Dec 8, 2011

Searching for a narrative for Eastern Orthodox in America

Watch American Religious Studies and American Religious History for even a little while, and you'll see a developing, evolving way of talking about different groups. Go back -- not too far, even -- and one finds almost all the attention given to denominational organizations, and everything framed in terms of continuity or discontinuity with Boston Puritanism.

It's not like that anymore.

Just in recent years, the account of Islam in America is growing and changing. It's now de riguer to note that the first Muslims came to America with the importation of slaves from Africa. Added to that is a new emphasis on the various ways Islam has come to the US: with the slaves, emerging out of the 20th century African American community, with immigrants from South East Asia, with immigrants from the Middle East, etc.

A similar turn has happened in accounts of immigrants in general. Talk about Judaism, talk about Catholicism, and you have to talk about immigrant communities. One of the results of this has been to break up the homogenity of these religious identities. One looks today, for example, at Catholics, plural, focusing on the practices and behaviours of lay Catholics, the way religion functioned in their lives and in their sense of themselves, rather than focusing on Catholicism as an abstraction.

One blank spot, right now, however, is the Eastern Orthodox in America.

This blank spot kind of gets poked at, but there doesn't seem to be a standard way to talk about this religion and this religious experience yet.

Part of this may be the numbers. Pew puts all the Orthodox Christians in America today at about .6%. Muslims also come in at about .6%, though, Orthodox Jews are half that, and Buddhists and Jehovah's Witnesses are only slightly larger, with .7%. All those groups have more established narratives, it seems to me.

When the Eastern Orthodox are talked about, it's often with this very general rubric of "immigrant," without any specifics as to how their experiences and histories were different, if at all, from other immigrant groups.

Charles Lippy, in his brief Introducing American Religions gives two paragraphs to the "wave" of Eastern Orthodox Christians who came in the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, "Adding to diversity." "Adding to diversity" is Lippy's thing, so by the time one is 100, 150 pages into his book, saying that this is what the Orthodox did is only slightly more enlightening than "they existed."

Most of his two paragraphs are dedicated to noting the countries the different groups came from, as well as the economic draws that brought them to where they ended up.

This is symptematic, more than a problem specific to Lippy. It seems like there's not really a story about the Orthodox that anyone knows. Where, with Jews in America, one talks about the Hassids, or Reform Judaism and Isaac Mayer Wise, with the Orthodox Christians, there's no standard story, no genrally know starting points, public moments or figures.

The second volume of Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll's anthology, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877 has the start of a story, and focuses on one very public moment in the Orthodox's American history. They give 6 1/2 pages to Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. This is a major improvement, though obviously still really limited. They include two documents, one Father John Veniaminov's "The Condition of the Orthodox Church in Russian America," the other a report on religion in the Russian American colonies and the Russian American Company, which was published in Overland Monthly in 1895. Both documents are really interesting -- Veniaminov, for example, writes that at first the Aleuts only believed in and prayed to "an unknown God" about whom they knew little -- but still only offer the tiniest sketch.

One would even be forgiven for thinking the Orthodox churches in America died out with "Russian America," or, that if it do still exist, it's in the form of left overs. In one editorial notes, Gaustad and Noll write "Russian Orthodoxy continued to be a major religious force in Alaska through the nineteenth century," and "Russian Orthodoxy was planted with sufficient nurture to endure to the present day."

Oddly, these are both statements sort of directed towards establishing the importance of the Orthodox in America. But kind of do the opposite.

I'm not knocking Gaustad and Noll. It's actually a really excellent anthology. The point is not that they somehow failed, but that, really, there's at best only a really limited and sketchy narrative of Eastern Orthdox Christians in America.

There's basically nothing, it seems, when it comes to contemporary times.

There's just sort of not a narrative here, and certainly not one that fits into any larger, broader narrative about religion in America. There's precious little actually on this subject (exceptions: John H. Erickson's Orthodox Christians in America; Alexei D. Krindatch's work, including "Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Churches in the United States at the Beginning of a New Millennium: Questions of Nature, Identity, and Mission").

There should be, though. The more recent history of Eastern Orthodoxy in America is particularly interesting, I think (and not just because a number of good friends of mine are a part of it) and yet it seems basically absent from scholarly work on religious culture and recent history. The evangelical press, by contrast, has paid attention to and noted the movement of evangelicals converting to Eastern Orthodoxy since at least the '80s. Yet there's no standing, standard account of these conversions, and why (in aggregate) they happened, and what that says about American religion at the turn of the 21st century, and what that says about American culture in general.

Instead of a good account that takes this movement seriously (while not, as is sometimes the wont of the converts themselves, over-estimating it as seismic and history-altering), what one gets is along these lines:
"Some years ago a sizable number of American Evangelicals, perhaps in search of a more colorful version of Christianity, became Eastern Orthodox as a group. For some reason they chose to join the American branch of the Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the most ancient Christian bodies in the world. (Its liturgical language is traditionally Arabic. You can’t get much more colorful than that.) Apparently these refugees from Billy Graham embraced their new faith with a fervor that alarmed some who were born Orthodox."

That is Peter Berger -- the great Peter Berger, I would even say -- speaking out of the abundance of ignorance.

Even if it were the case these converts were merely seeking colorfulness, that's a remarkably unsympathetic, un-empathetic way to describe the longings of other people's souls. He could have easily just said the were "perhaps in search of more depth, history and tradition."

But, the point is, there's really no standard narrative of this event in recent religious history that could have been plugged in here by Berger. He's essentially summarizing word-of-mouth and arguments that have been made in Christianity Today and other such publications. He still could have given a better account -- this isn't an excuse -- but at least part of the problem is that the Orthodox story just isn't told.

Father Michael Oleska, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, recently issued a call to the Orthodox in America to start telling their stories. To themselves. To each other. He's urging the religious telling of stories, arguing for the importance of such stories to a community and a culture. He says, in the video-message, that the Orthodox should start telling their stories because "culture is the enactment of a story."

My hope is that as those stories are told, scholars of American religion pay attention.


  1. Here's my question. Is it even possible to talk about "Eastern Orthodoxy in America" until the latter part of the 20th century, before Alexander Schmemen?

    It seems to me, for instance, that to talk about Greek-Americans is to, of necessity, talk about the Greek Orthodox Church. To talk about Serbian Americans is to, of necessity, talk about the Serbian Orthodox Church.

    I don't think when we talk about the Greek Orthodox Church we have to, out of necessity, talk about the Serbian Orthodox Church. In fact it may be a mistake to try.

    You can talk about Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam in America as immigrant communities in ways you can't talk about American Orthodox immigrant communities because there existed religious and cultural institutions which transcended diverse communities. There is a whole made up of diverse communities embodies in institutions.

    I don't think you have that in American Orthodoxy. You can talk about the Greek Orthodox Church, Serbian, etc. but I'm not sure sociologically speaking there is any 'Orthodox' identity in America prior to Pan-Orthodox institutions in America (St. Valdimir's Seminary really didn't get rolling until the late 1940's early 1950's).

  2. Maybe.

    One finds similar divisions in Judaism, where there's really no single American Judaism as much as collections of different immigrant groups. There's been some arguments recently that we over homogenize 19th and early 20th century Catholics in this regard. Where really we should be talking about Poles, Irish, Italians, etc. A similar thing can be done, even, in talking about the German immigrants, many of whom didn't think of themselves as "German" until they were "German-American," and even then one had deep divisions between those who came earlier and those who came later, not to mention the divisions between the "kirchenleute" and others.

    I'm not sure the lack of homogeneity or singular identity really is all that problematic in talking about the Eastern Orthodox and their relationship to American religion as a whole.

    Also, it's exactly the 20th century variety whose absence I'm interested in, and it's that variety that's most absent.

  3. Justin9:08 PM


    I'm sure you've run across this site, but in case you haven't, you may find some of the essays helpful:


  4. I hadn't, actually. That looks like a great site.

  5. The same person who runs that website also has a long line of podcasts on More and more I'm finding that website to be a great source.

  6. In my experience the podcasts are for building the faith, and not particularly history or cultural-studies orientated. Is that wrong?

  7. Mr. Stillman, I'm the editor of, the website of the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas. Would you be willing to allow us to re-post this piece on our site?

    Feel free to email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com. Thank you!

  8. Forgive me, Mr. Silliman; in my comment a moment ago I misspelled your last name.

  9. Thank you for allowing Matthew to post this to our site. Matthew's podcasts do involve real history. It would be a mistake to dismiss them as simply building up the faith, though we at SOCHA hope they do that.

    There are some of us working hard to address the problem you note. For example, Amy Slagle recently published an ethnogaphic work on conversions to Orthodoxy and my recent Ph.D. dissertation assessed the theological motivations behind representative converts. I am now editing that with the full intention of getting it to a press in the future.

    If you wish to get into the more academic assessments that are ongoing, please feel free to email me at froliverherbel at cableone (dot) net.

    Your general concern holds, but Orthodox related academia is actually going through a change, here. Of course, there's still the larger problem of whether any universities and/or colleges would wish to hire people doing such work, but there is some progress on that front and ultimately, it's a front we cannot control.

  10. I hope it's clear, Fr. Herbel, that my critique is not about people not doing work on the Orthodox in America. There could certainly be more work done there, but there is work being done and it's self apparently good work.

    My critique is of the broader narrative of religion in America and how the Orthodox are barely apart of that, and how there's no standard, overview account of the Orthodox (in the way there is of Jews in America, e.g.), and how the Orthodox are handled in anthologies and general introductions.

    I would be very interested to hear, though, how people who've done work on Orthodoxy are received by hiring committees.

  11. Mr. Silliman,

    I applaud your call for a national dialogue about and recognition of Orthodox Christianity in the United States. While I have been encouraged by the growing number of inner-Orthodox anecdotes, I am disappointed in the lack of Orthodox data on the Orthodox Christian demography in the general history and contemporary accounts.

    Before I married my husband and was Chrismated in the Church, I became aware of this dilemma through my in-laws' video about Greek-Americans. Greek-American WWII Veterans recounted their stories of the lack of recognition for the Church by the military and being lumped in with Jewish Troops. While there is now an Orthodox Christian category for military chaplains and dog tags, there is often a lack of understanding about the closed Communion for the Eucharist and other Holy Sacrament with chaplains recommending Orthodox Christian Troops attend Protestant worship services and Bible studies.

    As a "xenia" (non-Greek stranger or foreigner) in GOA parishes, I have realized that the immigrant culture of "cradle" Orthodox generates and perpetuates the lack of a pan-Orthodox story separate from other denominations in secular academia. As a convert with a Russian immigrant Godmother and Greek-American husband, I identify myself as Orthodox Christian and for me all parishes, regardless of Patriarchate, are equally homey while foreign to my Anglo tongue and ears. However, First- and Second-generation Orthodox Americans will usually choose a parish under the hierarchy of the Patriarch of their national origin. The division of Patriarchate, mother-tongue, and nationality has been an issue at all of our parishes.

    I am not sure if non-Orthodox historians and academics will see a united Orthodox Christian Church in the U.S. until we view and comport ourselves as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church".

  12. Anonymous3:57 PM


    Send me an email and we'll continue the conversation trajectory you've set.

    I agree with you on the problem and have put some efforts into thinking about it. I think there is slowly beginning to be some change on this front but it is slow and is happening by a select group of people right now. A. Krindatch's surveys are one helpful start but historically, there's so much much more to do. I think Orthodoxy is often the pink elephant in the room. Will we become more "en vogue" now that "transnational" is a catchword? I don't know. One can always hope.

    Send me an email: froliverherbel [at] cableone [dot] net

    Melissa, your concerns are duly noted and your ending is quite apt. Even with the divisions, though, there's work that can be done. You might be interested to know that I am currently writing an article on the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions, which fought to get Orthodoxy recognized by the Selective Service.