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Leif Ericsson |
The Christian Viking explorer

Leif Ericsson is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 108, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The convert Leif Ericsson traced the coast of North America to the fabled Vinland after his troublesome father Eric planted a Viking colony on Greenland

Leif Ericsson - The Christian Viking explorer

Leif Ericsson - The Christian Viking explorer
Gathered at the Althing parliament in the year 1000, Icelanders debate whether to abandon the ancient Norse gods in favor of the cross of Christ. Iceland would become the only country to embrace Christianity as the result of a democratic vote of its people.

In the second half of the ninth century, Viking adventurers from the fjords of Scandinavia began sailing westward into the vast and for the most part unexplored North Atlantic Ocean. Their search would take them to Iceland, to Greenland, and eventually to the eastern shore of North America itself, about five centuries before Columbus. Among all the achievements of the Northmen, these legendary voyages, the great “sagas” of Viking exploration, have most strongly impressed themselves upon the modern imagination.

However, the Vikings were not the first to take up the challenge of the North Atlantic. Irish monks, their names for the most part long lost, who set out in tiny boats to seek solitude and God beyond the western horizon, were before them. According to the Irish chronicler Dicuil, writing in 825, they reached the Faeroe Islands, midway between Scotland and Iceland, in the early eighth century. Several decades later other monks discovered a larger island far to the northwest of the British Isles, which Dicuil called Thule. Clearly, this was Iceland.1

The Irish monks had the Faeroes and Iceland to themselves only until the arrival of Viking raiders. After that, any who did not flee were either killed or enslaved. “On these islands, hermits who have sailed from our Scotia [Ireland] have lived for roughly a hundred years,” Dicuil writes. “But, even as they have been uninhabited since the world’s beginning, so now, because of Norse pirates, they are again empty.”

But not for long. Iceland’s climate was considerably milder than it is today. Despite its position just south of the Arctic Circle, it had rich pasturage for animals and crops, particularly grains, besides abundant fish. The Vikings began colonizing the islands of the North Atlantic around 870, and before the end of the century, there were even a few Christian families in the Icelandic settlements. The origins of their faith are not known, but it too may have come from Ireland. Not until the late tenth century did the first missionaries begin to arrive from Norway–and for once the issue of conversion was settled, not by royal example alone, but by vote at an assembly of freemen, known as the Althing.2

In about the millennial year, tension between pagan Icelanders and the growing Christian population seemed likely to lead to civil war, and the chieftain who presided over the assembly, Thorgeir, was asked to arbitrate. He proposed a compromise. Iceland should become officially Christian, Thorgeir suggested, but sacrifices to the old gods would still be permitted in private. This eminently practical solution was adopted by a substantial majority. Such a compromise could not long endure in an offcially Christian society, however, and it did not. Within five years, all pagan practices were abolished.

As for the Greenland saga, it began with Erik the Red, a native of southwestern Norway, and an inveterate troublemaker. Thrown out of Norway for manslaughter, Erik was later twice banished from Iceland for similar crimes. On the second occasion, he sailed west in search of land that had been sighted some fifty years earlier by other Vikings, and he discovered an island larger than Iceland. It was even more rugged, but in the milder climate of the time, it too boasted grassy coastal hills and abundant fish and game. Erik optimistically named it Greenland, spent three years exploring it, and sailed back to Iceland to recruit settlers. The first colony, of some four hundred and fifty people, was established in 986.

One of the ships in Erik’s fleet, blown off course, may have made the first Viking sighting of North America. Fifteen years later, Erik’s son, Leif, a Christian convert recently returned from Norway with the first party of missionaries to Greenland, acted on this information. The Norse sagas detail Leif’s voyage along the North American coastline, naming various regions as he sailed south–from Flatstone Land (Baffin Island) to Wood Land (Labrador), and eventually to the fabled Vinland (Wineland), where grapes and grain reportedly grew wild on a hospitable shore.3

Just how far south Leif, and those who followed, actually ventured remains a subject of debate, but excavations in the 1960s unearthed a Viking settlement of eight buildings at L’Anse-aux-Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, confirming that the Northmen made it at least that far. They also made several subsequent attempts to establish a foothold in this new world, but hostile natives finally convinced them that their numbers were too few, and support and supplies too far away.

So the Norse abandoned their continental settlements, but not before Gudrid, the Christian wife of an expedition leader, gave birth to Snorri, the first recorded North American of European ancestry. Gudrid is believed to have returned safely from North America, incidentally, and there is even a story that in 1024, she visited Rome and was received by Pope Benedict VIII. Perhaps she regaled the pontiff with tales of Vinland.

Except for a few oblique references to Greenlanders visiting Wood Land in search of timber for their ships, there is just one more mention of Norse in North America. Eric Gnupsson, Bishop of Greenland, reportedly sailed west a century later, in 1121, to revisit Vinland and preach the gospel. After that, both the bishop and North America disappear from Norse records.

However, Viking settlements in Greenland prospered for another two hundred years before beginning a long, steady decline to extinction. At its height, in the fourteenth century, Greenland’s Norse population likely numbered around three thousand, but colder weather, ice-clogged seas, famine, and attacks by Inuit invaders of the Thule culture, advancing as relentlessly as the ice, apparently sealed the colony’s fate.

In 1540, crewmen on a passing Icelandic merchant ship thought they glimpsed people on Greenland, but venturing ashore, they found only one emaciated corpse. In 1605, a Danish expedition was dispatched to discover the fate of the colonists, and could find hardly any trace of them. The last Greenland Vikings had died in lonely obscurity, had been carried off by the Inuit, or–as some believe–had disappeared into the vastness of North America.

1. Viking settlers in western Greenland were told by the Inuit there that a group of strangers had long ago established themselves on the “opposite coast”–presumably meaning North America. They wore pale robes, the Inuit said, and walked in procession while singing in a peculiar fashion. There is also a very real possibility that the legendary voyage to North America of St. Brendan of Clonfert, in the sixth century, was not just legend (see earlier volume, Darkness Descends).

2. Popular assemblies were a feature of life among all the Germanic peoples of Europe, but particularly among the Vikings. Their assemblies ranged from farmers’ gatherings to regional and national meetings, and those still in existence in Iceland, the Faeroes and the Isle of Man (in the Irish Sea) are among the world’s oldest democratic institutions. In addition to destruction and bloodshed, the Vikings also spread the seeds of democracy.

3. The chronicler Adam of Bremen suggested in 1075 that grapes grew in Leif’s Vinland, citing Svein Estridsson, king of the Danes, as the source of his information, but modern historians note that vin in Old Norse signified meadow or prairie. Since the Norse sagas were first written down some two centuries after the event, and more than a century after Latin-educated Adam, they may have repeated a mistaken assumption.

This is the end of the Leif Ericsson category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 108, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Leif Ericsson from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at