Innocent, Veniaminov [Ivan Popov-Veniaminov] (1797-1879)
Russian Orthodox apostle to America
Born to a clerical family and educated at the provincial theological seminary in Irkutsk, Russia, Veniaminov quickly showed himself to be a bright prospect for the Russian Orthodox Church in Siberia. After initially declining his bishop’s request that he take up missionary work on Unalaska Island in the north Pacific, he felt himself divinely called to aid the island people there. Taking his growing family overland to the Pacific, he arrived on Unalaska in 1822 and quickly accepted pastoral responsibility for the inhabitants of the neighboring islands, the Alaskan peninsula, and the remote Pribilof Islands.
He assiduously studied the Fox Aleutian dialect to the point of being able to translate into it the Gospel of Matthew and to write a short devotional pamphlet, An Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven. (In Russian translation it became a classic in his homeland.) Feeling the physical toll of ten years of rowing kayaks and hiking through the island mountains, he sought a disability retirement in 1832. Instead, he was transferred to the relative comfort of Sitka, where he set to work among the less receptive Tlingit Indians. Summoned home in 1839 to report on the status of the American mission to the Holy Synod, Veniaminov sailed to Saint Petersburg. While there he learned that his wife had died, and, no longer married, he became canonically eligible to head a newly created diocese stretching from California to Yakutsk. He accepted reluctantly and returned to Alaska as a bishop in 1840. He insisted that the missionaries under his jurisdiction follow his own example of mastering the local dialects, studying the local cultures sympathetically in order to incarnate the gospel, and establishing schools advancing all phases of education. In order to prepare an indigenous clergy, which he saw as the logical next step in evangelization, he established a seminary in Sitka.
In 1868, blind and physically worn out, he sought retirement but was instead advanced to the rank of metropolitan of Moscow. There Metropolitan Innocent used his influence to found the Russian Missionary Society, whose local chapters throughout the empire raised funds to support home and foreign missions. The society flourished until the Bolshevik revolution ended its activities. In 1977 he was honored by the Orthodox Church in America as “Evangelizer of the Aluets and Apostle to America.” The synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, designated 1997 as the “Year of St. Innocent.”
Paul D. Garrett, “Innocent, Veniaminov (Ivan Popov-Veniaminov),” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 320.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Veniaminov’s collected writings, in six volumes, are in Russian. His Russian-language diary covering his early years in America is held by the Library of Congress.
Veniaminov, Innocent. Notes on the Islands of the Unalaskan District. Edited, with an introduction by Richard A. Pierce. Translated by Lydia Black and R. H. Geoghegan. Fairbanks, AK: The Elmer E. Rasmuson Library Translation Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Kingston, ON: The Limestone Press, 1984.
_____. “An Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven.” In Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, edited by Michael J. Oleksa. New York: Paulist Press, 1987; and in Lev Puhalo, Innokenty of Alaska: The Life of Bishop Innocent Veniaminov. Chilliwack, BC: Synaxis Press, 1981. Orig. 1976.
_____. Journals of the Priest Ioann Veniaminov in Alaska, 1823-1836. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1993.
_____. “Instructions to the Priest-Monk Theophan.” In American Religions: A Documentary History, edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Black, Lydia (ed.). A Good and Faithful Servant: The Year of Saint Innocent: An Exhibit Commemorating the Bicentennial of the Birth of Ioann Veniaminov 1797-1997. [Fairbanks]: University of Alaska Fairbanks: Alaska State Veniaminov Bicentennial Committee, 1997.
Danver, S. L. “Innocent Veniaminov and the Growth of Orthodoxy in Russian America.” Journal of the West 47 no. 2 (2008): 24-31.
Erickson, John H. Orthodox Christians in America: A Short History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Garrett, Paul D. St. Innocent, Apostle to America. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979.
Grinev, Andrei Val’terovich. The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867. Translated by Richard L. Bland and Katerina G. Solovjova. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Haycox, Stephen W. and Mary Childers Mangusso (ed.). An Alaska Anthology: Interpreting the Past. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.
Oleksa, Michael J. “The Orthodox Mission in America.” International Review of Mission 71 no. 281 (1982): 78-87.
_____. “Icons and the Cosmos: The Missionary Significance.” International Review of Mission 72 no. 285 (1983).
_____. “Overwhelmed by Joy.” International Review of Mission 72 no. 287 (1983).
_____ (ed.). Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
_____. Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.
_____. “The Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christian Mission from an Alaskan Perspective.” International Review of Mission 90 no. 358 (2001): 280-88.
Puhalo, Lev. Innokenty of Alaska: The Life of Bishop Innocent Veniaminov. Chilliwack, BC: Synaxis Press, 1981. Orig. 1976.
Rochcau, Vsevolod. “Innocent Veniaminov and the Russian Mission to Alaska, 1820-1840.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 15 no. 3 (1971): 105-20.
Veronis, Luke Alexander. Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations. Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life, 1994.
Vinkovetsky, Ilya. Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Source: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division (digital ID cph.3c32144).