Posts tagged James Chrystal
A month ago, I did a podcast and wrote an article about the first two American Orthodox convert priests, James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring. Today, I’m publishing a brief biography I wrote on Chrystal (and which I adapted for use in the podcast).
James Chrystal was born in 1831, ordained an Episcopal deacon in 1859 and a priest shortly thereafter. In 1861, he published a book called A History of the Modes of Christian Baptism. In the Preface, Chrystal himself described the book as “an apology for the belief of the early Church, that Christ enjoined triune immersion.” Chrystal argued that sprinkling – the form of baptism practiced by both Roman Catholics and Anglicans – was insufficient and contrary to Christ’s teaching. The Orthodox Church, he concluded, had alone preserved the correct practice.
Naturally, Chrystal wanted to get one of these authentic baptisms for himself. So at the end of 1868 he traveled to Greece, where he sought out Archbishop Alexander of Syra. The Archbishop examined Chrystal and was impressed with his learning and his sincerity. A local Greek newspaper commented, “He has acquired such accuracy concerning the theoretical parts of theology, as few of the clergy and theologians among us possess.” Satisfied with Chrystal’s Orthodoxy, the Archbishop baptized him on the eve of Theophany “after the evening service, at about 5 P.M., in the Holy Temple of the Transfiguration, Mr. K.G. Drakopoulos, the Nomarch of the Cyclades, standing as his godfather.” Chrystal, being unmarried, had to obtain permission from the Holy Synod of Greece to be ordained. The Synod gave it, and within a few months Chrystal was ordained and then elevated to archimandrite.
The English Orthodox journal Orthodox Catholic Review (Dec/Jan 1868) noted that Chrystal “had for six years studied the Orthodox faith, and was fully convinced that it was the only true Catholic religion. The neophyte recited the Creed both in Greek and English. He intends entering the ministry of the Church, and will in due time become Bishop in Alaska, lately ceded by Russia to the United States. He is anxious to become a lawful medium between the Reunionist party of the Anglo-American Church and the Orthodox Church; and the Greek ecclesiastical authorities hailed his scheme. He is now busy in translating the necessary service-books into English.”
The Greek newspaper quoted earlier opined, “We [...] do not hesitate to believe, that the spread of Orthodox teaching being commenced in those places, we shall in a short time see formed there an Orthodox Church of many thousands, and the light of the East shining bright and clear even in that new world.” It then exclaimed, “What glory then will it be for the Greek Church and for our nation, if by means of this her learned priest she should send out first the shining lamp of Orthodoxy.”
Jonas King, a Protestant missionary in Greece, translated the Greek newspaper article for a Protestant journal in the United States (New York Evangelist, 4/8/1869). In conclusion, he commented sarcastically, “It may be well, perhaps, to give publicity to this novel transaction, so that the people beyond the wide Atlantic may be prepared to see the light, which, it is supposed, will soon break in upon them from the East.”
No such light would come from the East, at least not as a result of Chrystal’s conversion. See, James Chrystal had his own interpretation of Christianity. Fr. David Abramtsov explains, “The erratic Chrystal soon repudiated his ties with the Orthodox Church and, upon his return to America, formed his own Baptist-type sect.” Insofar as the Orthodox Church agreed with him – namely, in baptism – he wanted to be a part of it. But that fact was soon superseded by another. Just a year later, we find the following report: “Mr. Christal [sic] [...] could not subscribe to the articles of the Seventh Synod of the Greek church, relating to the images and creature worship.”
So James Chrystal could not accept the veneration of icons. He was hardly alone among Protestants. What escapes me is how he could have somehow not noticed them covering the walls of the cathedral in which he was baptized and ordained. Did he simply not look up? Was he – clearly a learned man, who had studied Orthodoxy for half a dozen years – unaware of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, or the Protestant objections to icons? Or did his views toward icons change in a matter of months?
In any event, it took the Orthodox some time to figure out that Chrystal was no longer himself Orthodox. In 1870, there were various reports that the Russian government planned to assign a bishop to New York and offered the job to Chrystal. He declined, citing his opposition to icons. Only a few months later, Fr. Nicholas Bjerring opened the doors of Holy Trinity Chapel in New York City.
As for Chrystal, he initially rejoined the Episcopal Church, but it wasn’t long before he was on the move again. In his own words, he left from the Episcopal Church “on account of unchecked and unpunished idolatry and service of creatures in it contrary to the faith of its reformers of blessed memory.” He continued his opposition to icons for the rest of his life. In an 1899 letter to the editor of the New York Times, Chrystal argued against the practice of kissing the Bible. He went on to publish a series of books on the Third Ecumenical Council, which he claimed supported his iconoclastic position. His argument, which he also made in his letter to the Times, was basically that since the Council condemned the division of Christ into two persons, divine and human, and thus condemned the worship of merely Christ’s humanity (rather than the single divine-human person of Christ), it implicitly forbade the veneration of any and all matter. Of this series, The Third World Council, Chrystal dedicated the second volume to the “Greek race” and the third to the “Russian people,” in both cases exhorting them to reject the Seventh Ecumenical Council and return, so said Chrystal, to true orthodoxy.
James Chrystal died in 1908 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 77.
ONE OTHER THING: Chrystal – who, to my knowledge, never married – donated his personal papers to the New York Public Library upon his death. They’re still there, apparently available for researchers.
On today’s American Orthodox History podcast, I discuss the first two convert American Orthodox priests, James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring. You can listen to the podcast for the whole story, but I thought I’d give a brief summary here.
Chrystal and Bjerring were exact contemporaries, both born in 1831. Chrystal lived in the New York area, and died in Jersey City. Bjerring was an immigrant from Denmark, but in 1870 he established the first Orthodox chapel in New York City, and he lived there the rest of his life.
Both Chrystal and Bjerring converted to Orthodoxy for ideological reasons. Chrystal was an Episcopalian intellectual, and he was obsessed with the history of baptism. He even wrote a book on the subject, and he came to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church alone had preserved the correct method of baptism (by triune immersion, in the name of the Trinity). Bjerring was a Roman Catholic intellectual, and he became scandalized by Rome’s declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. He, too, came to believe that only the Orthodox Church had preserved the truth.
Both men wanted to be “correct,” and they both came to Orthodoxy without having actually attended an Orthodox church. There were, of course, very few Orthodox churches in America in that period — just two outside of Alaska, in San Francisco and New Orleans — and neither Chrystal nor Bjerring had any connection with those. Both men traveled to Orthodox countries to seek reception into the Church and ordination to the priesthood. Chrystal went to Greece, were he impressed church leaders with his vast theological knowledge. Bjerring went to Russia, where he impressed church leaders with his zeal. Both men were quickly received into the Church — Chrystal by baptism, of course, and Bjerring by chrismation. Both were quickly ordained priests, and both were quickly elevated (Chrystal to archimandrite; Bjerring, being married, to archpriest). Both were sent back to America — specifically, to New York City.
Chrystal was the first to leave. Almost immediately upon his return to the United States, he repudiated the Orthodox faith, declaring that he could not accept the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the veneration of icons. He started his own sect, and he spent the rest of his life — the next 35-plus years — railing against “creature worship” and trying to convince the Orthodox to abandon icons.
Bjerring lasted a good bit longer. He was priest of the New York chapel for 13 years, and he was a visible figure in New York society. But he had a lot of problems. He didn’t have sufficient training for the priesthood, and he made what might be called “rookie mistakes” — errors that any seminary student learns to avoid. But what’s worse, he didn’t speak Russian or Greek (the languages of most of his small congregation), and, being a native of Denmark, he spoke English with a thick accent. He actively discouraged conversions, viewing himself not as a missionary but as a sort of religious ambassador to America, promoting goodwill between the Orthodox and the Protestants (especially the Episcopalians).
Bjerring’s parish never grew; in fact, it stagnated. Attendance was always low. By 1883, the Russian authorities had seen enough. They pulled the plug on the chapel, and they offered Bjerring a teaching position in St. Petersburg, where he wouldn’t have to deal with parishioners or church services. But Bjerring wasn’t interested; instead, disgruntled, he abandoned Orthodoxy and became a Presbyterian minister. By the end of his life, he became dissatisfied with Presbyterianism as well, and, coming full circle, returned to the Roman Catholic Church as a layman.
In the cases of both Chrystal and Bjerring, you had men who were obviously intelligent, well-read, and serious. But in both cases, those impressive characteristics blinded church authorities (Greek for Chrystal, Russian for Bjerring) to the obvious deficiencies of both men. One should never become Orthodox to be “right,” as did Chrystal. And one should never become Orthodox in a state of disillusionment, as did Bjerring. Both men joined the Orthodox Church principally because of their brains, but they lacked an experience of the life of the Church, which is necessary for a healthy conversion. The Greek and Russian Churches, in their excitement over these American converts, failed to realize that they were inexperienced and idealistic, and that their interest in Orthodoxy needed to be nurtured for at least a year or two before conversion.
And then there were the ordinations. It’s a frustrating thing, if you study American Orthodox history — time and again, converts are received and then immediately ordained to the priesthood. This became a big problem in the Russian Archdiocese in the late teens and early twenties, and it’s certainly still a problem today. And if you read St. Paul, it’s been a problem since the beginning of the Church. He writes that an episcopos should be “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim 3:6); of deacons, he writes, “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (3:10).
It’s funny; to become an OCMC missionary, one must have been Orthodox for at least three years. (There are other requirements as well; for instance, one must provide a written history, and must be approved by the OCMC Board.) In some respects, it’s harder to become a lay missionary than it is to become a priest — and yet, are not all priests missionaries themselves, to their flocks and their communities?
Chrystal and Bjerring had barely set foot in an Orthodox church before they were chrismated, and the chrism was not yet dry before they were ordained to shepherd souls. Neither had been initiated into the mind of Orthodoxy; neither had been properly trained to be both priests and pastors; neither had been given the opportunity to truly know the life of the Church and to submit his reason to the wisdom of the Church. And so it’s little wonder that both men, driven to Orthodoxy by their minds and emotions, were driven out of Orthodoxy by the same.
I know that plenty of good priests have been ordained immediately after chrismation. Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who has been discussed at length on this website, is one of them. I’m not trying to make a sweeping generalization, or argue for a hard-and-fast rule. But it’s been 140 years since the Greek and Russian Churches rushed to ordain these neophytes, and we still haven’t learned the lesson. It’s high time we did.