Eastern Orthodoxy is distinguished from Western Christianity, both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, by being the prevalent Christian faith in Eastern Europe and East of the Mediterranean. East and West split after the first Christian millennium (1054AD being usually used as the date) over issues such as additions to the Nicene Creed in the West and the expanding claims of supremacy of the bishop of Rome.
Orthodoxy first reached the shores of North America through the activity of missionary-monks sent from Valaam monastery in Eastern Russia/Finland, to the Aleutian and Eskimos in 1794 and the small colony of Russian fur traders. They arrived in Kodiak on September 24, 1794, having traveled 7,300 miles in 293 days. Upon arrival, the monks were shocked at conditions in the colony, particularly the treatment of the natives by the fur traders, and especially the tyranny of the Governor.
Despite continuing oppression by the Governor and the traders, native Alaskans flocked to join the Orthodox Church. The priest-monk Juvenal reported baptizing several thousand himself. Although hostile natives would martyr Juvenal in 1796, the more general success of the Alaskan mission can be explained only by the heroic efforts of the missionaries in defending the Alaskans from the governor Baranov and his henchmen, as well as by the missionaries' sensitive approach to the pre-Christian spirituality of the Aleuts. The Russian monks presented Orthodox Christianity not as the abolition, but as the fulfillment, of the Aleut's ancient religious heritage. Most persuasively, the personal example of the monk Herman provided the natives with tangible evidence that the Gospel, when embraced with full dedication and commitment, produced God-like men.
Herman left the settlement to both escape harassment and to live the hermetical life he desired, reside on Spruce Island, about three miles to the north. Herman's simple life, his warmth and humility, led many of the native people to embrace his Orthodox faith. He became so popular he was glorified as the first American Orthodox Saint in 1970. And to this day there is a large contingent of Orthodox Christians in Alaska today.
But other then the original efforts by St. Herman and others in Alaska, Orthodoxy would be brought to America by a different manner: the influx of immigrants from Orthodox countries. As early as 1868 a small Russian community in San Francisco, was requesting a priest. San Franciscan shortly thereafter became the seat of the bishop of the new mission to North America.
Prior to 1890, only small numbers of Orthodox Christians had immigrated to the United States. In colonial times (1768), an English land-grant settlement, populated mainly by Greeks, had been established in Florida. Quickly succumbing to disease, exploitation, and neglect, the New Smyrna plantation was forcibly disbanded by British troops on order of the English governor of Florida in 1769.
Greek Cotton merchants founded the first Orthodox Church in North America in New Orleans in 1864. This church was typical of all the early parishes that were form in the New World, in that it was “multi-ethnic,” composed of Greeks, Slavs and Arabs. And indeed this was a pattern, but not one that was to last long.
Eventually as immigrants fled such Orthodox lands as Greece, Russia, Lebanon, Romania, Syria, Bulgaria, Egypt, and Serbia and formed communities around their ethnic identities. This did not pose a problem, for by the early 1900s almost all Orthodox communities, regardless of ethnic background, were united in a single diocese, or jurisdiction, which was under the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out. As a result communications between the North American Diocese and the Church in Russia were greatly hindered. In the early 1920s the Patriarch of Moscow, Saint Tikhon for ten years he had served as Bishop of the North American Diocese issued a decree calling on dioceses outside the borders of Russia [by then the Soviet Union] to organize themselves autonomously until such time as normal communications and relations with the Church in Russia could resume. Shortly thereafter, at a Council of all hierarchs and clergy and parish delegates, it was decided that the Church in North America could no longer maintain strict administrative ties with the Church in Russia, especially since Patriarch Tikhon had been arrested. [He subsequently died in 1925, and glorified as a Saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1989.]
Because of the chaos that ensued, every ethnic group began to look to the Mother Churches in their homelands for pastoral care. Thus the situation in the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st century is one of multiple ethnic jurisdictions, despite doctrinal and eucharistic unity. And that had been reflected in the mentality of parishes, as recently illustrated by the movie My Big fat Greek Wedding. The Groom in the movie, after having been baptized states, "I am Greek now." Because Orthodoxy was for the most part brought to North America by immigrants fleeing persecution, they were just happy to be able to live in peace. They associated their faith with their ethnic identity, and it never occurred to them that they might have something people would want.
But an event occurred in the late 1980's that illustrated the Orthodoxy did hold something of interest for the people of North America, by and large Evangelical Christians. In 1987 an entire Protestant denomination was received into the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese. The "Evangelical Orthodox Church," as they called themselves, were founded as the "Apostolic Brethren" in the early 1970's. IN all the over 2,000 people and 20 parishes that were received, reflected the large streams of individuals and even local congregations that were being drawn to the historic Orthodox faith.
In 1996 a historic agreement was reached in Ligonier, PA by all the bishops of all the different Orthodox jurisdictions. The bishops agreed to pursue ecclesiastical unity, as the canons prescribed for the continent of North America. While there is some resistance by many of the Mother Churches in Europe and the Middle East, the agreement holds forth hope that there will one day soon be a single entity known as the America Orthodox Church.
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