Several years ago, I began writing about the “Americanization” of Orthodoxy — things like pews, organs, mixed choirs, the cassocks vs. collars debate, clean shaven priests, etc. (Click here to read my article on organs in Greek churches.)
Recently, I found a great historical source — an open letter from a group of Chicago Greeks in 1908 to the Greek consul, protesting the introduction of choral music in their church, which was replacing traditional Byzantine chant. The letter was published in the Greek Star newspaper on Feb. 7, 1908. Here’s the full letter (available at the website of the Newberry Library in Chicago):
Dear Sir: [This letter is] in regard to the communication of the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, His Grace the Archbishop of Athens, Theocletos, regarding the propriety of permitting modern choral music to be sung and played in our two churches, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin: We beg you to take action in this matter and enforce the ecclesiastical laws and age-long customs of the Holy Greek Orthodox Churches in this city.
The Right Reverend Theocletos has spoken and written repeatedly about the use of a quartet or [any] modern innovations in the composition and music of the church choir.
As a result of his strict supervision of the Church of Greece, he has succeeded in banning the use of the organ as well as of the modern European quartet in all the churches of free and liberated Greece. He has succeeded in reintroducing the traditional practice of using Greek Byzantine music in the Church.
Our committee, which voices the desires and wishes of the majority of the Greek people of Chicago, resents and rebels at the unorthodox, unconventional, and blasphemous use of the European and American church quartet in the liturgies and masses of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity of Chicago.
We beg you to prohibit the use of this sort of strange chanting and singing in our churches. Will you ask the priest and board [of directors] of the above-mentioned Church to continue using the Byzantine chants and hymns, sung on the Byzantine scale? Our church has not deviated from this ecclesiastical music in all the centuries of our church’s existence. This is the only type of music which can interpret the inspired ideas and divine principles of our church. It is the only music which can properly make the old hymns and old church songs of the Orthodox Church perfectly understood and thoroughly enjoyed. It is the only music that brings serenity to the soul, and makes possible the glorification and supplication of God and all the saints.
We ask you to use your authority to put an end to these new innovations, which, if allowed to develop and spread, may undermine and imperil our church. Be assured that you will be fulfilling the desire of our souls; being Greeks and devoted Orthodox Christians, we will never forget your great service in behalf of the preservation of our most sacred and cherished institutions.
In the event that you do not heed our request and urgent appeal, however, we wish to inform you that the people of the Greek community of Chicago will not consider you fit to represent the Greek government, and to protect and promote the interests of the Greek people. We will rise in protest and raise a voice so powerful that it will travel over oceans and seas until it reaches the ears of His Grace the Archbishop of Athens, Theocletos.
We have the honor to remain respectfully yours, The Committee of Protest.