Parish Histories

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.