Orthodox America


  “Son of Obedience” – Archbishop Innocent of Alaska


Many years ago the late Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) wrote:

     "The very presence of Orthodoxy in America has a missionary purpose. Orthodoxy is not the national religion of a few peoples, but the true Church of Christ, and as such meant to be preached to all peoples....” Few Orthodox Americans are perhaps aware of the promising beginning of the Orthodox mission in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a serious attempt was undertaken to make the riches of Holy Orthodoxy accessible to Americans." (Orthodox Word, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1965)

     The important first chapter written in American Orthodox history by St. Herman of Alaska's holy life and labors on this continent is now well-known to many, but fewer know and fully appreciate the second chapter in that history, written by the evangelistic struggles of a second righteous one in Alaska, Archbishop Innocent Veniaminov, often called the "Apostle to America."

 

     Born in 1797 and baptized with the name John, this future great missionary bishop came from a pious clerical family, was educated in the usual ecclesiastical manner, graduating at the head of his class, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1821. This giant of a man (he was six foot three, tall even for our times) now began work in the crucible of pastoral activity, where he was to become a giant in the spirit as well.

     Although assigned to a regular parish--the Church of the Annunciation in Irkutsk--it was necessary for him to supplement his large family's material needs (he and his Matushka, Katherine, were to have seven children) by making clocks and little barrel-organs-skills that were to be very useful in later missionary activity. 

A Missionary Summons

    In 1823 his bishop received instructions from the Holy Synod to send a priest to the Russian-American colony in Alaska. In Father John's own words: "When all the clergymen in the diocese were asked by order of the late Bishop Michael if they would like to go to Unalaska--and if not, then why?--I like all the others stated that I did not wish to accept the position because it was too far away....Indeed, how could I--why should I (humanly speaking)--have traveled God-knows where when I had one of the best parishes in the city, when I enjoyed the love of my parishioners and the good graces of the authorities, when I already owned my own home and had a larger income than the salary being offered to whomever was assigned to Unalaska?' Who among us could doubt the sincerity of Fr. John's motives here; who would not identify with his natural desire to stay in the familiar, comfortable and secure world of a cathedral town in Old Russia?

    But the Providence of God sent a Russian adventurer from Alaska his way, whose inspiring tales were an instrument of the Holy Spirit in changing Fr. John's heart and destiny: he "began to tell me of the Aleuts' zeal in prayer and hearing the Word of God (I doubtless had heard these same things from him many times before), when suddenly Blessed be the Name of the Lord! --I began to burn with a desire to go to such a people.”

    Calling Fr. John a "Son of Obedience," Bishop Michael enthusiastically appointed him to this post, and saw to his missionary needs (holy vessels, vestments, service books, two antimensia, as well as salary and a qualified Reader--Fr. John's own nineteen year old brother). On October 20, 1823--a holy day in the history of American Orthodoxy--this little missionary band arrived safely in Alaska After wintering in Sitka, Fr. John arrived in Unalaska where he inaugurated his missionary activity on August 1, 1824, the Feast of the Procession of the Precious and Life-giving Cross. Fr. John could hardly contain his joy when he wrote that "for the first time since the birth of Christ --in fact, from the creation of the world," the Cross of the Lord had been venerated in that remote and nearly inaccessible part of the world.

     There now began the years of hardship, intense missionary activity, struggle, and holy glory, all of which was well documented at the time and serves as a true model for those struggling to work in the missionary fields of America today.

    There are two important things "modelled" for us in Fr. John's missionary approach.

    First, he quite literally fell in love with the natives among whom he lived and worked. This cannot be overstated as a necessary criterion for successful missionary work. Externally, superficially, there was nothing attractive about the Aleuts and Eskimos. To a refined and cultured man from a priestly family, these natives might have appeared dirty, ragged, and lazy, as they did to others. But Fr. John saw beyond this to their joyful, affectionate, honest, and above all patient souls. He saw in them decent and precious qualities of character that were plainly lacking in most "civilized" races, and these qualities warmed and melted his heart with deep Christ-like love for them. As he himself later wrote:

     "The more I become acquainted with these 'savages' the more I love them and am convinced that we, for all our 'enlightenment' have, without even noticing it, departed far, far from the paths of perfection. Many a so-called 'savage' is morally superior to us so-called 'enlightened' people." Indeed, he was to realize that, "although it is painful and shameful to admit it, holy truth demands we say that the present Russian Orthodox are themselves an obstacle to spreading and confirming Christianity· Our exhortations here are useless..." On a later visit to his homeland, Fr. John was to proudly proclaim not that he was a' Russian, but. "I'm from America--a savage."

    Thus he sought, in constant conversation and concourse, to understand and deeply penetrate the tribal character, not seeking to "russify them but to bring out and enhance their own native character, which was, as he discovered, already "patient, meek, obedient, peaceful, pious" and so forth...

· Secondly, he realized immediately that for his missionary task to be fruitful he must use the native languages wherever possible--not only for preaching the Gospel, but also in translating Scripture, the Catechism, and Divine Services. There was no hesitation in his own mind about this, no thought of making the natives into Russians which, had he tried to do so, would only have put massive and quite unnecessary obstacles in the path of salvation for these new sheep of Christ· Besides, it was much more practical for a few missionaries to learn the languages of their flecks than for all of these tribes to learn new tongues.

    Devoting at least two hours a day to learning quite difficult native languages, and then making translations for publication, Fr. John encountered a familiar objection from Church authorities back in Russia: how could they be sure that these native languages had the proper terminology to express "accurately and with full force...the lofty truths" of the Gospel?

    Returning to Russia, he insured the future of his translating and publishing activities, and won over both the Ober-Procurater and the great and Blessed Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, who quickly saw something "apostolic" about Fr. John. He appeared before the Holy Synod and also had a private audience with the pious Tsar Nicholas I, all of whom enthusiastically gave their support--both moral and financial --to missionary activity in the New World.

    During this same visit to his homeland he was raised to the rank of Archpriest and then, shortly, learned of the untimely death of his beloved Matushka. After a pilgrimage to the Kiev Caves he accepted monastic tonsure and was given the name Innocent --touchingly, on the first anniversary of her repose, which was also her Nameday.

    While he was still in Russia, the Holy Synod and the Tsar resolved to crests a diocese out of Fr. John's (now Fr. Innocent's) missionary territory. Of the three candidates nominated for bishop, the Tsar chose Archimandrite Innocent because of "his outstanding ability and true worth." Thus, on December 15, 1840, he was consecrated to the episcopacy. One month later he was on his way back to his second homeland, where his own orphaned children in the flesh and those thousands in the spirit eagerly awaited their father's return. 

Fields White With Harvest

    The next year saw an amazing-one should say truly miraculous--increase in missionary activity, establishing churches, schools, and orphanages. In the words of one observer, "It is difficult to describe in full the labors which this great worker took upon himself. Travel on reindeer, sometimes lack of food, inclement weather--even foul weather--hostile natives, and insults all around--all of this the old man endured patiently and in good humor. Often, when I would mention his incredible labors to him, he would tell me about patience and the rewards in heaven which await those who do good for God and their neighbor. Without rest for nine months the great old man preached the true God before hundreds of savages. With animation, zeal, and often tears in his eyes he taught them the truths of the Gospel, and his labors did not prove in vain.

    In particular he encouraged candidates for the priesthood from among the natives themselves, establishing a seminary for this purpose, for “One cannot doubt that there will be success," he wrote. Of course, everything comes from the Lord. God Himself--and not the preachers-converts people to the path of Truth; these are only His 'weapons'."'"

    After providing a vicar for himself in the New World, Archbishop Innocent moved on to Yakutsk, where he continued his missionary labors, particularly the arduous work of translating the Divine Liturgy into the local vernacular. On the day (July 19, 1859) the newly-translated service books were first presented and used in the Cathedral, tribal leaders petitioned that that day be henceforth kept as a feastday.

    Now entering the autumn of his life, and soon to become Metropolitan of Moscow, the greatest see in the Russian Church, Archbishop Innocent first made detailed recommendations about the Church in America. He was convinced that it was God's will that the Russian colonies be sold to the United States for in this way, he wrote, Orthodoxy would spread far beyond his former missionary diocese. He suggested (among other things) that the residence of the bishop be moved to San Francisco and that the bishop and his retinue be required not only to know English but that they and all clerics of the Orthodox Church in America” be allowed “to celebrate the Liturgy and other services in English (for which purpose, obviously, the service books must be translated into English).” And further, that “English rather than Russian (which must sooner or later be replaced by English)” be used “in all instruction in the schools to be established in San Francisco and elsewhere to prepare people for missionary and clerical positions.”

    After he was chosen Metropolitan of Moscow, he used his lofty position and influence to encourage more, and still more missionary activity, regardless of the odds and difficulties, convincing the populace at large that it was their “sacred duty” to further – not an ethnic culture, however old and beautiful – but the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout all the world. Thus, not only did he wisely govern the Russian Church, but zealously kept his hand to the missionary plow right up to his holy death on Great Saturday, 1878, as though whether waking or sleeping, he could hear the voice of the Lord whispering in his ear: “Go, and preach the Gospel to all nations…”

   It is in this that the greatness , the saintliness of Archbishop Innocent consists. His fearless single-mindedness seems quite awesome to us today, so weighed down by our “sophistication,” academic credentials, and worldly comforts; so distracted by our jurisdictional disputes, our modern technology and the signs of an approaching Armaggedon True, Archbishop Innocent lived in a much simpler age than ours; yet in the balance, although his obstacles were different, ours are no more formidable than his, for with God all things are possible.

   There can be no doubt that the powerful personality, the great soul, of this man stands over the Church in America today and, to a certain extent, reproaches us for our weak-heartedness, our lack of missionary zeal. The very fact that many of his own goals and recommendations for Orthodoxy on this continent have waited now for more than 100 years to be fully implemented should shame us all, and surely accounts for the quite minimal success of Orthodoxy since his time. Yet, before his repose 2,000 natives were being baptized every year, and 3,000 more were catechumens!

    What became of this wonderful promise, this amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our own times?

It is not too late: the floodgates of grace can yet be opened on these American people, if only we will arise and preach the Gospel to all nations…! 

Citations in this article from Paul Garrett's Apostle to America St. Vladimir Seminary press, 1980


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society