The Missionary Scholars in Greek American History

March 28, 2022

When one goes to graduate school in the United States there is a process in the social sciences expressed by the phrase ‘knowing the literature.’ This is where each individual graduate student is expected to independently read and understand the entire core literature of whatever academic discipline they are studying. The rule of thumb on this endeavor is that for the first six months or so the individual graduate student is reading and reading every single day but is still mostly lost. Yet, as the folk-wisdom of such an expectation generally reports, it is around this time that the individual graduate student begins to grasp the broad parameters of their chosen field of study. Then through ongoing individual readings, extended course work – coupled with sustained interaction with their professors – the graduate student slowly becomes a professional in their chosen field. Ultimately this mastery of their chosen field by the individual student is demonstrated beyond question by the acceptance of a written dissertation by a select group of professors.

Since Greek-American Studies cannot exist in the universities or colleges of the United States, it is not surprising that few know the full-range of the Greek-American historical and social science literature. Unexpectedly, it is also Greek cultural expectations and prejudices that have delayed (and I would even say side-tracked) the systematic study of the true parameters of Greek-American history. For the first sustained debate on the arrival and daily life of Greeks in the United States, no one needs to read or speak the Greek language. Nor does one have to be an adherent of the Greek Orthodox church.

The studies that constitute this first common presentation of Greek-American history and culture are The Greeks in the United States by Henry Pratt Fairchild (1909); Greeks in America: An Account of Their Coming, Progress, Customs, Living, and Aspirations, With an Historical Introduction and the Stories of Some Famous American-Greek by Bishop Thomas Burgess (1913); Greek Americans by Reverend Thomas James Lacey (1916) and The Greeks in America by Reverend John P. Xenides (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922). I would say the most compelling common thread among these writers is that – at one point or another of their lives – each was a Protestant missionary who worked principally among Greeks, both in the United States and/or in the eastern Mediterranean.

Another intriguing point is that Seraphim Canoutas provided Bishop Burgess with lengthy sections from his own 1912 writings on Greeks in the United States. The good Bishop was not only honest enough to note Canoutas’ contribution but in his introduction made the offer to include Canoutas’ name as a co-author. Canoutas declined.

The daily work of all these four clergymen involved Greeks (although at one time or other, different immigrant groups as well) was in one form or another directly influenced by The American Board of Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Created in 1810, the ABCFM was among the first American-based Christian missionary organizations. Within an incredibly short period of time the ABCFM became the largest and most important of American missionary organizations.

I have argued for decades that Greek-American history cannot be understood without also considering these specific authors as well as the dedicated efforts of the ABCFM from the very early 1800s with Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, the nation state of Greece, as well as the later Greek immigrants to North American during the 1880 to 1920 era. The history of Greeks in North America does not properly belong to the 1880 to 1920 era of mass immigration alone but rather begins with the first direct personal contacts between Western Europeans, Americans, and Greeks.

Stephen Addison Larabee (1907-1991) in his landmark study, Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece, 1775-1865, clearly demonstrates the case for this point of view. As Larabee presents, there were undeniably a whole complex of revelatory thoughts, actions, organizations, and individuals not now considered by the current historical or cultural studies. These occurred during these first contacts between Americans and the living Greeks they encountered.

The background of these writers and the subject matter they report upon also firmly place the origins of American interest and involvement with individual Greeks, the Greek nation state, and the Greek Orthodox Church firmly in the very early 1800s.

Quickly, just to name two additional studies, the two volume account, History of the Missions of the American board of commissioners for foreign missions to the oriental churches by Rufus Anderson  (1796-1880) and the article The Greek Press at Malta of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1822-1833) by Evro Layton (The Gleaner Vo 9 (1971)) can offer immediate background to what was once called ‘work in the Greek field’ by American missionaries. For those who might simply sweep these suggestions aside I would then suggest they read Saloutos’ all-too-brief but nevertheless quite clear article in an obscure journal, Church History on the Greeks and the ABCFM.

Having said all the above, I can honestly report what I think a definite breakthrough has just occurred. All this ‘forgotten lore’ of Greek-American history came to mind when I chanced to see the zoom panel discussion by the EMBCA (Eastern Mediterranean Business Cultural Alliance) titled Hellenic Orphans Taken Abroad from 1821 through the 1960’s. An exceptional overall program, to be sure, however here, I will focus exclusively on Dr. Constantine G. Hatzidimitriou presentation, ‘Some Observations Concerning the so-called Orphans that Came to the United States During Greece’s War of National Liberation 1821-1829.’ Dr. Hatzidimitriou also has an essay on the Internet with this same title and by and large the same overall ideas.

Dr. Hatzidimitriou focuses squarely on the published accounts which are often first-hand personal testimonies. Hatzidimitriou is crystal clear about the differences between who is or who was incorrectly identified as being among the ‘orphans’. Overall, it is a razor sharp presentation of the readily available persons and usually consulted texts. So, Dr. Hatzidimitriou is immersed in the literature while being simultaneously carefully attentive to the accuracy and extent of what has been reported to date. And here are the historical cracks Hatzidimitriou is not only aware of but is beginning to pick at, however cautiously. He signals that his scholarly interest is clearly peaked. It is only a matter of time before Hatzidimitriou follows the published trail back to the ABFM and the other American missionaries.

We have to face the fact that not everyone arriving on American shores influenced the existing society (and various sub-cultures) in equal measure. The Grecian Fever of the 1821-1829 era is followed-up in the research of writers such as Rev. Father Alexander Doumouras (1936-1987). Rev. Doumouras is undaunted by academic assertions, and so, fully engages the public record in his historical writings on the presence of Greeks across American history, including a close examination of the 1830s to 1850s.

The documented actions of the ABFM among the Greeks in both the Old World and the so-called New World places the study of Greeks in the United States not exclusively in the massive waves of foreign migration to the USA but rather in its rightful place in both American and world history, beginning with the period just prior to the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1829, as revealed in ABFM written accounts. The reluctance to face this with the exception of Larabee, Hatzidimitriou, and others I have cited above, is due to contemporary American academic pressures – not to what actual occurred.

Let me close with a final suggestive puzzle. I was once searching for various ABFM workers and ran across the newspaper account of the return of Bishop James Henry Darlington (1856-1930) from a long tour of the Balkans and the Middle East. As I searched, one news account opened innocently enough with a report on the dinner in honor of the Bishop’s return to American shores. Among those present at that dinner were the Bishop’s daughter, who was also heavily involved with mission work in America, and Rev. Xenides. When I first read this account of the dinner I took it as simply the to be expected report of a social event involving an important religious figure. But in addition to this rather dry account of the dinner party there was an illustration on the front page of the same edition that kept haunting me.

As I remember it, now, this illustration was on the upper right hand side of the front page of the newspaper. It was an extremely crude rendering of three large bonfires set in the cliff face above the harbor where Darlington’s ship had docked. In the written report accompanying this illustration it was specifically noted that these fires were of such a size they could be seen miles out to sea. The illustration showed three extremely large letters ‘K’ burning in the dark of night. It didn’t take long to realize the good Bishop was being sent a message.

Somehow, the Ku Klux Klan knew about Bishop Darlington’s sustained efforts to bring the Protestant and Greek Orthodox churches closer together – if not as one united church – yet our current generation of academics allegedly studying Greeks in the United States do not grasp that.

I always seem to be left with the same basis questions. There is a complex, extremely detailed history of sustained Greek and American interaction available in published accounts and archival collections which has somehow never been brought together. Why?

Clearly – as public documents report – Greeks since the early 1800s have been for Americans a fascinating subject of direct concern, sustained study, and even charity. The overall influence and presence of Greeks in the United States cannot be reduced to simply a subservient sidebar of American labor history. So, why are we Greeks not studied in full?



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