*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 24th of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Let’s start today’s show with a trivia question. I’ll give you 5 seconds, so you can also pause if you’d like to think about the answer.
Q: Which American state has the largest concentration of Orthodox Christians? (Sorry for the “Orthodox”… some of us don’t like “Protestant” but it helps)
A: Alaska. Which may have been obvious. Or maybe not at all because Alaska seems to be like the bizarro Hawaii (I would prefer living in Alaska over Hawaii but mostly because of my love of fuzzy sweaters). And sometimes I hear from people who say “you haven’t talked about X yet”. I’ve never had a request for Alaska. But it just so happens it was on this, the 24th of September in 1794 that the first official Russian Orthodox delegation landed on Kodiak Island (just off the southern tip of Alaska). This mission would help secure Russia’s colony in America, evangelize the local tribes, and gives us a picture of a very different American colonization project.
We know that Alaska was rediscovered by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering who was working under the auspices of Peter the Great and the Russian Empire. The early years were as you might expect- it is better to be the colonizer than the colonized. While some have tried to read in a less problematic relationship between the communities, we’ll have to wait some time to see any kind of mutual cooperation.
And despite the remonstrances from the natives, Peter put the screws down when it was discovered that the Alaskan sea otter made for the finest furs in the region. And so the Russians would kidnap women and children and then force the men to hunt for the otters as ransom.
This wasn’t good- but not everyone was as fierce and bloodthirsty as the caricature. There were some Russians, faithful sons (and some daughters) of the Orthodox Church who attempted to practice a kind of co-op wherein the natives would learn Russian, maybe even move to Russia for a time, and then come back as intermediaries. It is worth noting that many Russian had no compunctions about marrying native Alaskans .
So Russian culture, especially the Orthodox faith, began to slowly seep in to what would become an Alaskan creole culture. Peter would also give way to the Empress Catherine who wanted to impress the rest of the world with the picture of an “Enlightened Russia”. And it was Catherine who would send the first official delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church across the Aleutian Islands and on to Kodiak island.
When these missionary priests arrived they were surprised to find many newly married couples that would want their marriage blessed or their new children baptized. The group of 8 Monks and 2 Novices that arrived on this, the 24th of September in 1794 included the future St. Herman of Alaska and the Archimandrite Joasaph. Unfortunately Joasaph and other monks had gone back to Russia for a ceremony to make Joasaph Bishop of Kodiak. Upon the trip returning to Alaska the ship sunk off Kodiak Island killing all on board. Herman, the future “St Herman” would continue his work despite shortage I manpower and new troubles coming from the Russian American trading company.
It’s a story of colonization and mission work in America from the other side of the continent. It’s mission work done by a group of Christians that aren’t the most visible in parts of America but from that one mission church on Kodiak Island in 1794 today there are over 100 orthodox churches in the sparsely populated “land of the midnight sun”.
The reading for today comes from the Magnificat in Luke Chapter 1:
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Alaskans include Jewel, Wyatt Earp (he spent time there) and NBA player Mario “Super Nintendo” Chalmers. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man whose least favorite Alaskan was a diva pitcher on the Boston Red Sox. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.