Rasmus Jensen and New World Lutheranism

Rasmus Jensen and New World Lutheranism

After the discovery of the New World, European powers began searching for a northwest passage which would allow them to sail to Asia. The nation which could find such a passage would control an immense wealth in trade. Under King Christian IV, Denmark sent two ships to explore the west in 1619. The first Lutheran pastor known to have visited the Americas came with them.

Little is known of Rasmus Jensen except that he was a Lutheran chaplain. Aboard the two little Danish ships, the Unicorn and the Lamprey, were 64 sailors, consisting of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes or Germans. That their chaplain should be Lutheran was fitting, since those nations had converted to Lutheranism.

That winter, the expedition became trapped in ice on Hudson Bay. Suffering cold and without adequate provisions, the men began to die of scurvy. Their captain, Jens Munk, recorded in his journal:

On the 23rd of January... the priest sat up in his berth and gave the people a sermon, which sermon was the last he delivered in this world.... On the 20th of February, in the evening, died the priest, Mr Rasmus Jensen as aforesaid, who had been ill and kept his bed a long time....

With that we reach the end of virtually all that is known of Rasmus Jensen: that he was a Lutheran priest doing his duty as long as he was able and dying on this day February 20, 1620. Jens Munk survived that bitter winter to return home with the only two crew members still living, the other 61 having perished. They reached Norway that September.

The expedition may have seemed a failure. Nonetheless, the Lutheran church had penetrated the New World, if but briefly. The first permanent Lutheran pastor in what would become the United States was Reorus Torkillus who arrived as pastor of Delaware's Swedes in 1639, twenty years later.

Bibliography:

  1. Lagerquist, L. DeAne. The Lutherans. Westport, Connecticutt: Praeger, 1999.
  2. Nelson, E. Clifford, et al editors. The Lutherans in North America. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, c1975.
  3. Kiefer, James. "Rasmus Jensen, Pastor, with others." http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/106.html
  4. Other internet sites such as the Lutheran timeline at http://www.elca.org

Last updated June, 2007

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