedesminde in 1818-1828, (now known as Aasiaat), maintained a lively exchange of letters with representatives of DMS and received donations for publication of papers in Green-landic, and for education of Greenlandic catechists and so-called ‘donations of encouragement’ to the qualified catechists having extremely modest saleries.

Pastor Peter Rosing and Missionary Julius Olsen with newly baptized East Greenlanders. Angmagssalik, approximately 1920.

In 1827, the Mission College Board accepted the DMS offer of donating a church to be built in Julianehåb – now known as Qaqortoq.

Julianehåb Church in the Southwestern Greenland, approximately 1908-1920.

In the spring of 1828, the church was dispatched as a pre-assembled unit but the vessel ran aground, and building materials, drawings etc. were salvaged and sailed to Fredrikshåb (now Paamiut).  Subsequently everything was carried to Julianehåb in small portions over a number of years, while numerous letters were exchanged concerning the situation between DMS, the local missionary, the inspector of South Greenland, and the ship owners of the vessel. And in 1832 the finished church could finally be inaugurated in the town where it originally was intended to be built.

From the Inauguration of Jakobshavn Church, Western Greenland. The Pastors Ostermann, Mortensen and Sørensen

For a long time the northern district in West Greenland, Upernavik, had been without a missionary. And DMS had offered to pay the salary of a missionary, an offer which was rejected by the Mission College Board. But when DMS was contacted by a Christen Christensen Østergaard (1804-1883), who wished to become a missionary in Greenland, DMS financed his theological education in order for him to be sent out as missionary by the Mission College Board. Following persistent lobbyism from the aforementioned Rev. P. Kragh, Christen C. Østergaard arrived to Upernavik in 1833 where he remained until 1841. DMS never got its own mission station in Greenland, however, with Christen C. Østergaard they got their own man in the field, and thus he became the first missionary sent out by DMS.

Education of a Greenlandic Clergy

At the same time DMS wanted to educate a Greenlandic clergy. In 1836 a committee was formed to draw up a proposal for education of Greenlandic catechists. The proposal also suggested that some of the catechists were trained and ordained as pastors. Further, it included an offer to contribute to the costs, in total 8,000 Rigsdaler divided over a period of ten years. The amount was so high that it equaled almost all the DMS budgeted income in that period. The offer for financial support was not accepted, but the proposal was the starting signal of lengthy negotiations between the involved authorities concerning a teacher training in Greenland. And it formed the basis of the Royal Resolution in 1844 to establish two colleges of education for catechists in Jakobshavn (Ilulissat) and Godthåb (Nuuk), respectively.

In addition to the issue on financial support, not accepted by the official mission, education of Greenlandic pastors was also a matter of disagreement. DMS favored the establishment of a Greenlandic clergy, as they were of the opinion that ‘en Nødvendighed, at Folket faaer Præster, som tages af dets egen Midte, som ikke behøve først at lære Grønlændernes vanskelige Sprog, som ikke tages bort fra dem, naar de først begynde at kunne arbeide med Frugt og til Velsignelse’ [It was a necessity that the population has pastors appointed from their own midst, who do not have to learn the difficult Greenlandic language, from which they are not deprived, when they first begin to work fruitfully and for blessing, My translation] (Dansk Missionsblad 1843, quote in Wilhjelm 1997).

Officially, Denmark objected to further education of the Greenlandic catechists to become pastors, as it was believed that it was too soon in such a young church as the Greenlandic one, and that Greenlandic pastors would lack authority towards their fellow countrymen. The DMS proposal for a Greenlandic theological education was rejected, and the two new colleges of education were only open to prospective catechists.

However, in 1860 the old Mission College was closed, and the Greenlandic Mission, as the church in Greenland was still called, was transferred to the Danish Ministry of Culture. DMS resubmitted its proposal for a Green-landic theological education. And now it was reconsidered by the Ministry – besides there was a shortage of well-educated Danish missionaries. However, the question of how to organize a Greenlandic theological education was still in dispute. Admittedly, in 1871-72 a committee was appointed concerning ‘Development of the Greenlandic Mission’ – with the chairman of DMS, Chr. Kalkar, as its chairman. However, the commission’s proposal for education of Greenlandic pastors and senior catechists was only to a limited extent implemented. And the Danish pastors in Greenland were still highly sceptical towards education and ordainment of Green-landic pastors.

DMS and the official Greenlandic Mission

As a matter of fact, during the 1800s the relationship between DMS and the official Danish mission in Greenland was changed. In the first years of DMS its members belonged to circles being critical towards the State church. (Wilhjelm 1997 p. 24). The missionaries in Greenland were banned from publishing the DMS accounts of their activities – the fact that some of them did it all the same is another story. In 1849 the ban was lifted. The DMS publications were sent to Greenland, in particular Dansk Missionsblad became a discussion forum of the affairs of the Greenlandic mission (Wilhjelm 1997, p 30).

As time went by, the west coast of Greenland, from Upernavik in the north to Frederiksdal in the south, was no longer a mission field. The last ‘heathens’ had been baptized, and in 1900 the Moravian Church missionaries left Greenland and transferred their congregations and mission stations to the Greenlandic Church. In 1905 the terminology became more up-to-date by the ‘Lov om Kirke- og Skolevæsen i Grønland’ (the Act on Ecclesia-stical and Educational Affairs in Greenland). The country was now divided into 11 benefices, including Angmagssalik on the east coast, where the mission work had commenced only in 1894, and the last adult baptism took place in 1921.

The Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs in Greenland

In 1906, the ‘Udvalg for den grønlandske Kirkesag’ (the Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs in Greenland) was established, the purpose of which was to strengthen the relationship between Danish and Greenlandic congregations. The Danish mission work was now considered finalized. And the Board meeting of DMS in December 1906 decided that from the end of 1907 DMS should confine its assistance to ‘Arbejdet blandt Hedningerne ved Angmagssalik and Kap York’ (the work among the heathens in Angmagssalik and Kap York). At the beginning of 1908, DMS sent a farewell letter to ‘den grønlandske Menighed, dens Præster og Kateketer’ (the Greenlandic congregation, its pastors and catechists), in which the successful mission work was summed up, and some of the DMS activities transferred to the Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs in Greenland. In addition, DMS promised not to lose sight of the Greenlandic congregations and to continue support of the mission work in East Greenland and at Kap York.

The last main contribution of DMS was establishment of the mission station at Kap York in 1909. This was the result of a cooperation between Knud Rasmussen, DMS, and the Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs in Greenland. And in 1913, the complete management of the station was transferred to the Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs in Greenland. However, DMS continued to pay the salary of one missionary to the Kap York station.

On 20 May 1934 (Whit Sunday) the ‘last heathen in Greenland’ was baptized, as the former Head of college in Greenland Frederik Balle wrote in the DMS Annual Report 1933-34. In 1937, the Danish Government took over responsibility of the mission station established at Kap York, which from now on no longer was a mission station (by now Qaanaaq parish). For a number of years DMS continued to award scholarships to Greenlandic catechists, but the DMS financial obligations in Greenland had ceased.

Birte Christensen

View more photos from Greenland here


Birte Hedegaard Christensen (born 1949). MA (English/French/Eskimology)
Grammar School Teacher, Denmark + Greenland 1983-1989
Translator/Reviser, Council of the European Union 1990-2012

Rev. dato: 15. August 2018
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