A Fisher of Man in the Faroe Islands

February 26, 2018

Article written summer 1994

 

WILLIAM GIBSON SLOAN

 

The Brethren movement which began around 1830 has always been missionary-minded. This article tells the story of a missionary from the Brethren assemblies in Scotland who was called by God to go to a country which was not far away, and yet as far as could be. The language was different, the people were different, and there was a spiritual coldness. This missionary was William Gibson Sloan, and the country was the Faroe Islands.

 

Not many years ago the name Sloan was known throughout the Faroe Islands. William Gibson Sloan was used by God to change the cold spiritual conditions which had reigned in these islands for many centuries.

 

Born in Dalry, Ayrshire, Scotland, the fourth of September, 1838, William Sloan was the son of Nathaniel and Elisabeth Sloan. The only thing that is known of his early life is that once he almost drowned when he fell into the river which runs through Dalry. He was rescued by a young girl in the neighborhood who witnessed what had happened. Years later he was able to visit this girl, now an elderly lady, to thank her not only for saving his life, but also to tell her what Jesus Christ had done for him in saving him from eternal death and giving him eternal life.

 

Life Changing Events

 

Although he came to know Christ as his Savior at an early age, as he grew up, he began to seek the pleasures of the world and his love for the Lord began to fade. He was a good dancer and gifted in playing the viola, and he used his musical talent in entertaining people at dances. This resulted in a struggle in his own heart. He knew that the pleasures of the world were drawing him away from the Lord. He wanted to live for the Lord, but when the time for the next dance came, he would give in to the desires that drew him there.

 

It took the sudden death of his brother to change his outlook on life. As he looked at his dead brother who had been sick only a few days, he realized how suddenly life could be taken away. God spoke to him, and he realized the purposelessness and sinfulness of his own life.

 

A second incident also led to the change in his life. An American missionary visited Lanarkshire where he was now working as a young man of twenty-one years of age. After some evangelistic meetings which were conducted there, Sloan visited this American by the name of Sherade and was helped in gaining assurance of salvation. It was as if his soul was filled with light and joy and he began to rejoice in the conscious knowledge that his sins really were forgiven.

 

Encouraged by Mr. Sherade to participate in the meetings of the church and to teach Sunday school, Sloan was soon helping out in a new “kitchen meeting” held in a home in Coatdyke. “Kitchen meetings” were common in those days in the smaller towns and villages in Scotland. The kitchens were large rooms used as both kitchen and dining hall. They were also used for teaching and family activities.

 

His life became very busy during this period. He worked at a food store during the day, and the rest of his waking hours were filled with activities for the Lord Jesus Christ. It was his employment in the store that led to a conflict with his conscience over the sale of alcohol. Convinced before the Lord that he should no longer do this, he quit his job and like Abraham “he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8).

 

Convinced that he ought to serve the Lord “full time,” he became involved in evangelical outreach close to his hometown, Dalry. There he met and came under the influence of a godly Free Church Missionary by the name of Samuel Dodds. Blind from the age of three because of measles, Dodds had a spiritual sight and a vision of the Lord in His beauty until his home call at the age of ninety-six. He also had a vision of dying men and women who were without Christ. His evangelistic zeal, his love of the Scriptures, his godly example, and his life of prayer all had a great impression on William Sloan.

 

To the Shetland Islands

 

Sloan developed an interest in the Edinburgh Religious Tract and Book Society, (later renamed The Religious Tract and Book Society of Scotland), which used colporters to take God’s Word to the people. He applied to work with them and was asked to go to the Shetland Islands to sell books and hand out tracts. Setting out from Leith on the morning of Friday, January 16, 1863, he arrived in Lerwick harbor the next evening with his bag of books, and by Sunday he started the work which God would use to prepare him for his future service in the Faroes.

 

His diary of the first day reads as follows:

 

Jan. 18, 1863. Started my work today. Visited 20 families, some wealthy and some poor; was welcomed. Many were interested in my job. Sold 12 sh. 1 p. [12 shillings, 1 pence] in books. Visited the fort and was well received; distributed tracts to some of the men, who accepted them thankfully. Sold one New Testament and one Bible. One man ordered Stowell Brown’s Lectures. Prayed for a sick man and met a widow who was rich in the Lord. Was at the prayer meeting this evening.

 

Sloan’s ministry in the Shetland Islands was blessed by the Lord. Many were saved and the meetings in the Gospel Hall, “Ebenezer,” were well attended. On one occasion the people were so touched by the Gospel that they would not leave the building. Sloan felt the power of the Spirit as he was presenting the Gospel. That evening he wrote in his diary that his greatest wish was “to be able to preach Christ even more fully, more seriously, and more simply. I see what gives result is to preach the Gospel. Lord, give me strength to preach to the hearts.”

 

The Lord did open doors and He opened the hearts of men to the Gospel so that the Gospel soon spread over all the Shetland Islands. But these were hard years also. The grueling regime of work which he set for himself took its toll on him physically. But this was part of the preparation for the work that God planned for him to do, a work in a nation north of the Shetland Islands, a work in the Faroe Islands.

 

To the Faroe Islands

 

Before he came to Shetland, William Sloan had never heard of the Faroe Islands. It was from Shetland fishermen that he first heard of these islands two hundred miles to the northwest of Shetland. Fishing boats from the Shetlands would fish the waters around the Faroes, and there was considerable interaction between the sailors of the two countries. Shetland sailors would come on shore in the Faroes to buy provisions and alcohol, which was much cheaper there than in England. In fact, much alcohol was smuggled into Shetland from the Faroes during this time.

 

From what he heard of the islands his heart was troubled over the low level of spiritual life there. In contrast to Scotland where Sunday was a very holy day, almost like the Jewish Sabbath, Sunday night in the Faroes was spent drinking and dancing and gambling. Some gambled not only their money, but even their homes away. Sloan desired to go and see the conditions with his own eyes and to preach the Gospel there. The more he considered it, the more he found the peace of God in his heart and the more he was convinced that God was calling him to the Faroes.

 

He wrote a letter to a Mr. Reid in Edinburgh, the editor of The British Herald, a Christian publication, who was very interested in missions. In response, Mr. Reid encouraged him to go to the Faroes and sent him a Danish dictionary and a Danish grammar for English-speaking people. In addition there was a gift of money for his expenses. Since the Faroes were a colony of Denmark, Danish was the official language. In fact the Faroese language was hardly spoken any more. The books used in the schools and churches were in Danish. Sloan had already received a Danish (or Norwegian) New Testament from a man in Shetland, and with these tools he began learning Danish on his own.

 

When the people Sloan worked with understood that he was serious about going to the Faroes, they invited him to take a leave of absence for six weeks so that he could visit the Islands. They also gave him some Danish Bibles to take with him. He accepted their suggestion and in view of their financial support, he returned the money sent by Mr. Reid.

 

On May 28, 1865 Sloan wrote in his diary:

 

My thoughts have been much occupied with the conditions in Faroe Islands. I have learned that appr. 8,000 people live there and about 700 Shetlanders fish there nearly all of the summer, also French and English fishermen, so about one thousand foreigners call into port every year. Furthermore, I understand that no missionary work is going on in the islands and that there are only a few Lutheran priests to all these people.

 

I am led to believe that true religion (in Faroe) must be at a very low ebb. Therefore I feel constrained and willing to go to work there in the name of God and in His strength, and I am fully persuaded that my work will not be in vain in the Lord. I feel helpless in this important step when I consider myself, but strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. If the Lord sends me, then I believe I will not go there to no avail. My motive and my desire to go there, and to give up my present work, rest upon what I believe to be: The glory of God and the salvation of souls!

 

The Faroe Islands need a missionary who is prepared to declare the whole counsel of God, and I wish to be released from all human ties and hindrances in relation to my faith in God and in His truth. May the Lord by His Spirit lead me—He who never leads astray. May the grace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with my spirit in this glorious undertaking. So the Lord helping me I decide to go to the Faroe to preach Jesus. Amen.

 

A short time after this he left from the Shetland island of Papa Stour and sailed north to the Faroe Islands. He arrived at the age of twenty seven with just a few Danish Bibles, a Danish grammar, an English-Danish dictionary, and a letter of recommendation from a Shetland businessman to H. C. Müller, the registrar in Tórshavn. Concerning this day Petur Háberg has written: “He came into the harbor in Tórshavn on a windy day, and we can imagine that it was not a pleasant first-time picture he experienced. The fog lay low over the 170 poor looking houses at Reyni—most of them just cottages—squeezed together at Eystaruvág.” 2 Sloan has said himself that when he first stepped out of the ship, he had a strange feeling of homesickness. Here he stood, knowing nothing about the country, nothing about the people, and worst of all, a total stranger to the language.

 

The Gospel in the Faroes

 

The Land and its People

 

It is helpful to know something of the cultural background of the Faroes in those days.

 

Circumstances are quite different today than they were 130 years ago. Today there are 47,000 people living in the Faroes, while in 1865 there were only 8,500. The houses were small, low, and squeezed closely together. Between the houses were small storehouses, outhouses, barns, and manure heaps. The houses were built of stone and driftwood which were coated with tar. The roofs were covered with sod over birch bark. Water had to be carried from the river and heat was obtained by burning peat. At night there was almost total darkness.

 

Travel from village to village was difficult. By land there were high and rugged mountains which had to be crossed. Row boats were used for travel between the islands, but the currents were strong, and many boats disappeared during these journeys.

 

There was little connection with the outside world. The only regular contact was a ship from Denmark which came twice a year with provisions for the one store that served all the islands. The only other contacts were with fishermen who came into port to sell fish or buy alcohol. The people there had to live on what could be derived from nature.

 

Alcohol was plentiful and the abuse of it caused significant problems. Many would lose everything they had.

 

The Spiritual Conditions in the Faroes

 

The Lutheran Church was the State Church in 1865 when Sloan arrived, and still is. Its services were very formal and ritualistic. The Gospel was not preached, and the emphasis was on living a moral life, attending church, and observing the proper rites. Most believed that they were born again when they were baptized as infants, and this is what they trusted in for their salvation. Bibles were expensive and scarce. Few read or even referred to the Scriptures. In fact, the book itself was considered to be too “holy” to be used daily.

 

There was a devotional literature for those who could read. These books were used like prayer books for Sunday and special events and were regarded as authoritative as the Bible. But they did not teach the way of salvation. Their emphasis was on a righteous life and pleasing God by good works. There was little evidence of a true fear of God at this time. Those who attended church found that religion helped ease their conscience from their drinking and partying on Sunday night.

 

Sloan’s First Attempts to Preach the Gospel

 

Sloan’s first halting attempts to preach the Gospel were with two children who were later to play a very important part in his life. Walking on the streets of Tórshavn, he met Andrias í Geil and his sister Elspa. Since he loved children, he stopped to speak to them in his broken Danish. He tried to tell them who he was and where he came from. He gave them candy and taught them a little gospel song, “Come to Jesus, Come to Jesus, Just now!” (in Danish). It turned out that years later Andrias was the first person to accept Christ as his personal Savior through Sloan’s ministry and was also the first in the Faroes to be baptized. Elspa later became Sloan’s wife.

 

When he saw the spiritual conditions there, he resolved that he must preach Christ to the people of Tórshavn before he left. He spoke at Kingsbridge where people usually gathered. He wrote out the message using his Danish grammar. The English translation is as follows:

 

My dear friends, I will with pleasure tell you about Jesus. I, a poor sinner, have been led to trust Jesus and love Jesus, and I wish that everyone would do the same. We are not born Christians. Baptism does not make children Christians. Union with the church will not save us. Jesus speaks that you must be born again. A Christian is someone who is born of the Holy Spirit. After the Holy Spirit, a new heart. This new heart leads him to love Jesus and hate all evil and love the Lord’s Day, and to be friendly and good to everyone.

 

Some folk think that they are Christians if they belong to the Church, which is false, but this is Satan’s lie to deceive them and lead them to Hell. Some folk seek to serve God, and serve the Devil in the dancing place and card place. God speaks, don’t let yourself be deceived. God is not mocked—whatever a man sows to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption but he who sows to the Spirit, everlasting life. My dear friends, trust surely in Jesus’ blood to cleanse away every spot and then you will hate all evil and seek to serve Jesus every day.

 

Sloan was obviously sincere in his preaching, but his message was completely foreign to them. They were also unaccustomed to hear someone preach on the street and in the open air. The only preaching they were familiar with was on Sunday morning in the Church.

 

The first visit was a short one, and for a number of years he traveled extensively ministering in the Shetlands and Scotland as well as traveling around the Faroes. The Faroese wondered who this man was who preached this “new faith” that said people needed to be born again. They asked what church or denomination he came from or who paid him to come to the Faroes. Some thought he was a millionaire who preached because he liked it. Others thought that he came from some American cult, while others said that the British government paid him to go there.

 

Sloan said little about his struggles during these years, but there are a few places in his diaries which mention closed doors and closed villages. Once he came to a village on a cold and snowy winter night and was rejected when he asked if he could stay the night. He hiked out into the cold night and went on until he found a hay barn to sleep in. In spite of rejection and unresponsiveness he continued to proclaim the Gospel.

 

The First Baptism

 

The response of the Faroese was slow, and it was not until 1878, thirteen years after his first visit, that Sloan saw the first fruits of his ministry. One family, the Isaksens, did respond to his faithful testimony, and Andrias Isaksen (called Dia í Geil), one of the children he met on his first visit, was the first to come to the assurance of possessing eternal life. His sister Elspa thought that she was saved by merely understanding the content of the Gospel. She was a capable and intelligent person whose talents had been employed in the theater in Tórshavn. After some time she also came to know peace with God through personal faith in Jesus Christ.

 

Dia was not only the first to accept the Lord as his Savior, he was also the first to be baptized in the Faroes. A visiting brother by the name of MacDonald baptized him on October 31, 1880. When the news leaked out to the larger family circle there was a violent reaction. Anna, the sister of Dia’s mother, hastened to warn Dia and his sister of the dire consequences that would follow their “re-baptism.” Terrible tales were told about this baptism. The people thought that it would bring God’s judgment upon them and Dia should be killed to stop this. Some thought that they could avoid this judgment by making the sign of the cross when passing them.

 

But God was working and the following years brought considerable response. Sloan had built an assembly hall in 1879–80 and called it “Ebenezer.” The people simply called it “Sloan’s hall.” Elspa followed her brother in baptism, and in October of 1881 she and Sloan got married. He was 43 and she was 24. They settled in the attic above Sloan’s hall and continued their ministry together. Many were getting saved and were being baptized all over the islands and new assemblies were started in smaller villages. In 1901 the population of the Faroes was 15,230. There were thirty believers who identified themselves with the Brethren, most of them in Tórshavn.

 

Sloan’s Last Years

 

“Old Sloan” was a man of prayer. This was the proven secret of his spiritual life. When someone came to him with a problem, he would always say, “Let us pray about it.” His prayer flowed like a tranquil river, like a child speaking to his father. Invariably he concluded his prayer by saying, “in the name of Jesus, who alone is worthy.” He had a special place for prayer and meditation while in Tórshavn. The Danish Baptist, Godtfred Petersen, visited there when he was sent to the Faroes in 1899 to investigate the possibility of setting up a Baptist mission to the islands. But having seen the work that was being done, he reported that such a mission was unnecessary. In his report he wrote of arriving at Sloan’s home. “It was an ordinary house with a hall in it, where about 60 people were gathered together.” At the meeting he heard two Faroese men preach, and then the man with the grayish-white beard, the missionary Sloan.

 

His work in the later years of his life became more limited because of physical weakness as he grew to be an old man. However, he continued to work until the very end. He spoke for the last time on September 2, 1914 at the evening service in “Ebenezer,” the new hall that had been built in Tórshavn. A young man present remembered, “William Sloan’s subject that evening was the Lord’s second coming. After the meeting, we followed him home. We often walked with him.”

 

On Friday morning, September 4, 1914, William did not feel well after getting up so that he returned to bed. Elspa called for the doctor, a Jewish doctor, Dr. Metz. When he arrived, William said to him, “On Christ, the solid rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. I trust in Jesus alone!” The doctor smiled and patted his shoulder.

 

Later in the day his son Andrew was called in by his father and was given that day’s tear-off page from the calendar which hung on the wall above the bed. It read:

 

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.

 

To many a child of God those words from Proverbs 3:5, 6 have been at once compass, rudder, and anchor, in sailing out upon life’s treacherous sea. That text was given to the writer by his father, in boyhood, as a life motto, and since then no important step has been taken without waiting for divine leading and never in vain. We can afford to wait as long as He can, for it is His work, way, and time, that are of all consequence. If, therefore, guidance does not at once come, it is safer to wait till it does; a step taken too soon may be a step taken amiss (A. T. Pierson).

 

After giving the page to his son, he said to him, “Read it and follow it, so that it will go well with you.”

 

For the rest of the day he kept quoting from the hymn, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand.” In the evening he gathered the family around his bed for a Bible reading. Although he was too weak to read the Scriptures, he did commend them to the Lord in prayer. An hour or two later he was with the Lord. He had reached the Heavenly Harbor, full-sail, with an abundant entrance into the immediate presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He died on his birthday at the age of seventy-six. Although there was sorrow and a real sense of loss at his funeral, the predominant theme was that of joy in the Lord Jesus and triumph over death through His victory.

 

Elspa, Sloan’s wife, remained a widow until she went home to be reunited forever with her partner in this life on June 4, 1930.

 

Epilogue

 

The Lord called other workers to fill the gap left by Sloan’s promotion to glory. The first was his own son, Andrew, who left his secular employment in 1917 to devote his full time to the Lord’s work. A year later Mr. Victor Danielson, a Faroese schoolteacher, did likewise. Danielson was especially used by God in the work of translation. He translated the entire Bible into the Faroese language, the first edition of which was published in 1949. He translated and composed many of the hymns in the Faroese hymnbook, called S ongbók Guds Fólks. Of the 1192 songs and hymns in this collection the vast majority come from his pen.

 

Two Scots came to serve the Lord in the Faroe Islands. Angus MacKinnon from Kilmarnock settled in Tvøroyri for some years before World War II. Joe Adam of Motherwell served in Gøta and other places during and after the war. Leslie Randall from Gloucester, England made frequent visits to the Islands and was called home to be with the Lord after preaching the Gospel outside “Ebenezer,” Tórshavn in 1976.

 

The Brethren assemblies in the Faroe Islands have multiplied from a handful at the time of Mr. Sloan’s home call to around thirty at the present time. In Tórshavn the present “Ebenezer” hall seats 1500 people in the large auditorium and about 800 in the lesser hall below. In Kladsvík north of Tórshavn the hall named “Betesda” can accommodate about 1000. These meeting places are named without any accompanying description such as Gospel Hall, Bible Chapel, or Prayer House. Besides the two already mentioned other meeting places are called Saron, Viðareiði, Kedron, Sørvágur, Betania, Porkeri, Vitnið, Hvalba, Zion, Kollafjørður.

 

William Sloan had unique gifts, both natural and spiritual, which fitted him for the task of bringing Christ to the people of the Faroe Islands. He performed his service to the Lord in all humility, self-effacement, and at times even self-depreciation both by his manner of life as well as by the message of his lips. And so, being dead, he still speaks to us in our generation to encourage us to use what God has given to us to fulfill His calling for our lives.

1 Emmaus alumnus Jógvan Zachariassen is presently a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is preparing for full-time service in the Faroe Islands. Readers desiring to know more about the history of Assembly work in the Faroe Islands will want to read Fred Kelling’s challenging book, Fisherman of Faroe: William Gibson Sloan. It is available in the United States from Gospel Folio Press, P.O. Box 2041, Grand Rapids, MI. 49501–2041 ($20, hardcover; $15, paperback, 10% shipping). Canadian readers can order it from Mr. William Yuille, 92 Church St., Markham, Ontario, L3B. 2M4.

 

2 Petur Háberg, Lív og Læra (1960).

 

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