Religion in Iceland

Religion in Iceland
Interior of Skálholt cathedral
Traditionally-built church at Hellnar, Snæfellsnes

Religion in Iceland was initially the Norse paganism that was a common belief among mediaeval Scandinavians until Christian conversion. Later, the nation became half-Christian and then more fully Christian. This increasing Christianization culminated in the Pietism period when non-Christian entertainments were discouraged. At present, the population is overwhelmingly, if nominally, Lutheran. However, Baptist, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Bahá'í, neopagan, Mormon, Muslim and other faiths exist.[1]


The Reformation

During the Reformation, Iceland adopted Lutheranism in place of its earlier Roman Catholicism. Two local men, Oddur Gottskálksson and Gissur Einarsson, became disciples of Martin Luther and soon secured followers, particularly after King Christian III of Denmark and Norway declared himself for Lutheranism and began to enforce the change in his kingdom.

The Reformation proved to be more violent in Iceland than in most of the lands ruled by Denmark, partly from Arason's proto-nationalistic resistance, which escalated nearly to the point of civil war. Jón Arason and Ögmundur Pálsson, the Catholic bishops of Skálholt and Hólar respectively, opposed Christian's efforts at promoting the Reformation in Iceland. Ögmundur was deported by Danish officials in 1541, but Arason decided to fight. Opposition to the Reformation effectively ended in 1550 when Arason was captured after being defeated in the Battle of Sauðafell by loyalist forces under Daði Guðmundsson. Arason and his two sons were subsequently beheaded in Skálholt on November 7, 1550.

With Lutheranism firmly in place, Catholicism was outlawed, and Catholic church property was assumed by Iceland's rulers. Though Latin remained the official language of the Lutheran Church of Iceland until 1686, and a good part of the former Catholic terminology and other externals were retained, the Lutheran church differed considerably in doctrine. Those Catholics who refused to convert eventually fled, generally to Scotland. No Catholic priest was permitted to set foot on Icelandic soil for more than three centuries.

The Catholic Church resumed missionnary activities in Iceland from the 1850s, and today about 5,500 Icelanders belong to that faith.


Starting in the eighteenth century, Pietism rose in importance due to activity from Denmark. The pietists expanded printing and literature in Iceland. However, education and literacy for the Pietists was primarily or solely to have a religious function and they discouraged anything without religious meaning.[2] This led to encouraging a certain dourness to Iceland by discouraging dancing or other entertainment.

Modern Iceland

About 283,000 Icelanders (89.3% of the population) are members of Christian congregations, of which most (251.331 people or 79.1%) are members of the Church of Iceland. According to a 2004 survey[3] 69.3% of the total population claimed to be "religious," whereas 19.1 per cent said they were "not religious" and 11.6 per cent were unable to state whether or not they were religious. Of those who said they were religious, 76.3 per cent said that they were Christian, while 22.4 per cent said that they "believed in their own way".[4]

As in the other Nordic countries, church attendance is relatively low; only 10% of Icelanders go to church once a month or more frequently, 43% say that they never attend church and 15.9% say they attend church once a year.[5]

When asked to select a statement that best represented their opinion, 39.4% of Icelanders said they believe in the existence of a benevolent god to whom one can pray; 19.2% said that God must exist or else life would be meaningless; 19.7% said that it is impossible to know whether or not God exists; 26.2% said that no god exists; 9.45% said that God created the universe and presided over it; and 9.7 % said that none of the aforementioned statements represented their opinion.[6]


Officially, the nation is religiously homogenous. Nearly all Icelandic religious followers are Christian, and vast majority of these are Lutheran. Church attendance, however, remains low.[5] At birth each child is automatically entered into the religious group the mother belongs to.


Official statistics place Iceland as overwhelmingly Lutheran. The main church is the Church of Iceland which represents 79.1% of the population (2008). The Church of Iceland is also the State Church, but religious freedom is practiced. There are several "free Lutheran" churches as well which total 4.9% of the population. In recent years, there has been an increase in the proportion linked to the free Lutheran churches. In total, some 90% of the population are registered as some form of Lutheran. However, these statistics are by some considered misleading since most people are automatically registered as members of the Church of Iceland. Estimates indicate that 11% of the population attend religious service regularly and 44% never attend.


Roman Catholicism is the largest non-Lutheran faith in Iceland, though remains practiced by a small minority (2.5% of the population). There is a Roman Catholic Diocese of Reykjavík with Pierre Bürcher as Bishop.[7] It is estimated that half of the nation's Catholics are foreign born with the main groups being Filipinos and Poles. However, even if they are excluded, Catholics are still about 1% of native Icelanders, a figure higher than for all other Scandinavian ethnicities (unless Scandinavian-Americans are considered).

In the twentieth century, Iceland had some notable, if at times temporary, converts to the faith. For a time Halldór Laxness was Catholic. Although this did not last, his Catholic period is of importance due to his position in modern Icelandic literature. A more resolutely Catholic writer in Icelandic was Jón Sveinsson. He moved to France at 13 and became a Jesuit, remaining in Society of Jesus for the rest of his life. He was well liked as a children's book author (writing in German) and even appeared on postage stamps.[8]


The Pentecostals are the third largest religious group in Iceland. There are Pentecostal churches in Keflavík, Akureyri and the capital. A website, Gospel Iceland a site in Icelandic, also exists for the movement in Iceland.


The Anglican Church is in an unusual position in Iceland. Although significant as a world faith (with 80 million members), it has a limited presence in Iceland, and its future expansion may be limited by its entering into an "agreement of full communion" with the Lutheran Church of Iceland, known as the Porvoo agreement. Thus, Anglicans may effectively consider themselves to be Lutheran whilst in Iceland, and the two bodies have a full inter-recognition of each other's faith and practice, sacramental life, and ministry. Nonetheless, a single Anglican congregation meets monthly in Reykjavik, using the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja church building to worship in the English language according to the rites of the Church of England.

Seventh-day Adventists

The Seventh-day Adventists have some organization in Iceland. They have their own website and also a local conference. Gavin Anthony is a leading figure in Adventism in Iceland.[9] That said, growth has been static for ten years and the Adventists tend to indicate this is caused by the generalized secularism of the nation. The group represents less than .3% of the population.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Mormons have a fairly small presence in Iceland, but worth mentioning for historical reasons. In the nineteenth century, LDS missionaries came to Iceland and converted a few local residents. In 1855, these residents would become the genesis of the first Icelandic community overseas in Spanish Fork, Utah.[10]

As of January 1, 2009 Iceland had 241 LDS members in 2 branches (Reykjavik and Selfoss).[11][12] A family history center for the church is also located in the Reykjavik meetinghouse.[13]

Independent Baptists

Iceland's history has no record of Baptists establishing a church in Iceland until the 1980s, though not formally recognized in the Icelandic registry until 1994. Since the early 1900s fewer than 10 missionary families have attempted to start a church in Iceland. According to the national registry of Iceland, there are two Baptist Churches: Fyrsta Baptista Kirkjan (The First Baptist Church) and Emmanúels Baptistakirkjan (The Emmanuel Baptist Church). The First Baptist Church is a Christian church that claims to follow the teachings of the Bible. It holds separate services in both Icelandic and English. Since 1999, the Pastor Patrick Weimer (BMFP Missionary family)[14] and his wife Vicki[15] established a church (registered as the Baptistakirkjan á Suðurnesjum[16]) to the Icelandic speaking nationals and later merged with the English speaking church in 2006 when the military base closed. The pastor and his wife are now dual citizens having Icelandic citizenship and have taken Icelandic names; Registered as: Viktoría Karlsdóttir and Patrekur Vilhjálmsson.

In 2001 Missionaries Jeremy Gresham and Ben Wharton began laboring to see a Baptist Church started in the Reykjavik area, a population base of 200,000 which is one-third of Iceland's population. The Church has grown over the years and is now registered with the Icelandic government as Emmanúels Baptistakirjan (The Emmanuel Baptist Church). Missionary Robert Hansen is currently pastoring the church. The Emmanuel Baptist Church offers a variety of Bible studies and outreaches in Icelandic and English as well as their scheduled weekly services.

Johnny G. Wright (served in Iceland 1989 - 2006)was the first pastor of the First Baptist Church upon its formal registration in 1994. Michelle Harrison[17] is a Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF)[18] missionary serving with the First Baptist Church. The Baptist Church building is located on the southern peninsula of Iceland in Njarðvík, where some 25,000 people live. Weekly attendance (75% of which is youth) is usually 80–120 people (despite only 30 being registered).

Other Christian

According to Jehovah's Witnesses, the organization has 348 members in Iceland, in five congregations.[19] The National Registry (see below) estimates them at twice that number, based on self-identification.

Eastern Orthodoxy, especially Serbian and Russian, has a small presence on the island. Various other Christian denominations are represented with fewer than 1,000 registered adherents.


Membership in registered non-Christian religions in Iceland. The red line represents the Bahá'í faith, the green line represents neopaganism, the dark blue line represents Buddhism, and the light blue line represents Islam.

A small minority practice a variety of non-Christian faiths, whose total numbers account for about one percent of the population.


From the 1970s, there has been a revival of Norse paganism in Iceland. As of 2009, Ásatrúarfélagið had 1395 registered members, corresponding to 0.4% of the total population.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith in Iceland (Icelandic Bahá'í samfélagið á Íslandi) began when American Amelia Collins visited in 1924 and the first Icelandic Bahá'í was Holmfridur Arnadottir. The religion was recognized by the government in 1966 and the first Bahá'í National Spiritual Assembly was elected in 1972.[20] Currently around 400 Bahá'ís in the country governed by 8 Local Spiritual Assemblies. The number of assemblies is the highest percentage, by population, in all of Europe,[20] Danish scholar of religion Margit Warburg speculates that the Icelandic people are culturally more open to religious innovation.[20]


Buddhism in Iceland has existed since late ´70s when the first Icelandic member of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) returned home from England, where she'd been introduced to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. On 17 June 1980 SGI-Iceland was officially formed and since then the Icelandic branch of SGI has grown to almost 200 members. In the 1990s more sects of Buddhism found their way to Iceland through immigrants from Thailand for the most part. As of 2009, there are three Buddhist organizations in Iceland officially recognized as religious organizations by the Icelandic government. Collectively they have 1082 members.


Iceland has 371 members of The Association of Muslims in Iceland (2009). Most of the nation's Muslims live in or near Reykjavík, but there is a small number of Kosovar Muslim refugees in Dalvík.[21]


The number of Jews is estimated to be about 100 members. The Jewish population is small enough that it has not registered and is listed as unspecified/other groups. There is no synagogue or prayer house.

There was no significant Jewish population or emigration to Iceland until the twentieth century, though some Jewish merchants lived in Iceland temporarily at times during the nineteenth century. Icelanders' attitude toward the Jews has ranged from sympathy for their plight to blaming them for "Bolshevism", among other things. Although most Icelanders deplored their persecution, they usually refused entry to Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany, so the Jewish population did not rise much during the Second World War.[22]

Today the Jews remain a minor element of Iceland. Up to 60 people do attend occasional Jewish holiday parties or lectures by Jewish immigrants, but this does not necessarily reflect the actual Jewish population. In 2011 A communal Passover Seder, And High Holiday Services were held in Reykjavik. The World Jewish Congress had no figures for Iceland in 1998, suggesting that the numbers are under 120 (and likely well under that figure).[23] The web site for the Catholic diocese indicated there are only 30 Jewish people in Iceland,[24] However when Chabad Rabbi's conducted a search for Icelandic Jews, they came in contact with over 100 Jewish people living in Iceland. Still, it seems that, save for the European micro-states, Iceland might have the lowest Jewish population of any European nation.

Despite the small population, the First Lady of Iceland, Dorrit Moussaieff, is a Bukharian Jew and is likely the most significant Jewish woman in Icelandic history. Moussaief was born in Israel and carries both Israeli and Icelandic citizenship. She still follows some aspects of Judaism – lighting, for example, the first candle of the menorah on the eve of Hannukkah and teaching her husband about the holiday.[25] She has introduced Jewish culture to the country in a positive way in order to counter anti-Semitism.[26]

Non-religion or secularism

Eleven percent of Icelanders "don't believe in any sort of spirit, God, or life force", according to a 2004 Eurobarometer study Social Values, Science and Technology.[27] This is lower than in Norway or the United Kingdom, while expressed belief in God was about the same in Iceland as in the UK and higher than in most of the Scandinavian countries. The plurality (and near majority) of Icelanders express a belief in a "spirit or life force" rather than in God or a generalized disbelief.

Siðmennt[28] is the largest organization promoting secularism in Iceland. It is similar to the Human-Etisk Forbund in Norway, although it only claims a membership of "well over 200" members (0.06% of the Icelandic population), a far lower proportion of the nation than the Norwegian organization. Unlike the Human-Etisk Forbund, Siðmennt is not recognized as a religious community by the state and thus does not receive any funds from the state like registered religious organizations do. People outside religious organizations still pay the "church tax" but the money goes to the state (previously it was earmarked for the University of Iceland).

There are other Icelandic institutions for the secular branches within society, such as the SAMT or Samfélag trúlausra. Vantrú is a vocal association of atheists that criticizes all things supernatural.

Religious affiliation in Iceland

The table shows religious affiliation in Iceland on March 12, 2011 according to Statistics Iceland.[29]

Religious group number  % of population
Church of Iceland 247.245 77.6
Roman Catholic Church 10.207 3.2
Reykjavík Free Church 8.728 2.7
Hafnarfjörður Free Church 5.653 1.8
Reykjavík Independent Church 3.053 1.0
Pentecostal Church 2.087 0.7
Asa Faith Society 1.700 0.5
Buddhist Association of Iceland 925 0.3
Seventh-day Adventist Church 760 0.2
Jehovah's Witnesses 701 0.2
The Way, Free Church 658 0.2
The Cross 559 0.2
Parish of St. Nicholas of the Russian Orthodox Church 427 0.1
Bahá'í Faith 412 0.1
Muslim Association 370 0.1
The Icelandic Christ-Church 294 0.1
Cultural Association of Muslims in Iceland 274 0.1
Serbian Orthodox Church 218 0.1
Betania 185 0.1
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 184 0.1
SGI in Iceland 153 0.0
Catch The Fire (CTF) 134 0.0
Kefas - Christian Community 132 0.0
The Church of Evangelism 103 0.0
Zen in Iceland - Night Pasture 85 0.0
Sjónarhæð Congregation 57 0.0
The Believers' Fellowship 34 0.0
First Baptist Church 30 0.0
Church of the resurrected life 29 0.0
Reykjavíkurgoðorð (Asa Faith) 22 0.0
Family Federation for World Peace and Unification International 21 0.0
Heaven on earth 18 0.0
Port of hope 14 0.0
Homechurch 10 0.0
Icelandic House of Prayer 7 0.0
Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International 3 0.0
The Rock - A Christian Community 0 0.0
The Word of Life 0 0.0
Other and not specified 18.869 5.9
Outside religious organizations 14.091 4.4

Eurobarometer Poll 2005

According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll 2005,[30]

  • 38% of Icelandic citizens responded that "they believe there is a God".
  • 48% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force".
  • 11% answered that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force".
  • 3% responded that they "don't know".

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^
  3. ^ Trúarlíf Íslendinga: Viðhorfskönnun (2004), p. 26.
  4. ^ Trúarlíf Íslendinga: Viðhorfskönnun (2004), p. 28.
  5. ^ a b Trúarlíf Íslendinga: Viðhorfskönnun (2004), p. 56.
  6. ^ Trúarlíf Íslendinga: Viðhorfskönnun (2004), p. 30.
  7. ^ Cf. Holy See Press Office, Daily Bulletin of 30.10.2007, Rinunce e nomine, Rinuncia del Vescovo di Reykjavik (Islanda) e nomina del successore (Italian)
  8. ^ "Jon Sveinsson, SJ (Nonni)". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  9. ^ [2][dead link]
  10. ^ "Icelandic Language". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  11. ^ LDS Church News Country Information: Iceland
  12. ^ Iceland visit: light, warm.LDS Church News.Saturday, Sept. 21, 2002
  13. ^ LDS Newsroom - Iceland
  14. ^ "Baptist Missions to Forgotten Peoples - Worldwide Ministries". BMFP. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  15. ^ "First Baptist Church of Njardvik Iceland". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  16. ^ "Kirkjur Á Suđvesturlandi". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ ":: Baptist Bible Fellowship International ::". 2009-08-11. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b c Hassall, Graham; Fazel, Seena. "100 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Europe". Bahá’í Studies Review 1998 (8): pp. 35–44. 
  21. ^ International Religious Freedom Report 2006
  22. ^ [3][dead link]
  23. ^ "Jews by country. Definition, graph and map". 2005-03-03. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  24. ^ [4][dead link]
  25. ^ "Moussaieff موساييف мусаев מוסאיוף: From Bukhara to Iceland-Dorrit Moussaieff". 2005-04-09. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  26. ^ "וואלה!". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  27. ^ "Eurobarometer Special Surveys". 2010-01-20. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  28. ^ Siðmennt
  29. ^
  30. ^ "Eurobarometer on Social Values, Science and technology 2005 - page 11". Retrieved 2007-05-05. 

External links

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