Early Orthodox Immigrants and Nativism

One way in which Orthodox Christians have been characterized by various sociologists and even Orthodox themselves is to refer to Orthodoxy’s ghettoization and/or refuge-seeking.  I do not believe that is the entire story for American Orthodoxy, not even earlier in the 20th century.  This is because much of my research as of late has been into people and events that contradicts the view that refuge-seeking is all there is to American Orthodoxy.  Nonetheless, and despite whatever peer-reviewed publications I might offer to the contrary, there is most certainly truth to it.

In addition to the obvious cultural factors (English was not the native language of Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants and cultural mores differed), flashes of anti-immigrant violence directed against Orthodox Christians helped create this scenario.

The most well known example may be the anti-Greek riots of South Omaha, Nebraska in 1909.[1]  The instigating event causing the riot was a Saturday night scuffle between a police officer and a local Greek man.  The officer had followed the young Greek man into the home of a lady who allegedly had a reputation for illicit behavior.  A scuffle ensued and the policeman was shot and killed.  The following morning, when the bells of the local Greek Orthodox Church began ringing, a mob gathered together and ransacked the Greek section of town.  The Greek Town of South Omaha burned to the ground and 1,200 Greeks fled.  The precipitating cause was labor tensions, as the Greeks had arrived during a labor shortage and were competing for jobs.  Moreover, they were willing to work for lower wages.

Indeed, Greek Orthodox and other Eastern European Orthodox immigrants were often in the middle of labor disputes.  For example, in Montana, citizens of Great Falls held meetings for the purpose of driving the Greeks from their town.[2]  On another occasion, near Mt. Home, Idaho, some one hundred Greeks cleared land of sagebrush and instead of being paid were run off in the middle of the night by fifty masked men.[3]  Nor was the American reception of Greek Immigrants contingent simply upon labor concerns.  There was a religious dimension to it as well, at least amongst those involved in missionary movements.[4]  American anti-immigration and ethnic sterotypes also affected Slavic immigrants.[5]  In Desloge, Missouri, for example, a 1917 labor riot drove out many of the Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants (who had previously converted from Eastern Catholicism to Orthodoxy).

Of course, it was not just Orthodox who encountered this.  This was a problem for Eastern Catholics from the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well.  And, really, America has a pattern of reacting this way.  Each new wave of immigration encounters this.  In the case of Eastern Europeans, however, the language and cultural distinctions were such that one way of reacting to the situation was to rally around one’s culture, utilizing the local parish as the cultural center.  As I said earlier, though, I don’t believe that’s the entire story to Orthodox history, but it is certainly a part of it.

[1] An overview of the riot may be found in Alice Scourby, The Greek Americans (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), 33-4 and Theodore Saloutos, “Cultural Persistance and Change: Greeks in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West, 1890-1970,” Pacific Historical Review 49 (1980): 85-8.

[2] Scourby, 34.


[3] Ibid.


[4] See Peter Carl Haskell, “American Civil Religion and the Greek Immigration: Religious Confrontation Before the First World War,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 18:4 (1974):166-192.


[5] Karel D. Bicha, “Hunkies: Stereotyping the Slavic Immigrants, 1890-1920,”  Journal of American Ethnic History 2:1 (1982): 16-38.