Home > Worship Resources > Festivals & Commemorations > Rasmus Jensen, First Lutheran Pastor in North America, 1620 (February 20)

About the Commemoration

In the spring of 1619, King Christian IV of Norway and Denmark sent an expedition consisting of two ships, the Unicorn and the Lamprey and sixty-four men to North America to search for the Northwest Passage to India. The chaplain of the expedition was Rasmus Jensen, who became the first Lutheran pastor in the New World. Little is known of his life; he may perhaps have been from the parish of Aarhus. The expedition was under the leadership of the most traveled and experienced officer in the Danish navy, Jens Munk (Munck), who was born June 3, 1579, and who died June 23, 1628. The ships left Denmark on May 9, touched the coast of Greenland, reached the North American shore on July 8, crossed Hudson Bay (where the explorers named the area Nova Dania [New Denmark]), and landed at the mouth of a river on the western shore of Hudson Bay at what is now Churchill, Manitoba. Locked in ice for the long winter, the explorers made the first settlement of Lutherans in the New World. The captain wrote in his journal:

On the 24th of December, which was Christmas Eve, I gave the men wine and strong beer, which they had to boil afresh, for it was frozen at the bottom; so they had quite as much as they could stand, and were very jolly, but no one offended another with as much as a word.
The Holy Christmas Day we all celebrated and observed solemnly, as a Christian’s duty is. We had a sermon and Mass; and, after the sermon, we gave the priest an offertory, according to ancient custom, each in proportion to his means. There was not much money among the men, but they gave what they had; some of them gave white fox-skins, so that the priest got enough wherewith to line a coat. However, sufficiently long life to wear it was not granted to him.
During all the Holy Days, the weather was rather mild; and, in order that the time might not hang on hand, the men practiced all kinds of games; and whoever could imagine the most amusement was the most popular. The crew, most of whom were, at that time, in good health, consequently had all sorts of larks and pastimes; and thus we spent the Holy Days with the merriment that was got up.

The foreboding that shadows Munk’s narrative was fulfilled, and soon most of the members of the crew, attacked by scurvy, died.

On the 23rd of January, died one of my two mates, Hans Brock by name, who had been ill, in and out of bed, for nearly five months. On the same day, it was fine weather and beautiful sunshine; and the priest sat up in his berth and gave the people a sermon, which sermon was the last he delivered in this world….
On the 20th of February, in the evening, died the priest, Mr. Rasmus Jensen aforesaid, who had been ill and had kept his bed a long time….
On the 14th of April, there was a sharp frost. On that day, only four, besides myself, had strength enough to sit up in the berth and listen to the homily for Good Friday.
The 16th of April was Easter Day. Then died Anders Oroust and Jens, the cooper, who had been ill and in bed a long time; and, as the weather was fairly mild, I got their bodies buried. On the same day, I promoted my captain of the hold to be skipper, although he was ill, in order that he might assist me somewhat, as far as his strength allowed, because I was myself then quite miserable and abandoned by all the world, as everybody may imagine.

Munk himself had become deathly sick, but eventually recovered. With the last two remaining sailors he set sail in July in the smaller of the two vessels, the Lamprey, and reached Norway in September and arrived in Copenhagen on Christmas Day 1620. He published a diary of his voyage in Danish in 1624. An English translation appeared in 1897. It is a moving and melancholy account of hardship, death, and bravery.

A memorial to the expedition has been erected at Port Churchill. An island in the Canadian Northwest Territories at the head of the Foxe Basin, northwest of Baffin Island, is named Munk Island in honor of the explorer.

After this disheartening experience in Canada, Danish missionary activity was concentrated in India and in the Virgin Islands. By 1656 a Lutheran pastor, the second in the New World, Magister Lauritz Anderson Rhodius, was ministering to the tobacco-producing islands of the West Indies; and Kjeld Jensen Slagelse on January 8, 1665, became pastor at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where a strong Lutheran tradition has been maintained. He died in June 1672. In 1917 the Danish Virgin Islands passed into the control of the United States.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.

See also: Rasmus Jensen (priest); Jens Munk


From The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Happy are they who have reached the end of the road we seek to tread, who are astonished to discover the by no means self-evident truth that grace is costly just because it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace, and are able to sing the praises of the all-sufficient grace of Christ with humbleness of heart. Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy arc they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed., trans. R. H. Fuller and Imgard Booth (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 60.


Most gracious God, your servant Rasmus Jensen, faithful through desolation and peril, accompanied an expedition to distant and forbidding places as their chaplain to keep the explorers close to your word and sacrament: Strengthen us by his example to share the hardships of others in the name of him who came to share ours, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who Eves and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 5:1-4; John 21:15-17

Hymn of the Day:Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes” (LBW 445) [a favorite hymn in Canada]

Prayers: For the church in Canada; For faithful pastors and chaplains; Of thanksgiving for those who planted the church on these shores.

Preface: All Saints

Color: White