Raphael Morgan

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An undated photograph.

Very Rev Raphael Morgan (born Robert Josias Morgan) (186?/187? - ?) was a Jamaican-American priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, later the founder and superior of the Order of the Cross of Golgotha, and thought to be the first black Orthodox clergyman in America. He spoke broken Greek, and therefore served mostly in English. Having recently been discovered, his life has garnered great interest, but much of his life still remains shrouded in mystery. Fr Raphael is said to have resided all over the world, including in Palestine, Syria, Joppa, Greece, Cyprus, Miylene, Chios, Sicily, Egypt, Russia, Turkey, Austria, Germany, England, France, Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Bermuda, and the United States.

Early Life

Robert Josias Morgan was born in Chapelton, Clarence Parish, Jamaica either in the late 1860s or early 1870s to Robert Josias and Mary Ann (née Johnson) Morgan. He was born six months after his father's death, and named in his honour.

Robert was raised in the Anglican tradition and was received elementary schooling locally. In his teenage years he travelled to Colón, Panama, then to British Honduras, back to Jamaica, and then to the United States. He became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and left as a missionary to Germany, and then came to England, where he joined the Church of England and was sent to Sierra Leona to the Church Missionary Society Grammar School at Freetown. He studied Greek, Latin, and other higher-level subjects. Being poor, Robert had to work to support himself, and worked as second master of a public school. He took course in the Church Missionary Society College at Fourah Bay, and was soon appointed a missionary teacher and lay-reader by the Episcopalian Bishop of Liberia.

After some time, Robert again visited England for private study, and then America to work amongst the African-American community as a lay-reader. He was accepted as a Postulant and as candidate for the Episcopalian deaconate. During the waiting period, Robert again returned to England to study at Saint Aiden's Theological College in Birkenhead, but prosecuted his studies at King's College of the University of London. He returned to America, and on June 20 on the same year was ordained by the Rt Rev Coleman, Bishop of the Episcopalian Diocese of Delaware. Robert was appointed honorary curate in St Matthews's Church in Wilminton, and procured a job as a teacher for a few public schools.

In 1898, the deacon Robert was transferred to the Missionary Jurisdiction of Ashville in western North Carolina. By the next year he was listed as being assistant minister at St Stephen's Chapel in Morganton and St Cyprian's Church in Lincolnton. Between 1900 and 1905, Robert moved around much of the Eastern seaboard, serving in Delaware, Charleston (South Carolina), Richmond (Virginia), Nashville (Tennessee), until finally ending up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

At some point, he joined an off-shoot of the Episcopalian Church, known as the American Catholic Church. He is listed in the records of the Episcopal Church of the USA as late as 1908, when he was suspended from ministry on the allegations of abandoning his post.


By the turn of the 20th century, Robert already began to question his faith, and began to study Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy to find what he felt was the true religion. He decided on Orthodoxy, resigned from the Episcopalian Church, and embarked on a trip to Russia.

Once there, Robert visited various monasteries and churches, soon becoming quite the sensation. Sundry periodicals began publishing pictures and articles on him, and soon Robert became the Special Guest of the Tsar, which allowed him to be present for the anniversary celebrations of Nicholas II's coronation, and memorial service for Alexander III. Leaving Russia, Robert traveled Turkey, Cyprus, and the Holy Land, returning to America and writing an article to the Russian-American Orthodox Messenger in 1904 about his experience in Russia.

For three years, Robert studied under Greek priests for his baptism. In January of 1906, he is documented as assisting in the Christmas liturgy. As there were no seminaries in America until 1911, in 1907 Robert was sent to Constantinople with two letters: a recommendation from a Fr Demetrios Petritis for his baptism and ordination into priesthood, and a letter of support from the Greek community of that parish that stated he could serve as an assistant priest if he failed to set up a Black church.

Robert was interviewed by Metropolitan Joachim of Pelagonia, one of the few bishops of he Ecumenical Patriarchate that could speak English. The metropolitan concluded that Robert should be baptised, chrismated, ordained, and sent back to America in order to "carry the light of the Orthodox faith among his racial brothers". In early August, Robert was baptised Raphael before 3000 people, and on the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, ordained a priest.

Fr Raphael was sent back to America with vestments, a cross, and 20 pounds sterling. He was allowed to hear confessions, but denied Holy Chrism and an antimension, presumably to attach his missionary ministry to the Philadelphia church.

Once home, around the fall of 1907, Fr Raphael baptised his wife and children. In 1909, his wife filed for divorce, on the alleged charges of cruelty and failure to support their children. She left with their son Cyril to Delaware County, where she remarried.

Two years later, Fr Raphael sailed to Cyprus, presumably to be tonsured a monk. Interestingly, he was allowed to remain a priest. Possibly somewhere around this time, he founded the Order of the Cross of Golgotha.

Near the end of 1913, Fr Raphael visited his homeland of Jamaica, staying for several month until sometime the next year. While there, he met a group of Syrians, who were complaining of a lack of Orthodox church on the island. Fr Raphael did his best to contact the Syrian-American diocese of the Russian church, writing to St Raphael of Brooklyn, but as most of their descendants are now communicants in the Episcopal Church, this presumably came to no avail. In December, a Russian warship came to port, and he concelebrated the Divine Liturgy with the sailors, their chaplain, and his new-found Syrians.

The main work of his visit, however, was a lecture circuit that he ran throughout Jamaica. Citing a lack of Orthodox churches, Fr Raphael would speak at churches of various denomination. The topics would usually cover his travels, the Holy Land, and Holy Orthodoxy. At some point, he even made it to his hometown of Chapelton, to whom he remarked of his name change, "I will always be Robert to you".

The last documentation of Fr Raphael comes from a letter to the Daily Gleaner on October 4, 1916. He, representing a group of like-minded Jamaican-Americans, wrote in to protest the lectures of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey. Garvey's views on Jamaica, they felt, were damaging to both the reputation of their homeland and its people. Garvey's response came ten days later, in which he called the letter a conspiratorial fabrication meant to undermine the success and favour he had gained while in Jamaica and in the United States.

Little is known of Fr Raphael's life after this point, except from some interviews conducted in the 1970s between Greek-American historian Paul G. Manolis and surviving members of his parish. One elderly woman remembered that Fr Raphael's daughter left to attend Oxford; whilst another, a George Leakuris, recalled that after serving in Philadelphia for some years, Fr Raphael left for Jerusalem, never to return.


"Indirect Conversion of Thousands" Theory

During the 16th Annual Ancient Christianity and African-American Conference, Matthew Namee presented a 23-minute lecture on the heretofore recently discovered life of Fr Raphael Morgan. He postulates that even if Fr Raphael's missionary efforts failed outside of his immediate family, he may be indirectly responsible for the conversion of thousands.

Records for St Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virgina indicate that for a short while in 1901 Robert J. Morgan was listed as the Rector. However, being only a deacon, this would mean that Robert's position was only temporary, during an interregnum of sorts. The previous rector was one George Alexander McGuire, an Episcopal priest.

In 1920, George McGuire became an associate of Marcus Garvey and his Black Nationalist movement. In 1921, he was made a bishop of the American Catholic Church by Joseph René Vilatte, and soon after founded the African Orthodox Church, a non-canonical Black Nationalist church, in the Anglican tradition. Today, it is best known for its canonisation of Jazz legend John Coltrane.

George McGuire soon spread his African Orthodox Church throughout the United States, and soon even made a presence on the African continent in such countries as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. However, around the time of the Second World War, the African churches were cut off from the American and in the post-war period had drifted far enough way to request and come under the omophorion of the Church of Alexandria.

Namee questions whence the idea came for McGuire to form namely an Orthodox church. Fr Raphael Morgan and George McGuire have a few similarities: both were Black Caribbeans, served concurrently or consecutively at St Philip's in Virginia, were ordained around the same time, and later served in Philadelphia. Namee concludes that with so many coincidences, it is impossible for these two men to not have known one another; and therefore it must be from some influence - either in conversation or evangelism, that McGuire came to know the Orthodox Church.

However, one deterrent from this theory comes in the familiarity he had with the Orthodox Church by McGuire's consecrator, Joseph René Vilatte. At various points, Vilatte come into contact with both the Russian and Syriac Orthodox Churches in a move for Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, having even been accepted for a while by Bishop Vladimir of Alaska in May of 1891.

Further Reading

  • Manolis, Paul G. Raphael (Robert) Morgan: The First Black Orthodox Priest in America. Theologia: Epistēmonikon Periodikon Ekdidomenon Kata Trimēnian. (En Athenais: Vraveion Akadēmias Athēnōn), 1981, vol.52, no.3, pp.464-480. ISSN: 1105-154X
  • Matthew Namee. The First Black Orthodox Priest in America. OrthodoxHistory.org (The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas). July 15, 2009.