History Vignette 15: “Bishop” Emil Gudmundson and the Icelandic Unitarian Connection
(first published in The Icelandic Post)
From the editor:
Most UUs know that Spaniards, Italians, Transylvanians, French, Poles, and other groups had a hand in shaping our tradition. Here in North America we should also look at the Icelanders and their descendants. Emil Gudmundson, a Canadian, had crucial roles in both tracing the Icelandic influence and in organizing Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest. I never met him, but did find a typewritten letter of his in the archives of the Prairie Star District. It was in Icelandic, so I have no idea what it said.
From the author’s preface to the Facebook version of this piece:
Emil was one of the people who encouraged me to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. He taught me that ministry was, first and foremost, about presence – simply being with people in times of joy and in times of sadness – and that ideas were important, but not more important than relationships. And Emil reassured me that the love of things Icelandic might be rare, but it wasn't odd.
Unitarian Universalist minister and historian Emil Gudmundson was born at the family farm Borg in the Mary Hill district, near Lundar, Manitoba, on January 28, 1924. He was the oldest of three sons born to Björgvin Gudmundson (1894-1956), a farmer and fisherman, and Rannveig Dorothea Björnsdóttir (1891-1990), a teacher.
Allergies to hay, cattle, and horses precluded life as a farmer, so his vocational interests gravitated towards education and religion. After high school, he qualified as a teacher and taught grade school in Manitoba, but found himself dissatisfied with teaching.
In 1945, Emil traveled to Iceland aboard a newly-built fishing boat – a ten-day passage, most which he spent in his bunk seasick. Over the next two years, Emil was a student of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Iceland. He then returned to North America and enrolled in the University of Chicago and was later admitted to Chicago’s Meadville Theological School, although he lacked the prerequisite undergraduate degree. He graduated from Meadville in 1952 with a bachelor of divinity degree.
Emil was ordained by his first congregation, the First Unitarian Society of Ellsworth, Maine. He subsequently served as minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New London, Connecticut; as assistant minister at First Unitarian Church of Houston, Texas; and as minister of Nora Free Christian Church in Hanska, Minnesota, a historic Norwegian Unitarian congregation whose first minister was the noteworthy poet Kristofer Janson.
In 1965, Emil became the first District Executive of the newly-formed Prairie Star District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which comprised 65 churches and fellowships in the Upper Midwestern states. Following a major reorganization of the denomination in 1970, in response to a financial crisis, Western Canada District and Central Midwest District were added to Emil’s territory and he was appointed Interdistrict Representative of the Unitarian Universalist Association for the combined districts, a position he held for the remainder of his life.
As Minnesota journalist and politician Valdimar Björnson commented, “If the Bishop's title had existed in his church, Dr. Emil would have borne it, for he was the superintendent of Unitarian congregational activity in eleven Midwestern states and three Canadian provinces.” In 1978, Emil’s service to Unitarian Universalism was honored when Meadville/Lombard Theological School awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
Despite the enormous territory he covered, Emil devoted as much time as he could find to scholarly pursuits, especially Icelandic history and culture, including the history of the Icelandic Unitarian movement in North America. From 1978 to 1980, he studied primary historical sources at the University of Manitoba, Harvard Divinity School, Landbókasafn Íslands, and the Fiske Icelandic Collection of Cornell University. This research culminated in his presentation of the Minns Lectures in 1981, a six-lecture series on the origins of Icelandic Unitarianism that was subsequently published following his death as The Icelandic Unitarian Connection.
Emil married Barbara Rohrke in 1951 at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. Barbara was a graduate of the University of Tennessee who subsequently earned master’s and doctoral degrees in botany. They had twin daughters, Holly Mekkin and Martha Rannveig.
Emil’s paternal grandparents left Iceland in 1893 and settled near Lundar, Manitoba. His maternal great-grandfather was a member of Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, for 16 years. His maternal grandparents immigrated to the Shoal Lake district of Manitoba in 1887. Emil was a direct descendent of Rev. Halldór Brynjólfsson (1693-1752), Bishop of Hólar. “He was loyal to his kin,” according to Valdimar Björnson, “and it was a pleasure to hear him talk about relatives, near and far, wherever they might be located.”
Later in life, Emil observed: “Life could be quite isolated on a Manitoba farm during the early part of this century and through the Depression. There was not much opportunity for travel. But the printed word opened up the wider world. ... Ethics was at the heart of the beliefs in my home and was neither churchy nor dogmatic nor narrowly moralistic. But I now realize the important role of my prairie home environment, and not least of this was the influence of the Icelandic Unitarian movement in Canada.”
Emil died of a heart attack on December 27, 1982, while visiting his Manitoba birthplace at Lundar.
Remembering his friend of many years, Valdimar Björnson said: “He had a fine sense of humor, was a lively conversationalist, particularly as to his own fields of interest, and was skillful when it came to narration. He loved history, was widely read and keenly observant, an intellectual with a teacher’s bent of the highest order. His attitudes in religion and in politics are usually described as liberal – but he was firm in holding his views. ... He valued convictions and had a healthy experience of doubts.
Emil’s paternal grandparents were Guðmundur Guðmundsson (1863-1945) of Snotrunes in Borgarfjörður Eystri and Mekkin Jónsdóttir (1864-1942) from Surtsstaðir in Jökulsárhlíð. His maternal grandparents were Björn Þorsteinsson (1858-1952) who moved from Hofsstaðir in Hálsasveit in Borgarfjarðarsýsla and Þúríður Hjálmarsdóttir (1857-1920). Þúríður’sfather Hjálmar Pétursson (1827-1898) was a member of Alþingi.
Reverend Stefan Jonasson enjoys researching the history of mid-continent Unitarian Universalism. Residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he currently edits the Icelandic Post and was for many years the Director for Large Congregations for the Unitarian Universalist Association. His UU World article “Nordic Strands of Our Living Tradition” describes Unitarian outreach to Scandinavian immigrants in North America. Stefan was a featured speaker at the 2016 Unitarian Universalist Convocation (http://www.uuconvo.org) in Bloomington, MN.