The Orthodox Church gives the title of ‘Equal to the Apostles’ to a select few of its saints. The title is given to those who imitated the original apostles of Christ by spreading the Gospel among those who had not heard it before. The life of St. Innocent of Alaska is one such life that was lived as an image of the apostles.
From the time of his decision to become a missionary until the end of his life, St. Innocent devoted much of his efforts to the spread of the Gospel among the native peoples of Alaska and Siberia and even desired to present the European-Americans with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. St. Innocent entered a region in Alaska where Orthodoxy had been spread by diffusion. His initial work was in administering the sacraments and catechizing those natives who had been baptized but knew little of the Gospel, and as many Russians as would listen. In order to do so, he established churches and schools. When he had fortified the already established church communities, he worked to spread the Gospel among the tribes who had not been reached yet. As bishop, he presided over the expansion of missionary efforts in Alaska and among the Yakut people of Siberia. After being appointed to the powerful position of Metropolitan of Moscow, he used his influence to establish a missionary society which would continue to spread the Gospel in Alaska as well as lands beyond the Russian Empire. In reading the story of St. Innocent’s life a number of themes present themselves. The first is the saint’s pastoral concern for the people under his care, the natives and the Russians as well as the clergy. He put a lot of effort into assuring that the newly converted regions would learn the Gospel and the teachings of the Church as well as hear the liturgy in their own languages. St. Innocent also put a lot of effort into learning the culture of the native peoples so that he could properly teach them. If there was one theme I found to be negative, it would be his sometimes used method of trying to convince the unbaptized natives to accept baptism because of the power of God in comparison to their god or gods. Nevertheless, St. Innocent’s efforts truly made him worthy of the title of ‘Equal to the Apostles.’
Unlike many missionaries who enter a completely unreached land, St. Innocent entered a situation where there were already a large number of baptized natives. However, due to their remoteness or nomadic ways they had largely been untaught in their adopted faith. St. Innocent’s first efforts whenever he entered an area for the first time were often to baptize, chrismate, and perform marriages. He also gave communion to many who had either never received or had not for many years. He made it a priority to teach those who were baptized but not taught the doctrines of their new faith. At the schools he established, the children would be taught Russian so that they could communicate with the Russian settlers, but he also made certain that catechisms were prepared in their own language so that they could understand the Gospel in terms they could understand in their culture. This was not always easy. For example, when he had the Gospel of Matthew translated into Yakut, the natives found that though Yakut words were used, the concepts were foreign to them. He also encountered difficulties in publishing books. Once, the Aleutian Catechism was printed with too many errors to be of any use. Another time, the synod of the Russian Church refused to believe that complex teachings could be put into what they considered an undeveloped language and delayed publication of a translation. Despite the difficulties, St. Innocent worked tirelessly to make sure the people under his care understood the faith they practiced.
St. Innocent worked to establish new Christian communities among the unreached tribes. Though he sometimes found little success in reaching tribes such as the Tlingits, he still worked tirelessly to reach as many as would hear. In order to know what to say, when he entered a new area he would learn from archives, Russian settlers, and natives who worked for the Russians about the local peoples. Sometimes, to convince people to accept baptism, he would try to convince them that God was more powerful their native god or gods and could bring them material rewards. For example, he once told a chief of the Koryaks to pray to the ‘Russian God’ to bring him a whale. This may convince a people who are accustomed to religious practices which are designed to bring material rewards, but one wonders if in the end it really will cause them to become Christians seeking union with God, or just replace the name and/or number of their god(s). In contrast, he did try to make sure the natives were not accepting the Gospel for material benefits coming from the Russians. For example, he would not allow Aleuts who were baptized to accept anything other than simple crosses so that they would have little other incentive besides belief for their conversion.
As bishop, St. Innocent had greater power to continue his missions work. He continued to establish teaching centers and new churches. He also tried to ensure that the clergy working under him were of a high caliber and were good moral examples for the people. He also tried to make sure his clergy’s needs were provided for, such as the time he offered to give a priest a proper salary even if he had to pay a portion of it himself. As a result of his efforts, hundreds of natives entered the Church every year. The author is careful to point out that this was not a result of the Russians example, but of the natives previously converted. This shows that St. Innocent had taught them well how to genuinely live as a Christian.
In his years in Russian Asia, St. Innocent worked in much the same way as he had in Alaska. Here he had a new conflict, though. Many wished that the Church be used as a vehicle for the Russification of the Siberian natives. St. Innocent rejected this principle and carried on making translations into the local dialects. Especially memorable was how, after two centuries of Russian presence in the Yakut region, St. Innocent oversaw the first translations of the liturgy into the Yakut language. St. Innocent’s vision for the American mission went beyond the Alaskans. He wanted to reach out to the European-Americans by having the language of the Church shift from Russian to English. Lacking Russian power and financing, the Church in the Americas reached few citizens of the United States until recent times.
As Metropolitan of Moscow, St. Innocent used his influence to continue expanding the Church into new territories. He established the Orthodox Missionary Society, an establishment that interested a wide range of people in society and had the potential to become a major force in the spread of Orthodox Christianity. The mission was active in China, Japan, and Korea and had some influence, however the Russo-Japanese war and Russia’s involvement in World War I and especially the Communist Revolution ended the Society’s influence altogether. Nonetheless, it did succeed in bringing the Orthodox Church into places previously unreached. It cannot be forgotten that generations of Asian Orthodox Christians, though small in number, found salvation they may otherwise have missed.
St. Innocent was first presented with the idea of becoming a missionary when he was a young priest with a family serving in a good position. He initially balked at the idea, but something made him decide to try it for a limited time. Maybe it was meeting and working among the people themselves that gave him a love for missions work and made him continue doing or supporting missions at all stages of his life. For St. Innocent, the Gospel was a tool for people to reach salvation, not a tool used to Russianize newly acquired territories. St. Innocent ensured that the Orthodox faith would become more than just an adopted culture for the people by seeing to it that they understood the Gospel message and how to live it out. To do this, he had translations of
the gospels and catechisms published and founded schools so that students could grow in their knowledge of the faith. He also had translations made to reach the new peoples who came into the Church through his and his spiritual children’s witness. He continued these efforts as both bishop and metropolitan and was able to expand his influence over larger areas. In conclusion, thousands of Orthodox Christians in lands which before the 19th Century had not been reached owe a great dept to St. Innocent. Though historical circumstances prevented what he began to continue long after his death, his work serves as an example and an inspiration for those involved in missions work today.
 Paul D. Garrett, St. Innocent Apostle to America (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1979) 260
 Garrett, 119
 Garrett, 166
 Garrett, 200
 Garrett, 256