Kayarnak, Greenland, and the Passion of Christ

Kayarnak, Greenland, and the Passion of Christ

Kayarnak had seen a number of missionaries come to Greenland. Like the majority of his countrymen, he enjoyed making fun of them. His attitude changed when he heard for the first time how Christ suffered and died.

Hans Egede

The first known missionary to Greenland was Hans Egede, a Dano-Norwegian Lutheran who arrived in 1721 with his wife and family, built a house on an island at the mouth of the Balls River, and persisted when no Inuit seemed to pay attention to his teachings.

            Day after day, Egede presented the biblical account, from creation to Judgment Day. He and his son painted pictures of Bible scenes. But the only stories that caught the Inuits’ attention were those of healing miracles, which they used to challenge the missionary. If he were a priest of this powerful God, could he replicate them?

            For a few months, Egede actually tried. He prayed for healing and a few people recovered. But when some didn’t, the people accused him of being an impostor. They mocked him and even plotted against his life. If he talked about the joys of heaven, they said they preferred to stay where they were. If he preached the threat of hell-fire, they said it would be a nice change from the cold weather. They bragged of the superiority of their sorcerers, who claimed to have seen God, while Egede could only read about Him.

            They despised Egede’s creation of an Inuit catechism and grammar and his efforts to educate their children. Was that going to help them to catch more seals?

            Given this apparent lack of fruit, King Christian VI of Denmark decided to cut the support Egede had been receiving from the Danish College of Missions. If Egede wanted to stay, he would have to support himself.

Matthew Stach

            And yet, two young boys who had been baptized by Egede were introduced at the Royal Court in Copenhagen at the same time when Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, founder of the Moravian colony of Herrnhut, Germany, was visiting. After returning to Herrnhut, Zinzendorf told Egede’s story, firing the zeal of Matthew Stach, a young emigrant from Moravia.

            Persuading the Herrnhut elders to support a failing mission was not easy, but Stach eventually succeeded. The elders chose a carpenter, Christian David, as the leader of the mission. He, Matthew Stach and Matthew’s cousin Christian Stach left Herrnhut on January 19, 1733, headed for Greenland as lay-assistants to Egede.

            During their stop in Copenhagen, the king’s chamberlain, Von Pless, informed them that they would not receive any support. He also warned them that they would not find enough timber in Greenland to build themselves a house. “In that case,” replied Christian David, “we shall dig a hole in the ground and live there.”[1]

            Impressed by their determination, Von Pless ended up giving them both wood and money.

            The new missionaries spent the first few weeks in Greenland setting up home and learning the language. They were not better received, although the people seemed to appreciate Stach’s personality. There were also some serious theological disagreements between Egede and Christian David. Egede, a conservative Lutheran, held firmly to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, while David, a Pietist, claimed that faith was “worse than useless without stern moral discipline.”[2] Egede’s preaching focused on Paul’s Epistles (gospel) while David’s concentrated on the Sermon of the Mount (law). Apparently, while Egede was willing to work with David regardless, David resisted, interpreting Egede’s gesture as a condescension toward unfit preachers. (David was later rebuked by Zinzendorf).

             All differences were forgotten, however, when small-pox, carried by an Inuit boy returning from Copenhagen, hit the west coast of Greenland and continued to rage for nine months, with a death toll of about two thousand people. Working together, the missionaries set up a make-shift hospital and visited hundreds of patients to bring some relief and to speak of Christ.

            These efforts didn’t make the people more receptive. In fact, some placed the blame of the plague on Egede simply because he was from Copenhagen. Once the pandemic was over, he returned home where he became president of the College of Missions. Soon, Christian David and Christian Stach left as well, and were replaced by Frederick Bohnisch and John Beck. These two, together with Matthew Stach, signed a “Covenant of the Three Brethren,” promising they would persevere. But Stach didn’t last long. Wearied by the people’s complete disinterest in the gospel, he left as well.

John Beck and Christ’s Sacrifice

We don’t know how much of this story was known to Kayarnak, but he and other young men noticed with curiosity John Beck’s attentive work as he translated the Gospel of Matthew into Inuit. Prompted by their curiosity, he read to them the account of Jesus’s struggle at Gethsemane. Suddenly, these young men became drawn to the story.

            Kayarnak was especially moved and asked Beck to teach him more. He became the Greenland missionaries’ first convert. On March 30, 1739, he and his family were publicly baptized and began to teach others.

            Kayarnak’s conversion didn’t bring an immediate change. Most of the locals were still hostile to Christianity. In fact, some took revenge by stabbing Kayarnak’s brother and throwing him off a cliff. Kayarnak was also in danger, but persisted and helped Beck and Bohnisch to translate the Scriptures.

            With time, the story of Christ’s passion and crucifixion continued to grip many hearts. In a letter to Zinzendorf, John Beck said, “Henceforth, we shall preach nothing but the love of the slaughtered Lamb.”[3]

            In 1740, Zinzendorf officially endorsed this approach in his Statement at the Synod of Marienborn. Until then, he said, many preachers had introduced the Scriptures by talking about creation and speaking of God as One in three persons. Instead, he said, “we want to preach first to the heathen that the creator of all things, God, whom they from nature believe in, became man and his blood was poured out for us.”[4] The other teachings, he said, will come after.

            It’s not sure if Kayarnak’s conversion was the catalyst for this change in Moravian methodology. Some suggest that Zinzenforf had already come to similar conclusions. It was, however, a powerful confirmation and had a ripple effect on the way others approached missions.


[1] J. E. Hutton, A History of Moravian Missions, London: Moravian Publication Office, 60

[2] Ibid. 65

[3] Ibid., 70

[4] Alice T. Ott, Turning Points in the Expansion of Christianity From Pentecost to the Present, Baker Academic 2021, 129.


Simonetta Carr