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

Written by D. Oliver Herbel

(Oxford University Press, 2014)

Reviewed by Adam DeVille

turning

I spent the better part of a day reading and thoroughly enjoying a new book by the Orthodox priest and historian D. Oliver Herbel.

This is church history at its best: an outstandingly well written scholarly book that is carefully researched, crisply written, and free of polemics. It is not a romanticized founding mythology, and in fact it carefully and calmly skewers a few such mythologies on offer about American Orthodox history. While written by someone who is obviously himself Orthodox, and who therefore brings a sympathetic “insider’s” perspective to bear at certain points, the author has managed to be commendably objective and even-handed in dealing with issues and personages that are still today controverted for some. This is anything but a work of what another historian, Robert Taft, calls “confessional propaganda,” and we have every reason to be grateful to Fr. Oliver for that. His book reveals considerable scholarly acumen, but it is also something that the proverbial person in the pew could easily access, not least because it is (almost!) blessedly free of jargon and abstruse theorizing.

In five compact chapters, the author reviews individuals of significance in the ongoing historical development of Orthodoxy in the United States, beginning with Alexis Toth, the former Greek Catholic chased out of his Church by Latin chauvinism and intransigence over the question of a married priesthood (even though–adding to the ineffable absurdity of it all–the man was widowed by the time he came to the attention of the infamous Archbishop John Ireland).

Chapters two and three deal, respectively, with Raphael Morgan and Moses Berry, both involved with various efforts to bring African Americans into contact with Orthodoxy, and vice versa. These two figures were the least known to me and I read these chapters with especial interest.

Chapter four deals with history closer to our own day, and I had read some of this more than fifteen years ago when I first came across Peter Gillquist’s work leading evangelicals into Orthodoxy. Herbel amplifies, clarifies, and expands the “founding narratives” of the evangelicals-cum-Orthodox, whose lead apologist, Gillquist, left out crucial details in his book Becoming Orthodox. But Fr. Oliver has unearthed some staggering details in this chapter connected to the first rebuffs by the Greeks, the painful Ben Lomond situation in California, and the scandals surrounding the Antiochian priest Joseph Allen, who remarried in violation of the longstanding canon that no widowed priest can re-marry and remain a priest–but remain he did and still does as a priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese. (Along the way, we also hear some of the details of how the Orthodox Study Bible came to be–a version with many problems.) In lesser hands, this could have been simple muckraking, but in Fr. Oliver’s hands one never has the sense that he is either downplaying these scandals apologetically or sensationalizing them polemically. Instead, he simply and calmly narrates the various stories, whose juicier details I will not mention here–you need to read the book to get those.
What makes this study so worthwhile is Herbel’s use of the concept of “anti-traditional tradition” to show, again and again, how those interested in, and eventually converts to, Orthodoxy often saw themselves as moving towards a very “traditional” expression of Christianity, one which was going to stand against the currents of the age, and this has some truth to it, especially for Christians coming from, say, Anglicanism or other “liberalizing” Western traditions. But as Herbel shows, these converts, for all their “traditionalism,” were in fact radicals, that is, they were engaging in a quintessentially modern American act of venturing off on their own in search of new roots in a new church that was, in fact, one of the oldest expressions of apostolic Christianity on offer. The fact that some of these new Orthodox have turned around and denounced their former traditions, and indeed this country, is no surprise because the American experience is full of such people doing precisely that at the various “revival” (or, as Herbel prefers, “restorationist”) movements that have periodically swept this country. Such is the way of all converts it seems–whether to some form of Christianity, or to a political cause like Prohibition or the abolition of slavery.

In sum, Turning to Tradition is an excellent study and deserves a place on every bibliography and library shelf devoted to religious history, American exceptionalism, and of course Orthodox history as well as relations between Orthodoxy and other Christian traditions.

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