Posts tagged Historiography
In the closing years of the 19th century, a number of Roman Catholic leaders in America were accused of a heresy called Americanism, and Pope Leo XIII wrote an apostolic letter specifically denouncing elements of this teaching, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. Americanism was essentially the emphasis on American political values over against the Roman Catholic political tradition, which was at the time at least distinctly uneasy regarding political positions such as the separation of church and state, freedom of the press, liberalism (in the classic sense) and the individualism which so marks American culture in general. While the episode in Catholic history was really quite minor, what was at stake was the question of religious identity in American society. It was probably not until the election of John F. Kennedy to the American presidency that Roman Catholics came to feel that they had finally come into their own in America, despite their presence on the continent for nearly as long as the English Separatists who founded the seminal colonies of American national life.
In our time, it would be regarded as absurd that anyone would accuse American Catholics of heresy over a devotion to such staples of American political values. Setting aside for the moment the controversial peculiarities of modern American Roman Catholicism even within the wider Roman communion, it must be admitted that the “Americanists,” such as they may have been, have essentially won. Few American Catholics would say that one cannot be fully American and yet fully Roman Catholic. There has come to be no contradiction seen between these identities. (For an example of a rather less successful merger of such values, one need only look at the liberation theology of South American Catholic Marxists.)
Like those Roman Catholics living in 19th century America, for Orthodox Christians living in 21st century America, the question of how exactly one is to be faithful to one’s communion in this particular place is again paramount. Though the debates about Orthodoxy’s history, present and future in America range widely—from canons to language to proofs to corruption to double-dealing to controversial candidates for the episcopacy or canonization—the question at the heart of all these debates is really this: What is our identity?
One attempt to grapple with our past and our future might also be termed Americanism. Unlike those 19th century Roman Catholics, however, modern Orthodox Americanists (not to be confused with Orthodox Americans) have chosen different elements of American identity with which to interpret and (I would argue) distort not only our history but our faith.
Perhaps the clearest and most troubling such element is the spirit of legalism which pervades Americanist readings of our history, accompanied by their prescriptions for our future. The narrative typically follows this shape: Because the Church of Russia was the first in America (in Alaska, 1794), it gained immediate rights to the whole continent. Thus, when in 1970 it granted autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (the Metropolia), which subsequently renamed itself as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the exclusively legitimate Orthodox Church for America finally was born.
There are numerous problems with this narrative even on purely “legal” grounds: Does jurisdiction in Russian Alaska automatically extend to the entire continent, under the control of multiple colonial powers at the time? Did the Russian Metropolia even view itself as exclusively legitimate prior to the establishment of other jurisdictions in America? What does it mean that the Metropolia granted canonical release to the Antiochian parishes operating on its territory? For the purposes of ecclesiastical annexation, do the canons actually allow for appointing bishops outside one’s canonical territory? (The opposite, really.)
But the issue here is not really all these legal grounds. For one thing, it is anachronistic to read our history in this fashion, since there is no indication prior to about 1927 that anyone was making the claim that all Orthodox in America had been united under the Russians, that the Russians enjoyed an exclusive, universally acknowledged claim over the whole continent, or that the Metropolia ever really regarded the other Orthodox in America outside its jurisdiction as illegitimate, uncanonical, etc. But now there are some commentators saying precisely all these things, some even going so far now as to claim that all those outside the Metropolia’s jurisdiction were really not Orthodox. Such a claim, if true, would render most Orthodox Christians currently in America bereft of the sacraments.
What is most troubling, however, is this dedication to legal technicalities. It is certainly a major facet of American life that we like to get the legal authorities involved at the drop of a hat, so much so that, even when we are not actually involving the police or the courts, we still think and speak in such precise technicalities. Even if this anachronistic narrative of our history were actually defensible on purely canonical, legal grounds, this spirit goes wholly against the spirit of the Orthodox Christian faith. We were not appointed by God to be lawyers for His Kingdom, but rather “able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Reading history in order to find ammunition for “claims,” etc., is basically a Westernization, a distortion of our church life along lines foreign to our basic ethos. It is what Fr. Georges Florovsky would have called a “pseudomorphosis” (a term he used when referring to the distortions which accrued in Russian theological life as a result of the “Western Captivity” which led up to the Bolshevik Revolution).
While it is surely an American thing to call out the lawyers and pull out the law books in order to adjudicate nearly every dispute, this is not the content of our Orthodox Christian faith. If we wanted to be Christian legalists, we would find no better home than Calvinism, a theology designed by a lawyer.
A dedication to “the letter” typically leads to sectarianism, the rigid sense that one particular ecclesiastical faction is right while all the others are wrong. At the foundation of this sensibility is also a historiographical problem, the identification of a sort of “golden thread” which stretches unbroken from some favored moment (e.g., St. Herman landing in Russian Alaska) to the current day. The favored sect is the sole lens through which this history is read.
The theological problem at the heart of this side of Americanism is the refusal to look into the faces of fellow Orthodox Christians and see the Church. This ideological approach to faith is the same one which gives rise to totalitarianism in politics, which always necessarily follows a dedication to ideology. What is most important is the transcendent narrative, not the other person. That is why the other can be dehumanized and demonized, and insulting epithets can be hurled at church leaders who do not represent one’s preferred sect. In politics, this leads to persecution, but in ecclesiology, this leads to schism.
I believe that one of the major elements in the Americanist approach to our history and our future is precisely the schismatic spirit, the one that prefers to be “right” rather than to love, the one that makes demands and sets exclusive terms rather than taking every opportunity to work together and sacrifice for the other. This attitude has been rarely more evident than in the recent Internet storm over the newly formed Episcopal Assembly, which it seems can only be up to no possible good. I very much believe that the Americanists want it to fail in its task. I’m not really sure what they would put in its place, however, other than an entirely unrealistic expectation that the overwhelming majority bow to the small minority of their favored “jurisdiction.”
But all our “jurisdictions” must die in order that our Church may live. We cannot become one Church for America without all giving up what we are in order to become what God has called us to be: a single testament to the Orthodox Christian faith. I cannot see any workable solution which would not require the disbanding of all our current “jurisdictions.”
As an example of the demonization typical of the sectarian spirit, many Americanists will point to the controversial claim of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to jurisdiction over all the diaspora (i.e., all areas outside universally acknowledged canonical territories) based on Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council. It is true that such a claim is almost never taken seriously except by Constantinople itself. Yet while Constantinople’s claim is raged about, few of the Americanists, who typically have a much greater affection for Constantinople’s main rival of Moscow, will criticize the much broader claim made by Moscow in its very Statute:
The jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church shall include persons of Orthodox confession living on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Latvia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan and Estonia and also Orthodox Christians living in other countries and voluntarily joining this jurisdiction. (emphasis added)
Not only does Moscow define its jurisdiction primarily as one over “persons” rather than simply over geographic territory, the very wording of its Statute permits Moscow jurisdiction everywhere in the world, limited not only to specific territories and the diaspora, but even theoretically to within the territories of existing Orthodox churches.
This disturbing, universalist approach to ecclesiology, with some variations, is not exclusive to Constantinople and Moscow, however. Contrary to the canons, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and even the OCA also maintain parishes outside their officially claimed canonical territory. This anomaly is rampant, and almost no Orthodox church in the world is innocent of it. We have indeed seen the enemy, and he is us.
The problem of nationalism in Orthodoxy throughout the world is of course also rampant and its sins well-known. For Americanists, it is most often expressed on grounds which are basically Orthodox—a desire to be shepherded by local shepherds—but the expression of those grounds often takes us into a rebellious and nationalistic direction. So-called “foreign” bishops are rejected (which discounts missionaries), total local independence is assumed to be the norm at all times (which discounts the numerous centuries throughout Church history in which various churches were dependent for lengthy periods on “foreign” administrations far away). The ultimate desire of Americanist nationalism is that our bishops would simply thumb their ecclesiastical noses at the “foreigners” in other lands and declare us immediately to be an independent, autocephalous church. As precedent for such an act, they correctly point to when this has happened before.
But with modern communication and travel, “foreign” bishops are not so foreign as they once were. In the past, a unilateral self-declaration of autocephaly was much more practical than it is today, due precisely to these same factors. Though uncanonical, it is now much more possible to have an international, worldwide jurisdiction answering to a single synod. What Rome declared de jure and enforced with anathema has now become de facto for ten Orthodox jurisdictions which operate outside their traditional and/or self-defined territory (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and the OCA).
Yet with such unilateral self-declarations of autocephaly in the past, the driving factor was practical: the need to form a local, self-sustaining common church life. What we have now is numerous overlapping networks of self-sustaining church life, bound together internationally by easy communication and speedy travel. Globalization has taken a toll on our Church life, permitting it to become distorted beyond the essentially localist approach witnessed to in our canonical tradition, where decisions made by leaders had to be lived with by those leaders. They were shepherding their neighbors.
If we are to regain our localist sensibility for church governance, then we cannot rely on a means which was supported by a different technological age. The unilateral declaration of autocephaly is impractical in our time. Why? It’s because there are already existing international networks for American Orthodox Christians to fall back on. This is why the formation of local networks is so critical. This is why our mother churches have mandated the formation of the Episcopal Assemblies.
It may well be that the Assemblies are just a power grab by whatever jurisdiction we hate the most. But even if that is true, what is happening at them is the formation of a common local identity.
The Cure for Americanism: The Common Identity
All of this fractiousness may be cured by looking no further than our common Creed, which attests to our belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As Orthodox Christians living in America, we have no path to unity—indeed, no path to our own salvation—except through love. We must look at one another’s faces and see the Church there. When we cease to do so, we have become sectarians and schismatics.
All of the history of Orthodoxy in America is our common history. It does not matter which “jurisdiction” we are in. The saints, the sinners, the laity, the clergy, the successes, the failures—all of these are mine. All of this history is our history. It is not the history of Russians or Greeks or Syrians or converts, etc. It is the history of the Orthodox. We need to learn to say with St. Raphael of Brooklyn, “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.” He didn’t just tolerate these other people; he identified himself with them.
Many of these elements of American culture that I call “Americanism” and that are at odds with our faith also are now characteristic of other cultures throughout the world, and we can see their ill effects in other Orthodox churches, as well. Claims and counter-claims, legalism, sectarianism and nationalism are all major pastoral problems plaguing Orthodoxy worldwide, and no doubt we would have a more peaceful and united presence in the world if we could shed these sins. American culture has much that is worth preserving and enhancing, but as truly Orthodox Christian Americans, there are some elements of that culture that need not preservation, but repentance.
We have an opportunity in our time to put aside all of our claims and sectarianism Phariseeism, to see one another as fellow children of God, and to build a common church life. We’ve come a long way, and at least to me, it seems that the future is starting to look a lot brighter.
I really cannot wait to see where we go from here.
[This article was written by Fr. Andrew S. Damick.]
One year ago, I delivered a paper at St. Vladimir’s Seminary entitled, “The Myth of Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy.” (Click here for the audio.) My thesis was that, contrary to a widely-held belief, American Orthodoxy was not administratively united prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Rather, from a very early stage, Orthodox parishes in the United States answered to multiple ecclesiastical authorities. The events of 1917 exacerbated the problem, and served as a breaking point in cases where cracks already existed (e.g. with the Serbs and Antiochians), but our jurisdictional multiplicity did not originate in 1917 or some date thereafter.
At the time that I gave my talk last June, many people still believed the “myth of unity” — the idea that all Orthodox parishes and people in America recognized Russian authority until 1917. In the year that has followed, the rigid old myth has faded considerably. I’m not trying to boast, or take full credit, or anything like that. I’m just one of many people who has challenged the old myth. The important point is that the old story is just no longer tenable.
Quite understandably, some people were disappointed to have their perception of the past challenged. In some quarters, a modified form of the myth has emerged, and with it, a subtle but very substantial shift in emphasis. Whereas my paper was focused on how things were, some have begun to emphasize how they think things should have been. Whereas I examined questions relating to unity, some are now focusing on questions of legitimacy.
I must admit, while I am quite confident about my conclusions regarding the reality of the past, I am much less confident when talking about how things should have happened. Should the early Greek parishes have joined the Russian Mission and submitted to the Russian bishop? To be completely honest, I think the answer is yes. Ideally, the Greek (and Romanian and Bulgarian) parishes being founded at the turn of the last century would have looked to the local Russian hierarch as their natural leader.
This didn’t happen, of course. Political commentators tend to immediately jump from “it didn’t happen” to “it should have happened” and then straight to “the Greeks were illegitimate.” I don’t follow that line of thinking. I’m an historian, so I am naturally inclined to ask, “Why didn’t it happen?” Why did the Greeks, with few exceptions, reject Russian authority? Why did the Serbs seem to chafe under that authority, and why did St. Raphael send conflicting messages to his Syrian flock (telling them both that they were under the Russian Church and were simultaneously a diocese of Antioch)? To me, these are much more interesting questions.
But then, I suppose I’ve wandered back into the area of “what happened,” and not “what should have happened.” So, to satisfy some of my critics — yes, in a perfect world, everyone would have been united under the Russian Archbishop. Of course, it would have helped a lot if the Russians had followed St. Innocent’s advice and initiated a continent-wide missionary program after the sale of Alaska in 1867. It would have also helped if the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska had changed its name to include “North America” prior to 1900, by which point Greek parishes were already proliferating. It would have helped if the brilliant St. Tikhon was the rule, rather than the exception, for Russian bishops in America. Consider the roster of Russian bishops in America around the turn of the century:
- Bishop Nestor (1879-1882) committed suicide during a fit of neuralgia.
- From 1882-1888, the episcopal see was vacant.
- Bishop Vladimir (1888-1891) was constantly embroiled in scandals and may have been a pedophile.
- Bishop Nicholas (1891-1898) was a good man, but was also a Russian nationalist whose primary focus was (quite understandably) on the conversion of Uniates to Orthodoxy and their subsequent Russification.
- St. Tikhon (1898-1907) was an outstanding bishop.
- Archbishop Platon (1907-1914) was heavy-handed, temperamental, and extremely nationalistic.
- Archbishop Evdokim (1915-1917) was rather flaky and eventually joined the Soviet Living Church.
- Archbishop Alexander (1919-1922) was utterly incompetent and possibly corrupt.
Had someone the caliber of St. Tikhon been in charge beginning in the 1880s, it is entirely possible that the jurisdictional chaos could have been avoided. Then again, it’s likely that that chaos was inevitable. The Greeks had a perfectly understandable fear of Russian hegemony. (Maybe you don’t agree with their fear, but it was understandable.) The Russian Empire had tried for centuries to capture the city of Constantinople. The Russian Church was buying up church properties on Mount Athos and in the Holy Land, and exerting its influence in other autocephalous Churches, such as the Patriarchate of Antioch. I’m not saying this influence was negative, but Greek fears of a Russian takeover of global Orthodoxy were, at least, reasonable. The Russian Church was rich and powerful, backed by one of the great empires of the world, and had already suppressed the independence of at least one autocephalous church (Georgia in 1811). Russian ecclesiastical imperialism was a very real concern for Greeks a century ago.
And it wasn’t just the Greeks. The Romanians and Bulgarians tended to reject Russian authority as well. Some Serbs accepted it, but a lot of them did not, and were reluctant (and nominal) members of the Russian Mission. The Syrians did have a close relationship with the Russian hierarchy, but even that relationship was ambiguous enough to confuse the laity. It is one thing to affirm the vision of the Russian Mission (or, rather, the vision of St. Tikhon), but the reality of the Mission was different. Apart from the great Tikhon (and, to a lesser extent, the capable Bishop Nicholas), the Russian bishops were rather disappointing. And even St. Tikhon was only one man, with a continent-sized diocese and one of the most diverse flocks in Church history.
Anyway, I’m not trying to justify anything; I’m trying to understand it. Again, I have crept over from “what should have been” to “why it was.” That’s what history is — literally, inquiry. All we can do is acknowledge our own ignorance, ask questions, find the best answers we can, and then ask more questions. Truly, the more you know about American Orthodox history, the more you realize that you don’t really know much at all.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
Our readers may be interested in a recent article by Fr. Oliver Herbel on his Frontier Orthodoxy blog. He reviews an historical narrative of American Orthodoxy offered on the website Catholic.org, and offers some necessary corrections. At the end, Fr. Oliver writes,
Indeed, I think we need to develop a new way of telling the story succinctly so that we don’t risk exposing ourselves to historical inaccuracy. Perhaps this is something I should do in the near term–attempt to write a succinct, blog-post length, history. The point is not to hit all the details, but to have an overview that is as consistent with those details as possible.
I like this idea a lot — a short-and-sweet history of Orthodoxy in America, comprehensible to anyone. When Fr. Oliver writes one up, we’ll be sure to publish it here at OrthodoxHistory.org.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
Editor’s note: The following article was written by Fr. Michael Oleksa, the foremost historian of Orthodoxy in Alaska, retired dean of St. Herman’s Seminary, and member of SOCHA’s advisory board. The article originally appeared as a chapter in Fr. Michael’s fascinating book, Another Culture / Another World (Association of Alaska School Boards, 2005). Fr. Michael has graciously granted permission for SOCHA to reprint the chapter here at OrthodoxHistory.org.
In 1794, the first group of Christian missionaries to work in Alaska arrived on Kodiak, having walked and sailed over 8,000 miles from Lake Ladoga, on the Russian border with Finland. One of the priests in this delegation of ten monks, a 35-year-old former military officer, Father Juvenaly, was assigned the task of visiting and preaching among the tribes of the southcentral mainland. He began at Kenai, headed northward through what is now the area surrounding Anchorage, then down the western coast of Cook Inlet, across to Lake Iliamna, and out to the Bering Sea.
His journey would bring him from the biggest lake in Europe to the biggest lake in Alaska. But soon after he departed for Iliamna, he disappeared. No one ever heard from him again. Rumors reached Kodiak that he had been murdered, but there were no eyewitnesses or any other conclusive evidence of his whereabouts for several decades.
Then, about a hundred years later, an American historian, Hubert Bancroft, published an account of Father Juvenaly’s death purportedly based on the priest’s own words as he recorded them in a diary that a man named Ivan Petrov claimed to have found and translated. According to this diary, Father Juvenaly fell into temptation, having been seduced by the daughter of a local Indian chief, and then was hacked to death for refusing to marry her.
That is all I knew about this incident until my Yup’ik father-in-law, Adam Andrew, who was born about 1914 in the mountains near the source of the Kwethluk River, decided to tell me the story about “the first priest to come into our region.”
According to my father-in-law, this first missionary arrived at the mouth of the Kuskokwim, near the village of Quinhagak, in an “angyacuar,” a little boat. He approached a hunting party led by a local angalkuq (shaman) who tried to dissuade the stranger from coming any closer to shore. The Yup’ik tried to signal their unwillingness to receive the intruders, but the boat kept coming. Finally the angalkuq ordered the men to prepare their arrows and aim them threateningly at the priest. When he continued to paddle closer, the shaman gave the order and the priest was killed in a hail of arrows. He fell lifeless to the bottom of the boat. His helper (in Yup’ik, “naaqista,” literally “reader” — someone who supposedly assisted the priest at services) tried to escape by swimming away.
Jumping overboard, he impressed the Yup’ik with his ability to swim so well, especially under water. They jumped into their kayaks and chased the helper, apparently killing the poor man, reporting later that this was more fun than a seal hunt.
Back on shore, the shaman removed the brass pectoral cross from the priest’s body and tried to use it in some sort of shamanistic rite. Nothing he tried seemed to work satisfactorily. Instead of achieving its intended effect, each spell he conjured up caused him to be lifted off the ground. This happened several times until finally, in frustration, the shaman removed the cross and tossed it to a bystander, complaining that he did not understand the power of this object, but he no longer wanted to deal with it.
When I first heard this version of the story, I was dubious that such an incident could have occurred. I knew the first priest to come to the Kuskokwim had arrived in 1842, had served on the Yukon for nearly 20 years, and had died in retirement at Sitka in 1862. It did not occur to me that this was the oral account of the death of Father Juvenaly, until I later learned that the Bancroft/Petrov report was completely false — a fabrication of Mr. Petrov’s rather fertile imagination.
Hubert Bancroft, the preeminent American historian of his time, never came to Alaska and did not know Russian, the language in which all the earliest historical documents relating to Alaska were written. He hired Petrov to gather documents and translate them, but Petrov did not like Mr. Bancroft much and falsified a lot of data, creating entire chapters of what became the first history of Alaska from records that never existed.
Father Juvenaly’s diary was one of Petrov’s concoctions. This becomes obvious as soon as any informed scholar opens the manuscript, still housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Juvenaly travels on ships that never existed, celebrates church holidays on the wrong dates and even the wrong months, and miraculously understands Yup’ik within a few weeks, while finding Kodiak’s Alutiiq language beyond his reach. These two languages are so closely related that speakers of one believe they can readily understand speakers of the other. Not knowing enouch about Russian Orthodoxy to spot glaring discrepancies, Bancroft accepted the diary as authentic, and used it as the basis of his chapter on the death of Father Juvenaly.
Once I realized the published accounts were bogus, I went back to my father-in-law for another telling of the Yup’ik version. We then started to hunt for corroborating evidence. I found that every visitor to Quinhagak in the last 70 years following Father Juvenaly’s demise mentioned in their reports that this was the site of the incident. I heard from people in the Iliamna area that their ancestors knew nothing of a priest being killed in their region, but only that one had passed through, heading west. I heard from the Cook Inlet Tanai’na Indians that a priest who had come from Russia via Kodiak had baptized them, then left heading in the direction of Iliamna. And I discovered that the people in the village of Tyonek have always had a great swimming tradition, and are still capable of diving into the ocean after the beluga wales that they hunt. The oral accounts among all the Native peoples of the region were consistent with my father-in-law’s story. But how to prove it accurate, one way or another?
Finally, another scholar discovered a passage in the diary of a later missionary resident of Quinhagak, Rev. John Kilbuck, written sometime between 1886 and 1900, indicating that the first white man killed in the region was a priest who had come upon a hunting party camped near the beach. After trying to dissuade the priest from approaching, and unable to turn him back, the hunting party killed him. His companion tried to swim away “like a seal” and was hunted by the Yup’ik, who had to resort to their kayaks to chase him. The same story that my father-in-law had told me was being told in the village a century after the actual incident.
I have friends whoh visit and students who reside in Quinhagak, as well as a nephew who lives there. I asked them if they had ever heard the story of how the first priest to visit there was killed. I discovered that the story is still known and told almost verbatim the way my father-in-law told it to me.
Contrary to popular misperception, the oral tradition of tribal peoples tends to be very accurate, for the most part ensuring that stories remain intact over time. The story is understood as community property, not the invention of the storyteller, and, unlike my eastern European family’s tendency to change a story to make a point, in groups whose histories are transmitted through the oral tradition, retellings tend to be more faithful to the original story.
However, after looking at my written summary of the story of Father Juvenaly as it had been told to me, one informant did tell me that in a version of the story he had heard, there was a detail I had not been told. According to the story as it had been given to him, just before the priest’s death, while standing up in his little boat, he appeared to those on the shore to be trying to swat away flies. At first, this seemed to me a strange detail to include. What did it mean? What was really happening? When someone is about to die, facing his attackers with their arrows pointed at him, why worry about insects?
Puzzled by the account, I kept returning to the scene in my mind until it occurred to me what may have been going on. The man in the angyacuar could have been either praying, making the sign of the cross on himself, or blessing those who were about to kill him — but so rapidly that to those on shore who had never seen anyone do this, it could well have looked like he was “chasing away flies.” This detail from the oral tradition is a perfectly believable addition to the story, and adds credibility to the story itself, as the Quinhagak people remember it.
After carefully looking at everything I could find on this incident, I sent a summary of my research to one of my university students from Quinhagak and asked her what she made of the incident. She replied, somewhat sheepishly, “Well, they didn’t know he was a priest!”
The question remained, though, why were these armed men so fearful of an unarmed stranger, whom they so vastly outnumbered? True, he was pale, tall, bearded, and oddly dressed. He likely appeared exotic, if not totally alien. But why would they have felt so threatened by his physical presence as to destroy him?
The answer may reside in the brass cross that he wore. We know from exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., that at that time shamans carved ivory chains in imitation of their counterparts on the Siberian coast, who wore metal chains. Wearing such a metal chain was an indication that the stranger had spiritual powers possibly superior to the local angalkuq. The only way to defend oneself from such alien magic would have been to kill the magician. So it seems that Father Juvenaly died in a case of mistaken identity.
This history lesson tells us that while historical texts may contain many useful details and important data, they can be wrong. Historians usually depend on what is left behind in the reports, diaries and letters of others, in order to piece together a description of another time and place, and it is easy to be misled, mistaken or fooled. Such was the case with the death of Father Juvenaly two hundred years ago. It has taken nearly two centuries to solve the mystery of his disappearance and death. Original published accounts were based on false and forged information, but the truth survived in the oral tradition of the Yup’ik people.
At least when dealing with the Native experience in this land, no one should dismiss the stories as the indigenous people tell them. In my experience, while the published texts have often proven unreliable, grandpa has always been right.
[This article was written by Fr. Michael Oleksa. To order a copy of Another Culture / Another World, click here. The icon of St. Juvenaly was painted by Heather MacKean, and is used courtesy of St. Juvenaly Orthodox Mission.]
On his Frontier Orthodoxy website last week, Fr. Oliver Herbel posted an essay outlining his position on Archbishop Arseny’s canonization.
In a follow-up post, Fr. Oliver responded to the charge that he was employing a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”
Finally, on his own blog, Gabriel Sanchez used Fr. Oliver’s comments a springboard to reflect upon the nature of historical inquiry in the Orthodox Church.
For anyone interested in the Abp Arseny story, or in historiography more generally, these articles (and the thoughtful comments that follow them) make for fascinating reading. At the very least, I would strongly encourage you to read Fr. Oliver’s first article, on his position vis-à-vis the Abp Arseny canonization.
Tomorrow, we’ll be back with more new material, from a new contributor to OrthodoxHistory.org.