Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church

D. Oliver Herbel
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Jonathan Morgan, Theology, Toccoa Falls College

A remarkable trend among evangelicals and other Protestant groups in recent decades has been an increasing interest in tradition – namely, the doctrines and practices of the early church. Many have recognized a need for continuity with the past in order to be consistent with the church of the New Testament, and to help faithfully preserve and pass on the Christian message to succeeding generations. The increased attention to and appreciation for the Christian past has been instrumental in the growing trend of “low-church” Christians converting to more historic bodies such as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Thus, D. Oliver Herbel’s Turning to Tradition is timely. His study narrates the conversion stories of three individuals and one group to the Orthodox Church within the complex socio-religious context of the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The spiritual journeys of those featured in this book – Alexis Toth, Robert Morgan, Moses Berry, and a group of evangelicals led by Peter Gillquist – varied in significant ways, but all served to inspire a great number of non-Orthodox Americans to Orthodoxy and helped create a greater Orthodox presence in America.

The book is divided into five chapters (along with an introduction and conclusion), which unpack and analyze each conversion story. The book is rare in that it combines readability with sound scholarship. On the one hand, Herbel writes in clear, elegant prose that renders the book enjoyable to read. He skillfully guides the reader through complex narratives while judiciously refraining from detail overload. On the other hand, Herbel has done his homework. Without a hint of pedantry, he demonstrates his deep expertise in the characters and events at the center of his study. Pertinent quotations from a raft of primary (often obscure) sources are scattered throughout the book, and he provides over fifty-five pages of notes along with a lengthy bibliography for further research. Herbel displays his evenhandedness as he details the complicated, often difficult journey the converts took toward their embrace of Orthodoxy and continued propagation and spread of its faith. Though Herbel is himself an Orthodox priest and is sympathetic to the pilgrims about whom he writes, this book is not a collection of hagiographies. He narrates each story with honesty and recounts pertinent details, even if some of those details are unflattering. Thus, his book is refreshing – balanced, scholarly, and readable for a general audience.

The stories of the converts provide insight into the tensions and difficulties particular to the times in which they lived. For example, the reader learns a great deal about the struggles of the Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants trying to find their cultural and religious place in the United States in the story of Alexis Toth. His journey is an example of the Old World – New World tension through which many immigrants had to navigate. Toth converted from Eastern rite Catholicism to what he believed was the Christian tradition of his Slavic fathers (namely, Orthodoxy), and subsequently led many of his fellow countrymen to convert through the strong impulse of “restorationism,” a phenomenon borne out of the American “anti-tradition tradition” that seeks to restore or recreate an ideal, pristine church (27). Instead of establishing a new denomination like some restorationists, Toth found his home in the ancient tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Others outside his ethnic circle would follow his lead.

The story of Robert Morgan (Fr. Raphael) illumines the plight of African-Americans in early twentieth-century America. Morgan was the first African-American born in the New World to be ordained in the Orthodox Church. His journey from the Protestant Episcopal Church to Orthodoxy conveys the struggles facing blacks seeking acceptance in American Christian culture, but also highlights the motives of this man’s search for ecclesial fulfillment. Though treated as a second-class citizen in the PEC, Morgan resisted the “anti-tradition tradition” by refusing to join a predominantly black denomination suited for the African-American populace. Instead, he sought ancient and apostolic tradition which he eventually discovered in the Orthodox Church. Morgan joined the Orthodox Church not only because he believed it was the true church, but because it predated Western Christianity. He noted the distinction between his experience with American Protestantism and his visit to Russia. To him, Western Christianity was fraught with racial tension, a problem he did not detect in the Orthodox Church (at least not in Russia). Not surprisingly, he found Orthodoxy more pure and edifying than other Christian traditions. After his ordination as a priest, Morgan helped pave the way for the establishment of the African Orthodox Church.

Herbel next turns his attention to Moses Berry, another black convert to the Orthodox Church, who began his ecclesial search with restorationist ideals particular to American anti-tradition tradition. Like Morgan, Berry was not attracted to predominantly black denominations even though he may have found acceptance there. Instead, he desired to be part of a racially diverse Christian community that practiced an “other-worldly” Christianity. The black protestant church, he argued, had “sold its soul to political causes” of the 1960s (88). Berry was interested in compassionate social engagement, but not the type of activism that assumes a this-worldly posture and places all hope in social improvement. Thus, predominantly black churches were not the answer for Berry because they lacked racial diversity and failed to appropriate a transcendent framework. Instead, he found a home, at least for a time, in the Holy Order of MANS (HOOM) which encouraged racial diversity and transcendent spirituality. HOOM soon merged with another group that was led by two Orthodox monks. This development was an important step in Berry’s eventual conversion to Orthodoxy, but he was already on his way. A short time before the merger, Berry visited an Orthodox service that met in a home. He was struck by the beautiful liturgy and the iconography that portrayed saints of various ethnicities. The experience helped Berry come to fulfill his primary ecclesial goal: to be a part of a diverse community that embraced Christian otherworldliness. Upon his official ordination in the Orthodox Church of America, he became involved in efforts to link ancient African Christianity (such as Egyptian monasticism) with the experience of black Christians in America. His efforts continue to this day through his Order of St. Moses the Black.

The final two chapters tell the story of a group of evangelicals who left evangelicalism out of a restorationist desire to conform to their idea of the New Testament Church. The group formed a distinct denomination called the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC) in an attempt to recreate the early church before entering the Orthodox Church. Though an account of the group’s journey from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy has been published by Peter Gillquist,1 one of the founding members of the EOC, Herbel claims to offer a more realistic, less sanitized version of the events. The EOC journey to Orthodoxy was fraught with setbacks, sharp disagreements, and tension. According to Herbel, the main issue preventing them from full communion with the Orthodox Church had to do with the anti-tradition tradition and restorationism latent within much of American Christianity, an outlook not held by Orthodox Churches. Through numerous meetings with Orthodox leaders, the EOC members began to see themselves less as an independent entity in association with the Orthodox Church and more as a body to be absorbed by the Orthodox Church. Eventually, the group converted into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Although converted, the former EOC group still had to go through the process of leaving behind their evangelical and anti-traditional tendencies (such as syncretistic worship and loyalty to former EOC leaders) that confused their supposed Orthodox identity. This process, which Herbel describes as “deconversion,” proved to be difficult. As much as restorationism played a role in their initial turn to Orthodoxy, “the EOC was forced to deconvert from American restorationism as much as it had to convert to Orthodox Christianity” (151). The story of the EOC conversion highlights the challenges that ensue when old distinctives die hard and clash with the traditions of the newly embraced faith.

Returning to Tradition is less an apologia for Orthodoxy and more a window into the complex personal, theological, and ecclesial issues prompting a growing number of Christians from various traditions within the American socio-religious landscape to join the Orthodox Church. One of the strengths of this book is its potential appeal to an audience with broad interests. The title may suggest it is best suited for theologians, historians of doctrine, or people interested in joining the Orthodox Church. To be sure, Herbel’s study offers a great deal of insight into the complexity of the Orthodox communion, the nature of ecclesial traditionalism, and the pertinence of theological struggles that lead one to search for meaning or stability. However, the stories also incorporate a number of related motifs of late nineteenth- to twentieth-century American history such as immigration, racism, nationalism, politics, and the often-unfortunate fallout from the clash of cultures. As such, Returning to Tradition not only relates interesting stories of pilgrims finding their way to the Orthodox Church, but illumines the social and religious dynamics particular to modern America. Scholars interested in the integration of American history, culture, and religious commitment will benefit from Herbel’s study.

Cite this article
Jonathan Morgan, “Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:1 , 103-106

Footnotes

  1. Peter Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989).

Jonathan Morgan

Toccoa Falls College
Dr. Jonathan Morgan is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University.