In this this post, I wish to start exploring the historical angles. Again, the point to this first American Orthodox Christianity Series is not to make all Orthodox feel bad or to show us as pathetic, but to explore a reality–we are largely insignificant to American society and religion. The second series will explore some areas of importance and some ways in which we can possibly expand our influence, but for now, I turn to the first “historical” post for this series.
Early on in Orthodoxy’s engagement with American society, there was little effort to promote Orthodoxy to the broader American populace except as Orthodoxy might relate to Anglicanism. Initially, this was as an underground response to the situation in the Anglican Church. Following the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which deposed King James II and installed William and Mary, many Anglican clergy and laity refused to go along and the clergy became known as “non-jurors” for refusing allegiance to William and Mary. One early Virginian, Philip Ludwell III, an early aristocrat in the British colonies (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Philip_Ludwell_III), converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and kept Orthodoxy alive within in own house in Virginia. He taught his family the Orthodox faith and brought pre-sancitified gifts across the sea for communion, all of which is commendable, but did not, to my knowledge, establish or even back serious efforts to engage Virginia publicly on matters of faith and religion that would have given Orthodoxy a serious voice.
If one fast forwards to the nineteenth century, we find Orthodoxy primarily ensconced in Alaska and, to a much lesser degree, the coastal fringes of California. In what we now consider the Lower 48, the only visible presence was the missionary chapel of Nicholas Bjerring (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Nicholas_Bjerring) in New York. Bjerring did make the newspapers and briefly established the first Orthodox journal, but in doing this, he was “ecumenical” to the extreme, seeking merely to inform and the chapel, under the auspices of the Metropolitan in St. Petersburg, existed as a show chapel to the Protestant Episcopal Church, the American wing of the Anglican Communion. The chapel lasted from 1870-1883. Bjerring had been a convert from Roman Catholicism (and before that, from Lutheranism to Catholicism). He became Presbyterian before reverting to Catholicism shortly before his death. The impetus for going from Orthodoxy to Presbyterianism was that Russia closed his chapel. Although offered a teaching position at the St. Petersburg Academy, he preferred to remain in America and so became a Presbyterian pastor. There is more to his story, and much that is venerable, but for my purposes here, I think I’ve given us what we need.
These two examples serve to show that prior to immigration, Orthodoxy had not made any efforts, outside of the Natives in Alaska, to influence and shape the American religious landscape.