‘For them, it’s all about the name’

Hans Rollmann
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In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Enlightenment drama “Nathan the Wise,” an eloquent plea for religious tolerance, Sittah — the sister of Saladin, Muslim ruler of Jerusalem during the Crusades — complains about Christians.

“For them, it’s all about the name, only the name.”

Sittah refers to “the name of Christ” that Christians formally adopt, often without any regard for what it stands for. 

Names and name days

Names and naming are a fundamental characteristic of humans worldwide, irrespective of religion, although different cultures exhibit a great diversity in form and practice.

On June 24, St. John’s Day, I am always reminded of my own Christian name, Hans, a short form for Johannes (John), and how important names were for the people of the Eifel region of Germany where I was born.

Birthdays mattered very little early in life, and became important only for certain milestones, such as the age of majority, then 21, or when one arrived at the symbolic “five-0” or other decades.

Name days mattered much more in this region of Germany. The name day was the day on which the saint from whom this name derived was celebrated in the church year — in my case, Saint John the Baptist.

The actual naming often followed the convention that the child would acquire the name of his godfather or her godmother. In my case, it was of my uncle Hans, from whom I could also expect special presents on important occasions.

Moravian Inuit naming

In our province, names among the Moravian Inuit of Labrador became quite important and exhibit some unique naming practices.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when an adult Inuk became a Christian through baptism, he would receive a new Christian name. Kingminguse, the first Inuk baptized at Nain, was named Petrus, or Peter, on Feb. 19, 1776, a date still remembered today by a local holiday.

Likewise, in Okak, the first Christian couple to be baptized, on Aug. 29, 1778, by Brother Johann Ludwig Beck, were Tautudlek and Kablutsiak, who received the Christian names of Isaac and Elizabeth.

Kippinguk, a native of Chateau Bay in southern Labrador, the first Inuk baptized at Hopedale, received the Christian name Jonathan on Dec. 12, 1784.

Later, Jonathan became a well-known boat pilot, who took the Moravian missionaries Kohlmeister and Kmoch on an exploration journey into Ungava Bay during the summer of 1811, exactly 200 years ago.

To distinguish among the many Christian names in the absence of surnames, converts on Labrador’s north coast began attaching the name of the husband to that of his wife and the wife’s name to that of her husband.

Thus, August Luiseb was August, the husband of Luise (Luisa) and Wilhelmina Joasib was Wilhelmina, the wife of Joas.

A child, until marriage, would acquire as second name — that of his father or of her mother. Thus Boase Josefiub was Boas, the son of Joseph, while Supia Annab was Sofie (Sofia), the daughter of Anna.


In April 1893, the Labrador Mission Conference meeting at Nain decided to introduce surnames in Labrador. It followed a request of Hopedale missionaries, who responded to an untenable situation created in the Newfoundland courts.

In the absence of Inuit surnames, court officials or government bureaucrats often chose as a person’s surname his or her father’s Christian name, although the father may have been long dead or unknown to the current missionaries.

At the time, Inuit had also become increasingly familiar with surnames through Labrador settlers or Newfoundland fishermen, while some Inuit women had acquired surnames by marrying Europeans.

In the wake of this decision by the missionaries, surnames arose in great variety. Some families reacquired traditional Inuit names, such as Aggek and Mitsuk, while others took symbolic names that had personal or religious meaning to individuals.

Bishop Martin reports that one Inuk started calling himself “Ingergajok,” meaning “Traveller,” since he identified strongly with the biblical notion of being a pilgrim without permanent habitation on this Earth.

The Nain chapel servant Abia had, according to his granddaughter, an intense dream about green grass and called himself “Green.” Some Inuit also adopted names of missionaries they revered — thus the still extant Labrador Inuit surnames of Kohlmeister and Townley, after the missionaries Benjamin Gottlieb Kohlmeister (1756-1844) and Squire Joseph Townley (1865-1929).

An organist at Nain called himself Rinck, after his favourite German composer, Johann Christian Heinrich Rinck (1770-1846).

Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by email at hrollman@mun.ca

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Germany, Jerusalem Eifel Hopedale Saint John Chateau Bay Southern Labrador Ungava Bay Sofia

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