PÉTURSSON, RÖGNVALDUR, Unitarian minister, businessman, editor, author, and community leader; b. 14 Aug. 1877 in Rípur, Skagafjarðarsýsla, Iceland, second of the four sons of Pétur Björnsson and Margrét Björnsdóttir; m. 1898 Hólmfríður Jónasdóttir Kristjánsson (d. 1971), and they had one daughter and three sons; d. 30 Jan. 1940 in Winnipeg.
Rögnvaldur Pétursson was a leader of the Icelandic community in Canada from 1903 until World War II and his influence extended across the spheres of religion, literature, education, and politics. His family emigrated from Iceland to the United States in the summer of 1883 and he spent his formative years on a farm near Hallson, N.Dak. The Péturssons were associated with the short-lived Icelandic Cultural Society, a group of freethinkers in North Dakota which Icelandic poet Stephan Gudmundur Stephansson* had helped to establish. The organization dissolved when Stephansson departed for Alberta in 1889, and the Pétursson family then joined the Unitarians, who had founded a mission among Icelandic immigrants. Pétursson would pursue a career in the Unitarian ministry and in journalism, while his brothers devoted themselves to business, including several real-estate ventures in partnership with him.
Pétursson enrolled in Winnipeg’s Wesley College in 1896, and two years later he was accepted at Meadville Theological School, a Unitarian institution in Pennsylvania from which he obtained a bd in 1902. After graduation, he was awarded a scholarship for Harvard University, where he studied theology, Old Norse, and German. He was briefly a room-mate of the future Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson*.
In 1903 Pétursson was ordained and installed as minister of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society in Winnipeg. Under his leadership, the congregation reversed its decline in membership, tripling in size during his first six years, and erected a new church in the city’s burgeoning West End two years into his ministry. Pétursson’s early preaching was criticized by some for being too intellectual but, as he developed his craft, his manner of speaking became increasingly poetic, practical, and kindly, even as his sermons, according to historian Wilhelm Kristjanson, remained “elevated in thought, imaginative, models of structure and form, and polished in style.” Blending the ancient wisdom of Norse mythology and Christian scripture with modern philosophy and the discoveries of science, Pétursson bridged the sacred and the secular, while employing methods used in comparative religion to fashion a doctrine that preserved the best of older forms while refining them with new insights. Arguing frequently that “he who knows only one religion knows none,” he proclaimed a faith that sought to integrate the whole of human experience. A year into his Winnipeg ministry, he established a religious and literary monthly, Heimir (the name of a mythical hero), which was discontinued at the outbreak of World War I so as to reallocate ministerial time and financial resources. Pétursson had retired as editor in 1910.
The American Unitarian Association appointed Pétursson its field secretary (chief administrative and spiritual officer) to the Icelandic churches of western Canada in 1909, so he stepped down as pastor of his Winnipeg congregation. He returned to that pulpit in 1915 when a shortage of ministers necessitated that various posts be combined, and he stayed with First Icelandic until 1922. He resigned as field secretary in 1928 to make way for a new generation of leaders, but took up the position again in 1935 when the supply of ministers from Iceland decreased, and he held the office until his death. In 1916 he had initiated negotiations with Friðrik Jonsson Bergmann, minister of the “new theology” Winnipeg Tabernacle congregation, in an effort to create a unified Icelandic liberal church. The two congregations were amalgamated in 1920 and, three years later, the First Federated Church of Unitarians and Other Liberal Christians and its 12 rural allies organized as the United Conference of Icelandic Churches with Pétursson as secretary and chief administrative officer.
In 1913 Pétursson and others had set up a holding company, Viking Press, to take over the Icelandic weekly newspaper Heimskringla [The round world] (Winnipeg), launched in 1886. Pétursson served as editor for the first year and from about 1920 to 1940 was managing editor. Heimskringla favoured the Unitarian Church in religion and the Conservative Party in politics, in opposition to the other Icelandic weekly, Lögberg/Mount of Laws (Winnipeg), which supported the Lutheran Church and the Liberal Party. Pétursson himself was an active member of the Conservative Party and the Conservative Club of Greater Winnipeg.
Instrumental in founding the Icelandic National League of North America (INL) in 1919, Pétursson became its first president and held office for two years. The INL was established to promote good citizenship among people of Icelandic descent, to work for the preservation of the Icelandic language and literature in Canada and the United States, and to encourage goodwill and cooperation between the people of Iceland and their kin in North America. It bridged political, social, and religious divisions, restoring a sense of unity and social cohesiveness to the Icelandic community. The league had its headquarters in Winnipeg, formed chapters in Icelandic communities across the continent, and accepted both affiliated societies and individual members. Under Pétursson’s leadership it financed classes in Icelandic history and culture, and set up a library. In addition to his presidential responsibilities, he was editor of the league’s annual journal, Tímarit [Periodical], from 1919 until his death. He was the principal organizer of the North American delegations to Iceland’s millennial celebration of 1930, which commemorated the establishment of the Althing, the world’s oldest parliament. During the last year of his life he coordinated arrangements for the Icelandic exhibition at the world’s fair in New York. That year the Icelandic government recognized his services by making him a grand knight commander in the Order of the Falcon. For his 25th anniversary as a minister, Meadville Theological School had awarded him an honorary dd in 1928; the University of Iceland acknowledged his contributions to the secular world with an honorary dphil in 1930.
Pétursson was a prolific author of articles and essays that were featured in various magazines and newspapers in both Icelandic and English. His book Ferðalýsingar frá sumrinu 1912 [Travelogues from the summer of 1912], which appeared in Winnipeg in 1914, chronicled his experiences during a tour of Iceland two years earlier in order to establish an Icelandic mission there. An anthology of his sermons and lectures, Fögur er foldin: ræður og erindi [Fair is the earth: addresses and lectures], would be published posthumously in Reykjavík in 1950.
Rögnvaldur Pétursson was a charismatic minister and author who sought to embody and promote the romanticized ideals of his Old Norse ancestry. In religion and literature, education, and public life, he was influential in Iceland and throughout Icelandic communities in North America. Dwelling intellectually and emotionally on the frontier between the two lands, he emerged as an interpreter of each to the other.
L. C. Cornish, “Rognvaldur Petursson: an appreciation,” Christian Reg., Unitarian ([Boston, Mass.]), 119 (1940), no.5: 101. V. E. Gudmundson, The Icelandic Unitarian connection: beginnings of Icelandic Unitarianism in North America, 1885–1900, ed. B. J. R. Gudmundson and G. E. Bjornson (Winnipeg, 1984). Í minningu um Dr. Rögnvald Pétursson: kveðjuorð flutt við útför hans 3. febr. 1940 í Sambandskirkjunni í Winnipeg, auk minninga úr íslenzkum blöðum [In memory of Dr Rögnvaldur Pétursson: valedictions conveyed at his funeral 3 Feb. 1940 at the Federated Church in Winnipeg, as well as memorials from Icelandic newspapers] (Winnipeg, 1940). Thorstina Jackson, Saga Íslendinga Norður-Dakota [History of the Icelanders in North Dakota], intro. Vilhjálm Stefánsson (Winnipeg, 1926). Thorstina [Jackson] Walters, Modern sagas: the story of the Icelanders in North America, intro. Allan Nevins (Fargo, N.Dak., 1953). W[ilhelm] Kristjanson, The Icelandic people in Manitoba: a Manitoba saga (Winnipeg, 1965). J. K. Laxdal, “Dr. R. Petursson’s memory honored,” Icelandic Canadian (Winnipeg), 11 (1952–53), no.2: 23–25. W. J. Lindal, The Icelanders in Canada (Canada ethnica, 2, Ottawa and Winnipeg, 1967). R. H. Ruth, Educational echoes: a history of education of the Icelandic-Canadians in Manitoba (Winnipeg, 1964). Þ. Þ. Þorsteinsson, Saga Íslendinga í Vesturheimi [History of the Icelandic people in America] (5v., Winnipeg, 1940–45; Reykjavík, 1951–53), 5 [v.4–5 ed. T. J. Oleson]. Vestur-Íslenzkar æviskrár [Icelandic-American genealogies], ed. Benjamín Kristjánsson and Jónas Thordarson (6v. to date, Akureyri, Iceland, 1961–85; Reykjavík, 1992) [v.1–4 ed. Benjamín Kristjánsson, v.5–6 ed. Jónas Thordarson].