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Gospel touches remote Iceland

The country of Iceland seems almost unimaginably remote to most people, situated as it is just below the Arctic Circle, in the lonely waters of the North Atlantic.

And in many ways this volcanic island is remote and harsh. Yet its citizens -descendants of Vikings from Norway who arrived in the late 800s seeking new lands and political freedom - enjoy a long and complex history and unique culture. Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, is closer to New York City than San Francisco is, and despite its northerly location the weather in Iceland is surprisingly mild.Many people are also surprised to learn that the Church enjoys a rich and interesting history in Iceland.

The gospel was first preached on this subarctic island in 1851 by two young Icelanders who had joined the Church in Denmark. As in many countries in Europe, most of the people who joined the Church in Iceland during these early days immigrated to the Rocky Mountains.

At the direction of President Brigham Young, many of these families settled in what today is the town of Spanish Fork, Utah. Because of Iceland's isolation and because of the persecution suffered by the members who remained here, missionary work was eventually given up. The last surviving branch at that time was officially closed in 1914.

But on Sept. 18, 1977, Iceland was officially dedicated for missionary work by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. Despite bad weather, he stood with a group of about 30 people on a hill outside Reykjavik to offer the dedicatory prayer.

As part of this prayer, Elder Wirthlin pronounced the following: "Dear Father, we are grateful to thee for the faith of this people and especially for those who embraced the gospel 125 years ago and made the long journey to the Rocky Mountains. The descendants of those noble pioneers are now returning to this land to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Elder Wirthlin was referring to, among others, a former bishop from Spanish Fork and his wife, Byron and Melva Geslison. Brother Geslison's great-grandmother was a widow named Gudny Erasmusdottir. Sister Erasmusdottir was one of the early converts in Iceland, who, demonstrating the self-reliance and endurance still considered the hallmark of Icelanders today, had made the arduous voyage west from Iceland to the east coast of America, and had crossed the plains on foot at the age of 65 to join the other Icelandic immigrants in Spanish Fork.

Brother and Sister Geslison were called by President Thomas S. Monson to return to Iceland in April 1975 to reopen missionary work among the Icelanders. Their twin sons, David and Daniel, just returned from missions to Japan and Korea respectively, also accompanied them and became the first two district missionaries in Iceland in this era.

And standing among the crowd listening to the dedicatory prayer that rainy and windy day in September was a woman named Sveinbjorg Gudmundsdottir. (Most Icelanders preserve the Old Norse naming customs, so that all the daughters of Gudmund are surnamed "Gudmundsdottir" and all the sons "Gudmundsson.")

Sveinbjorg (in common usage and in conversation, she is referred to by her first name) was the first native Icelander baptized after the missionaries began tracting again. Her conversion and growth in the gospel in many ways parallels the growth of the Church itself in Iceland over the past 20 years.

She did not come from a religious family, yet she remembers that her mother had taught her that she should pray every day. In the two years following her husband's death in 1974, Sveinbjorg had prayed often, and she feels that this was one of the factors that prepared her to accept the gospel. The missionaries in Iceland had only recently begun to proselyte among the native Icelanders when they knocked on her door in January 1976.

Because their work had begun so recently, the missionaries only had one pamphlet translated into Icelandic, "The Plan of Salvation." So Sveinbjorg had to read the Book of Mormon for the first time in English. Yet the first time she saw the book, she remembers, she knew that it was true.

"I had always wanted to know more about the Mormons, and was very glad when these two young men showed up," she explained. "I had such a strong feeling after that first discussion that I couldn't get it out of my mind. It was like the Lord was telling me directly, `You'd better listen!' " Sveinbjorg obeyed these feelings, and was baptized four months later.

The Spirit of the Lord seemed especially strong in those early days, and several people were baptized along with Sveinbjorg. Maria Rosinkarsdottir, the first Relief Society president in Iceland, was one of these people. She recalls an experience with the missionaries similar to Sveinbjorg's, and still tells about feeling the Spirit so strongly after the missionaries left her house the first time that all she could do was pace the floor until they returned.

Many young adults also joined the Church during this period, among them two of Sveinbjorg's sons, Vidir and Hlynur Oskarsson. Sveinbjorg's home soon became an informal meeting place for these new young members and their friends who were interested in the Church. Eventually these gatherings were formalized somewhat, and for almost six years Sveinbjorg held family home evenings at her house for anybody who wanted to come. At times as many as 60 young people attended these meetings, many of whom eventually joined the Church.

The effectiveness of these family home evenings, and the strength of the resultant conversions of those attending is evidenced by the number of these young people who are still active today, and have themselves become the leaders of the Church in Iceland. Thor Bjornsson and Ronald and Gerhard Gudnason were called as some of the first native Icelandic missionaries.

Thor was called to Denmark, and Ronald and Gerhard served in Germany. Greta Sverrisdottir became one of the first Young Women presidents, and Olafur Einarsson is now the district president. A third son of Sveinbjorg's, Gunnar Oskarsson, also eventually joined the Church, and served as one of the counselors in the presidency of the fledgling Reykjavik Branch.

The youth continue to be a source of strength and inspiration in the branch today. Kristjan Mathiesen, recently returned from a mission in England, serves as the Young Men president; Thorbergur Sigurjonsson, who just turned 19, is currently the Sunday School president and a district missionary; and the branch has sent out two more missionaries, Elder Fridrik Gudmundsson to England, and Sister Steinunn Pieper to Scotland. There is also an active seminary program, attended by most of the youth in the branch.

In addition to her missionary activities among her sons' friends, Sveinbjorg has assisted the spread of the gospel in her homeland in other, equally impressive ways. Remembering the lack of materials in Icelandic at her first encounter with the missionaries, Sveinbjorg recognized the need for translating Church publications.

Perhaps because of this recognition, and certainly because of her desire to see her fellow Icelanders be able to read the Book of Mormon in their own language, Sveinbjorg was hired as the Church's translator in September 1977.

Her first assignment was to find a translator for the Book of Mormon. The translation went slowly at first, but because there was such a great need for the book, Sveinbjorg herself eventually started working on the translation as well. This speeded the process up quite a bit, and the translation was finished in December 1979. The Icelandic Book of Mormon was not published for another year and a half, though, because working without a computer, Sveinbjorg had to retype the manuscript after each review, which took some time. Sveinbjorg had started to translate the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price during this time, however, and these scriptures were published only a year after the Book of Mormon.

Since the completion of the translations of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, Sveinbjorg has gone on to translate many of the materials needed to run the programs of the Church. This work has included translations of handbooks, class manuals, and seminary materials. But if there is one project to which Sveinbjorg has dedicated herself more than any other, it would be to the translation of the Icelandic edition of the Church magazine, called Vonarstjarnan, or "The Star of Hope."

As a result of the availability of materials in Icelandic, and because of the efforts of dedicated missionaries and committed Icelandic Saints, the Church has continued to grow in Iceland.

The first branch was officially organized on Aug. 8, 1976, with about 10 members. A year later, by the time Elder Wirthlin dedicated the land, membership had grown to about 40 people. These first members met in a succession of small, rented buildings. By 1981 the branch had grown enough that a permanent meeting place was needed, and so the Church purchased a building on a prominent hill in the center of Reykjavik.

A significant event occurred in the lives of many of the Icelandic members at that time when Elder David B. Haight of the Council of the Twelve visited Iceland and dedicated that building.

The Reykjavik branch currently numbers about 200 people, and its leaders are again contemplating a move. This time they hope to be able to purchase a piece of land and build a traditional chapel. Several sites around Reykjavik are currently being considered, and hopes are high in the branch that within two or three years the members will have a beautiful new chapel in which to worship.

Another facet of the restored gospel in which the Icelandic Saints are strong is in pursuing their family histories. Good records of who settled where have been kept in Iceland since its settlement, and today many Icelanders can trace their genealogies back to these original settlers. Even outside the Church many Icelanders are avid genealogists, and Sveinbjorg's father was one of these researchers. He spent most of his life compiling the family histories of every person who had lived in his home county and in the county adjacent to it. He was not able to finish this work himself before he died, but still managed to publish seven volumes of this information.

When it became apparent that her father would not finish his work, Sveinbjorg promised him that she would complete it for him. She has kept her word so far, publishing the eighth volume several years ago, and has recently sent the ninth volume off for printing. When this volume appears, the histories of all the families who have lived in the area through the letter "S" will be completed. In the course of this work, Sveinbjorg has discovered about 100 family members for whom she is gradually doing temple work.

"I am thankful I am able to continue this work for him, and hope he is pleased with how I am doing it," said Sveinbjorg.

Despite its many spiritual successes, the Church in Iceland still faces a number of challenges.

One of the major challenges is physical isolation. This affects the members in a number of ways. First, the leaders of the branch regret the lack of other branches or wards close by on whom they can rely as examples. Secondly, the isolation Icelandic members must endure makes temple attendance difficult. Saints from Reykjavik must travel to either London, England; or Stockholm, Sweden, to do temple work. In spite of these great distances, many of the members do make the sacrifices necessary to travel.

As she does in many other ways, Sveinbjorg sets a good example in temple attendance, also. She went to the temple for the first time in January 1979, traveling to London with her two sons, Vidir and Hlynur. Sveinbjorg has managed to return to the temple at least once a year every year since that first trip.

"When I recognized the truth of the gospel, I was at first afraid to accept it because of what I knew it would require of me," remembered Sveinbjorg. "But I couldn't turn my back on it, and it has become the greatest blessing of my life." Any member of the Church in Iceland would testify that Sveinbjorg's conversion, and the gospel she has helped spread, have become the greatest blessings in the lives of countless people.