Chapter 7: The Church in Iceland Today (1977–Present)

Fred Woods, “The Church in Iceland Today (1977–Present),” in Fire on Ice: The Story of Icelandic Latter-day Saints at Home and Abroad, (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 151–83.

Chapter 7: The Church in Iceland Today (1977–Present)

On the day that Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin dedicated the land of Iceland for missionary work, there was one standing among the crowd who would play a vital role in bringing forth a mighty tool to further the work. Sveinbjörg Guðmundsdóttir, a convert from the previous year, soon translated the Book of Mormon into Icelandic. From the time that the missionaries first showed her the religious record, Sveinbjörg remembered that she knew the book was true. In her words, “I had just 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!’” Four months later Sveinbjörg obeyed those feelings and was baptized.[1]

Hired in 1977 to oversee translation, she became involved in the actual translation and eventually translated the book’s entirety with the exception of the book of Alma. By the end of 1979 the work was complete.[2]

Sveinbjörg Guðmundsdottir with Fred E. Woods, 2004.
Courtesy of Fred E. Woods

This year was also a milestone in the modern history of the LDS Church in Iceland: the Reykjavík Branch fell under the direction of Icelandic leadership for the first time. Þorsteinn Jónsson was called to serve as branch president on July 15, 1979.[3] A number of faith-promoting events took place this year, including a joint pioneer celebration with members of the Keflavík and Reykjavík branches. Firesides and socials were held, and baptisms performed. Bruce Lake, the director of seminaries and institutes in Europe, also visited the Reykjavík Branch to uplift the Saints.[4]

Branch activities continued the following year, including the annual Pioneer Day celebration, youth fishing trips to Þingvellir, and a hike up Hagafell. The arrival of new missionaries soon presented some comic relief inasmuch as Elder Kory Ainsworth stood five feet six inches tall, while his companion Shaun Campbell towered at seven feet. The year concluded with a notable event on December 9, 1980, when the LDS Icelandic youth presented the president of Iceland with a copy of the Book of Mormon in French. Before her presidential appointment, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir taught French at the local university. The French version was also chosen because the Icelandic Book of Mormon was not then available. It was published the following year.[5]

On November 1, 1980, another special event took place when Páll Ragnarson was baptized by Hlynar Óskarsson and confirmed by district president Arthur W. Hansen.[6] By June of 1982, Páll was serving the Icelandic Saints as president of the Reykjavík Branch. Though greatly loved, Páll served less than six months before his life suddenly ended in a tragic accident which took not only his life but also that of the former branch president.[7] The historical record for the Reykjavík Branch for the memorable year of 1983 records the following:

The History of Iceland started very early in 1983, for it was on New Years Day that about 11 of the members of the Reykjavik Branch decided to hike a mountain which has become a yearly event. Only three finally went on the hike: Vidir Oskarsson, Pall Ragnarsson and Gunnar Oskarsson. They were climbing Vifilsfell and Pall fell first. Gunnar went back to help and slipped also. They both fell many feet. Vidir went for help. When the help arrived, Pall was dead and Gunnar died in the Helicopter on the way to the hospital. Pall was the Branch President and Gunnar was the former Branch President. With the loss of these two stalwart pillars of the Branch, it threw the young Branch into deep mourning. It was somewhat to the Branch, the loss spoken of, like the loss to the Church when

Joseph and Hyrum were murdered.[8]

A few days later, Ólafur Ólafsson wrote:

Saturday, January 1st, I received the terrible news that the branch president of the Reykjavik Branch, br. Pall Ragnarsson had died that morning in an accident along with br. Gunnar Sigurdur Oskarsson, district group leader. Because of this I, Olafur Valur Olafsson, 2nd counselor to the Branch President, will act as the Branch President until a new President will be called. May the will of heavenly Father be done here on earth as in heaven and that he will bless me so that my words and works will be according to his will and be pleasing, that he will see me as his humble & true servant in the calling I have so unexpectedly acquired.[9]

A Call to Return

Just three days after this tragic event, Byron and Melva received a phone call reporting the deaths of Páll and Gunnar. That night Byron recorded in his journal, “I couldn’t sleep very well thinking about it. My first thoughts were that as much as they were needed in Reykjavik, they are needed more as missionaries in the spirit world.”[10] The following day he wrote, “Can’t get Gunnar & Pal off my mind & the Saints of Reykjavik.”[11]

Byron’s journal also suggests that although he and Melva had returned from their mission several years before (1979), they were still very active in helping with missionary work in Iceland. For example, in his entry for January 11, 1983, Byron disclosed that he was trying to get 377 microfilms sent to Iceland to aid in genealogy work.[12] He was also with checking translations for temple work. On January 15 he mentioned that the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, wanted his help with a four-hundred-page Icelandic grammar book.[13]

Just two days later one of Byron’s local ecclesiastical leaders (President W. Howard Barney) called to inform him that a member of the missionary committee had inquired as to the availability of Byron and Melva returning to Iceland for a second mission. Byron was then serving as stake patriarch in his area and was a valuable asset to his local region. Byron wrote in his journal that President Barney informed the missionary committee member that “I was needed here & asked if I could suggest anyone else. . . . I have had Iceland on my mind a lot since the New Years day Incident News. Melva & I talked quite a bit about it before going to sleep.” The following day President Barney called the Geslisons again. Byron noted, “I gave him what information we could come up with & told him if he felt good about it we would not say ‘no’ to such a call.”[14] Four days later their son David paid his parents a visit, unaware of the impending mission call. Observing that they were nearly done laying a new rug in their bedroom and moving the furniture back, he humorously remarked, “Well now they can send you back to Iceland.”[15] Four days later they did.

Byron and Melva Geslison were called to serve a second
mission to Iceland in 1983 after the tragic deaths of Páll
Ragnarsson and Gunnar Óskarsson. A decade later Byron
received the Order of the Falcon. Courtesy of Daniel Geslison

On January 25, 1983, Byron recorded, “Brother Millet called me this morning from the Church Headquarters in S.L.C. about going to Iceland. He said it was an emergency & told me he supposed I knew some of the problems. . . . He asked how soon I could go. . . . I told him about our situation but that we would not say ‘no’ to a call.” Millet suggested that he could arrange to have Brother and Sister Jackson, then serving in the Copenhagen Mission, transferred to Iceland until the Geslisons could make arrangements to return.[16]

The next day, Byron and Melva drove to Salt Lake City to meet with their family and share the news of another mission to Iceland. Byron noted on January 27, “We drove home from SL [Salt Lake] grateful that all the family were willing to have us go & heed this call.”[17] Less than a week later, Byron and Melva learned through President Barney that the Jacksons would spend the remainder of their mission in Iceland and that the Geslisons would not need to be there until June 1.[18]

The Geslisons Preparation for a Second Mission to Iceland

Byron recalled that during this several month interval “we assisted in the collection and preparation of materials for the visitors’ center. These materials were planned to arrive concurrent with our arrival in Iceland. We also arranged to have microfilms, [microfiche], and other general materials sent, for the Reykjavik Branch library.”[19] His journal discloses numerous efforts of the Geslison family to help move the LDS Church forward in Iceland. A week of journal extracts provides a glimpse into a very active life of service:

Monday Feb. 7, 1983 Worked on Icelandic grammar book. . . . We studied Icelandic for home evening. . . .

Saturday Feb 12, 1983 The twins brought plans & specifications for the visitors center in Iceland. It looks good & I will try to help them gather what they need. They are working with Bro Holt in the Church Office Bldg who is in charge of displays etc. The church will pay or spend about $30,000—on it. . . .

Monday Feb 14, 1983 . . . I worked on the Icelandic MTC [Missionary Training Center] Grammar Book. . . .

Tuesday Feb 15, 1983 Worked on Grammar book & finally finished it. Glad to get it done.[20]

Just one week after Byron finished work on the grammar book for the MTC, he and Melva began advertising in a local newspaper an Icelandic course they planned to teach together out of their home. Several expressed interest in this course, including Sonja Despain, supervisor for Scandinavian languages at the MTC. Sonja phoned the Geslisons and asked “if by any chance we could help teach at [the] MTC from 10:00am to 12:45 each day.” Byron wrote, “After talking with Melva we decided to try it & see if we could work it in. She [Sonya] was quite surprised.”[21] On February 28, 1983, Byron began to teach two new young missionaries at the MTC—Craig Wolfe and Steven Carpenter. After seven weeks of intensive training in Icelandic, Byron recorded, “Today is the last day teaching at the MTC. Elder Carpenter finished 4 discussions. Elder Wolfe 3.”[22]

As mentioned earlier, in January of this same year Byron was trying to purchase microfilms to help with genealogy work in Iceland. The cost of the 377 films was $5.00 per roll for a total cost of $ 1,885.00.[23] Less than three months later, Byron moved forward with a plan to reach his goal: “M.T.C. I put signs up ‘Horses for sale.’ I am trying to get a good price & put money [for] microfilms. The Lord will help me.”[24] This journal entry illuminates Byron’s tenacity as well as his consecrated effort to assist the Icelandic people whom he dearly loved.

As the time for their second mission drew near, the Geslisons increased their efforts to prepare. On April 12, 1983, Byron noted, “We have placed [the] Articles of Faith in Icelandic on the mirror & are reading the gospels in Icelandic.”[25] Less than two weeks later Byron, Melva, and their twin sons had a family portrait taken intended for display in the visitors’ center that would be erected in Iceland. Byron mentioned in his journal the willingness of the twins to part with something dear: “Dave & Dan sacrificed & shaved off mustache[s] . . . for it.”[26]

During the spring of 1983, the Geslisons taught a weekly Icelandic course out of their home.[27] On May 17, their much-anticipated date of departure finally arrived. Brother Millet informed them that they would be departing on the July 18.[28] At the end of June, Byron and Melva went to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City to receive instruction from general Church leaders. Byron faithfully recorded the counsel they received:

On Thursday June 30th we went to see Elder Robert D. Hales. He sent a letter to us telling us to come in & see him. He also sent a letter from Pres. Benson authorizing me to give Patriarchal blessings. . . . When we went to Elder Hales’ office, his secretary told us that Elder David Haight wanted to talk with us. We were elated. . . . He [Elder Haight] asked us if he could come visit us in Iceland. We told him we & the saints there would be most delighted. . . .

Elder Hales came & spent more than an hour with us going over many things pertaining to our call & the conditions in Iceland & how & what he wanted us to do. He took all the time needed & was most gracious & most helpful. He showed sincere interest & caring in us & the Icelandic work & people. . . . He said he wanted to stay close to me regarding Iceland for the next several years, pertaining to leadership, that we were on the verge of being able to expand the work when Gunnar & Pall were killed & now things are [were] such that in some ways we have to start over. . . . He said I was to go there & lead; that the Branch had been hit badly by it all. He said he’d like to see a Book of Mormon in every home. This will take some doing. He told mom to teach the Keflavik saints to keep their homes neat & clean & become better home makers. He said Reykjavik Branch needed to be strengthened.[29]

Geslison later recalled: “Before leaving the United States, we met with Elder David B. Haight and discussed his visit in September, at which time we would dedicate a building that was purchased in 1980 and was being renovated. Our first task in Iceland was to complete the renovation begun by Brother Jackson and Brother Smith.”[30] Elder Robert D. Hales, also a Church General Authority, stressed two other items. Geslison remembered, “Elder Hales asked us to make an effort to get the Book of Mormon into every home in Iceland. . . . Elder Hales also requested us to make arrangements with the Icelandic authorities to have the church in Iceland formally recognized.”[31]

Shortly after their arrival in late July, the Geslisons set out with determined focus to accomplish the mission with which they had been charged. By September 17, the multipurpose church building was completed in time for Elder Haight, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, to dedicate it. Haight was impressed not only with the cleanliness of the building but also with the excellent usage of the available space. Byron described the building thus:

The building contains an excellent, though small, visitor’s center, a film room, a baptistry, and a distribution center on the basement floor. The second floor has translation, District, and Branch offices. The third floor has been built into a chapel, class rooms and Branch genealogical library. This Branch library contains four reading machines and the church produced Icelandic microfilms and [microfiche]. The facility is being used by members and non-members alike.[32]

Formal Recognition for the LDS Church

Just six weeks later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally recognized in Iceland. Geslison had been working on recognition prior to the conclusion of his first mission in 1977. On August 4, 1983, Byron began again to fill out the paper work necessary for the request with Baldur Möller, who was then serving in the Ministry of Religion and Justice. “Mr. Moller had told President Gislason when he had requested recognition the last time in 1977 that when the Church had a permanent building and when we had at least 50 members and when the Branch was operated by Icelandic citizens then we could come back and request recognition. He said that they wanted to be sure that we were not fly-by-night.” Further, “Mr. Moller assured President Gislason that there would be no problem having everything in order to have the Church recognized on November 1st during the visit of a General Authority of the Church and the European Area President.”[33]

The official LDS Church district records in Reykjavík provide the following notation: “On November 1st, 1983 Elder Hales and President [Geslison] went at the appointed time to the Ministry of Religion and Justice. . . . All preliminary work had been taken care of and the signing and official action took place. It was good to have a General Authority present for this important event in the history of the Church in Iceland.”[34]

Fred E. Woods with members of the Einarsson family. Right
to left: Brynjólfur Viðir Ólafsson, Unnur Erna Ólafsdóttir,
Ólafur Einarsson, Bjorg Marteinsdóttir, and Matthias Orri
Ólafsson, 2004. Courtesy of Fred E. Woods

Geslison explained the advantage of having such recognition by the Icelandic government: “This gives the church many advantages. We can perform blessings, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and conduct funerals and have them honored and recorded by the Icelandic government. It is now also illegal for scurrilous articles to be written about the church or for anyone to speak evil of it. This was a great step for the church in Iceland.”[35] As the new year dawned, Ólafur Einarsson and Björg Marteinsdóttir took advantage of this official recognition by allowing the president of their Reykjavík Branch, Guðmundur Sigurðsson, to perform their wedding ceremony in Iceland on January 6, 1984.[36]

Visitors’ Center Tours

Another phase in bringing the LDS Church out of obscurity in Iceland was offering tours of the newly completed visitors’ center. Melva Geslison played the primary role in this assignment, explaining the various displays to many guests who visited during this time. When the visitors entered the building, they were greeted with the Church logo. Melva would repeat this statement in Icelandic to provide a Christian orientation: “Most people know us by our nickname, the Mormons, but . . . the real name of our Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jesus Christ is the central figure of our religion. Everything we do in the Church is done because of our belief in Jesus Christ and our desire to follow his teachings.”

The guests were then ushered through exhibits which included a map of Iceland, portraits of the first LDS missionaries to Iceland and the early Icelandic settlers of Spanish Fork. Melva provided dialogue for each of these images, which included a discussion of the 1938 establishment of an Icelandic monument in Spanish Fork and the 1955 centennial celebration of Icelanders arriving in Utah. She then told her guests about the closure of missionary work in Iceland in 1914 and the reemergence of the work in 1975 when she, Byron, and her twin sons reopened the mission. Melva also mentioned the dedication of the land for the preaching of the restored gospel in 1977 and concluded with a testimony of Jesus Christ while visitors viewed an image of the Savior’s Second Coming.[37] Her efforts significantly contributed to a better public image of the LDS Church in Iceland and helped to generate a spirit of goodwill.[38]

During this period (1983–84) the district held dances, open houses, talent shows and even commemorated a “District Pioneer Day,” which helped to unite the Saints in both the Keflavík and Reykjavík branches.[39] The district was also blessed with the arrival of Elder and Sister Arthur W. Hansen, who returned to serve their second mission in Iceland on February 28, 1984. Six months later, they reopened missionary work in Akureyri with Elders Dale Tanner and Steven Andersen. Just before Christmas 1984, Melva and Byron Geslison concluded their second mission to Iceland and returned to Spanish Fork, Utah.[40]

A Valiant Effort Recognized

At the dawn of 1985, Svend H. P. Svendsen was serving as the president of the Denmark-Copenhagen Mission and therefore presided over the Iceland District. The district president was Austin Guðmundur Loveless. At this same time, Guðmundur Sigurðsson was serving as the president of the Reykjavík Branch and Michael R. Strode as president of the Keflavík Branch. A midyear tabulation of records revealed noted there were 104 members in the Reykjavík Branch and about sixty members in the military branch of Keflavík.[41]

The following year, this small branch of Icelanders proved their determination when they were informed that they could not publish the Church magazine Vonarstjarnan unless six hundred subscriptions were sold. With children as half of their congregation, the Icelandic Saints had to sell a minimum of 550 subscriptions. An article titled “Non-LDS Buy Magazine,” Church News, May 25, 1986, reported, “Within two months, Icelandic members and 10 missionaries stationed there sold more than 700 subscriptions.”[42]

In the summer of 1987, the Icelandic Saints were renewed by the arrival of Byron and Melva Geslison. Inasmuch as Melva had ancestry in the British Isles, the Geslison filled out mission papers stipulating their preference in going to England. However, when the paperwork was reviewed by Church authorities, the Geslisons received a phone call from Elder Robert D. Hales indicating that they were again needed again in Iceland.[43]

A Third Mission to Iceland

Byron and Melva once again returned to Iceland for their third mission commencing on July 22. The following day Byron was sustained as a counselor to Dee V. Jacobs, who was then presiding over the Denmark-Copenhagen Mission. During this same month the Saints living in the Akureyri region were strengthened by a visit from President Dee V. Jacobs and his wife. They became acquainted with the ten members who were then meeting in a building previously owned by the Seventh-Day Adventists. Their membership grew to fourteen members with the arrival of the family of Gerhard Ólafur Guðnason.[44]

Akureyri Branch Organized

A few months later, the Saints of this region had something to celebrate. On November 1, 1987, exactly four years from the time the LDS Church was officially recognized in Iceland, Akureyri became a branch, the second Icelandic branch in Iceland. Gerhard Ólafur Guðnason, was sustained as president. “Tears were falling—tears of joy—in the audience as one after another expressed feelings of satisfaction and joy at the event.”[45]

The following month was also a time of rejoicing. On the day after Christmas, the Akureyri Saints gleaned their first baptism. The district records explained, “This became an exciting time for the members of the Akureyri Branch and for the entire Icelandic District and the Mission. President and Sister Byron T. Gislason and President Gudmundur Sigurdsson drove to Akureyri to attend the services.”[46]

Missionaries and priesthood leaders launched 1988 by setting goals for the year, deciding they would strive for forty-eight baptisms by the end of December. This would amount to one baptism per month in each missionary companionship, in other words, twenty-four baptisms for the Reykjavík region as well as twelve in Keflavík and a dozen in Akureyri. It was further agreed that great emphasis would be given to distributing copies of the Book of Mormon.

By February, all the Church members in Iceland were called to serve a temporary three-month mission to meet these goals. During this month, letters were sent seeking approval for the debut of a radio program and to use the broadcast Music and the Spoken Word. By the end of March the first radio broadcast program was introduced. Station “ROT” agreed to present the broadcast without charge. In addition, plans also commenced for an August 1989 temple excursion.[47]

Family Reunion Organized in Iceland

In June, Byron and Melva Geslison hosted a family reunion, bringing both sides of his Icelandic family together. Letters had been sent the previous fall, including an invitation for each person to gather what they could from their genealogical records. The Geslisons were assisted by local Icelanders in preparations. The event proved most successful; 132 family members attended the reunion. “It was felt that much goodwill was engendered through it and that was the purpose.”[48]

About this same time, two other missionaries, Don and Mary Dilworth, concluded their mission by inviting 150 of Sister Dilworth’s Icelandic relatives to a family reunion. They too found success in sharing “Church films, genealogy displays, dinner . . . [which] were enjoyed by 108 people, including 85 nonmembers. The event was held in a local school house and was among the largest Church-sponsored gatherings of nonmembers in recent history.”[49]

The summer of 1988 ended on a high note when the Icelandic Saints watched for the first time the proceedings of the biannual LDS Church General Conference with Icelandic text. Before the year closed, the district Relief Society held their annual meeting under the direction of Sister Klara Gunnarsdóttir, and Jens Kristofferson of seminaries and institutes met with local seminary teachers and their students.[50]

Many changes occurred as the new year dawned. On January 19, 1989, Byron and Melva Geslison completed their third mission to Iceland. The Icelandic District records for this date state, “There are no words that adequately express the appreciation of all for the faithful labors of this family. They have been pioneers in every sence [sense] of the word and have laid foundations and spurred the progress of the modern day restored Church in Iceland.”[51]

An Honor Well Deserved

In 1993, Byron was crowned with Iceland’s highest honor, “The Order of the Falcon,” when the honorable Tómas Tómasson, ambassador of Iceland, presented the award to Geslison.[52] Tómasson told the assembled Spanish Fork audience that the award was conferred on both Icelandic and foreign subjects “who above all others have furthered the welfare and honor of the Fatherland or have accomplished achievements in the interest of mankind.” The ambassador added that Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, president of Iceland, had commissioned him to bestow the honor upon Mr. Geslison, “one of the outstanding western Icelanders.” Tómasson further stated, “I want to tell you that the great missionary work that Byron has done—both as a missionary from Utah in Iceland and as a missionary of Iceland in Utah—has been highly valued by the authorities in Iceland.” The ambassador concluded, “We value highly both the fostering of family bonds, and also the promoting of the Icelandic culture and heritage here in Utah and the western Icelandic identity here.”[53]

Byron T. Geslison receiving the Order of the Falcon
from Tómas Tómasson, the ambassador of Iceland,
1993. Courtesy of David A. Ashby

After their return to Utah, the Geslisons helped orient Joseph and Alene Felix, who had been assigned to replace them. By late spring the Felixes journeyed to the northern region of Iceland in order to strengthen the members in the cities of Dalvík and Akureyri. On June 15, the new missionary couple and ten other missionaries took a ferry to the Westmann Islands in order to proselytize for three days. About this same time, President and Sister Jacobs flew to Greenland to strengthen local members who had no contact with the Church.[54]

A highlight of the year occurred when Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited the Icelandic District Conference on October 14–15, 1989. Newly called President Greer (who replaced President Jacobs) and his wife visited with Elder Nelson, and a missionary conference was held.[55] During Elder Nelson’s remarks at the conference, he invoked an apostolic blessing on the land of Iceland, requesting that it would become “a lighthouse to all of Europe.”[56]

Challenges and Blessings

As in previous decades, the 1990s were full of challenges for the Icelandic Saints. Church News reporter Todd Harris pointed out, “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.”[57] Sveinbjörg Guðmundsdóttir, who has made the temple trip at least annually, told Harris, “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. . . . But I couldn’t turn my back on it, and it has become the greatest blessing of my life.”[58]

Right to left, Fred E. Woods with members of the Sigurðsson family:
Guðmundur Sigurðsson, Regína Ösp Guðmundsdóttir, Valgerður
Knútsdóttir, and Rebekka Rán Guðmundsdóttir.

Courtesy of Fred E.Woods

A great blessing occurred for Sveinbjörg on a June 1991 trip to Salt Lake City to work on the translation of the temple ceremony into Icelandic. She was assisted by the district president, Guðmundur Sigurðsson, who was also joined by his wife, Valgerður (“Valla”) Knútsdóttir, and their daughter, Rebekka Rán.[59] Even prior to this experience, these adults had been influential in strengthening the LDS Icelandic youth.

Harris reported that family home evening programs in the home of Sveinbjörg had played a significant role in the lives of these youth in the late twentieth century:

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.[60]

One young man who benefited from Sveinbjörg’s tutelage was Ólafur Einarsson, who joined the Church in December 1982. In 1988 he was called as the president of the Reykjavík Branch and later served as the district president from 1994 to 2003.[61] He was replaced by his son-in-law, Kristján Mathiesen, a fellow Icelander who had served in the England Bristol Mission (1991 to 1993) and also as the president of the Reykjavík Branch.[62]

The Strength of LDS Youth in Iceland

In 1994 one writer assessed: “The youth continue to be a source of strength and inspiration in the branch today. . . . 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.”[63] The reporter further noted, “There is also an active seminary program, attended by most of the youth in the branch.”[64]

Both Sveinbjörg and Valla donated their time for a number of years to strengthening the youth as teachers in the seminary program. In the photos appearing in an issue of Church News (1994), Valla is pictured with several of her students on a seminary field trip.[65] Such excursions certainly required sacrifice amid an active life of raising five children of her own, and her husband, Guðmundur, has served in Iceland as a faithful Church leaders for many years. In an article appearing in 1995, one author wrote:

Because of Iceland’s high cost of living (nearly all goods except potatoes, fish, and dairy products are imported), many Icelanders work two jobs or long hours at one job. Gudmundur Sigurdsson, former district president, does both. In his truck, he makes commercial deliveries all over the island; he also raises and sells Icelandic ponies, keeping alive an ancient Viking tradition. He and his wife, Valgerdur Knutsdottir, are also busy rearing their five children.[66]

An LDS Chapel in Iceland at Last

Such sacrifices certainly paid off as evidenced by the fact that as the decade of the 1990s concluded, a special groundbreaking ceremony took place on Icelandic soil, March 6, 1999:

About 75 members of this northern nation’s two branches gathered recently for the groundbreaking of the first meetinghouse to be constructed by the Church in Iceland. . . . The building site is on a hill overlooking the sea in the Reykjavik suburb Garoabaer [Garðabaer]. Presiding at the March 6 groundbreaking was Elder Wm. Rolfe Kerr of the Seventy and counselor in the Europe North Area presidency. In his remarks and dedicatory prayer, he praised the members for their faith and patience.[67]

Elder Wm. Rolfe Kerr, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, and
President Ólafur Einarsson at the dedication of the first Latter-day
Saint Icelandic chapel on July 4, 2000. Courtesy of David A. Ashby

To the great joy of the Icelandic Saints, on July 4, 2000, Elder Kerr returned to Iceland to dedicate their first chapel, nearly one hundred and fifty years since the first missionaries brought the restored gospel to the Icelanders. Two years later, jubilation again filled the hearts of the Saints when Church President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Reykjavík on September 11, 2002, a landmark event. Never before had a Church president visited the Icelandic Saints in their homeland. In the Church News, R. Scott Lloyd reported:

For some members, seeing the president of the Church was the fulfillment of a dream, the district president [Kristján Mathiesen] said. “One of our members has been a faithful member since 1976, when the branch was first organized. When we announced that President Hinckley was coming, she just started crying.” The district president said he has a hard time talking about the visit without crying. He said the experiences at the airport as local Church leaders and their spouses welcomed President Hinckley was overwhelming. “It’s a small airport and we could feel the blast of the jet engines as the aircraft landed. It was also a huge spiritual blast as it hit us that the prophet was here. No Church president has ever come here before. It was an amazing experience.”[68]

Lloyd also noted that before he addressed a congregation of Icelandic Saints, President Hinckley “paid a call on the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. . . . ‘They had a good chat,’ President Mathiesen said. ‘They talked about the Iceland association in Utah, about the Church in Iceland, and about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.’ The Iceland president seemed reluctant to let President Hinckley go.”[69]

Kristján Geir Mathiesen, district president of Iceland,
and his wife, Soley Renee Mathiesen. Courtesy of Fred E. Woods

In his fall 2002 address to more than 220 Saints gathered in the only LDS chapel in Iceland,[70] President Hinckley stressed that “the strength of the Church is found in the strengths of its families.” He challenged Church members to keep the commandments so that they would be worthy of being sealed as a family unit for all eternity in Latter-day Saint temples. The Church President also reminded the Icelandic members that they “were the descendants of Vikings—people of ‘strength and power and capacity’ to do great things.”[71]

President Gordon B. Hinckley, the first Latter-day Saint prophet to
step foot on Iceland, and his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, stands
with some of the Saints of Iceland in Reykjavík, 2002. Courtesy of
David A. Ashby

Nearly two years later, Björg Marteinsdóttir, who had recently returned with her husband from the May 2004 dedication of the Copenhagen Denmark Temple, remarked with much optimism that “the Church is moving forward, and although we feel isolated here at times, I think the Lord has shown how much He loves us and that He knows about us. . . . We have the prophet coming to check on us, and we have this temple now. And we’re having more and more . . . missionaries coming . . . that are of Icelandic descent. So you know, we aren’t forgotten.”[72]

President Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and President Ólafur Ragnar
Grímsson, president of Iceland, outside President Grímsson’s
home at Bessastadir, 2002. Courtesy of David A. Ashby

Notes



[1]. Todd Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” Church News, August 6, 1994, 6.

[2]. In a document titled “Scope Statement: Scripture Update Project Icelandic,” Reykjavík Branch Records, Reykjavík, Iceland, a note states that the Book of Mormon was prepared for translation during the period of 1977 through May of 1981, being published June 2, 1981. “It was translated by Halldor Hansen a pediatrician in Iceland and by Sveinbjorg Gudmundsdottir the Translation Supervisor of the Church in Iceland. They also did the doctrinal reviewing of each other’s work. The linquisitic review was done by Jon Fridjonsson, a professor in Icelandic at the University of Iceland.” In a May 31, 2004, oral interview conducted by the author with Sveinbjorg, she stated, “I assigned him [Halldor Hansen] to translate Alma . . . and I did the rest. And that’s how we did it. And then he would read my work and I would read his and compare and discuss. And after that . . . to [the] university to scholars to review. And I didn’t tell them the true translators.” In an article titled “Scripture Translations Steady,” Church News, November 6, 1982, 3, the writer points out that following Sveinbjorg’s successful translation of the Book of Mormon she also translated other Latter-day scripture: the Doctrine and Covenants as well as the Pearl of Great Price. When Sveinbjorg finished her translation of all the LDS scriptures, she sent a final letter to Lowell D. Bishop, supervisor of emerging languages, simply stating, “The sun in [is] shining in Iceland.”

[3]. Reykjavík Branch Records, 1979, 2; “Reykjavik Branch Presidents,” Reykjavík Branch Records.

[4]. Reykjavík Branch Records, 1979, 1–3.

[5]. President Vigdís, as she was known, was the fourth president of Iceland and the first woman in the world to ever be elected as a constitutional head of state. She served as president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996 (see www.womenworldleaders.org).

[6]. Reykjavík Branch Records, 1980, 5–7.

[7]. “Reykjavik Branch Presidents,” Reykjavík Branch Records, evidences that Páll began his service on June 26, 1982, replacing Gunnar Óskarsson who had been baptized August 30, 1980, and had been serving as the president of the branch since November 23, 1980. Ironically, just three weeks before his death, Páll had written a note dated December 9, 1982 (Reykjavik Branch Records), which stated, “I am happy to stop working this new year and I am not worried about what may come. God will see to it that time will be well spent if I don’t get a job right away.”

[8]. Icelandic District Records, 1983, 1.

[9]. Reykjavík Branch Records, January 7, 1983.

[10]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), January 4, 1983. Journal in possession of Melva Geslison. Latter-day Saint theology follows the biblical doctrine of preaching to the dead as taught in 1 Peter 3:18; 4:6. They also adhere to the scriptural teaching of baptism for the dead as taught noted in 1 Corinthians 15:29.

[11]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), January 5, 1983. In an entry recorded two days later, Byron also mentions that he had heard that the Reykjavík Branch “hadn’t ceased crying.” This entry also reveals that Sveinbjörg Guðmundsdóttir had called him and supplied the details of how the accident occurred. In a report written at the close of his second mission, Byron remembered that “this unhappy event threw the branch members into shock and caused them to become bewildered and some to falter” (see Byron T. Geslison, “Supplemental Mission Report of Iceland Submitted February 26, 1985,” 1–2). The word supplemental is here used inasmuch as Byron had submitted a earlier report of the first mission he and his wife served (1975–77) in December of 1977. This supplemental report would be a summation of his experience of presiding over the affairs of missionary work in Iceland during his second mission.

[12]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), January 11, 1983.

[13]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), January 15, 1983. The entry for this date notes, “A book & letter came from MTC [Missionary Training Center] asking me to go through a 400 + page grammar book for Icelandic. This is the 2nd time.”

[14]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), January 16–17, 1983.

[15]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), January 21, 1983. Ironically, on this same day Byron and Melva received a letter from Þorsteinn Jónsson, who, along with David and his brother Dan, had helped reopen missionary work in Iceland in 1975.

[16]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, January 25, 1983.

[17]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, January 26–27, 1983.

[18]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, February 1–3, 1983.

[19]. Geslison, “Supplemental Mission Report,” 2.

[20]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), February 7, 12, 14–15, 1983.

[21]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, February 23–[24], 1983.

[22]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, February 28, April 21, 1983.

[23]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, January 11, 1983.

[24]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, April 7, 1983.

[25]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, April 12, 1983. The Articles of Faith referred to are thirteen statements made by LDS Church founder, Joseph Smith Jr., to the editor of the Chicago Democrat in 1842. They were later canonized in LDS scripture.

[26]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, April 23, 1983.

[27]. See, for example, entries from Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), April 27, May 4, 11, 18, 1983.

[28]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), May 17, 1983. Byron further notes that on July 17, 1983, he and Melva were set apart (authorized and blessed) for their mission by President Barney. He also mentions in his journal for this date, “We have had many people come & also stop us & talk & congratulate us. . . . Financially we were helped just short of $1,000.00.”

[29]. Journal of Byron T. Geslison, June 30, 1983.

[30]. Geslison, “Supplemental Mission Report,” 2.

[31]. Geslison, “Supplemental Mission Report,” 3. With the publication of the Book of Mormon made available in 1981 and the charge by Elder Hales to make the Book of Mormon the primary tool in proselytizing, Thordur Didricksson’s tract did not receive the attention Geslison had placed upon it during his first mission.

[32]. Geslison, “Supplemental Mission Report,” 2–3.

[33]. “Historical Events, 1983,” Reykjavík Branch Records, 2; “Reykjavik Branch Presidents,” Reykjavík Branch Records.

[34]. Icelandic District Records, 1983, 2,

[35]. Geslison, “Supplemental Mission Report,” 4.

[36]. Icelandic District Records, 1983–84, 1. “Reykjavik Branch Presidents,” Reykjavík Branch Records, Reykjavík, Iceland, notes that Guðmundur Sigurðsson served as the branch president of this branch from May 20, 1983, to August 3, 1986, when he was replaced by Ólafur Ólafsson. Ólafsson would be replaced on March 6, 1988, by Ólafur Einarsson for whom Sigurðsson had performed the marriage. Icelandic District Records, 1983, 1, further indicates that “One of the important events of this period was the Temple marriage of Johann Zakaris Karlsson and Thorstina Loley Olafssdottir. This is the first time in the history of the Church in Iceland since ‘75 that this has happened.”

[37]. “Iceland Information Center Guide Dialogue,” in author’s possession. Gratitude is expressed to Daniel Geslison for bringing this document to the attention of the author and for graciously allowing him to make a copy of it. See also the Journal of Byron T. Geslison (October 1, 1982–July 19, 1983), February 12, 1983, for a discussion of the planning for these displays.

[38]. Although much good was accomplished, one unfortunate incident occurred in mid- October 1984. Icelandic District Records, 1984, 3, notes, “On October 16th a woman entered the building on Skolavordustig and became violent and began to damage displays in the Visitor’s Center. It was necessary to remove her bodily from the building.”

[39]. For example, Icelandic District Records, 1983, 2, notes, “District Pioneer Day was celebrated July 23 with many attending.” Icelandic District Records, 1983, 4, further records, “October 28 a Talent Show for both Branches was held in Keflavik. This proved a great success.” Icelandic District Records, 1983–84, 1, adds, “Plans were made to hold an Open House to be open for public viewing from December 23 to January 3rd. It was not well attended because of bad weather and business of the people during the 26 days of Christmas which the Icelandic people celebrate.”

[40]. Icelandic District Records, 1984, 3.

[41]. Icelandic District Records, 1985, 3.

[42]. “Non-LDS Buy Magazine,” Church News, May 25, 1986, 11. According to Todd Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” Church News, August 6, 1994, 12, following her successful translation of the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day scripture, Sveinbjörg Guðmundsdóttir translated many of the materials needed to run the programs of the Church such as handbooks, class manuals, and seminary materials. However, Sveinbjörg paid particular attention to the translation of the Icelandic edition of the Church magazine called Vonarstjarnan, or ‘The Star of Hope.’”

[43]. Phone conversation with Melva Geslison, June 13, 2005.

[44]. “History of the Church in Iceland,” Icelandic District Records, July 20, 1987, 1.

[45]. “History of the Church in Iceland,” Icelandic District Records, November 1987, 3.

[46]. “History of the Church in Iceland,” Icelandic District Records, December 26, 1987, 5.

[47]. “History of the Church in Iceland,” Icelandic District Records, 1988, 1–2.

[48]. “History of the Church in Iceland,” Icelandic District Records, 1988, 3. Just three months later, this account reports that Byron and Melva held another family reunion in Skeiðflöt and again found success with 75 gathering for the event.

[49]. “Missionary Invites Kinfolk,” Church News, July 25, 1987, 12.

[50]. “History of the Church in Iceland,” Icelandic District Records, 1988, 4, 6, notes that the Saints met to listen to a taped version of the April 1988 general conference on August 14, 1988. The district Relief Society annual meeting was held November 26, and the visit of Jens Kristofferson occurred on December 19.

[51]. “The History of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Iceland, 1989,” Icelandic District Records, 1989, 1.

[52]. On September 11, 1992, Byron had the Order of the Falcon bestowed upon him in Reykjavík. According to David A. Ashby, “The Icelandic Settlement in Utah,” unpublished paper written in 2003, in author’s possession, 11, two other Spanish Fork Icelanders were recipients of this esteemed honor. Kate B. Carter and John Y. Bearnson received the Order of the Falcon in 1955.

[53]. Julie A. Dockstader, “Member Receives ‘Highest Honor’ from Iceland for Fostering Heritage,” Church News, August 14, 1993, 5.

[54]. “The History of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Iceland, 1989,” Icelandic District Records, 1989, 1, 4.

[55]. “The History of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Iceland, 1989,” Icelandic District Records, 1989, 5.

[56]. Letter by the Iceland District Presidency, Icelandic District Records, no date (probably the end of 1989).

[57]. Todd Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” Church News, August 6, 1994, 12.

[58]. Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” 12.

[59]. Icelandic District Records, Reykjavík, Iceland, 1991, June 6, 1991, notes that this translation project was begun on June 6 and completed by July 2. Fridrik Rafn Gudmundsson informed the author that three years later, these same three adults, along with several others, returned to Salt Lake City in order to help with recordings for the temple endowment.

[60]. Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” 12.

[61]. In an interview with Ólafur Einarsson by Fred E. Woods, Ólafur told the author that he was baptized December 15, 1982. The “Reykjavik Branch Presidents,” Reykjavík Branch Records, Reykjavík, Iceland, note that Ólafur Einarsson replaced Ólafur Ólafsson as branch president on March 6, 1988. In a June 6, 2005, telephone conversation with Friðrik Rafn Guðmundsson, Friðrik informed the author that Ólafur Einarsson served as district president from 1994 to 2003.

[62]. Icelandic District Records, Reykjavík, Iceland, 1991, February 10, 1991, 1.

[63]. It has been my privilege to have Friðrik Rafn Guðmundsson as the translator of this book. In 2000 I first met Steinunn Piper, who was then attending Brigham Young University after her mission. However, Steinunn Piper was not Iceland’s first female missionary. This honor goes to Þórstína Ólafsdóttir, who became Iceland’s first sister missionary when she left her native homeland to serve a welfare services mission in the Canada Winnipeg Mission, April 1981 (see Flint J. Stephens, “Fire and Ice,” New Era, December 1981, 20).

[64]. Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” 12.

[65]. Harris, “Gospel Touches Remote Iceland,” 6, 12.

[66]. Todd R. Harris, “Icelandic Saints’ Flame of Faith,” Ensign, July 1995, 78.

[67]. “Ground Broken for First Meetinghouse in Iceland,” Church News, March 27, 1999, 12.

[68]. R. Scott Lloyd, “Iceland Visit: Light, Warm,” Church News, September 21. 2002, 3, 10.

[69]. Lloyd, “Iceland Visit: Light, Warm,” 3, 10.

[70]. 2005 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 2004), notes that in 2002 there were 273 Church members in Iceland.

[71]. “‘Wonderful to Have Sweet, Good Land,’” Church News, September 21, 2002, 10.

[72]. Interview of Björg Marteinsdóttir by Fred E. Woods, May 30, 2004.