First Icelandic Unitarian Church c 1905

Magnus Skaptason -1850-1932 and the “Break Away Sermon”

Magnus Skaptason was born in Iceland; his father was a physician. Educated in Iceland, ordained a minister in 1875, he served 12 years in Iceland. The Icelandic Lutheran Church was more liberal than many Lutheran churches in North America.

With his wife and children, he arrived in Canada in 1887, to minister to six parishes along the shore of Lake Winnipeg: Hecla, Riverton Hnausa, Arnes, Gimli and Willow Point.

The Breakaway sermon below was not documented as being given specifically on Easter but at some time during Lent. The synod heard about his sermons, made attempts to change his views. Two representatives were sent to Gimli to “try to lead him in the right direction” but “they were unsuccessful in proving to Rev. Magnus his spiritual errors. ” They had heard the sermon summarized below.

He resigned from the synod April 3rd, 1891. Most of his congregations also resigned. (The estimate is that 2,000 of the 2300 members of his former congregations followed Magnus out of the synod. ) The churches that supported Skaptason formed the Icelandic Free Church Association of America. Shortly afterward they affiliated with the Unitarian Church.

In 1893, Magnus Skaptason became the minister of the Winnipeg church and served until 1896.

Summary of The Break-Away Sermon

by the Rev. Magnus J. Skaptason

The sermon was given in Icelandic. This summary is based on a translation by V. Emil Gudmundson, published in his book The Icelandic Unitarian Connection. delivered at Gimli, March 30th 1891

The Biblical Text for the sermon was Matthew 25:41 “Go from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”

In this sermon, the Rev. Skaptason questions the concept of Hell and eternal punishment for those who are not ‘saved’. He talks about his childhood fear and nightmares about the ‘souls of the dammed’. As an adult he began to question why an “all-wise heavenly father must…punish…his children in this manner.” Now his doubt of earlier years is his fullest conviction.

Earthly fathers and mothers forgive their children. And how often do people not forgive their enemies? Why would an ‘all-good all-merciful Father ‘ not forgive his children? Why would he create them in his image if he planned to punish them? And the punishment is for eternity. Suffering for an entire lifetime is not much compared to suffering for an eternity. What about babies who have not been baptized? Will they suffer for eternity? Humans have punished each other in torturous ways The sinner according to this view, suffers unendingly, unlimited torment for limited sin committed during a limited time.

Magnus refers to the New Testament of the Bible. That it was not the words of Jesus but written years after his death. “We know well that Christ did not himself write a single word of what is found in the New Testament”. He refers to the Augsburg Confession which states “…that original sin judges the guilty and sends to eternal punishment all those who are not reborn in baptism and the Holy Spirit. ” Rev. Skaptason believes that Paul in his writings contradicts this view of damnation:


What about those who forgive? “Would you not suppose, dear friends, that God is equally just, compassionate and merciful as men?”

These views “…will not kindle love from Him who we should love with all the might of our souls and body…” What about those in heaven. Can they enjoy heaven knowing their friends and relatives are in eternal suffering? ” The one who is infinitely good must desire the welfare of his own child? The all wise must know how to bring it about and the Almighty must be able to sustain it…”

But Rev. Skaptason certainly does not want to “…diminish punishment for committed sins. For as I am convinced that our loving heavenly Father has never intended anyone to be tortured in eternal damnation, so am I convinced that He must punish us for even the smallest transgression. But the punishment is to be related to our betterment for in that way we improve more and more; we come closer to the light of our eternal beneficent Father. Punishment is one of the Lord’s plans in this world to lead souls to Himself, to peace and to bliss”

The sermon ends with a prayer:

“Oh thou God and Father of our hearts, let us thy children learn to love Thee, worship and adore Thee as the eternal source of love. Rid us of all demeaning thoughts; rid us of all which keeps us from knowing Thee as Thou art, almighty, holy, good and wise. Let us obey Thy commands, as thy truly loving children, trying ever to come nearer to Thee, nearer and nearer to the light of truth and justice. Oh Thou who embraces the universe with Thy grace, Thou who fulfills all reality with thy nearness, be Thou our Lord and enlighten our spirits about the true and just and make us acceptable to Thee. Be Thou our God and Father in life and death in Jesus’ name.

Researched and Summarized by Virginia Martin, November 2015