Archive for December, 2011
Editor’s note: The following article was written by Daniel Silliman, who teaches American Religion and Culture at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. The article originally appeared on Mr. Silliman’s blog, and I thought our readers here at OrthodoxHistory.org would find it interesting. – Matthew
Watch American Religious Studies and American Religious History for even a little while, and you’ll see a developing, evolving way of talking about different groups. Go back — not too far, even — and one finds almost all the attention given to denominational organizations, and everything framed in terms of continuity or discontinuity with Boston Puritanism.
It’s not like that anymore.
Just in recent years, the account of Islam in America is growing and changing. It’s now de riguer to note that the first Muslims came to America with the importation of slaves from Africa. Added to that is a new emphasis on the various ways Islam has come to the US: with the slaves, emerging out of the 20th century African American community, with immigrants from South East Asia, with immigrants from the Middle East, etc.
A similar turn has happened in accounts of immigrants in general. Talk about Judaism, talk about Catholicism, and you have to talk about immigrant communities. One of the results of this has been to break up the homogenity of these religious identities. One looks today, for example, at Catholics, plural, focusing on the practices and behaviours of lay Catholics, the way religion functioned in their lives and in their sense of themselves, rather than focusing on Catholicism as an abstraction.
One blank spot, right now, however, is the Eastern Orthodox in America.
This blank spot kind of gets poked at, but there doesn’t seem to be a standard way to talk about this religion and this religious experience yet.
Part of this may be the numbers. Pew puts all the Orthodox Christians in America today at about .6%. Muslims also come in at about .6%, though, Orthodox Jews are half that, and Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are only slightly larger, with .7%. All those groups have more established narratives, it seems to me.
When the Eastern Orthodox are talked about, it’s often with this very general rubric of “immigrant,” without any specifics as to how their experiences and histories were different, if at all, from other immigrant groups.
Charles Lippy, in his brief Introducing American Religions gives two paragraphs to the “wave” of Eastern Orthodox Christians who came in the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, “Adding to diversity.” “Adding to diversity” is Lippy’s thing, so by the time one is 100, 150 pages into his book, saying that this is what the Orthodox did is only slightly more enlightening than “they existed.”
Most of his two paragraphs are dedicated to noting the countries the different groups came from, as well as the economic draws that brought them to where they ended up.
This is symptematic, more than a problem specific to Lippy. It seems like there’s not really a story about the Orthodox that anyone knows. Where, with Jews in America, one talks about the Hassids, or Reform Judaism and Isaac Mayer Wise, with the Orthodox Christians, there’s no standard story, no genrally know starting points, public moments or figures.
The second volume of Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll’s anthology, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877 has the start of a story, and focuses on one very public moment in the Orthodox’s American history. They give 6 1/2 pages to Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. This is a major improvement, though obviously still really limited. They include two documents, one Father John Veniaminov’s “The Condition of the Orthodox Church in Russian America,” the other a report on religion in the Russian American colonies and the Russian American Company, which was published in Overland Monthly in 1895. Both documents are really interesting — Veniaminov, for example, writes that at first the Aleuts only believed in and prayed to “an unknown God” about whom they knew little — but still only offer the tiniest sketch.
One would even be forgiven for thinking the Orthodox churches in America died out with “Russian America,” or, that if it do still exist, it’s in the form of left overs. In one editorial notes, Gaustad and Noll write “Russian Orthodoxy continued to be a major religious force in Alaska through the nineteenth century,” and “Russian Orthodoxy was planted with sufficient nurture to endure to the present day.”
Oddly, these are both statements sort of directed towards establishing the importance of the Orthodox in America. But kind of do the opposite.
I’m not knocking Gaustad and Noll. It’s actually a really excellent anthology. The point is not that they somehow failed, but that, really, there’s at best only a really limited and sketchy narrative of Eastern Orthdox Christians in America.
There’s basically nothing, it seems, when it comes to contemporary times.
There’s just sort of not a narrative here, and certainly not one that fits into any larger, broader narrative about religion in America. There’s precious little actually on this subject (exceptions: John H. Erickson’s Orthodox Christians in America; Alexei D. Krindatch’s work, including “Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Churches in the United States at the Beginning of a New Millennium: Questions of Nature, Identity, and Mission“).
There should be, though. The more recent history of Eastern Orthodoxy in America is particularly interesting, I think (and not just because a number of good friends of mine are a part of it) and yet it seems basically absent from scholarly work on religious culture and recent history. The evangelical press, by contrast, has paid attention to and noted the movement of evangelicals converting to Eastern Orthodoxy since at least the ’80s. Yet there’s no standing, standard account of these conversions, and why (in aggregate) they happened, and what that says about American religion at the turn of the 21st century, and what that says about American culture in general.
Instead of a good account that takes this movement seriously (while not, as is sometimes the wont of the converts themselves, over-estimating it as seismic and history-altering), what one gets is along these lines:
“Some years ago a sizable number of American Evangelicals, perhaps in search of a more colorful version of Christianity, became Eastern Orthodox as a group. For some reason they chose to join the American branch of the Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the most ancient Christian bodies in the world. (Its liturgical language is traditionally Arabic. You can’t get much more colorful than that.) Apparently these refugees from Billy Graham embraced their new faith with a fervor that alarmed some who were born Orthodox.”
That is Peter Berger — the great Peter Berger, I would even say — speaking out of the abundance of ignorance.
Even if it were the case these converts were merely seeking colorfulness, that’s a remarkably unsympathetic, un-empathetic way to describe the longings of other people’s souls. He could have easily just said the were “perhaps in search of more depth, history and tradition.”
But, the point is, there’s really no standard narrative of this event in recent religious history that could have been plugged in here by Berger. He’s essentially summarizing word-of-mouth and arguments that have been made in Christianity Today and other such publications. He still could have given a better account — this isn’t an excuse — but at least part of the problem is that the Orthodox story just isn’t told.
Father Michael Oleska, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, recently issued a call to the Orthodox in America to start telling their stories. To themselves. To each other. He’s urging the religious telling of stories, arguing for the importance of such stories to a community and a culture. He says, in the video-message, that the Orthodox should start telling their stories because “culture is the enactment of a story.”
My hope is that as those stories are told, scholars of American religion pay attention.
This article was written by Daniel Silliman and originally appeared on his blog.
After reading Matthew Namee’s recent post on the celebration of Christmas according to the New Calendar in Orthodox parishes and jurisdictions in America during the first half of the 20th century, I thought it appropriate to post an article that appeared in the pages of the New York Times on December 25th, 1923.
I think it’s a rather unique picture of what Orthodox life was like in this era, especially given the political overtones of the repression of the Church of Russia, which we see in the first half of the article. With their brothers and sisters in Russia experiencing the initial stages of a rather aggressive anti-religious campaign from the fledgling Bolshevik government, the North American Archdiocese were experiencing crises of their own in the wake of the Russian Revolutions of 1917.
In Russia, the Bolshevik government had instituted the national move to the Gregorian (New) Calendar on February 1/14, 1918 (February 1st became February 14th). The Church of Russia resisted this change, and in discussions of the All-Russian Sobor of 1917-8 (in session as the calendar switch went into effect), determined to retain the Old Calendar.
By 1923, however, this would be tested by the rise to power of the Living Church, a reformist movement that had coalesced out of several radical factions within the Russian Church over the previous two decades. Backed by the Bolshevik government, the Renovationists attempted to force the implementation of the New Calendar, and over time, the calendar issue became a distinct point of differentiation between the so-called “Renovationist” and “Tikhonite” factions within the Church of Russia.
In America, this differentiation, apparently, also resulted in a distinct rejection of the New Calendar within the North American Archdiocese. In December of 1923, the Archdiocese was in the throes of its legal battles with the Living Church-backed John Kedrovsky, who had returned to America in October claiming to be the Archbishop of North America and the Aleutian Islands. With confusing accounts coming out of Russia regarding the status of Patriarch Tikhon, reports of bizarre and troubling attacks against the Church and religious life by the Soviet government, and very real threats of the loss of St. Nicholas Cathedral and other church properties in American courts, the Archdiocese chose to reject the recent decision of the Pan-Orthodox Congress to institute the use of the Revised Julian (or New) Calendar.
Plainly, for many Orthodox Christians in America of Russian descent in this era, the New Calendar was not primarily associated with a Pan-Orthodox Congress, but with Bolshevism and the repression of the beloved Patriarch Tikhon, who was obviously revered in all corners of Orthodox America.
The allowance for the use of the New Calendar within what would become known as the Metropolia would not come until the 13th All-American Sobor in 1967. While some corners of the OCA have almost universally moved to the Revised Julian Calendar, there are yet still many parishes throughout the United States and Canada that will be celebrating the Nativity of Christ two weeks from now. As Matthew outlined the other day, there is similar plurality across the other jurisdictions in America. Yet regardless of when we observe this important day, it is with the same spirit of joy in the birth of Christ.
The following remarkable story appeared in the New York Times on May 1, 1908. If anyone can provide more information, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
BABY LEFT IN CHURCH; SOCIETY TO ADOPT IT
Advent of the Little Stranger Caused Flurry Among Women of the Ladies’ Aid
LEFT IN JANITOR’S BED
The Infant Is Sent Temporarily to Bellevue, but the Women Say They Want to Bring It Up.
The day before yesterday, and theretofore, the basement door of the Greek Orthodox Church, Holy Trinity, at Seventy-second Street and Lexington Avenue, could be opened without the slightest sound. It always stood unlocked.
But yesterday there was a shrill bell attached to the door, which rang sharply whenever the door was opened. Moreover, whenever the door did open or the bell rang there was a quick movement on the part of the janitor and of those members of the Ladies’ Aid Society who happened to be present to see who entered.
For on the previous day some one, taking advantage of the fact that the door latch was always out, had slipped into the janitor’s room in the basement and left in his bed a two weeks’ old boy baby. The janitor and l adies are glad that the baby came to the church, but do not wish, nevertheless, to establish such a precedent. Hence the new bell.
It was quite dark and the Ladies’ Aid Society had finished its meeting in the rear room of the basement when there came a squeak from the janitor’s room. The members of the society acted variously. The unmarried members got on chairs.
“It’s a mouse,” they said.
The married members listened attentively.
“It’s a baby,” they asserted.
Leaving the unmarried members still on their chairs, the married members hurried to the janitor’s room. On the bed was a little white bundle. As they drew near the little squeak was repeated.
One of the women more bold than her sisters went to the bed and threw back a blanket. A baby blinked up at her.
The question arose what was to be done with the infant.
“Notify the police,” said the janitor.
But word went about the room:
“It’s a Greek Church baby, and the Greek Church should take care of its own.”
So the police were not notified. Instead, one of the members of the society took the baby home. Yesterday the society was about to meet to discuss what was to be the ultimate disposition of the baby when a policeman arrived. The janitor, possibly not relishing the idea of a church baby, had telephoned to the East Sixty-seventh Street Station.
The baby was taken to Bellevue.
“But we want it here,” said the members of the Ladies’ Aid Society.
“You can claim it at Bellevue,” the policeman told them.
So the members of the society haven’t given up the idea of adopting the church baby. To-day there will be a special meeting of the society, when steps looking to its adoption will be taken.
If you’re anything like me, you want to know the rest of this story — what happened to the baby? Did one of the Greek women adopt him? How did his life turn out? I haven’t yet found any other articles on this story, but beyond the newspapers, an obvious place to look is in the baptismal records of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (now Cathedral). Presumably, if the baby was adopted by one of the parishioners, he would have been baptized sometime between this May 1, 1908 newspaper article and the end of 1908. As I said earlier, if any of our readers can help solve this mystery, email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
To our SOCHA readers: We’re looking for a professional archaeological metal restorer. Do you do this for a living? Do you know someone who does? If so, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com. Thank you!
- Matthew Namee
It’s almost Christmas for those of us on the New Calendar, but of course, our Old Calendar brethren will have to wait an additional 13 days. Originally, of course, all Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on the same day, because we all followed the same calendar. In 1923, an Inter-Orthodox Congress met at Constantinople under the presidency of the infamous Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis and voted to adopt the New Calendar. Over time, a lot of the world’s Orthodox Churches went along with the switch, but many refused and continue to use the Old Calendar. Hence the current discrepancy.
The thing many people don’t realize is that not every Orthodox Church that uses the New Calendar adopted it in 1923. According to Dr. Lewis Patsavos of Holy Cross, the latest Church to make the switch was Bulgaria, which did so in 1968.
Another thing people don’t realize is that some Orthodox in America were already following the New Calendar prior to its official 1923 endorsement. A couple of years ago, I wrote about how a Greek community in Columbia, SC arbitrarily adopted the New Calendar in 1914. That group didn’t have a priest or a formal church, but even earlier, in 1900, a Syrian colony in Fort Wayne, IN celebrated Christmas on the New Calendar’s December 25, and they were joined by a visiting priest from New York. (Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 12/25/1900.) I’m not sure, but it’s possible that the priest was St. Raphael Hawaweeny. If it wasn’t him, it must have been one of his subordinates.
On the flip side, the Antiochian Archdiocese didn’t celebrate a New Calendar Christmas until 1940. The New York Times (1/6/1941) reported, “Departing from an ancient custom, the Syrian Orthodox Antiochian Church, which formerly followed the Julian calendar, celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 this year…” That’s a full 17 years after the 1923 Inter-Orthodox Congress. And — someone correct me if I’m wrong here — the OCA waited until 1982 to switch calendars.
Anyway, to all of our New Calendar readers, we wish you a joyous Christmas. To our Old Calendar readers, happy St. Herman’s day!
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
UPDATE: In the comments below, William Kosar has pinned down when the Metropolia/OCA began making the switch from the Old to the New Calendar. William writes, “After a little research, it was at the Thirteenth Sobor of November 14-16, 1967 that the decision was made permitting parishes, upon approval of their diocesan bishop, to use the new calendar.” The 1982 date that I cited seems to refer to when then-Bishop Herman Swaiko of Eastern PA forced all the parishes in his diocese to adopt the New Calendar. Up to that point, it appears that parishes could choose. See the comments for more on how the process of choosing worked.