The Reverend Ebenezer Henderson, missionary, formed the first Congregational Church in Sweden on the 6th of October, 1811.
The Reverend Ebenezer Henderson never intended going to Sweden, let alone Scandinavia, but in 1805 circumstances and fate perhaps played a hand and thereafter he spent many years travelling throughout Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Russia, preaching and giving out bibles and translations of the New Testament. Henderson was a gifted linguistic scholar who achieved remarkable results in his chosen field. As well as the ‘classic’ scholarly languages, he learned those of the various Scandinavian countries he visited. In addition, he was considered to be one of the most accomplished oriental and biblical scholars in Britain and was familiar with Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Manchu, Mongolian, Tatar, Persian, Turkish, Russian, Arabic and Coptic. He wrote a number of books on theology, biblical criticism and new translations of biblical works from the original Hebrew, including in 1813, the first translation of the New Testament into Icelandic. In 1822, he was invited by Prince Alexander (Galitzin) to assist the Russian Bible Society in translating the Scriptures into various languages spoken in the Russian empire. Additionally, he edited a new edition of Buck’s Theological Dictionary and he was one of the first promoters of the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews. He also wrote about the countries that he visited. One particular book about his travels in Iceland was a valuable contribution to knowledge of that island in the early 19th Century. In another book, he wrote about his extensive travels in Russia. His last work was a translation of the Book of Ezekiel, which was not made into a film starring Denzil Washington.
Ebenezer Henderson was born at Linn, near Redcraigs in the parish of Saline, on the 17th of November, 1784. His nephew, known as Ebenezer Henderson the Younger, was a scientist of some renown and the author of the ‘Annals of Dunfermline’. Ebenezer the Elder was probably educated in the Saline parish school and afterwards, he spent some time as a watchmaker, a cowherd, and apprentice cobbler. However, his true calling was to be a Missionary and in 1803, he joined Robert Haldane’s theological seminary in Edinburgh. His aptitude for that vocation was obvious and, in 1805 on completion of his studies, he was selected to accompany the Reverend John Paterson to India. Getting to India was easier said than done as between 1805 and 1813, a bitter debate raged over the right of Christian missionaries to operate in British India. It was considered by the ‘establishment’ that their actions would disrupt the Imperial order and thus affect profits. Therefore, the East Company wouldn’t allow British vessels to carry missionaries to India. The proposed solution involved Henderson and Paterson making their way to Denmark to await a passage to Serampur in West Bengal, which was then a Danish port. Fatefully, they were delayed and so they began preaching in Copenhagen, before finally deciding to settle in Denmark. The next year, Henderson became the pastor at Elsinore.
After that time until around 1817, Henderson was engaged in the distribution of bibles in the Scandinavian countries. As an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he visited Sweden, Lapland, Iceland, the mainland of Denmark, and part of Germany. Returning to Sweden after having first been there in 1807-8, he formed the first Congregational Church, on the 6th of October, 1811. Later, in 1818, after a brief visit to England, he travelled throughout Russia as far south as Tiflis. However, instead of settling at Astrakhan as was proposed, he resigned his connection with the Bible Society. That was because of his disapproval of the Turkish New Testament, which had been printed in Paris, in 1819. Later, in 1824, Henderson published the pamphlet with the long name, entitled ‘Appeal to the members of the British and Foreign Bible Society, on the subject of Containing a view of its history, an exposure of its errors, and palpable proofs of the necessity of its suppression’. Finally, after twenty years of foreign service, Henderson returned to Britain, where in 1825, he became Tutor of the Mission College in Gosport. In 1830, he was appointed Theological Lecturer and Professor of Oriental Languages in Highbury Congregational College. In 1850, he retired on a pension, but from 1852 to1853 he was Pastor of Sheen Vale chapel at Mortlake.
Ebenezer Henderson was one of the earliest foreign travellers to Iceland, where he stayed in for two years. His two-volume work of his travels was called ‘Iceland: Or The Journal Of A Residence In That Island, During The Years 1814 And 1815’. He was also a keen observer who acquired and presented a large amount of information, as exemplified by the sub-title of the book, ‘Observations on the Natural Phenomena, History, Literature, and Antiquities of the Island; And the Religion, Character, Manners, and Customs of Its Inhabitants’. Amusingly, on the 21st of April, 1818, in the preface to that book, which was published that year, he wrote apologetically, “For any inaccuracies, in point of language, the author claims the indulgence of his readers; which he feels assured they will not deny him, when he informs them, that, during an absence of thirteen years from his native country, his attention has been more directed to the study of other languages, than to the cultivation of his own.”
The Reverend Ebenezer Henderson died at Mortlake on the 17th of May, 1858.