The United States of America is really sort of a backwater in terms of Lutherans. There aren’t very many of us, and, quite frankly, the credentials of all of the “Lutheran” churches look a little dubious, depending on the lighting. Because of that, the famous Lutherans have generally been European. This is the first in a series of posts highlighting both important and improbable characters from the American side of the things.
Every year, when it gets cold here in Minnesota, I think it’s good to think about Rasmus Jensen. Rasmus was a Dane, a Lutheran pastor, a missionary, and most notably, the first Lutheran pastor in North America. We know very little about his early life; we don’t know where he was born, or anything about his childhood. We know that he survived to adulthood and that his parents were well off enough to send him to the University of Copenhagen. At the university, he caught the missionary spirit and volunteered to spread the Gospel in India. In 1619, King Christian of Denmark granted Jensen his wish and assigned him the “Ship Pastor to the East Indies,” on an expedition led by the explorer Jens Munk. At that point, Jensen’s luck went south. Actually, if it had gone south, it would have been better for all parties involved. Instead, Jensen’s luck went west. Munk’s expedition intended to get to India by sailing through the Canadian Arctic.
Munk’s expedition did not find the Northwest passage, and instead of sailing back to Denmark, they decided to overwinter on the Hudson Bay. During this time, Rasmus Jensen became the first Lutheran pastor to preach, administer the sacraments, and lead worship services in North America. The crew made it through Christmas with no trouble, even gifting Jensen fox skins to show their gratitude for his work.
The Canadian winter soon took its toll on the expedition. On January 23rd, Jensen delivered his last sermon to the crew; due to lack of food and illness, he preached it from his bed. A month later, on February 20th, 1620, Rasmus Jensen died. The crew buried him in an unmarked grave.
In the late 1990’s, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada resurrected Jensen in rodent form, as Rasmouse, to valiantly lead the ELCIC into the age of the internet. Judging by the state of the ELCIC website, the expedition seems to have gone as well as the original.
Rodent tributes aside, Jensen had neither the accomplishments nor the accolades of pastors that followed him. But he was first, and for that, he deserves to be remembered.
Biographical Information on Rasmus Jensen was taken from: Granquist, Mark. Lutherans in America: A New History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015, 33-34.
Information on Rasmouse can be found at https://notes.elcic.ca/rasmus/index.html