History of Orthodox Christianity in America


Orthodoxy in America

Orthodoxy in America is represented by a number of jurisdictions that mainly take care of their historical diaspora. However, the Orthodox Church in America has a more missionary focus. The question of uniting numerous parallel jurisdictions in America together is one of the most important problems of the Orthodox diaspora.


The emergence of Orthodoxy in America is associated with the travels and resettlement of Christians from Europe to this continent. The first Europeans supposedly to have reached this continent were Orthodox monks sailing from Ireland. Sailing into uncharted expanses, the monks, on light leather-covered boats (curraghs) in this manner sought solitude and complete surrender to the hands of God. The most famous tradition of reaching new lands in the far West is connected with the St. Brendan the Wanderer in the 6th century and other evidence speaks of Irish monks in Canada in the 7th century. Although the traces of these travels remain unconfirmed, it has been shown in the 20th century it was possible for these Celtic curragh to to reach America.

It is reliably known that the first Vikings from Greenland, who reached America around 1002, and then founded a colony here, were Orthodox. Their leader Leif Erickson was converted to Christianity at the court of the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason and planted this new faith among his people. However, with the separation of the Roman Church from the fullness of Orthodoxy and the extinction of the Scandinavian colonies in America and Greenland, church life in America was interrupted.

Only the travels of Christopher Columbus, who, according to some sources, relied on information about the above mentioned precursors, firmly connected the American continent with the history of the peoples of Eurasia of modern times. This connection was due to the ensuing wave of development and settlement of the New World by the Roman Catholic and then Protestant peoples. It is not known whether Orthodox believers were among the colonists of the XV-XVII centuries, but their religious heritage was not preserved. At the same time, non-Orthodox churches became firmly established on the American shores and determined the religious climate of the ever-expanding European colonies. The colonial powers imposing Roman Catholicism became Spain and Portugal and France, and England and the Netherlands became the patrons of various Protestant movements. Attempts by Lutheran Denmark and Sweden to establish their colonies did not bring significant long-term fruit. Towards the end of the 17th century, the ethno-confessional geography of the continents was consolidated and is still preserved today: Latinized and predominantly Roman Catholic South America, mainly English-speaking and Protestant North America with significant intersperses of French and Spanish-speaking Roman Catholics in the south and northeast.

The Russian mission in Alaska

In the 18th century, Russia came to the shores of America, the only world power of its time where Orthodoxy occupied a dominant position. Unlike the Western European countries that colonized America from the east, the Russians went to its northwest borders and annexed the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, the Alexander Archipelago and coastal lands on the Pacific coast to the Spanish possessions in California to the Russian Empire. Within the framework of this Russian America, the entrusted Russian-American company, the settlement of settlements, the development of natural resources, primarily furs, and the resettlement of the first Orthodox from the Eurasian continent began. The first settlers often behaved as exploiters and were not know for their high moral standards, which had a bad effect on the Aleuts, Tlingit and other indigenous inhabitants of Russian America.

The state concern for the planting of Orthodoxy in the new lands ensured in 1794 the sending to America of a special educational mission from the Valaam monks led by archimandrite Joasaph (Bolotov). They began to educate the local population, stand up for them before the authorities and have a beneficial effect on the migrants. The mission resulted in such saints as the holy martyr Juvenaly (Govorukhin) and the Venerable Herman of Alaska who rooted faith among the indigenous inhabitants, of which Peter Aleut became the first martyr for Christ. The lands of Russian America entered the Irkutsk diocese and already in 1796 a special Kodiak vicariate was established for them. The strengthening of Orthodoxy and the arrangement of Alaska entailed in 1840 the establishment of an independent Kamchatka diocese with a center in Alaska, in Novoarkhangelsk (now Sitka). After the see was moved to the Eurasian continent, a vicariate New-Archangel see was established to nourish American lands, which later became an independent diocese after the sale of Russian America to the United States in 1867. In subsequent years, despite the loss of state support and active opposition from Protestant preachers, the Alaskan diocese supported Orthodoxy in Alaska, which became a kind of holy ground for Orthodox America.

The first wave of immigrants and the vision of St. Tikhon

Meanwhile, from the mid-19th century, a wave of traditionally Orthodox immigrants to America began to gradually build up, especially in the USA. In this diaspora, in the first place were Uniates, Carpathians and Little Russians, Orthodox Greeks with Serbs, then Arabs and Russians. The American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, being the only diocese organized at that time within this part of the world, tried to nourish and organize new arrivals. To better feed them, the department was moved to San Francisco in 1872, and to New York in 1905, although the diocese has kept the historical name of the Aleutian all this time. Freed from state oppression, which kept them in Roman Catholicism, Slavic immigrants from Austria-Hungary began to return to Orthodoxy under the leadership of the righteous father Alexy Tovt and made up the bulk of the flock of the Russian diocese in America. For official registration, as well as for missionary purposes, the diocese adopted a new self-name, more familiar to former Uniates - the “Russian Orthodox Greek-Catholic Church in North America”.

Orthodox immigrants from different lands, wanting to maintain unity within their emigrant communities, gravitated toward the organization of church life on a national language basis. As their numbers grew and their situation improved, the communities sought to organize their own parishes, sometimes seeking the services of wandering priests or inviting them from their homeland, sometimes ignoring the existence of a diocese in America. The rapidly growing diocese gradually included such parishes in its composition, but soon faced the fundamental issue of organizing church life in a new environment. Saint Tikhon (Belavin), who headed the American diocese at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, put forward the idea of creating the American Metropolis on an autonomous basis with special vicarities for each of the significant ethno-cultural emigrant groups. The saint succeeded in organizing only one such vicariousness - Brooklyn led by Saint Raphael for the Syro-Arabs of America - but he outlined at least two others, for the Serbs and for the Greeks. The vast Greek diaspora in America stood apart from other Orthodox. Being the most numerous and often not inclined to recognize the authority of the Russian bishops, the Greek emigration for the most part organized their church life without intercourse with the Russian Church. Writing out priests from their homeland and contacting various Greek bishops, the Greeks created in their midst a church mess that required urgent correction. This prompted in 1908 Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople to publish a Tomos in which he stated that only the Constantinople Orthodox Church “can canonically extend its authority beyond its specific jurisdiction”, and announced the transfer of custody of the Orthodox Greeks in the dispersal of the Greek Church. This tomos belonged, in particular, to the Greeks in America, although there was no special diocese for them at that time.

Russian revolution and fragmentation of jurisdictions

The October Revolution of 1917, fundamentally changing the relationship of the Orthodox Church and secular power in Russia, became the impetus for the emergence of numerous disturbances in the church life of the Russian Orthodox Church. The main reasons for the disruption that struck the American diocese of the Russian Church were a violation of regular relations with the hierarchy in Moscow, separatist sentiments and the inanimate nature of various emigrant groups, a new wave of post-revolutionary refugees, and support provided by the Bolshevik government of Soviet Russia to the “Renovationists” in America. The old problem of wandering self-proclaimed or forbidden clergymen was sharply aggravated, parishes began to withdraw from subordination to the bishop, relying on such "clergy" and secular courts. The answer to the disorder was an attempt at internal unity and relative isolation - at the Detroit Council in 1924, the American Diocese, henceforth also called the “Metropolitanate," announced its "temporary autonomy" as part of the Russian Orthodox Church. A different understanding of this autonomy led to subsequent turmoil in the church life of the Russian Church in America - in 1927 the “metropolis” broke off ties with the Russian Church Abroad, and in 1933 with the Moscow Patriarchate. However, in 1935 the reconciliation of the “metropolis” with the Church Abroad followed, and the vast majority of Russian believers in America united.

Disruptions in the American Metropolitanate of the Russian Church and the ongoing influx of tribal emigrants spurred the formation of numerous parallel Orthodox jurisdictions for America on a national basis. Little Russians in Canada, in view of the strengthening of Ukrainian identity, refused to join the “Russian” diocese and formed their schismatic “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada” around 1919. Serbs in America withdrew from the Russian Church and formed the Serbian American Diocese under the omophorion of the Serbian Patriarchate in 1921. In the same year, the Greek American Diocese was founded as part of the Greek Orthodox Church. Somewhat later, the Albanian American Diocese also seceded from the Russian Church and fell out of contact with other Churches. The Romanian Patriarchate announced the establishment of the Romanian American Diocese in 1930. In 1938, the Bulgarian Patriarchate established its diocese in America. The Arab diaspora was divided into adherents of the Russian Church and those who came under the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Patriarchate. Also, it was from the Arab environment that an unsuccessful attempt was made to create the so-called The "American Orthodox Catholic Church", originally supported by the Russian Metropolitan of America Plato and led by Brooklyn Arab Bishop Euthymius. The unsuccessful attempts of the Alexandrian and Jerusalem Patriarchates to establish themselves in America during these years are known. Unlike other parallel jurisdictions, concerned with the nourishment of only one particular emigrant group, the Patriarchate of Constantinople followed the model of the Russian Church and tried to unite believers of different nationalities, declaring their exclusive right to organize church life in "barbarian" lands. This was part of the campaign of the Church of Constantinople to subjugate the entire Orthodox diaspora, as well as some areas where it was difficult to communicate with other church centers (primarily Moscow). The Greeks became the basis of the Constantinople jurisdiction in America - in 1922 the Patriarch of Constantinople Meletius (Metaxakis), who had earlier established the Greek American Archdiocese as the Athenian Metropolitan, transferred it from the jurisdiction of the Greek Church to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1937, the unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America was adopted under the omophorion of the Patriarch of Constantinople as a separate national diocese, and in 1938 a number of Carpathian parishes were adopted from the union and constituted the American Carpathian diocese of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Unification efforts during the Cold War

The Second World War served as a new milestone in the history of Orthodoxy in America. After the war, a new wave of Orthodox refugees began to arrive in America, mainly from among the “displaced people” and persecuted believers from the countries of the socialist camp, a number of traditionally Orthodox states in Eastern Europe fell under the control of atheist communists, and the so-called between the USA and the USSR Cold War World Championship. The design of the bipolar world and the efforts of the socialist regimes to use the Orthodox Churches as tools in international politics led to a chain of schisms in jurisdictions associated with the countries of the socialist camp. In 1946, the Russian "American Metropolia" again broke with the Church Abroad, which soon moved its center from Europe to New York. Different attitudes towards the Moscow hierarchy played a significant role in this break, but by 1947 both Churches had definitely become opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate. Schisms on the basis of loyalty to secular power in the historical homeland befell the American dioceses of the Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian Churches, as well as the Albanian American Diocese.

The aggravated propagation of parallel jurisdictions and schisms has always been recognized as an undesirable and, in principle, unacceptable state for the Orthodox Church in America. In addition to some prominent supporters of the church unification of all Orthodox in a single jurisdiction, the generational change and the conversion of Americans of different tribes to Orthodoxy gradually created the basis for an all-American Orthodox community. Even during World War II, the combined efforts of Orthodox jurisdictions led to the state recognition of Orthodoxy as a single religion by the secular authorities of the United States in order to create a service of Orthodox military priests. In the 1960s, the Permanent Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) was created, which brought together the primates of most Orthodox jurisdictions in America on a consultative basis.

As a result of negotiations between the “American Metropolia” and the Moscow Patriarchate, a transformation was undertaken with the aim of achieving jurisdictional unity - in 1970 the Patriarchate granted the “Metropolis” autocephaly within North America with the name of the last “Orthodox Church in America”. The newly formed independent Church was called to unite all jurisdictions and become an all-embracing American Church with a missionary focus. Support from the Russian Church ensured the recognition of new autocephaly by the Georgian, Bulgarian, Polish and Czechoslovak Local Churches, a promising initiative was supported in America by numerous Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians who joined the Orthodox Church in America as special national dioceses. However, the unilateral talent of autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate received a sharp rebuff from the Greek Churches, especially the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which insisted on its exclusive prerogatives in the diaspora. The most significant non-Greek Churches - Romanian, Antioch, Serbian - did not recognize the new autocephaly, preferring to preserve their own dioceses in the diaspora.

Source: http://orthodoxhistory.org