The First Black Orthodox Priest in America
On today’s episode of the American Orthodox History podcast, we’re running a lecture I gave at the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black conference in Indianapolis at the end of May. The subject is Fr Raphael Morgan, the first black Orthodox priest in America. The text of the lecture is below. Also, later this year, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly will be publishing a paper I wrote on Fr Raphael.
I’m here today to speak about one of the most interesting figures in the history of American Orthodoxy. But rather than simply telling you his life story in chronological order, I thought I might first tell you how I initially encountered him.
Several years ago, I was poking around in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary library, looking for material on Fr. Ingram Irvine, an early American convert to Orthodoxy. I was paging through some old English-language sections of the Russian Orthodox American Messenger, which was the magazine of the Russian Church in America. In one of these issues – the October/November, 1904 issue, to be exact – I noticed a letter by a man named Robert Josias Morgan. This man, Morgan, was apparently an Episcopal deacon who had recently visited Russia and wrote a letter talking about how much he enjoyed his trip. I thought little of it at the time, but fortunately, I did make a photocopy, figuring that it might be useful in the future. And then I promptly forgot all about Robert Josias Morgan.
Not too long after this, I was searching an online newspaper archive, looking for digitized articles on St. Raphael of Brooklyn. I was searching for “Raphael” and “Orthodox Church,” or something like that, and I came up with a bunch of results from a Jamaican newspaper in 1913. I clicked on the first one, and on my screen appeared a remarkable sight. On the front cover of the paper was a photo of a black man, dressed in black clothing, and wearing a clerical collar and a pectoral cross. Beneath the photo, the headline read, “Priest’s Visit – Father Raphael of Greek Orthodox Church.”
Needless to say, I was shocked. Who was this priest? What was his story? And why hadn’t I ever heard about him before? It’s taken me quite some time to piece together the details of Fr. Raphael’s life, and even now, there are huge gaps. One non-Orthodox writer, commenting on Fr. Raphael in the 1970s, wrote, “The Morgan story is so utterly improbable that one tends to dismiss it as a hoax.” But I promise you, this is not a hoax.
Robert Josias Morgan was born in Jamaica in the 1860s or early 1870s; in other words, during or just after the American Civil War. I can’t pin it down any more precisely than that. He never met his father, who died when Robert was still in the womb. At an early age, Morgan embarked on an amazing and inexplicable life of travel. I have no idea how he financed all these journeys. First he went to Panama and Honduras, then to the United States. For a while he was a missionary in Germany, of all places. He made multiple visits to England. At some point, he became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and then later joined the Church of England. He went to Sierra Leone in Africa, where he studied Greek and Latin at an Anglican school. He was made a lay reader, and he worked as a missionary in Liberia for a number of years.
Eventually, he made another visit to America and then returned to England, where he studied to become an Episcopal deacon. He then returned to America and was ordained a deacon in 1895. He served all over the place – Delaware, Charleston, Richmond, Nashville, Philadelphia.
At some point around the turn of the 20th century, Morgan began to question his Anglican faith. For three years, he studied Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, trying to determine which was the true Church. As one early profile puts it, “It was his final conviction that the Holy Greek Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church is the pillar and ground of truth.” But he didn’t become Orthodox right away. He went on that trip to Russia that I mentioned earlier, visiting churches and monasteries. He was present at the anniversary service for Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation, and he also attended the memorial service for Tsar Alexander III. Morgan was treated as a special guest of the Kremlin, and his picture reportedly appeared in various Russian periodicals. In his letter after the trip, he wrote, “I came as a simple tourist, chiefly with the object to see the churches and monasteries of this country, to hear the ritual and the service of the holy Orthodox Church, about which I heard so much abroad. And I am perfectly satisfied with everything I saw and witnessed.” Morgan continued his travels, visiting Turkey, Cyprus, and the Holy Land.
But he still didn’t become Orthodox. He spent another three years studying with Greek priests in America, preparing for baptism. Now, here’s an obvious question – why did Morgan join up with the Greeks, rather than the Russians? Remember, this is the very beginning of the 20th century. The Greeks in America were quite disorganized. There were no bishops, no seminaries, no real national structure of any kind. Practically speaking, most parishes functioned as little autonomous units, exclusively serving Greek immigrants. Contrast this with the Russians – they had a bishop, St. Tikhon, who was well-known among the Anglicans. Right around this time, in 1904, the Russians established their first seminary, in Minneapolis. Generally speaking, the Russians were pretty well-organized. And again, right around this time, in 1905, Ingram Irvine, the former Episcopal priest, converted to Orthodoxy in the Russian church. The obvious thing for Morgan to do would have been to join the Russians. But he didn’t, and I don’t know why. Maybe he just got to know the Greeks in Philadelphia and liked them. In any event, he was in Philadelphia, and he was affiliated with the Greek church there.
In January 1906, Morgan was present at the Christmas liturgy of the Greek church in Philadelphia. (Remember, this was before the New Calendar, so the Greeks celebrated Christmas on January 7.) Anyway, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the next day that “Rev. R.J. Morgan of the American Catholic Church, an off-shoot of the Protestant Episcopal Church, assisted.” The following summer, in 1907, Morgan sailed to Istanbul. He was armed with two letters. One was from the Philadelphia Greek priest, Fr. Demetrios Petrides, who recommended that Morgan be baptized and then ordained an Orthodox priest. There was also a letter from the Philadelphia Greek community, which supported Morgan’s ordination and also said that if he failed to establish a black Orthodox parish, he was welcome to serve as their assistant pastor. So Morgan arrived in Istanbul, and he was interviewed by Metropolitan Joachim of Pelagoneia, one of the few bishops of the Patriarchate who knew English. Metropolitan Joachim recommended that Morgan be baptized, chrismated, ordained, and then sent back to America to “carry the light of the Orthodox faith among his racial brothers.” And so, in August, Morgan was baptized in front of three thousand people, and on the Feast of the Dormition, he was ordained a priest. He took the name “Father Raphael” in place of Robert. The Ecumenical Patriarchate sent him back to America with vestments, liturgical books, a cross, and twenty pounds sterling. He was given the right to hear confessions, but the Holy Synod denied his request for an antimension and Holy Chrism.
As soon as Fr. Raphael arrived back in America, he baptized his wife and children. Now, here’s something odd. He baptized his family right after his return, probably in the fall of 1907. But in 1911, he made a trip to Greece, and on the passenger manifest he is listed as single. Furthermore, the 1913 Jamaican newspaper article says that he “is known in the world as Robert Josias Morgan.” A couple years later, in the book Who’s Who of the Colored Race, it says that “the family name Morgan has been dropped and should never be used in addressing him.” It certainly sounds like he became a monk at some point. And here’s another thing – in numerous articles in the teens, Morgan is called the “founder and superior” of a religious fraternity known as the “Order of the Cross of Golgotha.” I have no idea what this order was. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, but in any event, you don’t usually hear married priests referred to as “superiors” of religious orders. Until recently, my suspicion was the Morgan’s wife had died. But several months ago, I discovered that Morgan’s wife had actually filed for a divorce in 1909, citing “cruelty” and “failure to support the couple’s children.” I don’t know exactly what that means. It does seem like, in the wake of this, Morgan went to Greece and was tonsured a monk. He was permitted to continue serving as a priest, and his wife remarried and retained custody of their son Cyril. The divorce documents still survive in the Delaware County, Pennsylvania court archives, and right now I’m trying to get copies of those documents, but the court is being rather difficult. Hopefully, I will eventually have copies and will be able to shed some more light on this period of Fr. Raphael’s life.
Anyway, moving on… Fr. Raphael appears to have made the Philadelphia Greek parish his base of operations. He went to Jamaica in 1913 and stayed there for several months, into 1914. He toured the island, giving lectures on his travels, the Holy Land, and so forth. The most interesting event took place in December 1913 – a Russian warship stopped in Jamaica, and Fr. Raphael served the Divine Liturgy with the Russian priest aboard the ship. A number of Syrian-Jamaicans attended, and Fr. Raphael used English for their benefit. The next day, the newspaper reported, “Father Raphael states that he is now in communication with the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Brooklyn with regard to the Syrians here, and hopes that ‘ere long something will be done in regard to their spiritual welfare.” Of course, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Brooklyn was St. Raphael Hawaweeny. I don’t know if anything came of this communication. St. Raphael became ill in 1914 and died in February 1915, so it’s possible that he was never able to do anything for the Syrians in Jamaica. Eventually, many of those Syrians and their descendants became Anglicans.
Still, it’s notable that Fr. Raphael and St. Raphael were in contact with one another. Fr. Raphael was a priest of the Greek church, but he had no problem cooperating with the other Orthodox in America. In fact, there’s evidence that he had at least some sort of contact with the Russian cathedral in New York City. On that passenger manifest from 1911, when he was returning to America from Greece, Fr. Raphael listed his destination as the Russian cathedral in New York City. Again, I have no clue why he was going there or what happened, but clearly there was some kind of interaction.
The last thing I’ve been able to find about Fr. Raphael is from 1916. He was still in Philadelphia, and he and about a dozen other Jamaican-Americans wrote a letter to the editors of the leading newspapers in Jamaica. They were complaining about Marcus Garvey, who was on a lecture tour of America. This is pretty interesting. You may have heard of Marcus Garvey… He was a black nationalist and a part of the back-to-Africa movement in that period. He found the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his lectures in America were stirring up racial tensions. Garvey was apparently portraying race relations in Jamaica in a very unfavorable light. Fr. Raphael and his friends were not happy about this. In their letter, they wrote, “We, having attended his lectures, found them to be pernicious, misleading, and derogatory to the prestige of the Government and the people [of Jamaica].” Garvey actually wrote a response, published in a Jamaican paper. He said that Fr. Raphael’s letter was “a concoction and a gross fabrication” written as part of a conspiracy against him.
And that’s it. After the exchange with Marcus Garvey, Fr. Raphael seems to have disappeared. Paul Manolis, a Greek Orthodox historian, interviewed several elderly Greeks from Philadelphia in the late 1970s. One of them said that she remembered sitting on Fr. Raphael’s knee and being fed bananas. She also said that Fr. Raphael’s daughter attended Oxford; I have no idea whether this is true. One man said that Fr. Raphael spoke “broken Greek” and used English when serving the Liturgy. Finally, a man named George Liacouras told Paul Manolis that he remembered Fr. Raphael “leaving to go to Jerusalem never again to return after serving a few years with Father Petrides.”
There are so many unanswered questions. Did Fr. Raphael die in the late teens, or did he really move to Jerusalem, or perhaps return to Jamaica or Africa? Did he remain Orthodox? And did he ever succeed in his mission to convert his fellow blacks to Orthodoxy? At first glance, his mission seems to have been a failure. Except for Fr. Raphael’s own family, there’s no evidence that he converted anyone at all.
The story would end there, but… Well, it doesn’t. Not quite. It’s possible that Fr. Raphael was indirectly responsible for the conversion of thousands of Africans to Orthodoxy. Here’s how.
The website of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia includes a list of pastors. And lo and behold, Robert Josias Morgan is listed as being the rector of the parish for a short time in 1901. But he was just a deacon – how could he have been a rector? The only explanation I can think of is that it was an interim position – the previous rector left, and Morgan filled in until a permanent priest could be found. He was probably the parish deacon already, so it would have been natural for him to fill in for a few months. The previous rector was an Episcopal priest named George Alexander McGuire. Presumably, Morgan and McGuire knew each other. They were both black men from the Caribbean, and both were ordained at about the same time. They both served in Richmond, and afterwards, both served in Philadelphia. It’s logical to think that they knew each other.
Okay, so why is this a big deal? Who was George Alexander McGuire? Well, I’ll tell you. Many years later, in 1920, George McGuire became a close associate of Marcus Garvey – the same Marcus Garvey whom Fr. Raphael had written against just a few years before. And then, in 1921, George McGuire was made a bishop by a certain Archbishop Joseph Vilatte of the American Catholic Church. You may remember that I mentioned earlier that prior to becoming Orthodox, Fr. Raphael was very briefly a member of the same American Catholic Church. Vilatte was sort of a rogue bishop. I guess you’d call him an “Old Catholic,” but he was a schismatic mishmash of Episcopalian and Roman Catholic. For several years, he was on friendly terms with the Orthodox. And as I said, Fr. Raphael was briefly in his church back in 1906. And then, in 1921, Vilatte consecrated George McGuire.
And what did George McGuire do now that he was a bishop? Why, he founded a group called the “African Orthodox Church”! It wasn’t Orthodox, really. It did adopt a lot of the trappings and language of Orthodoxy, but it wasn’t in communion with any of the world’s Orthodox Churches, and it was closely associated with the black nationalist movement. It was “Orthodox” in name only. However, the African Orthodox Church eventually spread to Africa itself. And after World War II, the branch of the African Orthodox Church in Africa joined the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. Much of the flowering of Orthodoxy in Africa today, in places like Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, can be traced to that original movement.
It’s sort of a mystery why George McGuire created an African Orthodox Church. After all, he was an Episcopal priest. Why would he want to become “Orthodox”? It is very, very likely – and I’m not the first person to suggest this – but it’s very likely that McGuire got the idea to become Orthodox from Fr. Raphael Morgan. He certainly knew about Fr. Raphael, and he almost certainly knew Fr. Raphael personally. Who knows – it’s possible that Fr. Raphael even tried to evangelize McGuire, thus planting the seed for McGuire to seek Orthodoxy.
And so now we do come to the end of our story. It seems like there are nothing but questions about Fr. Raphael. How did he manage to travel around the world so many times? How did he find out about Orthodoxy? Why did he join the Greeks in America rather than the Russians? Did he ever succeed in directly converting anyone to the faith? What was his Order of the Cross of Golgotha, and what happened to his wife and kids? And what happened to him? Did he really go to Jerusalem, as that old Philadelphia Greek man suggested, or did something else happen?
I can’t answer any of these questions. If you think you can shed more light on the story of Fr. Raphael, please let me know. I’d love to learn more about this fascinating man.
Before we close, I’d like to reflect for a moment on what Fr. Raphael’s story means for us today.
The most obvious message of his life, at least in my opinion, is that the Orthodox faith is for everyone. It’s not just for “cradle” Orthodox, people who were born into the faith. It’s not even just for the people you’d obviously think of as converts. I’m sure it seemed totally unlikely that a black Jamaican man would become an Orthodox priest one hundred years ago. As far as I can tell, nobody reached out to him, tried to share the faith with him. He sought it out himself, and when he found it, he recognized it as a pearl of great price.
On the one hand, by his conversion, he continues to bear witness even today to the truth of the Orthodox faith. And on the other hand, he admonishes us to recognize that the Orthodox faith is for the whole world, not just the cradle Orthodox, not just those converts who have been fortunate enough to find Orthodoxy, and not just those friends and acquaintances of ours with whom we can conveniently share our faith. We must, as the Church, be open at all times to all people. Fr. Raphael Morgan is an exemplary reminder of this important truth.
- OrthodoxHistory.org » Blog Archive » “Indirect Conversion of Thousands Theory”
- OrthodoxHistory.org » Blog Archive » The First Convert Bishop
- OrthodoxHistory.org » Blog Archive » Robert Josias Morgan visits Russia, 1904
- OrthodoxHistory.org » Blog Archive » Fr. Raphael Morgan against Marcus Garvey
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