Unique Project Tells Story of Early Icelandic Mormons

Iceland is nearly 4,000 miles from Utah, but the two places are tied together by the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now this shared story is the subject of a unique international project and a new museum exhibit.

Between 1854 and 1914, hundreds of Icelanders joined the Church and emigrated to Utah, where they founded the first permanent Icelandic settlement in North America. These pioneers are now remembered in a permanent museum exhibit at the Vestmannaeyjar Folk Museum on the island of Heimay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, called Icelandic Heritage Among the Mormons.

Kristjan Geir Mathiesen was among Icelandic Latter-day Saints who traveled by car and ferry to celebrate the opening of the exhibit in July. He says the new display connects the past to the present.

“People in Iceland are interested in finding out what happened to those who went west with the Church,” Mathiesen said. “The exhibit shows this heritage for future generations in Iceland.”

Steven Olsen of the Church History Department says although the exhibit is specific to Iceland, it reflects the experience of many who joined the Church in the 19th century.

“Converting to a new religion often means that the proselyte must sacrifice their heritage for the sake of their new faith. This exhibit celebrates the experience of a group of LDS converts who preserved their native identity and did so in a new homeland that was far away from and quite different than the land of their birth,” Olsen said. “Many converts to Mormonism through the years find that their new religion encourages the preservation of the best of their native traditions.”

The museum exhibit is part of a larger project that will continue for the next four years. Fred Woods from Brigham Young University is working with Kári Bjarnason from the Vestmannaeyjar Folk Museum to collect manuscripts and images in both Utah and Iceland that provide information concerning early Icelandic Mormon history during the years 1851 to 1914. 

“There were 400 people who left Iceland and went to Utah and made a new living there,” Bjarnason said. “The goal of this project is to first, understand why they left and secondly to bridge the gap between those who are living and their ancestors. People want to know more about their own people. They may have different reasons for it, perhaps religion, family ties or just curiosity. Our hope and dream is to bring those 400 people back to life, to tell their stories with their own words, so their descendants can come to know them better.”

Woods and Bjarnason are visiting the descendants of early Icelandic Church members to collect photos, letters, diaries and other historic documents. Some of these descendants have old family letters they have not been able to read because they are in Icelandic. During their visit, Bjarnason will translate the letter on the spot, which is an emotional experience for all involved.  

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to go into the homes of these people,” Woods said. “They get tears in their eyes, and we can see the knitting of their hearts back to their ancestors in Iceland. They are learning about relatives they knew nothing about and it is very rewarding to unite these families back together.”

One of those descendants is David Ashby of Spanish Fork, Utah, whose maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Iceland in the 1880s.

“The important records of our ancestors are disappearing fast, so we must preserve them now,” Ashby said. “It’s important to know about our heritage, to get to know about our ancestors and their lives. Even though I don’t have personal accounts of my ancestors, I feel close to them. I am proud of my Icelandic heritage.”

Ashby, who is a past president of the Utah Icelandic Association, said that his two Icelandic ancestors now have about 800 descendants in 6 generations. Through learning about the Icelandic immigrants, he has been able to connect with many living relatives and celebrate their shared heritage. 

Woods said their effort to gather and share historic Icelandic documents will enable many more people to know their heritage. So far, he and Bjarnason have collected 2,000 documents that have never before been in an archive. They plan to translate the documents and post them on a website to provide access to people around the world.

“People resonate with this project, which is really cutting edge international research,” Woods said. “We have an Icelandic Catholic scholar and a Mormon professor working together. We feel that we are being guided by a divine power that brings us together as Christian brothers.”

“Icelanders have always been interested in their own history,” Bjarnason said. “The people who went to Utah are our brothers and sisters. They may be in another faith, but we want to understand and come closer to these people.”

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