Atlas Excerpt #3: The First Two Convert Priests

Recently, Holy Cross Orthodox Press published the Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches, edited by Alexei D. Krindatch. I contributed several pieces to the Atlas, including the article “Ten Interesting Facts About the History of Orthodox Christianity in the USA.” With Alexei’s permission, we’ll publish excerpts from that article over the next couple of months. To purchase your own copy of the Atlas(for $19.95), click here.

3. The first two American Orthodox convert priests went to Orthodox countries, were ordained very quickly, and ultimately left the Church.

James Chrystal and Nicholas 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, and he lived there the rest of his life.

Both men became Orthodox for ideological reasons. Chrystal was an Episcopalian intellectual obsessed with the history of baptism, and he concluded that Orthodoxy alone had preserved the correct method of baptism. Bjerring was a Roman Catholic intellectual who was scandalized by Rome’s recent declaration of papal infallibility. He, too, came to believe that only the Orthodox Church had preserved the truth.

Both men came to Orthodoxy without having actually attended an Orthodox church, and both traveled to Orthodox countries to seek ordination. Chrystal went to Greece and impressed church leaders with his vast theological knowledge. Bjerring went to Russia and impressed church leaders with his zeal. Both were immediately received into the Church, quickly ordained priests, and sent back to America — specifically, to New York City.

Chrystal was the first to leave. As soon as he returned to America, he repudiated the Orthodoxy, declaring that he could not accept the veneration of icons. He started his own sect, and spent the rest of his life railing against “creature worship.” Bjerring lasted a good bit longer. He was priest of the New York chapel for 13 years, but he didn’t have sufficient training for the priesthood and made errors that any seminary student learns to avoid. Even worse, he didn’t speak Russian or Greek (the primary languages of his small congregation), and he reportedly spoke English with a thick Danish accent. He actively discouraged conversions, viewing himself not as a missionary but as a religious ambassador to America, promoting goodwill between Orthodoxy and Protestantism (especially the Episcopal Church).

Bjerring’s chapel community never grew; in fact, it stagnated. By 1883, the Russian authorities had seen enough, and they closed the chapel. Bjerring was offered a teaching position in Russia, but he wasn’t interested; instead, disgruntled, Bjerring abandoned Orthodoxy and became a Presbyterian minister. By the end of his life, he came full circle, rejoining the Roman Catholic Church as a layman.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.