A (very) short history of Orthodoxy in America

Pascha at the Greek Orthodox Church in Atlanta, 1923. The bishop is Metropolitan Gerasimos Messara, Antiochian Patriarchal Exarch. The deacon next to him, wearing glasses, is the future Metropolitan Antony Bashir.
Pascha at the Greek Orthodox Church in Atlanta, 1923. The bishop is Metropolitan Gerasimos Messara, Antiochian Patriarchal Exarch. The deacon next to him, wearing glasses, is the future Metropolitan Antony Bashir.

The History of Orthodoxy in America in Two Words: Immigrants. Converts.

The History of Orthodoxy in America in Ten Words: Immigrants brought Orthodoxy and were joined by converts. Gradual acclimation.

The History of Orthodoxy in America in One Hundred Words: Orthodoxy took root in America at the turn of the 20th century because of the immigration of Orthodox people from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean and the mass conversion of Eastern Rite Catholics to the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox people generally set up their own parishes and obtained priests from the Old World. With the exception of the Russian parishes, they had little episcopal oversight. In the 1920s these groups crystallized into overlapping “jurisdictions,” which exist to this day. They have gradually Americanized and received converts, but additional influxes of immigrants have helped perpetuate the ethnic character of many jurisdictions.

Admittedly, that emphasizes the first 30 or so years of Orthodox history in America, and gives short shrift to the past century (and Alaska). How about The History of Orthodoxy in America in Ten Steps?

One: Following on the heels of Siberian fur traders, the Russian Orthodox Church began missionary work in Alaska (then part of the Russian Empire) in the late 18th century. Thousands of native Alaskans adopted Orthodoxy and integrated it into their culture, creating an indigenous Alaskan expression of the Orthodox faith that survives to this day.

Two: The first Orthodox parishes appeared in the contiguous United States in the late 1860s, mainly as outposts for the small numbers of Orthodox immigrants living in America.

Three: Orthodoxy in the contiguous United States (the “lower 48”) didn’t really get going until the 1890s. Two things happened simultaneously: (a) mass immigration of Orthodox people (mostly men) from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, and (b) mass conversion of Eastern Rite Catholics to Orthodoxy through the Russian Church. This boom period lasted for about 30 years, until the end of World War I and the imposition of immigration quotas in the 1920s.

Four: During the boom years, the typical pattern was for groups of Orthodox people to get some money together, start a parish, and hire a priest from the Old Country. The Greek parishes in particular had very little hierarchical oversight. The Russian parishes (mostly composed of converts from Eastern Rite Catholicism) were part of a fairly well-organized diocese of the Russian Church. The Antiochians, Serbs, Romanians, and some other groups had varying degrees connections to the Russian diocese, but also retained ties to the churches in their homelands.

Five: After World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, all of the Orthodox ethnic groups in America experienced internal schisms and turmoil. The Greek Archdiocese was formed to unite the scattered, largely independent Greek parishes, but other, rival Greek jurisdictions also popped up. There were, at various times, four Antiochian jurisdictions, four Russian, two or three Greek, and two apiece for the Ukrainians, Serbs, Carpatho-Russians, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Romanians. The splits were often political, especially for ethnic groups from countries that now had Communist governments. There were lots of lawsuits over church property. It was a mess.

Six: Over several decades, most of those jurisdictional splits were healed (with the most notable exception being the Russians), and the jurisdictions crystallized into the ones we have today.

Seven: Often in conjunction with upheavals abroad (e.g., turmoil in Greece and Cyprus, civil war in Lebanon, and the fall of the USSR, among many others), successive waves of immigrants joined the existing jurisdictions over the past half century or so. This has contributed to many jurisdictions retaining an ethnic flavor that might have otherwise subsided after several generations.

Eight: The descendants of the original Orthodox immigrants became increasingly Americanized. They spoke English as their first language and many married people who were not Orthodox. As these descendants have become less tied to ethnic identity (and, consequently, the Orthodox faith that was so associated with ethnicity), many parishes have struggled to retain them.

Nine: In recent decades, American converts, mostly from Protestantism, have joined the Orthodox Church. Today, it is not uncommon to encounter Orthodox people who grew up in the Church but have no ethnic connection to Orthodoxy, because they are the children or grandchildren of converts.

Ten: The jurisdictions have talked about coming together to form a single Orthodox Church of the United States for decades, and particularly since SCOBA was formed in 1960 to bring together the heads of the jurisdictions for dialogue and cooperation. Numerous pan-Orthodox agencies have been established. In recent years, the “Mother Churches” mandated the creation of the Assembly of Bishops, which is tasked with formulating a plan to unify the jurisdictions.

That’s still wildly oversimplified, but that’s kind of the point. Thoughts?


  1. Nicely done. As a convert, I would like to read a study of the convert experience. Not individual stories, but a general article on converts. Numbers/church growth, what is working and what is not in parishes. Obviously, there are growing Orthodox churches and waning ones. Is there an article out there on this subject ?

  2. I like it. Only one thing I’d add (in Step 5), to complement the reference to the Bolshevik Revolution, and that’s some brief phrase mentioning the Royalist-Venizelist split that bedeviled the Greeks and led to rival parishes.

  3. Kim, I’m not sure if there’s anything beyond the anecdotal. The person who would study that sort of thing is Alexei Krindatch, who works with the Assembly of Bishops. Alexei’s website is http://www.orthodoxreality.org, and it’s got lots of great resources. I know he’s talked about doing studies on converts.

    Richard, you’re totally right about the Royalist-Venizelist split — that was the civil war of Greek Orthodoxy in America. I need to write more about it.

  4. This is nice but I would love to see more details on the history of Orthodoxy. There was quite a lot of turmoil at times and I’d like to know what it was about–what each side held to that was in opposition to the other(s)–and how it was resolved. Things like that would be fascinating to read up on.

  5. Very good! I would just modify the first sentence of Step Seven to read: “turmoil in Greece _and Cyprus_”. The arrival of Cypriots, especially after the 1974 Turkish invasion, has been quite important for some Greek parishes in the US.

  6. Byron, I was trying to write the shortest history of Orthodoxy in America that I could, so I had to leave out lots and lots of details. Over at http://www.orthodoxhistory.org, I’ve been blogging for five years on all this, and there are hundreds of articles on the sorts of details you mention. We’ll get into loads of details at this blog, too.

    Nicholas, great point about Cyprus.

  7. Appreciate the brevity though the content says little about Orthodoxy and more about people coming and going. Understanding the challenge of saying a lot with few words, I hope you will do this again and add more depth.

  8. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing. Do you have any information on the Western rite in Orthodoxy? I am a convert to a Western rite Antiochian Orthodox church. I love how the truth has been preserved in the Orthodox church.

    1. Well, yeah, that’s a bit outside of my area! I think it’s more anecdotal than anything — it doesn’t really connect to the broader history of Orthodoxy in America. One big omission was Philip Ludwell III and his family — the Virginia aristocrats who converted to Orthodoxy in the 18th century. I knew I was leaving them out, and if I did this again, I might handle that differently.

  9. Fantastic. I miss your AFR podcasts on American Orthodox History — I learned so much in listening to them, and the history is no less than fascinating. I will never forget about Fr Agapius Honcharenko!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *