Why Fr. Raphael Morgan Should Not Be Venerated or Canonized


On September 3, I published the documents from the divorce of Fr. Raphael Morgan and his wife Charlotte. The documents are tragic and disturbing. Charlotte accused Fr. Raphael of physical abuse, verbal abuse, and infidelity. The Morgans’ former landlady corroborated the abuse allegations in her testimony. Fr. Raphael himself was a no-show at the hearing, but in his written statement he denied all misconduct and instead accused Charlotte herself of abuse.

As I explained in my introduction, I’ve had the documents for ten years, but I didn’t publish them back then because there was really no reason to air century-old dirty laundry. Things have changed now, though, as certain individuals have begun to suggest that Fr. Raphael might be a saint. In the Orthodox Church, the glorification of saints requires discernment by the body of the Church, and this process of discernment requires us to examine the individual’s life in a thorough and careful manner. For Fr. Raphael Morgan, the divorce documents, and the allegations of abuse and infidelity, are essential to such an examination.

My publication of the documents did not discourage this canonization campaign. After I published the documents, an “icon” of Fr. Raphael began to circulate online. Some have begun to include Fr. Raphael in lists of holy people in American Orthodoxy. He has been referred to repeatedly as a “patronal figure” for black Americans. All this is despite a compete lack of any positive evidence for sanctity.

As the person most responsible for introducing Fr. Raphael to the world, I feel it my duty to address, in an orderly way, some of the issues surrounding this matter.

Fault-Based Divorce

Divorce laws have changed a lot since the early 1900s. Back then, to end a marriage, it was necessary for one spouse to prove, in court, that the other spouse had done something wrong enough to justify divorce — something like infidelity or abuse. Over time, the various states switched to the “no-fault” divorce system that we have today. But in 1909, Charlotte Morgan had to prove that Fr. Raphael was at fault, enough so that the court would grant a divorce. Because of this fact, the claim has been made that Charlotte’s accusations against Fr. Raphael were false — that she wanted out of the marriage because she couldn’t handle the challenges of being married to a Christian missionary, and therefore that she conspired with the landlady to fabricate the allegations against her husband.

There’s just no evidence for any of this, though. Fr. Raphael didn’t appear in court, but we do have his written statement denying any misconduct and accusing Charlotte of being the real abuser, which would itself be grounds for the judge to dissolve the marriage. In other words, he was effectively also arguing for a divorce himself. And when he didn’t show up in court, he certainly would have known what the result would be.

So we’ve got a 110-year-old “he said, she said” situation. Except it’s not just he said, she said — it’s he said it in writing, she said it in court, and then she brought a witness. Maybe Charlotte and the landlady concocted a conspiracy to defame Fr. Raphael, but realistically, what’s the probability of that? Certainly less than 50%. And what motive could the landlady have had for lying? We don’t know.

Child Custody

Another point that’s been made is that the judge granted Fr. Raphael custody of the Morgans’ daughter Roberta. Why, the reasoning goes, would he give custody to an abuser, if the allegations were true? The problem with this reasoning is that the court did NOT grant Fr. Raphael custody of Roberta. There was no custody order at all — the case was entirely about divorce, not child custody. The fact that Fr. Raphael had his daughter says nothing one way or the other about his culpability.

Repentance?

Even if Fr. Raphael was guilty of all the things Charlotte (and the landlady) claimed, he lived for another 13 years. Repentance is at the center of our lives as Orthodox Christians, and we have numerous examples of men and women who committed evil deeds but went on to repent and become saints. Couldn’t this also be true of Fr. Raphael Morgan?

Sure it could — and I hope it is true. But there is no evidence for it. Any statement to the contrary is just conjecture.

We actually know very little about Fr. Raphael Morgan’s life as an Orthodox Christian. He was chrismated and ordained in 1907, he and Charlotte split up in 1908, and the divorce happened in 1909. Sometime after this, he took his daughter Roberta to Greece and left her there — she spent the rest of her childhood in Greece and didn’t return to America until after Fr. Raphael was dead. It seems that, on this trip, he may have been tonsured a monk. In 1913, he made a trip to Jamaica, and in 1916, he had a public dispute with Marcus Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Fr. Raphael died in 1922.

So we have these little episodes — the trips to Greece and Jamaica, the Marcus Garvey dispute — but we really don’t know much about what Fr. Raphael was doing during his years as an Orthodox priest. If he repented to the point of deification, no evidence of it has survived. And as much as we might want it to be true, we can’t fabricate it or base veneration on speculation.

Positive Arguments for Sanctity?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Fr. Oliver Herbel and I had never tracked down the Morgan divorce documents back in 2009. Setting aside the divorce, what evidence exists that Fr. Raphael Morgan is a saint?

No evidence. That’s the answer.

The quintessential saint is a martyr, one who gives up his life for the sake of Christ. Fr. Raphael was not a martyr.

Some saints suffered for the faith but weren’t actually killed. These are usually called “confessors” — think of St. Maximus, who had his tongue cut out and his hand cut off because of his opposition to the heresy of monothelitism. The suggestion has been made that perhaps Fr. Raphael Morgan was a confessor – after all, he lived in the United States under Jim Crow, a shameful era of segregation, racism, violence, and lynching. Fr. Raphael was almost certainly not immune from the indignities of American racism as everyday and systemic realities. But at the same time, we do not have any actual examples of how this was manifest in his life as an Orthodox Christian, and certainly not in any way that would contribute to a narrative of holiness. The simple fact of experiencing systemic racism as a black man does not make one a confessor of the Orthodox faith.

Some saints are great missionaries who convert hundreds or thousands of people. We have been blessed with some of these in America — St. Innocent, St. Jacob Netsvetov or St. Alexis Toth. But, as far as we can tell, Fr. Raphael converted no one other than his wife and children.

Some saints are great shepherds, emptying themselves in care for the flocks that have been entrusted to them. Obvious examples in American Orthodox history include St. Tikhon and St. Raphael Hawaweeny. But Fr. Raphael had no flock, as far as we can tell, and there is no evidence of extraordinary, self-emptying sacrifice on behalf of a flock.

Some saints are great theologians and teachers who quench the thirsty souls of the faithful with their God-inspired writings and homilies — one example that springs to mind is St. Nicholai Velimirovic, author of the Prologue from Ochrid. We have a handful of brief items written by Fr. Raphael Morgan — a short biographical article that he may have authored himself, his letter against Marcus Garvey (which had nothing to do with Orthodoxy), and a note he wrote while still an Episcopalian about a visit to Russia. But in no way can he be considered a great teacher of the faith.

Some saints are great ascetics, some wonderworkers, some clairvoyant elders. Sometimes, God manifests a forgotten saint through miraculous appearances (think of the newly-revealed Ss. Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene or St. Phanourios). There is no evidence — not a single shred of evidence — that Fr. Raphael Morgan was any of these things.

Forgotten Saints

There are thousands and thousands of saints on our Orthodox calendars. For many of them, all we know is their name. Their story is long-forgotten, but we continue to commemorate them. Unlike the trend in Roman Catholicism in the past century, we do not remove saints from our calendar because modern-day scholars can’t “prove” that they existed. But Fr. Raphael Morgan is not comparable to these ancient saints. When they were added to the calendar, all those centuries ago, we did know their stories. They became forgotten later, but we can be confident that the names handed down to us by the Church were put there for a reason, even if we do not, today, know what that reason was.

Fr. Raphael, on the other hand, died just 97 years ago and has never been venerated by the Church. He is not at all comparable to the forgotten saints of old.

And then there’s St. Peter the Aleut, whom some people think did not exist. If we venerate St. Peter, why not Fr. Raphael? The problem here is that St. Peter was — purportedly — martyred for the sake of the Orthodox faith. We have an eyewitness account of the martyrdom. You can choose to disbelieve that account, but that’s a different issue. Fr. Raphael was not purportedly a martyr, or purportedly a miracle worker, or purportedly a great ascetic. The only “purportedly” about Fr. Raphael is that he was purportedly a wife-beater and philanderer (which we don’t really know is true or not; a judge was convinced it was). He’s not comparable to St. Peter the Aleut.

And what about Fr. Nicola Yanney, Fr. Raphael’s exact contemporary? Like Fr. Raphael, Fr. Nicola was long-forgotten until recent years, and I myself have suggested that he may well be a saint. But the difference between Morgan and Yanney is vast — we know all sorts of things about Fr. Nicola’s life, his suffering, and his great sacrifices to shepherd the flock entrusted to him.

And, of course, his death — the sort of death that, in the words of St. Dionysius the Great of Alexandria, is “in every way the equal of martyrdom.” Those facts strongly suggest that we should look more closely at Fr. Nicola, because they hint at possible sanctity. Nothing like this can be said of Fr. Raphael Morgan.

What Now?

What now, then? What do I say to the growing number of people who seem to be inspired by Fr. Raphael’s story — the story of an Afro-Caribbean man who found his way to Orthodoxy, and to the priesthood, at a time when converts were few and far between?

I understand the desire of some people to see, in Fr. Raphael, a “patronal figure” for black Americans and for Afro-Caribbean people. And I of all people understand the thrill of discovery, when you think you’ve found someone who might — just might — be a saint. But it is one thing to be a fascinating — even inspiring — historical figure, and another thing to be a saint, one of God’s holy ones.

We must not be cavalier about the saints, or impose our will upon the Church. We must not circulate icons of ordinary men and women simply because we, personally, feel a connection to them. This cheapens and distorts the meaning of sainthood.

What I am saying may be misunderstood by some, or twisted into a claim that I have some sort of agenda, beyond my simple interest in the well-being of the Church. I’m sorry about this. The last thing I want to do is be dragged into a controversy or accused of racism or un-Christian bias.

But I am already seeing too many people misled about Fr. Raphael Morgan, and, in my view, this is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the Church — a problem of patience, of sincere discernment of the will of God, of obedience to the traditions and patterns that have been handed down to us.

To use the image of St. Basil, let us “be the bee,” selecting the good from Fr. Raphael’s life — the fact of his conversion and of his acceptance by the Church — and not go beyond what the evidence supports. May God grant him eternal rest and have mercy upon us.

4 Replies to “Why Fr. Raphael Morgan Should Not Be Venerated or Canonized”

  1. Good article, but I have to ask; who was seriously arguing for him to be canonized a saint? I had heard plenty about this interesting historical figure, but not once did I ever read or hear someone suggest sainthood until your last article said so offhand. Now, it feels like we’ve opened a can of worms with some internet social justice warriors demanding canonization on the basis of modern racial grievance politics, thinking there is some “movement” supporting them because it was mentioned in your article. Seriously, who was suggesting this? No one actually involved in researching Fr. Raphael’s life, nor the African-American clergymen in the US said anything of the sort.

    1. In recent weeks, the suggestion has been made with increasing frequency, including by some clergymen. This culminated in the circulation of an “icon” of Fr. Raphael. For this reason, I felt compelled to address the matter head-on.

    2. The people clamoring for the Sainthood of Fr. Raphael are likely the same types who venerate post-Chalcedonian Ethiopian saints. Phyletism and a scarcity of Blacks in our Menologion is the cause.

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