Do Eastern Orthodox Evangelize? A History of Orthodox Missions Vol. 2 (1601-1917)

“Do Eastern Orthodox Evangelize? A History of Orthodox Missions. Vol. 2 1601-1917”

Welcome to the second video we are doing in a series on the history of Orthodox missions in the second millennium. As a significant amount of research, editing, materials, and time go into these videos, your support on Patreon is greatly appreciated and allows us to create more content like this and at more regular intervals. Also, we are heavily dependent upon you, our listeners, to spread the word about our videos so like, subscribe, and share our videos on social media to spread the word. 

This series of videos was created mainly to answer the accusation of Catholic apologists that we do not evangelize and, therefore, we could not be the true church. Catholic apologists cite the supposed successes of Catholic missionaries throughout North and South America, Africa, and Asia but have these missions actually achieved results more spectacular than other religions and sects? 

If we were to look at the missionary activity of the Spanish and Portuguese in the New World, not only was it characterized by excessive levels of brutality if not outright and occasional genocide, but it ultimately had little to do with the current numbers of Catholics in those areas as the general consensus among historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists is that by the mid-1600s, the indigenous population that was the target of missions had declined by anywhere from 80% to 95% from its pre-contact numbers, primarily due to disease. This is generally supported in DNA studies as well, which indicate populations of larger nations such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil have an average of 20% or less indigenous DNA in their genome with the rest being largely European, then indigenous, and then African DNA. To put it lightly, the missionary efforts of the Spanish and Portuguese to the natives barely made a dent in the number of Catholics currently in the New World. The only other option this leaves is the high birth rate of the European Catholic population who came to the New World. This is important because roughly half of the world’s Catholics reside in North and South America and therefore, these numbers were not due to some great missionary endeavour but instead to transplanting populations.

If we look at Catholic populations that are due not to European immigration or colonization, but to more direct missionary effort, the story is usually depressingly unsuccessful. For example, despite having missionaries in China since the 13th century, the Catholic Church’s official numbers state there are are less than 12 million Catholics in China, which is less than 1% of the Chinese population. Even in Vietnam, the number of Catholics is 7% despite the Catholic Church running missions there for centuries. Korea is 11% Catholic, while Indonesia and Malaysia are both three-and-a-half percent Catholic. Thailand and Japan both have roughly half of one percent, while India is one-and-a-half percent Catholic. This is despite multiple centuries of missionary work in these countries. But if we were to go to the one nation in Asia colonized by Spain, that being the Philippines, the Catholic population is roughly 85% of the population. The common denominator is that unless they are able to force Catholicism on the populace, the Catholic missions have pathetically low conversion rates compared to Protestants, who have been doing missions for far less time than their Catholic opponents. In fact, outside of the Philippine Islands, Protestants outnumber Catholics at least two to one and occasionally as high as five to one so if we really want to claim that success in missions means one is the true church, then the Protestants, for the last 200 years specifically, have been the supposed true church.

A similar story plays out in Africa as well in which Catholic missionaries largely tread in the footsteps of Protestants and rely on high birth rates. Even then, Protestants outnumber Catholics in almost every single African nation and often times several times over.

But if we want to play the numbers game, then Islam now has more members than Catholicism, but as indicated in our last video, this is due to Islam’s high birth rates. In conclusion, the argument from missions is a poor argument to make.

Now, our own missions have been greatly under-documented and part of this has to do with the fact that the majority of sources are not yet in Western languages, specifically in English. But it is worth going over our own history of missionary work. In our prior video, we discussed those missions that took place between the years 1054 and 1600. In this video, we will begin to recount the story of those missions from the year 1601 to 1917. We actually found so much information on this that, we make two separate videos on Orthodox Christian missions from 1601 to 1917. As with most of our videos, up to the first half will be available for free on YT while the second half is exclusive to our Patreon subs.    

In this second video in the series, we will cover a number of other missions:

The Missions to Siberia

The Mission to Alaska

The Mission to Altai

The Mission to Kazan

The Mission to the Nestorians in Urumia

The Mission to the Natives of Kamchatka

The Mission to China

The Mission to Siberia

At the end of the 16th century, the Russian Tsardom began expanding into Siberia. This was made possible in part by the conquest of Kazan in 1552 as it neutralized the major Islamicized Turkic tribes in the area and began their slow conversion to Christianity. By the early 17th century, Russia extended to the Pacific Ocean and the Orthodox Church in Russia was confronted with the gargantuan task of evangelizing an area several times its size only a century prior. 

Among its newly conquered regions was Siberia, which had three main ethnic groups. The first were the Mongol ethnicities such as the Chukchi, Yakuts, Kamchadals, Koryaks, Kyrgyz, Kalmyks, Tungus, and Buryats following Lamaism, or, as it is more commonly known, “Tibetan Buddhism.” The second group were Finno-Ugric tribes such as the Ostyaks, Samoyeds, and Voguls who practiced shamanism with some embracing Islam later on. The third group were Tatars, many of whom were refugees fleeing the conquest of Kazan, and they were primarily Muslims.

In the early 1600’s, clergy were sent from the region of Vologda to the Ostyaks, a group living along the Ob River. Their large scale conversion started when their prince, Obdorsk Anda, accepted Orthodoxy and built a church dedicated to St. Basil the Great. In the following year, 1601, the monastery of Sts. Zosima and Savvaty in Tobolsk was founded and in 1602, another Ostyak ruler, Igichi, converted and built a church also dedicated to Sts. Zosima and Savvaty. In 1604, another monastery, this one dedicated to the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos in Turinsk was founded and in 1616, the Preobrazhensky Monastery in Tyumen was founded. By 1616, an episcopal see with a cathedral was founded for Siberia in the city of Tobolsk. Its first archbishop, Cyprian was installed in 1620 and he founded several monasteries and churches. By the time he was transferred to a new see in 1624, Siberia had 30 churches, 12 monasteries, 300 parish clergy, and 50 monastics. One might notice the number of parish clergy was nearly ten times the number of Churches and this is presumably because the clergy were mobile as they were ministering to largely nomadic tribes so they were performing services in tent churches and out in the open.

Archbishop Nectar, who reigned from year 1636 to 1640 constructed the Znamensky Cathedral outside Tobolsk and the Znamensky Monastery. Further, in the year 1644, the Dalmatian Monastery of the Assumption was founded on the Iset River in Siberia. By 1668, the Archbishop of Siberia was elevated to a metropolitan and there were 1,500 parish clergy and 100 monastics. 

By 1681, Orthodox Christianity had passed into Trans-Baikalia and a mission was sent to the Amur People under the command of Patriarch Joseph and Czar Theodore Alekseyevich. It was shortly after this, under Metropolitan Ignatius of Siberia, who reigned from the year 1692 to 1700, that the Church of St. Sophia in Beijing China was consecrated for the Albazinians and we will come back to this later when we discuss the missions to China, Japan, and Korea.

But among these figures, the Ukrainian Bishop St. Philotheus Leshchinsky, who was metropolitan of Siberia from 1702-1711 and then from 1715 to 1720 and who appropriately took the name “Apostle to Siberia” due to his fantastic labours. Educated at the Kiyev Theological Academy, he was widowed and took monastic vows at the Kiyevan Caves Monastery. In 1702, he was appointed metropolitan of Siberia and soon organized the first episcopal school while sending missions to the local pagans and Muslims and combating the Old Believers in the area. Furthermore, he had to confront the Islamic missions to the Ostyaks and Voguls, which he did with great success. It was in this first episcopal school that St. Philotheus showed his true genius in organizing it along the lines of the Ukrainian theological schools. The first one was established in Tobolsk and the children studied Russian language and literacy while being catechized in the Christian Faith. He followed this school with another at Verkhotursky and another at Kondinsky while establishing a fourth at Berezovsky. These schools were set up for the Ostyak and Vogul children who converted and prepared them for future ministry in the Church. 

Further, the saint coaxed a small army of monastics, iconographers, and skilled craftsmen to come from Kiyev to Siberia to labor with him. There, he restored dilapidated churches, enforced morality among the clergy, educated the local Russians and native peoples, and, under the hieromonk Martin, he sent missions to Kamchatka, in Russia’s far east where he established the Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos and converted a large portion of the natives. 

In 1706, St. Philotheus sent a mission to the remaining pagan Ostyaks and Voguls but their hostility forced him to turn back. 

Understanding the importance of knowing the beliefs, customs, and language of the target group one is evangelizing, St. Philotheus sent a mission to Mongolia to meet with the Buddhist leader so that the monks could study Buddhism, Mongol culture, and Mongol language in preparation to convert the locals. It was on the third attempt that the mission met with some success and even arranged for public debates between Buddhists and Orthodox Christians. 

But in 1711, St. Philotheus retired due to poor health and a new metropolitan, St. John Maximovich, was installed. Now, this St. John Maximovich is not the one of fame who lived in the 20th century, but he is still a great saint of the Church. St. John was also a graduate of the Kiyev Theological Academy and shared St. Philotheus’s vision. Upon retirement from episcopal duties, St. Philotheus was tonsured a monk with the name “Theodore” but though he had retired from episcopal duties, he had not retired from missionary work and he continued his tireless devotion to the conversion of the Siberians. It was at this point that the saint launched a second mission to the Voguls and Ostyaks in 1712 and convinced those Ostyaks who lived near Samarov to burn their pagan temple dedicated to the fish deity. A third mission in 1713 was far more successful when many converted to Orthodox Christianity including many of their shamans. What should be highlighted here is in these missionary ventures, the free will of the evangelized is crucial. This meant less converts, but it also meant a higher quality of converts and minimal syncretism.

On their fourth mission in 1714, a Vogul prince attempted to kill the missionaries but was physically prevented by several of the newly baptized Voguls. Once arrested, St. Philotheus met with the would be assassin and moved by the metropolitan’s compassion and care, he himself converted and went on to help the missionaries baptize several hundred Muslim Voguls that Spring. Encouraged by their success, the missionaries moved onto Muslim Ostyak villages but in one of them, due to the agitation of a local Muslim shaykh, they were attacked and many of the mission staff were severely wounded with St. Philotheus himself narrowly missing a bullet that passed through his clothing. 

The fourth mission to the Voguls and Ostyaks saw not only the conversion of the many pagans and Muslims but also the construction of churches. The fifth mission to the Voguls and Ostyaks commenced in 1715 and it involved a tense standoff in which their local ruler, who was also their shaman, ordered the locals not to approach the Russians while the Ostyaks stood armed around their temple, but the missionaries stood their ground and noticing the missionaries meant them no harm and were not deterred, the Ostyaks, one by one, slowly began to approach the missionaries until only the shaman-chieftain remained. Finally, he too approached the missionaries and listened to their teaching and converted with his entire people. On the return journey, an attempt was made on St. Philotheus’s life by another Vogul chieftain, Satyga who then fled when the missionaries, prompted by his assassination attempt, turned around and headed towards his village. At seeing their chief flee, the people largely converted but when Satyga returned, he also was baptized. In fact in 1744, Satygi’s descendants requested the diocese to build a new church in exchange for providing the salary for a priest so his conversion bore fruit. For the remainder of that journey, all of the pagans and Muslims St. Philotheus encountered converted willingly and joyfully. In 1715, St. Philotheus was called back into the episcopal seat to run the diocese of Siberia when his successor, St. John Maximovich, reposed in the Lord, his feast day is June 10th. Upon re-assuming his previous role, St. Philotheus continued missionary work among the Ostyaks and Voguls until he retired for the second time in 1720 and spent the remaining six years of his life in a monastery ministering to local Ostyaks before reposing in the Lord in 1727.  

When St. Philotheus ascended the episcopal throne in 1702, there were 160 churches in a diocese that spanned 300,000 square miles. Only 18 years later, he had increased the 160 churches to 448 and 37 monasteries and stated he had baptized roughly 30,000 pagans and Muslims, though his successor, Metropolitan Anthony, as well as his biographer, N. A. Abramov, state the number at roughly 40,000 converts. His feast day is March 31st and he is also commemorated on June 10th on the feast of All Saints of Siberia. 

The work he started was completed years later when the final remnants of the Voguls and Ostyaks were converted in 1745. 

The Mission to North America

In 1784, two entrepreneurs, Girgory Ivanovich Shelikhov and Ivan Larionovich Golikov founded the first Russian settlement on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Unlike other settlements, though this one would immediately have a church built in it by the decision of both Shelikhov and Golikov and they did so first and foremost to care for the Russian local workers but also to evangelize the natives. Shortly thereafter, a priest arrived and a mission school was started by the two businessmen but it was in 1793 that they approached the Russian Synod and offered to fund any missionary work to the natives which the Synod would order. As the Russian Empire’s capital was located at St. Petersburg and therefore not far from Valaam Monastery in modern day Finland, ten monastics were chosen and they arrived in Alaska in 1794. Now, prior to their arrival, in 1790, a priest by the name of Fr. Vasily Sivtsov who was working for the Russian company, travelled through the Aleutian Islands and baptized just over one hundred Aleuts and performed marriages for a dozen or more so the group of ten from Valaam found a small number of natives who were already Orthodox Christians. Therefore, the missionaries immediately set to work constructing the Church of the Resurrection and by the following summer, in 1795, several thousand Aleuts on Kodiak had been converted to Orthodox Christianity no doubt because of the impression made on them by the monastic serenity and holiness. Several thousand more natives from Kenai and Chugach tribes further east also converted in 1795. By 1796, the monastics had made such great strides that they decided to spread out. One of them, Fr. Juvenaly, went to the Chugach and Kenai tribes baptizing close to a thousand of them before being martyred by the local Eskimos. By 1796, about 7,000 natives had been baptized. 

In 1796, it was decided by the Holy Synod to consecrate the Hieromonk Joasaph as the bishop of Russian holdings in North America and so travelling back to St. Petersburg, he was elevated to the episcopate but upon his return in 1799 with three other members of the initial ten, their boat sank and they were all killed. Now, one would have thought that a new bishop and new missionaries would have been sent but this is where a man named Alexander Baranov comes into the picture. 


In 1790, Baranov gained control of the Russian-American Company and with it, he received essentially dictatorial rights over all land administered by the Russian-American Company in Alaska all the way down to Fort Ross in California. With a private army and unsupervised by the Russian authorities, Alexander Baranov could do whatever he wanted and part of that was enslaving the natives – except the missionaries stood firmly in the way. Seeking to see the mission die, Baranov did his best to make sure no news describing the dire straits of the mission made it to St. Petersburg but when it did, he began a smear campaign against the missionaries. On top of that, Baranov intercepted and diverted funds meant for the mission’s coffers sent from the Russian treasury. These coffers were set aside for the upkeep of the mission and Baranov’s thievery thereby deprived both the missionaries and their native flocks of sorely needed medical supplies, educational resources, building materials, and liturgical supplies. 

So horrendous was Baranov that when a hieromonk named Gideon was sent to investigate from 1804 to 1807, he was chased out by Baranov after attempting to reopen schools for the natives. When Hieromonk Gideon left, the mission had only three members: Hieromonk Athanasius, the Monk Joasaph, and St. Herman of Alaska. It stayed this way largely because Baranov used his massive network of connections to keep the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg from sending a new bishop or more missionaries. This situation continued on until 1818 when Baranov left Alaska and his replacement, a certain Yanovsky, arrived and after an initial rocky period, he eventually developed a friendly relationship with the three missionaries who, under constant harassment from Baranov and his lackeys, had worked tirelessly for the conversion of the natives. Yanovsky allowed new clergy to come to Alaska and not a moment too soon as the Monk Joasaph reposed in the Lord in 1823 while Fr. Athanasius returned to Russian in 1825 due to rapidly declining health and shortly thereafter, fell asleep in the Lord. Fr. Athanasius was willing to return to Russia because a new missionary, who was a skilled craftsman with an extraordinary skill in language acquisition named Fr. John Veniaminov arrived in Alaska. 

From the original group of missionaries, only St. Herman remained and with Fr. John now caring for the native tribes, St. Herman retreated to Spruce Island to lead the life of a hermit. Despite his desire to be alone, word of his miracle-working abilities spread and the natives, as well as Russian workers, came to see him and seek his council while the saint ran an orphanage and taught the local children. 

The stories of St. Herman’s miracles would be an entire video in and of themselves but while living on Spruce Island, he saved the island from a flood as well as a wildfire and later tended to the Aleuts during plague without himself becoming ill. His perpetual and extreme asceticism as well as super human displays of physical strength at the most random moments simply added to his mystique among the natives who loved him dearly for the unrelenting compassion and kindness he showed them, which is why they referred to him as “Apa,” meaning “Grandfather” in Aleutian. 

On the night of 25th of December in 1837, a bright pillar of light could be seen over St. Herman’s small dwelling for miles and miles around thus signaling he had reposed in the Lord. We celebrate his feast on August 9th.

Fr. John was 26 when he arrived in Alaska with his wife, one year old son, and mother-in-law in 1824. He immediately faced the dilemma of what to do when one’s parish consisted of 2,000 parishioners spread across more than 60 islands which he could visit only by kayak and only during the seven months between April and October. Further, he did not speak Aleutian. In fact, he had only begrudgingly agreed to become a missionary to Alaska after being repeatedly asked to do so by his superiors. When he finally acquiesced, his wife, Ekaterina, begged him not to go but he had given his word he would and realizing that the area had been without a priest for 30 years, he knew that either he would be the one to carry out the missionary work or no one else would. The Veniaminov family made their home on the Island of Unalaska which was over a thousand square miles. There, they lived in a sod house while he constructed the Church of the Ascension. When he had finished building the church, he then built a proper home for his family. 

The Unalaska population was in poor repair because no resident priest had been there for three decades meaning most people there were unbaptized, had not been properly married, and had not been communed. Fr. John next set up a boys’ school and began the work of translating liturgical material, the Bible, and a catechism into Aleutian using an adapted Russian alphabet. It was only later on in 1839 that Fr. John wrote “Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In 1834, Fr. John was sent to Sitka Island, which was the acting capital of Russian Alaska. There, he attempted missionary work among the very hostile Koloshi and git tribes but met with no success for nearly two years until a smallpox outbreak occurred and killed half of the local natives. In fact, what saved most of the other half was that Fr. John insisted on vaccinating all of them against smallpox. Moved by his compassion for them, they began to listen and even allowed him to open an elementary school all while Fr. John was studying their language and making translations of the services for them. 

In 1836, Fr. John travelled down to Fort Ross in California, just north of San Francisco and served the liturgy in the Orthodox chapel on the grounds of the fort. He baptized many of the Indians there and ministered to the small Russian population baptizing, performing and blessing marriages, celebrating liturgies, and hearing confessions. He also met with local Catholic hierarchs with whom he shared no common language save for Latin so during their meetings, they all spoke entirely in Latin and on topics of great detail. This was due to the fact Latin was a required topic in many of the theological school in Russia during this period. In fact, many figures, most notably the great saint Peter Mohyla of Kiyev, were far more fluent in Latin than in Greek.  

By 1838, Russian Alaska had four priests, four church buildings as well as numerous chapels and schools plus orphanages to care for the orphaned natives. Between the Aleuts, Eskimos, and Koloshi, there were about 10,000 natives who were Orthodox Christians. That same year, Fr. John went to St. Petersburg in order to garner support for the mission as the Holy Synod had wanted to close it and it was saved only by the intervention of the Czar. While in Russia, Fr. John became friends with Metropolitan St. Filaret Drozdov who encouraged him in his mission and became his advocate thereby sending him back to Alaska with a plethora of liturgical and medical supplies. Fr. John was also an avid amateur scientist and was able to register all of his anthropological data with the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, which earned him the position as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences as well as a member of the Imperial Geographical Society. 

In 1839, Fr. John’s wife Ekaterina reposed in the Lord leaving Fr. John with six children. But Metropolitan Filaret encouraged Fr. John to view this tragedy as an opportunity for missionary work and therefore to become a hieromonk and return to Alaska. Responding that he had six children who were now without a mother, the metropolitan arranged for them to have excellent educations in Russia so long as Fr. John would become a hieromonk but it took the urging of the Holy Synod, resident in St. Petersburg, to finally convince him and so, at the end of 1840, Fr. John was tonsured with the name “Innocent” in honour of St. Innocent Kulchitsky of Irkutsk. A few days later, Czar Nicholas I held an audience with the Hieromonk St. Innocent and so intrigued was the Czar with the progress being made in North America that he and the Holy Synod opened the Diocese of Kamchatka, Kuril, and the Aleutian Islands. Two weeks later, St. Innocent was elevated to the episcopate and was the first bishop of the new diocese. St. Innocent returned to Sitka and arrived in September 1841. He opened new missions to the Eskimos and Kenai baptizing more than 4,000 natives in the 15 years between 1842 and 1857. 

Between 1842 and 1849, St. Innocent made four visits to Kamchatka in eastern Russia as part of his diocese visiting his brother, Stephen, who was a priest there. In 1853, St. Innocent moved to the large city of Yakutia and began to study the Yakut language with the help of Fr. Dimitri Khitrov who had arrived there in 1841 and had established 36 parishes and numerous schools. St. Innocent not only learned the language but also created a grammar for it to be used by fellow missionaries. They then translated the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament as well as the liturgy, basic prayers, and a catechism into Yakut. A similar step was taken for Tungus, another language in the region.

St. Innocent set such an excellent example for his children that his son, Gabriel, became a priest and a missionary in Amur near the Russian-Chinese border. In 1857, St. Innocent convinced the Holy Synod to grant him an auxiliary bishop in Yakutia and another in Sitka. By 1860, there were a total of 12,000 natives who were Orthodox Christians, 43 parishes consisting of nine churches and 35 chapels, 17 schools, and three orphanages. 

In 1860, St. Innocent first met St. Nicholas Kasatkin who was en route to Japan. St. Nicholas was laid over along the Amur River waiting for a boat to Japan and ended up staying with St. Innocent for an entire year. During his time along the Amur River, St. Innocent and his son Fr. Gabriel did missionary work among the Evenks, Nivkhs, and Chukchi and by the time he left the Amur in 1868, St. Innocent had built 30 churches and a number of schools. That same year, St. Innocent was elected as the Metropolitan of Moscow and once installed, he quickly established the Orthodox Missionary Society, which collected money, church supplies, and catechism material to be sent to the mission fields. 

The Russian Empire sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 and so in 1870, St. Innocent led the Holy Synod in establishing the Diocese of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and making it responsible for all of North America. Nine years later, on Holy Friday 1879, St. Innocent of Alaska, now Metropolitan of Moscow, fell asleep in the Lord and was buried at the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery. His feast day is celebrated both on March 31st and October 6th

Simultaneous to St. Innocent was St. Jacob Netsvetov, a half Russian half Aleut, he proved to be invaluable to the mission due to his fluency in both Russian and Aleutian as he had grown up in Alaska but had perfected his Russian while attending theological schooling in Russia. He was also comfortable in both Aleut and Russian culture, which made him a favourite of the local Aleuts. He travelled vast expanses of Alaska by kayak using a fold up tent as a church. After the death of his wife in 1836, he desired to take on monastic vows but was ordered to stay in Alaska by his bishop as he was too valuable to be retired from the missionary field.

He then doubled down on his efforts and taking indigenous assistants with him, St. Jacob headed to the Yupik and Athabascan peoples in order to evangelize them baptizing over a thousand of them. He reposed in the Lord in 1864 in Sitka Alaska.  

We will return to North American later in this series and discover how the diocese expanded into Canada and the lower 48.

This marks the end of the first half available to the general public. For the second half, subscribe to us on Patreon. By subscribing, you assist us in purchasing the necessary academic literature required for our research as well as allowing us to cover some of our income we loss when we take time off of work to create these videos. Therefore, by subscribing to us on Patreon, you are actively helping us to create more material like this and at more frequent intervals.   

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