St. Innocent’s Vision

On October 18, 1867, the Russian Empire formally ceded Alaska to the United States. The next month, St. Innocent was elected Metropolitan of Moscow. Shortly after this, Innocent sent the following letter to the Ober-Procurator (the Tsar’s representative) of the Holy Synod.[*]

Rumor reaching me from Moscow purports that I wrote to someone of my great unhappiness about the sale of our colonies to the Americans. This is utterly false. To the contrary, I see in this event one of the ways of Providence whereby Orthodoxy will penetrate the United States (where even now people have begun to pay serious attention to it). Were I to be asked about this, I would reply:

A. Do not close the American vicariate – even though the number of churches and missions there has been cut in half (i.e., to five).

B. Designate San Francisco rather than New Archangel the residence of the vicar. The climate is incomparably better there, and communications with the colonial churches are just as convenient from there as from New Archangel (if not more so).

C. Subordinate the vicariate to the Bishop of St. Petersburg or some other Baltic diocese, for once the colonies have been sold to the American Government, communications between the Amur and the colonies will end completely and all communications between the headquarters of the Diocese of Kamchatka and the colonies will have to be through St. Petersburg – which is completely unnatural.

D. Return to Russia the current vicar and all clergy in New Archangel (except churchmen) and appoint a new vicar from among those who know the English language. Likewise, his retinue ought to be composed of those who know English.

E. Allow the bishop to augment his retinue, transfer its members and ordain to the priesthood for our churches converts to Orthodoxy from among American citizens who accept all its institutions and customs.

F. Allow the vicar bishop and all clerics of the Orthodox Church in America to celebrate the Liturgy and other services in English (for which purpose, obviously, the service books must be translated into English).

G. To use English rather than Russian (which must sooner or later be replaced by English) in all instruction in the schools to be established in San Francisco and elsewhere to prepare people for missionary and clerical positions.

This is obviously a remarkable vision. St. Innocent calls for an English-speaking bishop and English-language church services, books, and schools. He speaks of “converts to Orthodoxy from among American citizens,” and he foresees the day when “Orthodoxy will penetrate the United States.” The greatest missionary of modern times lays out his plan for an American Orthodox Church, and 140-odd years later, we are still struggling to make real that vision.

Needless to say, the Russian Church did not fully implement St. Innocent’s suggestions. Yes, San Francisco soon replaced Sitka (New Archangel) as the diocesan seat, but the use of English did not become the norm, and converts were few and far between. In fact, outside of Alaska, the Russian Mission established only two parishes in the quarter century following the sale of Alaska, and one of them — Nicholas Bjerring’s New York chapel — was not only not missionary, but decidedly anti-missionary in its focus. Orthodoxy would not begin to “penetrate the United States,” as St. Innocent put it, until the great immigration in the 1890s. And it wouldn’t embrace large numbers of converts until well into the 20th century.

Whatever one’s views on jurisdictional claims, it is clear that the Russian Church missed a golden opportunity when it failed to take St. Innocent’s advice. Had they done so, the immigrants of the 1890s would arrived in America and been met with a well-established Local Orthodox Church, rather than a struggling mission centered in far-off Alaska and with a few outposts on the Pacific Coast.

But in another sense, the Russian Mission itself can’t totally be blamed for its relative failure in the 1867-1892 period. Administering Alaska alone was a massive job for the bishop; spreading Orthodoxy throughout the rest of the continent while simultaneously caring for his Alaskan flock would have been well-nigh impossible. Furthermore, funding was an issue: if the Tsarist government didn’t want to foot the bill for missionary work in the United States, the Russian Church was largely out of luck.

Still, one can’t help but read St. Innocent’s vision and wonder, “What if?” I suppose it’s now up to us, a century and a half later, to make that vision a reality.

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[*] Printed in Paul D. Garrett, St. Innocent: Apostle to America (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), 275-277.

8 thoughts on “St. Innocent’s Vision

  1. Orthodoxy would not begin to “penetrate the United States,” as St. Innocent put it, until the great immigration in the 1890s. And it wouldn’t embrace large numbers of converts until well into the 20th century.

    St. Alexei Toth and the Uniates he brought into the Russian Mission were converts. It is acceptable to think otherwise in some corners, but I think it is important not to simply dismiss this conversion. Yes, it was passive on the part of the Russian Mission, but it could have ended up the same way the overtures of the Metropolia and the EOC to Constantinople did – with a no.

    Given the difficulties the author notes in simply administering the Alaskan parishes, such an influx of converts only 23 years after St. Innocent’s letter is amazing.

    Of course, large numbers of non-Slavic converts did not convert for some time to come, but ‘American’ converts are not more important than Slavic converts.

    To denigrate what is a sort of ‘home’ mission to traditionally Orthodox peoples is an important mission of the Church today. The problem has been that reaching out to those with Greek, Russian and Romanian names in the phone book has often been the primary aim of many ‘ethnic’ Orthodox parishes – and not a part of the aim of many ‘convert’ parishes. It should be both/and rather than either/or.

  2. Orrologion,

    Thanks for the comment! We in no way denigrate the conversions of Carpatho-Rusyns from Eastern Catholicism to Orthodoxy here at SOCHA. My own dissertation, about which I’m in conversation with a university press, included St. Alexis Toth as one of the representative converts I discussed. So, I consider the “uniate” conversions worthy of inclusion with any of the other intra-Christian conversions to Orthodoxy in America. Additionally, Matthew’s point here was simply to note the vision that St. Innocent had. Innocent’s vision was not concentrated on Eastern Catholics who would not begin immigrating to America for nearly 30 years later. St. Innocent was speaking about the America of 1867, which did not yet include the large number of uniates. Also, keep in mind a point that is often forgotten: St. Alexis’ efforts established Russian schools in parishes and involved a strong Russophile element. It did not establish English as the language of the liturgy and/or church business. What the Russian Mission did with the Eastern Catholics was continue an Old World view of mission here in America. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’d even go further than you on one point. I don’t think it was passive. Initially, under St. Alexis, yes, but soon the Russians themselves actively promoted it! On that point, you sound like you’re denigrating it :-D I know you’re not. We’re not, either.

    In sum: we don’t denigrate those conversions, you need to keep in mind the historical difference between 1867 and 1898, and keep in mind that the 1898+ mission of St. Alexis Toth was of a different character than what St. Innocent had envisioned, even though it had its own evangelical integrity.

    All that said, I am very glad you’re reading this blog and very glad you are interacting with our postings as you are.

    Yours in Christ,
    Fr. Oliver

  3. Orrologion,

    When I said, “And it wouldn’t embrace large numbers of converts until well into the 20th century,” I obviously wasn’t specific enough. By “converts,” I meant what St. Innocent meant — “American” converts, i.e., English speakers who were largely Protestant.

    My point was simply that St. Innocent’s advice was not really followed. Indeed, had St. Innocent’s vision been realized, St. Alexis Toth would not have needed to travel to San Francisco in search of a Russian bishop; he surely would have Orthodox clergy closer to home.

    (Of course, running with that hypothetical scenario, one could also envision the Roman Catholic Church feeling threatened by a growing Orthodox presence in America, and thus sending a Uniate bishop far earlier than 1907, when it actually did, thus preventing the sort of Toth-and-John Ireland run-ins that sparked the Uniate conversions.)

    Anyway, I would never denigrate the conversion of the Uniates, but it is clear that that mission was very different than the sort of mission called for by St. Innocent in 1867.

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