Archive for July, 2009
Yesterday, we announced the addition of some new pages on the SOCHA website, including a Resources page. In the past day, we’ve added links to dozens and dozens of web pages that deal with various aspects of American Orthodox history. There’s actually a huge quantity of material out there on the Internet, freely available, but it’s scattered among a confusing array of websites. Hopefully, with the Resources section of our site, we’ll make sifting through all that material a bit easier for researchers.
I’d like to highlight one part of the Resources page in particular: the Parish Histories. At this writing, we have links to the histories of 103 different Orthodox parishes in the U.S. and Canada, and we’ll be adding more. Many of these parishes are old, with histories dating to before World War II (and most going back long before that). Individually, these parish histories may be interesting, but they can only tell us so much about American Orthodoxy in general. Taken together, though, they provide a valuable insight into the history of Orthodoxy in America as a whole.
If you study historiography, you’ll quickly become acquainted with the “Great Man” theory of history. This theory was popular in the 19th century, and Wikipedia defines it as “a philosophical theory that aims to explain history by the impact of ‘Great men,’ or heroes.” In other words, when you do history — so the theory goes — you should focus on the “great men”: kings, presidents, generals, and statesmen. If you extend that to Church history, it means you should focus on bishops, saints, and prominent theologians.
The Great Man Theory is no longer popular among academic historians, but it still holds sway among many in the Orthodox Church. It’s one reason why so many people just can’t wrap their minds around the idea that all the Orthodox in America were not a part of the Russian Mission prior to 1917. “The only bishops were Russian,” the argument goes, “ergo, all the Orthodox were under the Russians.”
This way of thinking tends to marginalize the laity and most parish clergy (with the rare exception of prominent priests like St Alexis Toth). But of course, the Church is not just the hierarchy. It is composed of the whole body of the faithful — bishops, priests, and non-clergy alike. The overwhelming majority of clergy are not bishops, and the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Christians are not clergymen at all. To ignore the priests and their flocks is to ignore more than 99% of the Church.
So when I do history, I try to pay special attention to the way things were “on the ground” — at the local level. That means reading old local newspapers, scouring the Internet for parish histories, and even calling dozens of parishes to ask questions. This sort of local history, repeated countless times, is the only way to answer many of the most interesting questions about our past. For instance: When and why were pews introduced into American Orthodox churches? How about organs? I’ve heard the same old answers over the years, but until now, nobody has bothered to systematically study the issue. What did American Orthodox clergy wear in the early 1900s? How many priests shaved, and how many had beards? Were the Russians more “conservative” than the Greeks, or was it the other way around? Did communities tend to construct their own churches, or buy existing Protestant buildings? How often did parishes change clergy? What percentage of American Orthodox were women? How about children? How prevalent was the use of English in church services, and how did that change over time?
To answer these and a thousand other questions, you have to look individual, local communities. The good news is, you can now do a lot of that research without getting into a car or catching a plane. Most established Orthodox parishes now have their own websites, and those websites usually include a parish history. (And, as an aside, many parishes have hard-working parish historians, and we hope SOCHA can help network those people.) If you want an overview of American Orthodox history, you can buy Fr John Erickson’s simple but enlightening Orthodox Christians in America: A Short History. But if you want to know more, take a look at our Resources page, and especially the Parish Histories section.
Matthew has previously provided for us some tidbits on the ambiguous canonical status of St. Raphael of Brooklyn (Antioch? Moscow? Both? How?)—see especially his post on St. Raphael’s consecration as well as listening to the relevant parts in his “The Myth of Past Unity” lecture.
Here’s another data point that I just discovered indicating that the impression of at least the Episcopalian observers to the situation in 1913 saw it as ambiguous, as well:
These Orthodox, about 33 per cent of the Syrians in New England, are all apparently under Bishop Raphael. This Syrian Bishop derives his authority from the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, but is closely connected with the Russian Archbishop in New York.
On a relatively unrelated point, it was also interesting to note how spread out the Syrians were by 1913:
Louise S. Houghton in the Survey says: “During the years 1899-1907, in which Syrians have been differentiated from other Turkish subjects, 41,404 Syrians have been admitted to the United States. Although 100,000 is the usual estimate of the Syrian population of this country, 70,000 is that of the best informed Syrians.” This was in the year 1911, and the number now may well be 80,000.
Alaska is credited with 20; California has 8,000; Montana, 200; Nevada, 700; South Dakota, 200; North Dakota, 1,000. Among the most helpful colonies are the; farm settlements in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Washington, the largest being in North Dakota.
The largest colonies are in the cities. New York has 5,000; Lawrence, 6,000; Boston, 5,000; San Francisco, 2,500; Worcester, 2,000; Philadelphia, 1,500; Pittsburgh, 1,500; Providence, 1,500; Chicago, 1,200; Springfield, Mass., 1,000; Los Angeles, Cleveland, and St. Louis have each 800; Albany has 600. Buffalo, Toledo, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, all have nearly 250 each. Milwaukee and Troy have each 150, and Duluth 56.
These cities representing twelve out of fifty-two states and territories, include about two fifths of the entire Syrian population. The others are scattered among the smaller towns and villages of these and the remaining thirty-nine states and territories. For instance the 200 in South Dakota are divided between Deadwood, Aberdeen, Sioux City, Lead, and Sioux Falls, with a number living on outlying farms. There are 200 in New Mexico, nearly all isolated farmers. There are no Syrians in Baltimore, and a few only in Washington (well-to-do), and in Buffalo a few in a small colony in the outskirts of the city. Dr. H. K. Carroll reports, for the year 1912, 24 organized churches with 43,000 members.[*]
St. Raphael certainly had his work cut out for him.
The whole report is worth reading and includes lots of interesting statistics.
[*]Parker, Rt. Rev. Edward Melville, et al (for the Episcopal Church, Missionary Dept. of New England). The people of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the separated churches of the east, and other Slavs; report of the commission (1913), pp. 34-35
All three are subject to further revision and additions, so check in and take a look every so often.
On today’s episode of my American Orthodox History podcast, we’re airing my talk, “The Myth of Past Unity,” given at the St Vladimir’s Seminary conference in June. For video of that lecture, click here.
I wrote an “author’s note” to go at the end of my paper. I didn’t have the opportunity to read that note at the conference, but I’m reprinting it here:
I am a lifelong Orthodox Christian of Lebanese descent, and I was raised in and am a member of the Antiochian Archdiocese. I have long been a proponent of Orthodox administrative unity in America, and I grew up wholly believing what I have now termed the “myth of unity.” When I began the research which ultimately led to this paper, my goal was to compile primary source documentation to support the view of the American Orthodox past as a “golden age.” I expected to find many and various pieces of evidence which would testify to the pre-1917 unity of American Orthodoxy, and I intended to publish this evidence in a book. This would, so I thought, help further the present cause of unity.
In the process of my research, it became apparent to me that the golden age of unity never actually existed. In fact, what I discovered was a great volume of evidence which directly contradicted this view. I reached my conclusions with not a small measure of disappointment, as it is always difficult to experience the virtual debunking of a long-held belief. However, I felt an obligation to continue my research and document, as best I could, the actual American Orthodox past. As I have done this, my perspective has changed. While I am still a very strong advocate of administrative unity – perhaps even more so than I was at the outset of my study – I no longer view the truth of the past as a disappointment or an obstacle. Quite the opposite: as I have argued in the conclusion to my paper, I consider the real past to be more positive, more encouraging, and more helpful to the present and future unity efforts than the old myth.
In this paper, I have singled out, among others, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as a prime advocate of the myth of unity. I have done this with some trepidation, as I am a great admirer of Schmemann. More than any other writer, he has had a profound influence on my life, and I consider his book For the Life of the World to be a defining text for me. While he was not principally an historian, his Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy is an admirable study of Church history. In his journals, he writes, “Ideally, the study of Church history should liberate people from enslavement to the past, which is rather typical for the Orthodox consciousness… I remember how slowly I became liberated from idealizing Byzantium, Old Russia, etc.” He goes on to say,
The historical events of the Church – such as the Ecumenical Councils – are important inasmuch as they are an answer to the world, an affirmation of salvation and transfiguration. As soon as they are absolutized, as soon as they gain a value per se, and not as related to the world; in other words, as soon as we transform them into sacred history, we deprive them of their genuine value and meaning. Therefore, the prerequisite for the study of church history must be to liberate it from being a sacred absolute, and not to be enslaved by it – which is so often a burden on Orthodoxy.
[Entry for Tuesday, November 12, 1974, published in The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann: 1973-1983 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 53-54.]
Schmemann unintentionally fails to follow these principles when he engages the American Orthodox past. Yet this is understandable: he engages that past not as a scholar but as an advocate for unity in the 1960s and 1970s. He – who, it should be remembered, arrived in America decades after the supposed golden age had ended – seeks, with the best of intentions, to use history as a tool to achieve a worthy end in the present. Because of his influence, I have had little choice but to quote and rebut him in particular. In doing this, however, I have meant no disrespect, and my high regard for Schmemann has in no way been diminished.
In making these clarifications, I hope I have demonstrated that I have not written this paper as an attack on any person or persons, and I have certainly not intended to hamper the effort for American Orthodox unity. I believe that an honest and accurate reading of our past is actually a step towards that unity, rather than away from it.
In September of 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, a fleet of Russian ships arrived in the New York harbor. Their mission was both diplomatic and strategic, but anyway, that’s not terribly relevant here.[i] More to the point, among the crews of the ships were at least two Orthodox priests serving as chaplains – the first known Orthodox clergy to set foot in the eastern United States.
On September 23, the New York Times reported that a certain Father Nestor, chaplain of the Russian frigate Olisiaba, baptized four Greek children in New York. “The service was of a most impressive character, and created great interest,” the Times said. “The service was read in the Russian dialect, and its forms are peculiar, but very appropriate to such a ceremony. The officers of the Russian frigate were present, and enjoyed at the residence of Mrs. Negroponti, in Nineteenth street, a most magnificent dejeune. The toasts of the Emperor of Russia and the new King of Greece were given in conjunction with our own magnates, and received with appropriate ovations.”[ii]
I don’t know the name of the second Russian priest to visit New York. He was the chaplain of the Russian frigate Alexander Nevsky. “The festival of St. Michael and of all Angels is one of those most reverenced in the Greek Catholic Church,” the Times said, “and the worthy ‘Papa’ saw fit to observe it in an Episcopalian cathedral, which he did with every semblance of intense curiosity, interest and devotion. He was received with distinction and conducted to a conspicuous and comfortable seat near the altar, on the right side of which sat the Rt. Reverend Bishop Southgate, in the ceremonial Chair of the Episcopate.”[iii]
When the Alexander Nevsky left New York, it made a stop in Athens, where it informed the Greek Church leaders that there were a number of Orthodox in America without a priest. This resulted in the arrival in New York, in 1865, of Fr. Agapius Honcharenko.
[i] Cf. Marshall B. Davidson, “A Royal Welcome for the Russian Navy,” American Heritage Magazine 11:4 (June 1960). Also cf. Edward W. Ellsworth, “Sea Birds of Muscovy in Massachusetts,” New England Quarterly 33:1 (March 1960), 3-18.
[ii] “A Greek Christening,” New York Times (September 23, 1863), 8.
[iii] “A Novelty for Michaelmas,” New York Times (September 30, 1863), 5.