Last week, we introduced the first issue of the Journal of American Orthodox Church History (JAOCH), which is available from Prairie Parish Press (PPP). In addition to publishing JAOCH, PPP has begun producing a “Collected Works Series,” featuring the writings of important Eastern Christian figures, with a special emphasis on American authors. The first book in the series is a collection of Nicholas Bjerring’s writings (appropriately titled Nicholas Bjerring: The Collected Works). The e-book is edited by Fr. Oliver Herbel, who has spent years researching Bjerring.
Regular OrthodoxHistory.org readers are probably familiar with Bjerring, a Roman Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy in 1870, was ordained a priest in Russia, and established the first Orthodox chapel in New York City. Bjerring published an English-language Orthodox journal and acted as a sort of embassy priest until 1883, when the Russian government closed the chapel. Rather than accept a teaching position in St. Petersburg, the discouraged Bjerring converted to Presbyterianism before ultimately returning to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death.
Nicholas Bjerring: The Collected Works opens with an introduction by Fr. Oliver, who provides an 11-page biographical sketch of the man. This is followed by two letters by Bjerring in 1870 — one to Pope Pius IX in which Bjerring denounces the dogma of papal infallibility and informs the Pope that he will become Orthodox, and the other to the Russian Holy Synod in which he requests reception into the Orthodox Church. Next come four of Bjerring’s best sermons, all from his days as an Orthodox priest. My favorite, I think, is his 1873 Sermon on Unbelief and Indifference. The last two pieces were written at the end of Bjerring’s life, when he was a Roman Catholic layman, and they are essential in understanding how the once anti-papal Bjerring came to be convinced that Rome was, in fact, his true home.
All told, if you have any interest in Bjerring, 19th century Orthodoxy, or early American Orthodox converts, this book is a must-have. The introductory price is a mere $1.00, and is available until September 1. After that, the price will go up a bit, although it will remain very affordable. I hope you’ll consider buying a copy.
And in case you missed it, here’s a link.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Given the recent discussion about St. Peter the Aleut, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish some of the primary sources we have for his story. As I explained on Monday, there are four main sources:
- The 1819 transcript from the deposition of Keglii Ivan, the only known eyewitness to St. Peter’s martyrdom.
- The 1820 report of Russian official Simeon Yanovsky to his superiors in St. Petersburg.
- The 1820 report of the head of the Russian-American Company to the Tsar.
- The 1865 letter of Yanovsky to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.
We don’t yet have a copy of the 1819 deposition. The 1865 Yanovsky letter has been widely circulated, but is almost certainly the least reliable of the four sources. That leaves the two 1820 accounts, which I will reprint here. I have taken them from a paper by Jesuit priest Raymond A. Bucko.
First, the February 15, 1820 Yanovsky report:
Here is an example of the inhumanity and ignorance of the Spanish clergy: In June 1815, on the coast of California near the Mission San Pedro, they seized 15 baidarkas of Kadiak men under Tarasov, of whom two Kadiaks fled to Il’men Island (possibly a Russian name for San Nicolas Island – Ed.) where one of them died, and the other, Keglii Ivan, lived with the natives of this island until by chance the Russian-American Company brig Il’men came in March, 1819, when he appeared before the commander of the vessel, Mr. Banzeman, and was taken to Fort Ross. I enclose the original testimony of this Aleut taken by Mr. Kuskov. He has now been sent here on the brig Il’men and tells me the same thing. He is not a type who could think up things. The Spanish tortured his unfortunate comrade, who until the very end replied to his torturer that he was a Christian and wanted no other faith, and with these words he died. One must note that this victim though baptized like the others was not taught Christianity, probably did not even know the dogmas of the faith except God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.
Here is the report from the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, sent to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820″:
A Company promyshlennick, a native of the island of Kodiak by the name of Kykhklai, who had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards in 1815 and returned to our settlement at Ross and then to the headquarters of the colony on Sitka Island in 1819, gave the following account of inhuman treatment by the Spaniards of one of the Company promyshlenniks.
In 1815 a Company servitor named (Boris) Tarasov was on Ilmen Island, which did not belong to any nation. He was the leader of a group of promyshlenniks who were there to hunt. Since they were unsuccessful there they decided to set out with fifteen dependent islanders from our Kodiak colony to go to the other islands, Santa Rosa and Ekaterina (Catalina?). During the voyage his baidarka began to leak, and he had to proceed to the coast of California. They stopped at the bay on Cabo San Pedro, where bad weather detained them until the next day. While they were there a Spanish soldier came to them from the mission of San Pedro and informed Tarasov that in exchange for some gifts, he would bring to him two of our Kodiak men who had previously run off from another such hunting party and were presently in the mission.
When the soldier left, although the weather was calmer and they could proceed on their projected route, the desire to see and to free their fellow islanders persuaded them to remain there longer. On the fourth day of their stay they were suddenly attacked by some 20 armed horsemen, who tied up all of our people and wounded many of them with their sabers. One of the Kodiak islanders named Chunagnak was wounded in the head. The attackers looted all their possessions and all the Company trade goods. The prisoners were then taken to the mission of San Pedro where they actually did find the two Kodiak islanders who had fled from the island of Clement from another party of partisans. When they reached the mission, a missionary who was head of the mission wanted them to accept the Catholic faith. The prisoners replied that they had already accepted the Greek Christian religion and did not wish to change. Some time later Tarasov and almost all the Kodiak people were taken to Santa Barbara. Only two of them, Kykhklai and the wounded Chunagnak, were thrown into prison with the Indians who were being held. They suffered for several days without food or drink.
One night the head of the mission sent the runaway Kodiak islanders with a second order for them to accept the Catholic faith, but again they remained steadfast in their own faith.
At dawn a cleric went to the prison, accompanied by Indians. When the prisoners were brought out, he ordered the Indians to encircle them. Then he ordered the Indians to cut off the fingers from both hands of the above mentioned Chunagnak, then to cut off both his hands; finally, not satisfied with this tyranny, he gave orders that Chunagnak be disemboweled.
Tortured in this manner, Chunagnak breathed his last after the final procedure. The same punishment would have awaited the other Kodiak, Kykhklai, had it not been for the fact that the cleric received a timely piece of paper. When he read it, he ordered that the man who had been killed be buried, and that Kykhklai be returned to prison; several days later they sent him to Santa Barbara. There was not one of his comrades there who had been taken prisoner with him. All of them had been sent off to Monterey. Kykhklai was assigned to the same work as other Company promyshlenniks who had been taken prisoner by the Spanish.
Wanting to escape from a life of such torture, Kykhklai and another man conceived the idea of breaking away. They stole a baidarka and went in to the bay on Cabo San Pedro, and from there to the island of Catalina, then to [Santa] Barbara [Island] and finally to Ilmen, where one of them died and where Kykhklai was taken aboard the Company brig Ilmen, which had come to the island and then went to the Ross settlement. The others who had been taken prisoner at the same time were freed on the insistence of our captains Hagemeister and Kotzebue.
This incident, just one of many, is a striking example of the inhuman way in which the Spanish treat Russian promyshlenniks. Many who had previously been in their captivity were so exhausted with labor and so abused from beatings that they will carry the results with them to the grave. The suffering inflicted on the poor Indians is impossible to conceive without shuddering. Not only do they not consider the Indians human beings, they consider them below animals. The Spanish take great pleasure in beating innocent Indians then bragging about it to other Spaniards.
Over on his blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel has decided to re-frame his presentation of the St. Peter the Aleut question. He’s taken down both of his earlier articles on the subject and replaced them with a new one, which you can read by clicking here.
This morning on his Frontier Orthodoxy blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel offered a post with the provocative title, “St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist.” Fr. Oliver says that he intentionally did not publish the article here at OH.org so as to spare us the inevitable debate; however, I do think it’s appropriate that we link to the post and give people a chance to read it.
Fr. Oliver’s argument boils down to six main points:
- Unlike so many Alaskan Orthodox stories (e.g. St. Juvenaly), the St. Peter story has no supporting oral tradition.
- Fr. Michael Oleksa, the foremost scholar on Alaskan Orthodox history, has written next to nothing about St. Peter. In Orthodox Alaska, Fr. Michael makes not a single mention of Peter’s story. (I would add that Fr. Michael mentions St. Peter only in passing in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality.)
- No corroborating evidence exists — that is, there is no other evidence of Spanish-Russian violence in California in that era. The St. Peter incident sticks out as an anomaly.
- On the contrary, there is an internal Roman Catholic document from the period that actually contradicts the idea that the Spanish would torture Native Alaskans.
- There is no evidence that St. Peter and his alleged persecutors would have been able to converse in the same language, which makes the exchange between them unlikely.
- There is only one primary account of St. Peter’s martyrdom, and it is suspect for various reasons.
I’d encourage you to read the whole article, as I’ve just barely summarized Fr. Oliver’s observations. And, for the time being, I’m going to stay out of the public debate over whether St. Peter was real (and, if he was real, whether he was really martyred). I do think it is of paramount importance that the original account of St. Peter’s martyrdom be made public and translated into English. We don’t have that account, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever seen it, although in the comments to Fr. Oliver’s post, someone says that it was due to be published in a book.
At some future point, I’ll examine the pro-Peter arguments, and generally discuss the merits of his case.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.