Soft Evangelism in 19th C. NY

1874-01-07 – Orthodox Xmas in NYC

I have uploaded a copy of a very short article on Christmas in New York in 1874.  What I wish to do, however, is not simply provide you with a little factoid, but to use this piece as a window into what “evangelism” meant for Orthodoxy on the ground in NY in the 1870s.  At the time, the diocese of the Russian Mission did not formally extend into New York, but this chapel existed as a show-chapel of sorts, in part to promote good relations with the Protestant Episcopalians.  The pastor, Fr. Nicholas Bjerring, was himself a convert from Roman Catholicism and we have mentioned him more than once on this site.  Perhaps we have even noted this news article.  Bjerring connected with Bishop Henry Potter, the local Episcopalian bishop.  Bjerring also made the newspapers at various times for different speaking engagements and sometimes for liturgical services.  Bjerring had a soft approach to evangelism.  He did not engage in direct proselytism and even discouraged people from attending and converting, though he also said he would not shut the door in inquirer’s faces.  He wished to make Orthodoxy known, but in the context of a possible future reunion of Christians, especially the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church.  Although one might consider that this approach would work against converting people, another aspect was his struggle with language.  He served in English with a heavy accent.  That is not mentioned here, but the language issue is hinted at in this piece by highlighting what was in Slavonic (which Bjerring did not know) and that the sermon was in English.

So, early on, the Russian Orthodox Church had a chapel that sought to entice people through a soft sell of providing information and services in English.  This might not be the kind of evangelism many of us would want today, but it’s worth noting that this softer sell has a history in America.  Of course, it might be easier to have a softer sell in a context in which religious concerns regularly made the papers.  In many places in the country today, it takes a scandal to make the paper.  Perhaps, though, the real lesson to be learned is twofold: a soft sell has a place at times but in the current situation, where real reunion between Orthodoxy and other Christian bodies seems highly unlikely, a more overt proselytism has a role to play.  That is, somehow, what we may need is a marriage of the two.  In January, I will continue with this theme of evangelism in America.  Looking at our Orthodox heritage of missions and evangelism is vital.

[This article was written by Fr. Oliver Herbel.]