The first convert priests… or… the first American apostates

Editor’s note: Last year, on September 30, I aired a podcast on James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring, the first two convert priests in American Orthodox history. On the same day, I published an article on the two men, reflecting on their relevance to us today. Given that many of our readers are new to the site since September, I thought I’d reprint the article.

Fr. Nicholas Bjerring in his New York chapel, November 1871. Grand Duke Alexis of Russia is standing behind the chair at the right.

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.