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May 27, 2009 + History of the Missionary Growth of the Church (Part 3)

by Fr. Daniel Griffith
from The Word, February 1979
Click here to read part 1
Click here to read part 2

The conversion of Kievan Russia was only the first step in a long and difficult process. Originally limited almost entirely to the cities of Southern Russia, the dissemination of the Gospel was hindered by the Mongol Tatar domination, which, beginning in 1237, lasted for 200 years. Yet, the process of evangelization continued among the Mongols and pagan tribes, led by such men as St. Stephen of Perm (14th century). The monasteries, often located in rather isolated areas, were especially effective as centers for missionary activity.

With the fall of Constantinople (1453) to the Ottoman Turks, the missionary zeal of the ancient patriarchates fell into a state of dormancy from which they would only be awakened in the twentieth century.

A new impetus for missionary activity on the part of the Russian Church occurred in the eighteenth century. This included the establishment of a mission in China, which reached its apex in 1939 when it consisted of five bishops, a university, and 200,000 faithful. However, it was greatly weakened in 1945 by the expulsion of all non-Chinese clergy. There remained to the mission one bishop and 20,000 Chinese faithful. Its fate following the Cultural Revolution is extremely doubtful.

Another mission of the Russian Church, one with far greater significance for our own situation, occurred in 1794 with the sending of eight missionary monks from Valaam Monastery in Finland to evangelize the native populations of Alaska (Russian America). This was actually an extension of the missionary activities in Siberia. Especially prominent among the early band of missionaries was St. Herman (canonized in 1970), a simple lay monk who consistently defended the rights of the native Aleuts, Tlingits, and Eskimos against exploitation by the Russian American Company. Another key figure in this mission was St. Innocent Veniaminov (later Metropolitan of Moscow, canonized in 1977). He was active in translating the Gospel and liturgical books into the native tongues, especially Aleut. In 1840, he was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka, Siberia, and Alaska with his seat in Sitka, Alaska, thus becoming the first bishop in North America. The success of this mission can be seen in the fact that the native populations of Alaska have largely remained faithful to the Orthodox Church in spite of considerable neglect in past years.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of two further missions by the Russian Church: Korea in 1898 (always a thriving but small Church) and Japan. It was in 1861 that St. Nicholas Kasatkin, then chaplain of the Russian embassy in Tokyo, began his mission among the Japanese. Through his efforts, the Scriptures and the liturgical books were translated into Japanese and a strong, vital Church was established. This Church has always had a distinctive Japanese character as is reflected in the fact that two of its three bishops are native Japanese. The one non-Japanese bishop is an American convert to Orthodoxy. It is a self-governing Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

It was in the 60’s of the same century that the first Orthodox parishes were established in the lower 48, consisting almost exclusively of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. In subsequent years these parishes grew through a steady stream of immigration. We can point with pride to the fact that, in 1904, it was an Antiochian who was the first bishop to be consecrated on North American soil, Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny. The Communist Revolution in 1917 and the ecclesiastical turmoil which it produced in Russia and abroad led to the present uncanonical state of overlapping and competing Orthodox jurisdictions based on ethnic identity. If it were not for the far-sighted efforts of certain hierarchs, Bishop Theophan Noli and our own Metropolitan Antony Bashir, who insisted on the use of English in worship (as can be seen from the above survey, the use of the vernacular has always been the primary tool of missionary activity) and who either undertook their own translations or were responsible for the reprinting of earlier translations, the Orthodox Churches on this continent would not now be able to speak of a program of mission and evangelization.

One last mission which deserves our attention is that in Central Africa which today boasts three Black bishops, one each in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. This thriving mission arose in the 1930’s and 40’s when certain sincere men sought the Orthodox faith on their own initiative. This mission is under the spiritual care of the Patriarchate of Alexandria but has been helped substantially by the Churches of Greece and Cyprus.

Also, rather important diaspora Churches, still mainly consisting of immigrant stock, flourish in Central and South America, Western Europe, and Australia.

It is to be hoped that this survey of the missionary growth and expansion of the Gospel will provide food for thought when we, in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, who have always played a role of leadership in the growth and sound development of Orthodoxy in this land, consider our mission to

“Go preach the Gospel.”


St. John the Russian, May 27

Troparion of St. John the Russian

He Who called thee from earth to heaven keeps thy body unharmed even after death, O righteous John. Thou wast taken to Asia as a prisoner and didst win Christ as thy friend. Beseech Him that our souls may be saved.