Posts tagged Nicholas Bjerring
Yesterday, in my article on James Chrystal, I mentioned, “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.” In the comments, Isa Almisry asked, quite reasonably, if I had documentation for this. Here it is.
On July 19, 1870, a Philadelphia newspaper called the North American and United States Gazette published the following report:
The Russian Ambassador has received instructions from his government that three bishoprics of the Greek Church are to be established forthwith in this country – one at New York, one at New Orleans, and one at San Francisco, in each of which last named places there is already a Greek church and a Russo-Greek priest.
A few days later, the journal Christian Union (7/23/1870) reported on the move of the Russian bishop from Alaska to San Francisco, and on the founding of Bjerring’s chapel in New York City. Citing the Pacific Churchman as its source, the article then stated the following:
New York is expected to be, in time, the seat of a Greek Orthodox Eastern Church arch-diocesan, and of the cathedral church of that hierarchy on the American continent, while New Orleans and San Francisco are to be episcopal seats. It is further stated that Mr. N.L. BJERRING, of Baltimore, a recent convert from the Roman Church, has been selected as one of the Orthodox bishops for this country, and that he has been invited by telegraph, from St. Petersburg, to proceed thither, to be baptized, ordained into the ministry, and be consecrated a bishop.
It’s interesting to read about a plan calling for New York to be the headquarters of an archdiocese; it would be more than three decades before this would actually happen. Also, Bjerring, being married, could not have become a bishop. It’s possible that the Russian Church wasn’t initially aware of this, and did at some early stage consider him a candidate for the episcopacy. It’s also possible that the newspaper reporter misunderstood something.
Anyway, within a few more days, the New York Sun had run a piece on all this. I don’t have the original Sun account, but it was picked up by various papers, including the Cleveland Herald (7/30/1870), the Chicago Tribune (8/1), and Flake’s Bulletin of Galveston, Texas (8/20). This is from the Cleveland Herald‘s version:
The Russian Government has decided to establish a Bishopric of the Greek Church in New York. The fact was made known to a number of Episcopal clergymen by Count Catacazy, the Russian Minister, and the Count recently offered the position of Prelate of the proposed See to the Rev. Samos [the other versions say "James"] Christal, an Episcopal minister, who is understood to have favored the plan of Dr. (now Bishop) Young of uniting the Episcopal and Greek churches. Mr. Christal has, however, declined to accept the office, on the ground that he could not subscribe to the articles of the Seventh Synod of the Greek church, relating to the images and creature worship, and the new Bishopric has not yet been filled.
Two other Bishoprics are to be established by the Russian Government, one in San Francisco and the other in New Orleans, but the candidates have not yet been named.
On August 27, Christian Union (which had already published a report on July 23 — see above) ran a similar story, but cited Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian Banner.
Finally, in October, a correction of sorts began to appear. From the Christian Advocate (10/10/1870; the same appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin on October 29):
The Russian Government does not contemplate sending Bishops of the Greek Church to form dioceses in this country. Greek Church communicants are too few to require them, and these few, it seems, do not desire foreign Bishops.
That is the last thing I’ve found on the plan.
All of these reports were coming during a time of transition for American Orthodoxy. During the same summer of 1870, Bishop John Mitropolsky was assigned to replace Bishop Paul Popov as the Russian hierarch in North America. The diocese itself was restructured, and the new Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska was created. (Previously, Bishop Paul had been merely a vicar in the Diocese of Kamchatka.) Bishop John moved the hierarchical residence from Sitka (or New Archangel) to San Francisco. This move wouldn’t be officially recognized until 1872, but for all practical purposes, it took place with the change in bishops in 1870.
Also, in May of 1870, Nicholas Bjerring went to Russia and was ordained a priest. He returned to the US that summer, and news began to circulate that the Russian Church planned to establish a chapel in New York City.
Is it possible that the Russian Church (and the Russian government) was making initial efforts to implement St. Innocent’s recommendation from a few years earlier? Late in 1867, Innocent recommended, among other things, that
- The diocesan seat be moved from Sitka (New Archangel) to San Francisco,
- The American part of the Diocese of Kamchatka be separated from the Diocese (Innocent recommended that it be formed into a vicariate under St. Petersburg, so creating a separate diocese would have been an even bolder step),
- The former bishop be recalled to Russia, and a new bishop be appointed who is familiar with English, and
- The new bishop be allowed to ordain American converts to the priesthood for service in America.
It’s also interesting to note the apparent resistence of the few Orthodox living in America. The San Francisco community was probably not the source of the problem, since they were the one city that did receive a Russian bishop in 1870. The New Orleans parish may have taken issue with this proposal, though, since they were a mostly independent group connected with the Greek consulate and nominally affiliated with the Church of Greece. But, details being so scarce, it’s hard to know just what the real story is.
There are a couple of avenues one might pursue to get to the bottom of all this. Obviously, the Russian Orthodox Church may have records of this plan (and I would expect them to be in St. Petersburg). There also might be something in the records of the Russian embassy, since the Russian ambassador was the one who approached Chrystal about the proposal. It can’t have just been the imaginings of American newspapermen, and I for one would love to know rationale behind the plan — and the reasons why it was abandoned.
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.
From 1870 to 1883, Fr Nicholas Bjerring was pastor of a Russian Orthodox chapel in New York City. Bjerring was a convert from Roman Catholicism, and he basically operated an “embassy chapel.” He held services for Russian and Greek officials stationed in America, he ministered to the few Orthodox Christians living in New York, and he strongly discouraged inquirers.
In 1883, the Russian government informed Bjerring that they intended to close his chapel, apparently to save money. They offered Bjerring a comfortable teaching position in St Petersburg. Bjerring, upset and disheartened, turned down the offer and instead became a Presbyterian.
Word of Bjerring’s apostasy eventually reached the ears of one Fr Stephen G. Hatherly, an archpriest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Hatherly was a convert himself. An Englishman, he had joined the Orthodox Church way back in 1856, and he was ordained a priest in 1871. He was based in England, but in May of 1884, he arrived in America. His plan was to band together the handfuls of Orthodox on the East Coast (mainly New York and Philadelphia) and establish a new church to replace the defunct Russian chapel.
Hatherly spent three months in America, and his mission was a resounding failure. There was simply not enough interest from America’s meager Orthodox population. At the close of his stay in the US, the New York Sun ran the following story (August 18, 1884):
S.G. Hatherly, the Greek arch priest who came to New York from Constantinople and established a chapel in St. John’s School in Varick street two months ago, conducted service yesterday for the last time, and the chapel will be closed. About a score of the Greek colony in attendance and as many curious minded spectators. Athanasius Athos, the son of a Greek priest, was reader. Father Hatherly did not deliver an address, but said briefly to the worshippers that it was because of their want of faith that the effort to establish a Greek chapel had failed.
In conversation Father Hatherly, who is an Englishman by birth, said that he wrote from Constantinople to the authorities in Russia to learn whether the coast was clear for him in New York. The official reply was that no effort to establish a Greek Church chapel in New York would be undertaken after their “cruel experience” with N. Bjerring, who is now a Presbyterian. The Russian colony, Father Hatherly said, has kept away from this chapel in Varick street. Two or three Russians, he said, had said that they wanted something grander than Father Hatherly’s chapel.
“The collection to-day,” he added, “is $4.32. You can see that the chapel would not be self-supporting. However, that is not the only reason why the chapel is given up. The people do not attend as they should. I had hoped when I came on my mission of inquiry to be able to hold services alternately in New York and Philadelphia. It’s all over now, and I go to Constantinople in a few days.”
That’s an interesting article for a variety of reasons, but one in particular jumps out — the statement that Hatherly wrote to the Russian authorities “to learn whether the coast was clear for him in New York,” and the Russian reply that it indeed was.
Up to now, I’ve felt that the Russian closure of the New York chapel was an implicit abandonment of the city, and that the Greeks who, seven years later, formed their own church, were under no obligation to contact the Russian bishop on the other side of the continent. But Hatherly’s story drives that point home even further. The Russians didn’t implicitly abandon New York; they explicitly did so.