Anders Porsanger was born in Olderfjord in Finnmark into a South Sami family. He was noticed at an early age because of his keen abilities.
In Trondheim, Seminarum lapponicum [the Sami seminar] was established in 1751 and closely linked to Katedralskolen. The overriding goal was to bring the Sami population closer to the rest of the realm. To achieve this aim it was important to train vicars and civil servants in the Sami language. Knut Leem was the leader of this seminar. With experience as a vicar in the north, he had also learnt Sami. In the efforts to develop a Sami grammar and dictionary he was granted funding to hire an assistant for this work, and the pastor of west Finnmark helped him find a good candidate. Thus was the reason for Anders Porsanger’s move to Trondheim in 1752.
While working on the language assignment, Anders was also a pupil at Katedralskolen. Some eyebrows were sharply raised because a son of common people, and a Sami at that, was allowed to attend the school. But Porsanger was a gifted pupil. In 1758 he travelled to Copenhagen to study theology, and in 1761 earned a university degree in that subject – the first Norwegian Sami with a university degree! While in Denmark he took part in translating the three epistles of John in the Bible into Sami.
Porsanger received an appointment that would send him to Varanger as a missionary. On the way north he came to Trondheim again around Christmas in 1761. Here they wanted like to keep their former student, but could not afford it. But he managed to be ordained as a vicar by Bishop Gunnerus in April 1762 before travelling north to Varanger.
In April 1764 he again returned to Trondheim where he was appointed as a vicar at Trondhjems Hospital. In this position he was to carry on his work under Leem, in particular with issues relating to developing a Sami written language. The same year he married Anna Catharina Hagerup, and in the ensuing years they had several children. They had a difficult financial situation and this period was also marked by cooperation problems. Porsanger was an outsider, and this probably was very noticeable in this class-conscious environment. He may also have suffered from some measure of arrogance.
Allegedly the epithet "disgusting peasant pride" was used about him! In 1771 the King appointed him assistant pastor in the Cathedral’s parish, but Gunnerus had that reversed. Porsanger was marginalised as a vicar and language researcher, and in 1772 he moved his family to Finnmark. He served first as the vicar in Vadsø, and from 1777 as the pastor for all of east Finnmark.
The history books give him a good reputation in his work as a vicar. But it is clear that he had envisioned a life closer to the centre of events. His life ended tragically. In 1780 he decided to take his family to Copenhagen in the hopes of acquiring a more attractive office. Off the coast of Risør in the south of Norway their ship went down, and the whole family perished.
It is difficult to see how the honorary name "pioneer" could have been used on anyone more deserving than Anders Porsanger. He was the first Sami ordained in the church, in 1762, but it would be more than 160 years before the next person with a Sami background became a vicar in the Norwegian Church.
Recommended reading: Vor kristne og humanistiske arv: betraktninger ved 200-årsjubileet for Grunnloven [Our Christian and humanist heritage: Considerations at the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution]. 2014. (Article by Roald E. Kristiansen).