Language in American Orthodoxy, 1916

As you might expect, most American Orthodox parishes in 1916 used foreign languages. From that year’s Census of Religious Bodies, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, we find the following unsurprising information:

  • Both of the Albanian parishes used exclusively Albanian.
  • The four Bulgarian parishes used Bulgarian and Slavonic.
  • The 87 Greek parishes used exclusively Greek.
  • Both of the Romanian parishes used exclusively Romanian and Slavonic.
  • 166 of the 169 Russian parishes used exclusively Slavonic. Of the other three, two used a combination of Slavonic and English, and one used exclusively English.
  • 11 of the 12 Serbian parishes used exclusively Slavonic and/or Serbian. One Serbian parish used exclusively English.

In total, there were 276 parishes in the United States in 1916, not counting the Syrians. 272 of those 276 (98.55%) worshipped entirely in foreign languages, and just two used English only.

None of this should come as a surprise. The vast majority of American Orthodox Christians in 1916 were either immigrants, or the children of immigrants. And the vast majority of American Orthodox clergy were also immigrants, most of whom had been educated and ordained in the Old World.

Now we come to the Syrians… and as we’ve seen before, the Syrians are an outlier. This is what the 1916 Census has to say:

Of the 25 organizations, 13, with 4,361 members, reported services conducted in English only; and 12, with 7,230 members, reported services conducted in foreign languages alone or with English. Of these, 4 organizations, with 1,230 members, reported the use of Arabic alone or with English; 5, with 2,900 members, Arabic, Greek, and English; and 3, with 3,100 members, Arabic, Greek, Russian, and English. In 1906 all the organizations then represented reported the Syro-Arabic language only.

This is stunning. Ten years earlier, in 1906, the Syrians were like everybody else, worshipping exclusively in their native tongue. In 1916, everybody else was pretty much the same — 98.55% foreign. But in just a decade, the Syrians had changed dramatically. By 1916, at least 21 of the 25 Syrian parishes (84%) used at least some English in their church services, and over half (13 of 25) were entirely in English.

How on earth did this happen? I don’t have a clear answer; however, there is one clue. In 1905, an Episcopal priest named Ingram Irvine converted to Orthodoxy. He was ordained by Ss. Tikhon and Raphael, took the name “Fr. Nathaniel,” and for about two years, he served in the Russian Mission. His purpose was “English work.” He wrote articles in English, published a couple of small books, and conducted an English-language Vespers service on Sunday nights. He also helped St. Tikhon with English-language administrative work, and advised him on Anglican-Orthodox relations.

Irvine is one of my favorite figures in American Orthodox history, and we’ll talk about him in great detail in the future, but for now, it’s enough to know that he transferred to St. Raphael’s jurisdiction after St. Tikhon returned to Russia in 1907. And Irvine’s transfer also meant the transfer of the “English work.” Now, his English articles appeared in the otherwise all-Arabic Al Kalimat (The Word). He made it his special mission to reach out to the English-speaking children of Arabic immigrants to America. He taught Sunday School, ghostwrote letters for St. Raphael, and generally promoted the use of English in the Syrian Mission. He did this at the direction and with the encouragement of St. Raphael; when St. Raphael died in 1915, Irvine wrote, “With Bishop Raphael’s death ended the initiatory Chapter of English Orthodox Church work in America.”[*]

I don’t think Irvine alone was responsible for the great proliferation of English in the Syrian Mission in the years 1906-1916, but he must have played a major role. Just thinking out loud, another factor may have been the weaker national identification with Orthodoxy among the Syrians. What I mean is this: to be a Russian, a Greek, or a Serb was to be Orthodox. National identity and religious affiliation were intimately intertwined, to the point that they were one and the same. But it was not so among the Syrians. They came, not from their own nation-state, but from the Ottoman Empire. And they also came from a region of great religious pluralism — back in Syria, they lived alongside Melkites, Maronites, Muslims, and Druze. In other words, while Slavonic, Greek, and Serbian culture (and language) was closely identified with Orthodoxy, the same could not be said of Syro-Arab culture and language. And it’s possible (though I can’t prove it) that this distinction was a major factor in the spread of English among the Syrians, while the rest of American Orthodoxy was still firmly attached to foreign languages.

Finally, Fr. John Erickson offered this comment upon seeing the language data:

In light of the very large number of parishes St Raphael’s Syrian mission that used only English or predominantly English, another question that might be interesting to explore would be the extent to which, in the years immediately following, the “Antacky” advocated the use of Arabic or otherwise resorted to identity politics.

At present, I don’t have any idea whether the Russy-Antacky divide involved language, but it is a question I will have to explore (and if anyone wants to help, please let me know!)
[*] Ingram N.W. Irvine (Fr. Nathaniel), “Bishop Raphael, In His Relation to the English Work of the Archdiocese of North America,” Russian Orthodox American Messenger 19:5 (March 15, 1915), 72.

8 Replies to “Language in American Orthodoxy, 1916”

  1. I believe it would have been celebrated by Fr. Nicholas Bjerring in New York City in 1870.

  2. i was once told that the reason that the Syrians transitioned more quickly to English is because Arabic had not been the standard Liturgical language for very long. The services had always been in Greek until sometime in the late 1800’s, when a native-speaking Arab became Patriarch. Before that (I was told) Arabic was only used in Latin and Jacobite Churches, and Orthodox Churches used Greek. So they weren’t quite as attached to Arabic as a Liturgical language as, say, Greeks were to Greek. I don’t know how accurate this is. Do you folks? When I told this to my old Priest, he chuckled and said that the Arabs he grew up with seemed to think that Arabic was the language of God Himself and that it was absurd to think that they were not attached to Arabic as a Liturgical language. But the numbers you present here could be explained by the theory I presented above. I’d be interested to learn if this was the case.

  3. First DL elebrated all in English, or just partially?

    For partial, the report of Fr. Kovrigin to the bishop of Alaska notes that the Gospel was done in English (in addition to Greek, Slavonic and Russian) for Pascha 1868 in SF. The bishop of Alaska, + Paul, reportedly consecrated Fr. Bjerring’s chapel on his way back to Russia. For the whole DL, Bjerring is a likely candidate, as he didn’t speak Slavonic nor Greek.

  4. I just came across an article written by none other than Isabel Hopgood (of translation fame) about the Arab Chrisitans (1899). On the Uniate Melchites she notes “In practice, they have lost nearly evertything except their vernacular language in the Church services.” (the article also has some interesting things to say about the return to Orthodoxy as it was going on).

    I recall hearing that the first mass of the Vatican in English on American TV was one that Bishop Sheen did, who also had Maronite or Melkite faculties. It is supposed to have some influence on the decision of Vatican II on the vernacular.

  5. Reader Mo, I consulted with a good friend who is very knowledgeable in the history of the Church of Antioch. Arabic was the primary liturgical language even during the so-called “Greek captivity” of the Patriarchate of Antioch. That said, Arabic was the language of the Muslim conquerers, and it was not a “sacred language” for Arabic-speaking Orthodox. My friend also reiterated that the Syro-Arabs who came to America “had no flag” — that is, they came not from an independent Syria or Lebanon, but from the Ottoman Empire. Whereas Byzantine Greek or Church Slavonic would have had both sacred and nationalistic connotations for the people who used them, Arabic would not.

  6. A belated reply to Reader Mo: There were Arabic service books, but, given the situation with the Greek hiearchy, they were neither standardized nor of any quality (tending to be excessively literal), nor in great supply. The Christians at the time were modernizing Arabic (the Muslims didn’t join untill later), and the Russian Church provided schools where this could go on, and the fruit of this was just coming to power at the time of Ingrim. In fact, Sati Husri, one of the pivotal figures in Arab Nationalism, pointed to the Arab Patriarch of Antioch as “the first victory of Arab Nationalis.” He was, btw, Muslim.

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