The Nine Years That Almost Destroyed the Orthodox Church: 1917

Orthodoxy is currently facing a global crisis of unity. While we might be tempted to despair of the well-being of the Church, it is helpful to remember that, not so long ago, Orthodoxy faced a series of threats that were — in my view — even more threatening than the present crisis.

The 1917-25 period – admittedly, those are arbitrary endpoints – is impossibly complicated, and I can’t pretend I’ve wrapped my head around all of it. Frankly, I’m not sure if anyone has – I’m not aware of any other attempt to study Orthodox history in this era in a holistic fashion. This series is hardly an authoritative treatment of those tumultuous years; what I’m attempting is to present the highlights (and lowlights) in chronological order, to help us better understand what Orthodoxy as a whole was facing. If the 19th century is the beginning of the modern era of Church history, when nationalism entered Church life, then 1917-25 is the incubator that took the embryonic changes of the 19th century and birthed the Orthodox context we live in today.

This series will be presented in nine installments – one article for each year – probably followed by some concluding analysis to tie it all together (which I haven’t written yet). I’ll warn you right now – there’s a LOT about this period that I don’t understand, or may have missed, or have insufficiently summarized. I welcome corrections, clarifications, etc. I don’t have an agenda here, other than to convey a sense of the turmoil that engulfed the Orthodox Church a century ago.


In February 1917, as World War I raged, a revolution in Russia toppled the great Romanov dynasty. The Tsar and his family were kept under house arrest. Until the revolution in October of this year when the Bolsheviks seized total power, more moderate elements nominally controlled the Russian state, and the Orthodox Church was not yet overtly persecuted.

In the wake of the February Revolution, the bishops of the Georgian Orthodox Church declared themselves autocephalous and independent from the Russian Orthodox Church, which had suppressed Georgia’s ancient autocephaly a century earlier.

That spring, over in America, the Syrian/Antiochian community split into two factions, with one group favoring the newly consecrated, Russian-backed Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh, and the other group pledging allegiance to Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi, a visiting bishop from the Patriarchate of Antioch.

The Patriarchate of Antioch itself had been suffering from a devastating famine for the past three years, caused by a combination of an Allied blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean, Ottoman disruption of railroad transportation, and (as if that wasn’t enough) a plague of locusts. In May 1917, an American in Beirut, Edward Nickoley, wrote, “Starving people lying about everywhere; at any time children moaning and weeping, women and children clawing over rubbish piles and ravenously eating anything that they can find. When the agonised cry of famishing people in the street becomes too bitter to bear, people get up and close the windows tight in the hope of shutting out the sound. Mere babies amuse themselves by imitating the cries that they hear in the streets or at the doors.”

Meanwhile, Greece was deeply divided between royalist supporters of King Constantine and followers of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. In June, under great pressure, King Constantine abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Alexander. A unified (for now) Greece joined the Great War on the side of the Allies.

In October, a second revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks, overthrew the secular Provisional government in Russia and installed a violently anti-Christian communist regime. Just as the Bolsheviks were storming Moscow and taking the city by force, an All-Russian Sobor was meeting in the city. The Sobor re-established the Moscow Patriarchate and elected St. Tikhon as Patriarch, just days after the Bolsheviks took control of Moscow. Shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power, they killed the first hieromartyr of the Revolution – St. John Kochurov, formerly the parish priest of Holy Trinity in Chicago, and in 1917 dean of a cathedral near St. Petersburg.

The same week, over in England, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, calling for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem was then (as it is now) controlled by the ethnically Greek “Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre” despite the fact that its flock consists mainly of native Palestinians. The British military governor who took charge of Palestine at the end of 1917 wrote of the Brotherhood:

The attempt to preserve it as less the Church of the Palestine Orthodox than as an outpost of Hellenism… was the source not only of constant intrigue and wire-pulling… but also of increasing discouragement and bitterness to the Orthodox Arabs of the country.

The Adelfotis – the Orthodox Brotherhood – is an absolutely closed corporation: there were not Arab Metropolitans, Bishops or even Archimandrites, and a modern Arab Patriarch (though there have been such in the remote past) was about as probable a prelate as an English Pope.

The Brotherhood had done a terrible job managing the finances of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, and by 1917, it was in debt to the tune of roughly $700,000 (over $13 million in modern terms).

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church had broken away from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1870 and was formally condemned at a council in 1872 – the council that condemned “phyletism.” This schism wasn’t healed until 1945. Throughout this period, the Bulgarian Orthodox were out of communion with the rest of Orthodoxy. And to make matters worse, after the death of its primate in 1915, the Bulgarian Church was without a leader for the next three decades.

17 Replies to “The Nine Years That Almost Destroyed the Orthodox Church: 1917”

  1. Thank you for the synopsis of events of 1917. Indeed, upheaval and resurgence plaqued Orthodoxy. No wonder, things are still boiling. One thing is clear: we must find ways to unite and coexist. And we must treat all our members with more compassion and love. Keep writing, for it is the only way to understand the present and the significance of a strong Patriarchate.

  2. Wonderful article. If the rest of the installments are like this, I’d suggest it become a book

  3. “One should likewise nourish the soul also with knowledge of the Church: how she has been preserved from the beginning up to the present, what she has endured in one or another time; but one should know this not so as to desire to direct people, but in case one should encounter powerful opposition. Most of all one should do this strictly for oneself, so as to acquire peace of soul…” —Saint Seraphim of Sarov (Little Russian Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 44).

  4. Wasn’t the Bulgarian Exarchate’s schism more complicated? I was under the impression that some of the other Local Orthodox Churches (such as the Russian Orthodox Church) remained in communion with both sides.

    1. That’s correct. The Bulgarian Church wasn’t actually out of communion with all of Orthodoxy. It definitely had varying degrees of relationship with the Churches of Russia, Romania, and Serbia. I’m not sure about the others. But it’s much more complicated than I said here, and it really needs closer attention.

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