This is the 8th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith. The First blog is The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. The previous blog is The Spread of Orthodoxy in the World.
The Russian Church contributed its own saints, art and liturgy to Orthodoxy’s storied history. But at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Orthodox world was rocked by a new government – Bolshevism. The communists came to power intent on destroying religion, and they ruthlessly attacked the Orthodox Church. At the beginning of the communist revolution there were said to be nearly 60,000 churches in Russia. Within 20 years the communists had closed all but 100 of these. Thousands of Orthodox Christian laity, monks, nuns, priests and bishops were imprisoned, sent into exile or murdered.
And though in the Balkans and Greece the Orthodox were able to successfully overthrow their Turkish overlords, communism took over in the Balkans subjugating the Church once again to a hostile government. This situation remained until the fall of communism in 1990. The Orthodox worldwide are thus just coming back to a notion that they can influence government and can be a power in shaping society and the world.
Orthodox Christianity originally entered into North America from a different route than either Roman Catholic or Protestant Christianity. The first Orthodox to settle in North America came from the Russian Empire across the Bering Sea into Alaska in the 18th Century. The Russian Orthodox Church understood its mission in Alaska to both bring Christianity to the native people of these new lands, but also to help make them citizens of the Russian Empire and thus extend to them the rights and protection of such citizens. Orthodox missionary work in Alaska successfully converted a great number of native Americans to Orthodox Christianity. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in the 19th Century, Orthodox Christians found themselves for the first time being citizens of “the New World.”
The real growth of Orthodox in America however, occurred in the 20th Century when large numbers of Orthodox immigrants from the Middle East, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe began arriving in America. These folk were often fleeing wars, poverty and religious persecution. They had survived living as oppressed minorities in Moslem lands, were escaping the poverty and wars of Eastern Europe, and the atheistic communist take over of Russia and Eastern Europe.
Some came to America seeking financial success, but many came in hope of being left alone to live their lives. They formed ethnic enclaves in America, finding themselves now disliked as the new foreign poor invading America, and even persecuted by groups like the KKK. In Alaska, despite promises from the American government that native Orthodox would be allowed to practice their own faith, the U.S. aided Protestant missionary groups in converting the native Americans to “more acceptable” forms of Christianity to help Americanize them.
The Orthodox in America for much of the 20th Century endeavored to preserve their ethnic languages and cultures, and remained attached to and interested in Orthodoxy in their homelands back in Europe, the Middle East or Africa. Thus the role of Orthodoxy in America to date has been somewhat muted by their own interest in the old world, and by the fact that 98% of Orthodox Christians actually live in that old world.