The Early History of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Americas

This article’s topic was chosen by the Ctruth patron Ben Fletcher. Thank you Ben for choosing this topic and for your help in expanding Ctruth’s content.

The Russian Orthodox Church first appeared in North America on Kodiak Island in Alaska in the 18th century with the arrival of Russian Orthodox monks. By the end of the 20th century, the estimated number of Orthodox Christians in the Americas was around 2-3 million. This article focuses on the early history of the Russian Orthodox Church, mainly the 18th and 19th centuries.

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“Among the basic sources for the early history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska are the accounts of Bishop Innokentii. In his Sostoianie pravoslavnoi tserkvi v Rossiiskoi Amerike [Condition of the Orthodox Church in Russian America], Innokentii traced the history of the church to 1838.” – Robert Croskey (1975)

The Alaskan territory that the monks first landed on was at the time governed by the Russo-American Trade Company. The first known American converts were Aleuts who got baptized by Orthodox trading partners. There are some conflicting stories online about the early activities of the Russian Orthodox Church and I do my best to cover some of them below.

The scholarly articles claim that 1794 was the year of the arrival of Russian Orthodoxy, but the Wikipedia article claims that members of the Aleuts in the mid-18th century were the first converts. The citation on the wiki article isn’t clear, but if there was one it would be “Stokoe, Mark and Leonid Kishkovsky. Orthodox Christians in North America 1794–1994“, which the title of the book seems to me to indicate that the Orthodox Christian appeared in North America in 1794, just as the scholarly articles claim. The difference is not significant, but I think the Wikipedia article would be better off either saying late 18th century or 1794.

The monks were volunteers from the monasteries of Valaam and Konevets who set out from St. Petersburg for North America on December 21st, 1793 led by Archimandrite Joasaph Bolotov. They arrived on September 24, 1794. The Holy Synod created an auxiliary episcopal see in Alaska in 1796, and elected Fr. Joasaph as bishop. Fr. Joasaph returned to Russia for his consecration in 1798, and in 1799, a small group and himself perished on the return to Kodiak Island. Baranov, in 1800, placed the remaining monks on Kodiac Island under house arrest, and forbade them to have any contact with the locals. The episcopal see that was established in 1796 was officially closed some 15 years later in 1811. This was not the end.

Valaam Monastery

Some of the first monks to arrive in Alaska were Juvenaly of Alaska (the first martyr of America), Saint Herman of Alaska (“one of the best known Russian-Orthodox missionaries in that part of Alaska”), and Hieromonk Gideon (the founder of the first school on Kodiak Island). One report [4] claims that there were 10 monks from the Valaam Monestary that volunteered to join the mission. A different report [5] claims that there were only 8 monks who volunteered from that Monestary.

The Holy Synod sent the volunteer John Veniaminov of Irkutsk and his family to Unalaska Island in 1823. The family arrived on July 29, 1824. John was the first to make available for the natives in their tongue the Gospel, the Divine Liturgy, and an Orthodox catechism. John’s wife passed away, and in 1840 he accepted monastic tonsure and ordination as the Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile, and Aleutian Islands. At that time, he took the name Innocent and is known today as Saint Innocent of Alaska, or Saint Innocent Metropolitan of Moscow. He was promoted to archbishop ten years later in 1850. Saint Innocent was the second Orthodox bishop and the first Orthodox archbishop in the Americas. He became a saint of the Orthodox Church in 1977, and is referred to as the Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to the Americas.

A concise timeline of important and relevant events:

1741 – Russian-America is founded.

1794 – The Russian Orthodox Church is introduced to the Americas when Russian Orthodox monks set foot on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

1796 – Fr. Joasaph becomes the first Russian Orthodox bishop in the Americas.

by 1808 – The capital is moved to Novoarkhangelsk (Sitka).

1824 – John Veniaminov and his family arrive in Alaska.

1840 – John Veniaminov becomes bishop and takes the name Innocent.

1850 – Innocent becomes the first Russian Orthodox archbishop in the Americas.

1867 – The Alaska Purchase. The US purchases Alaska from Russia. This effectively end the “Golden Age” of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska.

1868 – The first Russian Orthodox church in the contiguous United States is established in San Francisco, California.

1870 – The first Russian Orthodox church in New York City is consecrated.

1872 –  The diocesan see relocates from Alaska to the city of San Francisco, California in the United States.

1905 – The episcopal see is transferred from San Francisco to New York.

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References:

[1] – Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Churches in the United States at the Beginning of a New Millennium: Questions of Nature, Identity, and Mission, A. D. Krindatch

[2] – The Orthodox Church in America an Historical Survey. Dmitry Grigorieff

[3] The Orthodox Church in America, Veselin Kesich

[4] – https://www.wdl.org/en/item/21408/

[5] – https://www.oca.org/history-archives/oca-history-intro

[6] – https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/russian/russch3.html

[7] – The Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska: Innokentii Veniaminov’s Supplementary Account (1858), Robert Croskey

[7] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innocent_of_Alaska

[8] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orthodox_Church_in_America

[9] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juvenaly_of_Alaska

[10] – https://www.britannica.com/topic/Orthodox-Church-in-America

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