The first Christians in Iceland were Celtic monks who arrived about 800, after having been introduced to Christianity in Britain. Early missionary activity is attributed to Thorvaldr, an Icelandic viking, and the Saxon bishop Frederick, in the late tenth century. Although their efforts proved abortive, this preparatory work laid the groundwork for further missionary labor under the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who introduced Christianity as the national religion in the year 1000.
In 1056 Isleifur Gizurarson became the first native bishop, and his ancestral estate at Skaholt thereafter became the episcopal residence. Isleifur's son, Gizur, as the succeeding bishop (1082-1118), established a second see at Holar. Due to the subservience of these sees to the civil powers, the state of the priesthood declined morally and intellectually. Because of political pressures and the attempts by Norwegian and other foreign bishops to centralize the organization of the church and its estates, the Icelandic Church experienced considerable conflict and suffering. Monastic activity declined; intellectual pursuits went into eclipse; the level of popular piety concerned neither people nor priest. Only the reviving breezes of the Lutheran Reformation were to bring new life to this disjointed religious situation.
Since Iceland had come under Danish control in the late fourteenth century, it fell to the Lutheran King Christian III to introduce the new doctrine to the Icelandic Church. Aided by the biblical scholar Oddur Gottskalksson, who translated the NT into the native language, Christian III declared to the nation through its legislature that the Lutheran system should be adopted. His most determined opposition came from Bishop* of Holar, who, resorting to violence to save Skaholt for the pope, was himself imprisoned and beheaded.
A succession of able Lutheran bishops appeared after 1540, and the Reformation entered a constructive period. The sees of Holar and Skaholt were more happily united under the energetic bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson (1570-1627); the next two centuries saw the zenith of Lutheran preaching, hymnody, and devotional literature. The first complete translation of the Bible appeared in 1584.
In 1801, due to rationalistic inroads, and led by Magnus Stephensen, Holar and Skaholt were merged into one diocese located at Reykjavik; the Lutheran hymnal and service were altered to reflect the new thought. This liberalism has been perpetuated in the current century by the church's bishops and theological faculty.
See J. Helgason, “Die Kirche in Island,” in Ekklesia (ed. F. Siegmund-Schultze, 1937), and J.C.F. Hood, Icelandic Church Saga (1946).