Antebellum Southerners on Orthodoxy
[This post can also be found on OrthodoxHistory.org here]
For the most part, the attitudes we find towards the Orthodox Church, typically referred to as the "Greek Church" among southerners, were either negative or ambivalent. There were some individuals, particularly George Fitzhugh, who praised the Orthodox Church, but for the most part southern attitudes towards Orthodoxy were informed by either a prejudice against anything that seemed Catholic or were filtered through an Enlightenment lens. Much of what southerners knew of Orthodoxy was through Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon took an unfavorable view of the eastern churches and wrote of the rise of Islam thusly:
More pure than the system of Zoroaster, more liberal than the law of Moses, the religion of Mahomet might seem less inconsistent with reason than the creed of mystery and superstition which, in the seventh century, disgraced the simplicity of the Gospel.
Southerners consistently praised Islam and Muhammad for limiting the influence of the Eastern Churches. C.A. Woodruff, who wrote for the Southern Quarterly Review, judged Islam "more pure" than the "depraved" Orthodox churches that were existing in the Near East. Those churches had fallen into "gross superstition," through the "idolatrous introduction of images as objects of worship," and the "deification of saints and martyrs." An article in the Southern Quarterly Review on Peter the Great contrasted the "self-control" enforced by Islam with the "merely nominal" Greek Christianity adopted by the Russians. John Fletcher, a New Orleans Orientalist and author, also credited Muhammad and Islam with limiting the influence of the "degenerate" Eastern Church, even though he argued that Islam adopted the "errors" of the Eastern Churches to mollify Greek Christians. Just what these errors were, Fletcher does not say.
An article that appeared in the 18 April, 1846 issue of the Southern Quarterly Review described the condition of life in Palestine and Jerusalem in particular, with a great deal of attention given to what the author considered the "nominal" Christians of the Eastern churches. The author ridiculed the descent of the Holy Fire at Pascha as a "farce" and compared the gathering of the faithful in the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre as more akin to a heathen ceremony or an Indian war dance. "Of the iniquity of the bishop, who thus annually deceives these deluded pilgrims, it is not necessary to speak," he writes.
The article is an indictment of the worship and lifestyle of eastern Christians, and the author wonders how such a brand of Christianity could ever attract anyone:
The five thousand nominal Christians of Jerusalem are the representatives of almost every Christian sect known in the oriental world. The exhibition which they make of Christianity in the cradle of its birth, is dishonorable to the Christian name, and it is no marvel, that both Mohammedans and Jews hold it in derision. Such Christianity will never allure a follower
of Mohammed, or enlighten a believer the Talmud. It is painful to think, that the exhibition now made of the Christian religion in the city where it originated, is fitted to repel, rather than allure the believer.
Much of the article gives attention to the ignorance of the population and lack of progress being made in Palestine towards the improvement of the general welfare. This is a common theme in articles about the Christian east - the ignorance of the believers and the corruption and malice of the clergy. The author branded the religion of Palestine "almost universally, worthless, burdensome and debasing," and concluded his article on the hope that Christian missionaries from America and England would improve the intellectual, economic, and religious life of the denizens of Palestine.
Yet another article in the Southern Quarterly Review, from 1855, on Peter the Great, unleashed a wave of invective against the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, we must keep in mind that this was during the Crimean War, but this does not fully explain the level of negativity:
The clergy were also very numerous, and their spiritual head, the patriarch, was armed with almost autocratic power, but was rarely enlightened enough to see, or interested enough to regard the welfare of the people. Of all the ministers of a corrupted form of Christianity, they were probably the worst ever seen on earth. The priests were disgraced by the most revolting superstitions, were infinitely more ignorant than the Catholic clergy of Spain or Austria, and if possible more unfriendly to all social, moral, and political reforms. They were members of the Greek Church, and their ambition and pride were apparently concentrated in making their churches wealthy, gorgeous, and the scenes of pompous ceremonials - such as appealed most forcibly to the tastes of the vulgar. Although Christianity had been planted in a corrupted form in Russia, as early as the eleventh century, by Vladimir, a powerful Sclavonic (sic) prince, still it had effected but few of those healthty changes which Christianity effected in the Teutonic countries of Europe, under the reign of the popes.
The introduction of Orthodoxy to Russia, which even today Orthodox Christians are fond of recalling, the famous story of Prince Vladimir's servants visiting Hagia Sophia and exclaiming that they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth is interpreted by the author as evidence of the Russian's baseness:
Its very manner of introduction augured few beneficial results. The czar was a pagan and a barbarian, yet had sense enough to perceive the necessity of some recognized form of religion; and therefore sent ten of his ablest councilors into various countries to examine their religious systems, resolved to adopt the form which best suited his royal caprice - Mohammedan, Jewish, Manichean, Papal, Or Greek.
Islam enjoins too great self-control, the author explains. Manicheanism is too hard to understand. Judaism has no country. The Pope was too autocratic. But the Greek Church was selected because it appealed to the barbarians' rapacity, lust for riches, and ignorance:
The vastness and splendor of the churches, the variety of the ceremonies, and the rich dresses of the clergy, struck the commissioners with admiration. Their reports were adopted, the czar and his nobles were baptized, and an expedition was sent to the Grecian empire, which returned with plundered vessels, books, images of the saints, relics, gorgeous dresses, and priests in abundance....Such a religion, merely nominal, had but little effect in destroying or even alleviating the miseries of barbarous life.
In my research into the subject thus far, I can't say I was surprised to find one of my favorite figures from southern history, George Fitzhugh, coming out in defense of Orthodox belief and practice. For those who don't know him, and he has indeed been forgotten by history - as many of those who defended slavery have been forgotten - Fitzhugh was a brilliant social and political theorist years ahead of his time. He foresaw the coming clash between workers and capitalists, and railed against what he saw as the erosion of traditional values and the destruction of organic social order by capitalism and industrialization. He upheld traditional southern cultural values against the acquisitive, "progressive" spirit of the North and the rest of the industrialized world. In terms of his outlook we may say that it was more "orthodox" in its rejection of Enlightenment notions. He celebrated a social order based on hierarchy and held together on a principal of patriarchy. But most of all, Fitzhugh was a sort of conservative enfant terrible of Southern letters.
In an article for an 1859 edition of Debow's Review, Fitzhugh took to task the writings of Bayard Taylor, who looked upon the undeveloped, pre-modern societies in the East as being benighted and backward. Taylor had travelled to Greece in 1859, and during his travels there had kept a travelogue, which was the subject of Fitzhugh's article. Taylor, although somewhat sympathetic towards the Greek Christians, viewed their clergy as "ignorant" and the multitude of their feast days and devotions to be counteractive to progress. In response, Fitzhugh comes very close to articulating an Orthodox view of mysterion and sacramentalism as laying at the heart of true faith:
Our author is one of the last men we should suspect of hypocrisy. We doubt not his religious faith; yet we fear the manner in which he speaks of venerated religious forms, ceremonies, and observances, is calculated to shake the faith of other people. Christianity, stripped of the formal and extraneous, degenerates into universalism and deism, and leads very soon to downright infidelity. Such has been its downward tendency in Boston, and such it will be everywhere. The Episcopal church, in both England and America, is attempting by high churchism to counteract this tendency. This new movment is headed by men equally remarkable for piety, learning and ability. If theirs be superstition, then is all religion superstition, for it is never found without ceremonial of some sort. If it be right to celebrate the birth-days of deceased warriors [here Fitzhugh refers to Greek heroes], sure it cannot be wrong to hold in veneration the memory of saints. A reasonable religion, squared down to philsophic rule, and reduced to human comprehension, is no religion at all. We must all believe what we cannot understand, or not only reject Christianity, but even dispute the existence of a material world.
And then to drive his point home, Fitzhugh quotes Tertullian:
"Credo quia impossibile," [I believe because it is impossible] is not an altogether absurd maxim. A possible religion must certainly be a false one. Not only does the antiquity of the Greek Church entitle its ordinances to respect, but the purity of its creed also challenges our approval.
Further on, when Taylor complains that the Greeks are less tolerant than the Turks, Fitzhugh defends them:
He often complains that he found the Greeks less tolerant in religious opinion than the Turks. A very tolerant spirit is not at all consistent with strong conviction and sincere faith. The Turks are tolerant, because it is notorious they have little faith in their own religion; the Greeks intolerant , because they are sincere and jealous Christians. The Virginia act of religious toleration proceeded not from regard to religion, but from indifference to it with some, and downright infidelity in others. Religious toleration, as it is now understood, is one of the humbugs of the day, which Mormon and other religious isms of the North will soon dissipate.
Taylor reserves most of his criticism for what he perceives to be the excesses of the Orthodox Church calendar, which he saw as standing in the way of "progress:"
The festivals of the Greek Church are fully as numerous, if not more so, than those of the Latin. Almost every third day is an eorti, or holy day of some venerable unwashed saint, whose memory is duly honored by a general loafing-spell of all the inhabitants. The greatest benefit that could happen to Greece, and to all Southern Europe, would be the discanonization of ninetenths of their holy drones, who do enough harm by sanctifying indolence to outweigh a thousand times the good they may have accomplished during their lives. God's sabbath is enough for man's needs, and both St. George, the Swindler, and St. Polycarp, the Martyr, have sufficient honor shown to them in the way of chapels, shrines, candles, and incense, to forego the appropriation of certain days, on which no one thinks particularly about them. Not only are the laborers idle and the shops generally shut on every one of these festival days, but the University schools and public offices are closed also. The Greeks are very zealous professors, and would exhibit much more progress as a people if they did not make a millstone of their religion and wear it around their necks.
This touches on several themes that appear throughout writings on the Orthodox in the South, but also, as we see here, in the North, during the 19th century - their preoccupation with what is seen as a religious "millstone" that weighs them down and keeps them in poverty and ignorance. Fitzhugh, however, sees this as a blessing, and draws a parallel between the Greek way of life and the way of life Fitzhugh was attempting to preserve in the South:
Better wear that than the collar of the rapacious task-master, who would make them work twelve hours a day. Better have too many holydays than none. Greece and the rest of Southern Europe have not as yet adopted the high-pressure system of society, which begets paupers and millionaires, and riots in famine and starvation. Mr. Taylor speaks in terms of high commendation of the purity of the domestic lives of the Greeks. He says also that they are desirous of acquiring knowledge, and learn with great facility. Add to this their religious zeal, their light work, and the absence of extreme destitution among them, and there is left little cause to regret their hesitancy to adopt that high pressure system of progress which our author so much admires, but which, so far, has only doomed the masses to overwork and insufficient food and raiment.
Therefore, we may say that Fitzhugh's worldview was more "orthodox" in its belief in a religion centered on mysterion, history, and tradition. Likewise, the ideal society for Fitzhugh was one based on stable institutions and hierarchy - and above all not ruled by the profit motive. If we are to speak of a "pre-orthodox" mentality in the South, we can certainly find its strongest explicit articulation in George Fitzhugh.
This is only scratching the surface of the attitudes towards Orthodoxy in the South. There are other sources which I haven't even reproduced here, and still many more sources to be explored. Eventually I hope to take all of this and write at least a sizable paper on it.