The Gospel of John in Labrador

Hans Rollmann
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Throughout Christian history, the Gospel of John has been valued for its spiritual depth. The Fourth Gospel commands special attention, with its unique theological vocabulary as it presents to readers a Jesus full of wisdom and glory.

The incarnate Word of the Fourth Gospel reveals his unique relationship with God in long speeches and metaphorical "I am" sayings, while performing marvelous works as "signs" that point to his identity.

Moravian missionaries translated this gospel in the early years of the 19th century as the first biblical book in the language of the Labrador Inuit, and had it printed in England by the British and Foreign Bible Society. In so doing, they established a long-lasting relationship between our province and the Bible Society, which now spans more than two centuries.

Relationship with Bible Society

Shortly after the founding of the Bible Society in 1804, its foreign secretary, the Reverend Charles Frederick Adolphus Steinkopff, established contact with the Moravian Church.

Steinkopff met Christian Friedrich Burckhardt, superintendent of the Moravian mission in Labrador, and offered the society's support in printing portions or the entire Bible in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, and in making the biblical books available free of charge to the Inuit of Labrador.

The two men stayed in touch by correspondence, with Burckhardt keeping Steinkopff abreast of developments in Labrador, while Reverend Steinkopff kept the Labrador missionaries informed of worldwide activities of the Bible Society and sent them its annual reports.

As early as 1790, Labrador missionaries had published on their printing press in Saxony an Inuktitut primer for the Labrador schools that had been operating regularly since the winter of 1780 in Nain and Okak and, from 1783 on, in Hopedale.

In 1800, they had also printed in the Inuit language the passion narrative from a harmony of the gospels. The printed story of Jesus' suffering and death became a major educational and devotional text, and an important factor in spawning the great revival of 1804/05.

Gospel of John

The Bible Society's offer bore fruit when Christian Ignatius Latrobe, the secretary of the Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel, the Moravian missionary society, solicited the Bible Society's support to print the Gospel of John in the Inuit language.

Benjamin Gottlieb Kohlmeister, the explorer of Ungava Bay and future superintendent of Labrador missions, had extracted the Fourth Gospel from the Gospel Harmony, which at the time was being revised for printing by Superintendent Burckhardt.

When the Bible Society met on New Year's Day 1810, it resolved to print 1,000 copies of the Gospel of John in Inuktitut. On April 16, 1810, Steinkopff was able to present the first printed copy of the Gospel of John to the assembled members.

Fifty copies bound in calf leather and 400 in canvas, were given to Brother Kohlmeister, who at the time was waiting in London for his return passage to Labrador.

'Uncommon eagerness'

Kohlmeister arrived in Hopedale on July 22 and was warmly welcomed by the Inuit and missionaries. All Christian Inuit families who were present received a copy of the Gospel of John, while those hunting or fishing would receive their copies when they returned to their communities.

Kohlmeister wrote of emotional scenes happening whenever the book was distributed.

"Some pressed the little book to their bosom, and look as happy as if they enjoyed the foretaste of heaven," he wrote. Other literate Inuit, the missionary told the society, "attempted to express their gratitude in letters which they addressed to me."

Kohlmeister was pleased to report that the distribution of the Gospel of John had opened up new educational opportunities.

"As the Gospel of John was given only to such as could read," Kohlmeister wrote, "an uncommon eagerness has been excited among such as could not, to learn to read, that they might obtain similar presents."

He began a class in writing for 15 Inuit adults.

Bible reading

The devotional culture of the Labrador Inuit quickly integrated Bible reading into daily devotionals, often carried out far away from home during the hunt and without any prompting from the missionaries.

"The Christian Esquimaux, in all three settlements," a missionary wrote, "know no greater pleasure, than to assemble together in the evening, when they return from the seas, or their hunting-grounds, in some large tent or house, to hear the Word of God read by one of the party, adult or child, who has been instructed in the schools, established in each place."

Since the demand for the Bible was great, the Bible Society resolved at its February 1812 meeting to bind the remaining 500 copies of the Gospel of John for distribution in Labrador.

This first translation of a biblical book encouraged further translations, notably by Brethren Kohlmeister and Burckhardt, so that in 1813, all four gospels were printed, followed later by the text of the whole New Testament and, in 1871, the entire Bible.

So began, in the first decade of the 19th century, an enduring relationship between Moravians in Labrador and the British and Foreign Bible Society, a relationship that continues with the Canadian Bible Society, which in 2008 printed a newly revised one-volume edition of the Bible in the language of the Labrador Inuit.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN. He can be reached by email:


Organizations: The Bible Society, Moravian Church, Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel MUN

Geographic location: Labrador, Inuktitut, England Hopedale Saxony Ungava Bay London

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