James Chrystal: the first convert priest

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.

4 Replies to “James Chrystal: the first convert priest”

  1. “In 1870, there were various reports that the Russian government planned to assign a bishop to New York and offered the job to Chrystal. ”

    Is there any documentation of this?

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