Language in American Orthodoxy, 1916 (reposted from 8/21/09)

To our New Calendar readers: Christ is born!

The following article was originally published on August 21, 2009. If you’re interested, you might check out the comments to that original posting. We’ll be back with brand-new material on Monday, December 28.

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.

One Reply to “Language in American Orthodoxy, 1916 (reposted from 8/21/09)”

  1. “Both of the Romanian parishes used exclusively Romanian and Slavonic.”

    Interesting. I wonder if this is connected to the Church of Bukowina having a hand in their founding: at the time, the converted Ruthenians outnumbered the Romanians in the Mother Church, and the use of Slavonic was on the rise as a result. Otherwise, the Romanians of the time wouldn’t use Slavonic.

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