Presbyterians of the Past

Michael D. Kalopothakes, 1825-1911

Michael Demetrius Kalopothakes was born in Aeropolis, Laconia, Greece, December 17, 1825. At the time of his birth the Greeks were involved in a revolution for independence from the Ottomans who had ruled them since the middle of the fifteenth century. The Greeks’ desire for freedom was encouraged by the successful revolutions in America and France, but uprisings in Greece in the latter years of the eighteenth century failed. However, on March 25, 1821, the revolution that would succeed began. The conflict continued for several years until peace was achieved resulting in Greece becoming an independent state in 1830. Turkey did not recognize Greece’s independence until the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832.

Michael Kalopothakes owed his early education to two Presbyterian in the United States of America, Old School, missionaries. The Reverends George W. Leyburn and Samuel R. Houston were both from Virginia and members of Lexington Presbytery during their terms of missionary service in Greece between 1837 and 1842. After completing studies with his Presbyterian mentors, Michael continued his education for two years in a preparatory school from which he graduated at the age of eighteen. For the next five years he was the headmaster of a school in Gytheion, then he studied in the University of Athens completing his education in medicine in 1853. Briefly, he was a surgeon in the Greek Army.

At this point it would be helpful for readers to know a bit about the Greek Orthodox Church, which is one of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. When reports appear on the evening news about events associated with the Orthodox Churches it appears that their practices are very much like those of Roman Catholicism. Many similarities have their source in the common past that Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism enjoyed until the doctrinal division into two churches in 1054. Points leading to the schism included Rome’s adoption of the doctrine of papal infallibility and its modifications to the creeds with respect to the Trinity in general and the Holy Spirit in particular. Both Rome and the Orthodox hold to an episcopal form of government and have seven sacraments.

The reason Kalopothakes decided to enter the Presbyterian ministry is not clear, but the early spiritual influences from his minister-teachers likely seeded his grasp of the Gospel and decision to become a pastor. The Orthodox Church was and is the church of Greece, so if he wanted a Protestant theological education he had to find it outside of his homeland. He made the long journey to New York to attend Union Theological Seminary where he completed the three-year curriculum in 1856. He was ordained a missionary-evangelist on April 26, 1857 by Hanover Presbytery, New School, Virginia. His studying for the ministry at Union in New York rather than Union in Virginia was because the New School in Virginia sometimes sent its candidates to the New York seminary which was more attuned to New School thinking. Also, while living in New York, Physician Kalopothakes took advantage of other academic opportunities by pursuing additional medical studies.

Returning to his Greek Orthodox homeland, Rev. Kalopothakes modeled his plan for reforming the church after the method Martin Luther had used over three-hundred years earlier by making abundant use of the power of print. He hoped his weekly periodical Star of the East would raise issues for reforming the Greek Orthodox Church much as Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and tracts were intended to do in the sixteenth century. Kalopothakes ended up setting up his own press to print Star because none of the printers in Athens were interested in the controversial newspaper because it challenged the theology of the Greek Orthodox Church.

A result of Kalopothakes publishing work was persecution and ostracization by his fellow citizens who saw their government and church as inseparable. The Greeks believed the Orthodox Church to be an aspect of their ethnicity; if one was Greek, then one was Greek Orthodox. The Orthodox Church united them religiously as they opposed Islam for nearly 400 years during Ottoman rule. Even the national constitution in its current edition begins its preamble saying, “In the Name of the Holy and Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity,” with a similar statement in the provisional constitution of 1822. For citizens of the United States whose preamble says nothing about Christianity, the idea of a theological affirmation in the Greek constitution may seem surprising. When Kalopothakes began his reforming and church planting work in Greece he was challenging not only Greek Orthodoxy but also the government and the Greek ethnic identity. He commented on his difficulties presenting Protestant-based-Gospel ideas to his fellow citizens.

A prevailing idea is that for a Greek to differ openly from the Greek Orthodox Church in his belief and practice, amounts to renouncing his allegiance to his country and becoming a renegade in all senses of the word. This conviction has made the position of those who had the courage of their convictions no easy one, and not infrequently life and property have been endangered by attacks.

In the early years of our work we were subjected to every variety of persecution. Our names were a byword and reproach, in the daily press we were loaded with every term of abuse and opprobrium; when we walked the streets, we were hooted and followed, and even our dwellings were not always safe from violence. Many has been the time when our services were disturbed or broken up by roughians or fanatics, and nearly all our places of worship have been the object of mob attack.

However, despite the uphill battle, Kalopothakes took his next step for reform by providing the Scriptures in the common language of the people like Luther had done. In Livadia, which is about sixty-five miles northwest of Athens, he was attempting to distribute Greek Bibles and was nearly killed by stoning. The mayor, who was a friend, managed to facilitate his escape from the angry crowd. The British and Foreign Bible Society supported Kalopothakes’s ministry from 1859 to 1904 contributing to his distribution of thousands of Bibles despite considerable opposition. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions believed the conditions for continued ministry in Greece were so hostile that it withdrew its support of Kalopothakes. He was dealt another blow when his support as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) came to an end because the denomination ceased its work in Greece in 1886. With much of his foreign support no longer available and his connectional relationship as a Presbyterian broken, he encouraged others and worked to establish the Evangelical Greek Synod that same year. His church in Athens continues to minister today.

Not only did Kalopothakes publish Star of the East and provide Greek vernacular Bibles, but he also printed tracts and reprints of books with the help of funding from the Religious Tract Society of London. Despite failure trying to establish a Sunday School due to Greek laws regarding proselytizing, he published a paper for children titled, The Child’s Paper.

When Rev. Kalopothakes retired in 1904 he continued to live in Athens and preach as he was able. T. Verner Moore (1856-1926, son of T. V. Moore), who was at the time a professor in San Francisco Theological Seminary, was visiting Kalopothakes when he preached his last sermon and when he passed away January 29, 1911. Moore delivered the sermon for the funeral. In addition to his considerable work publishing and planting churches, Kalopothakes had helped to educate over fifty young men and saw eleven ordained to the ministry. At the time of his death after forty-five years of ministry, the Evangelical Greek Synod had six churches with just over 150 members.

Pastor Kalopothakes married Martha Hooper Blackler who passed away December 16, 1871. They enjoyed the births of six children, but only three survived to become adults. Their daughter Maria was one of the first women physicians in Greece. Martha’s obituary adds that she was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Athens near her three children who “were taken from her in early life.” Rev. Kalopothakes married his second wife in 1877. Margaret Kyle was originally from Canada but went to Greece to work as a teacher. She died in 1904.   

The following is an excerpt from Pastor Kalopothakes’s address to the Sixth General Evangelical Alliance when it met in New York in 1873. It well summarizes the thinking of his countrymen regarding Christianity.

In reference to the state of religion in Greece, I say what my brother from Italy has said, viz., that it is very low, even among the best of its adherents; and that the Evangelicals have to contend not only against error, ignorance, and infidelity, as is the case in other nominally Christian lands, but also against a greater obstacle—the strong feeling of union of church and nationality…

Even though it might be thought that the influence of one’s ethnicity, national allegiance, or locally accepted views regarding the church and its theology are issues only in foreign lands, Rev. Kalopothakes’s observations about Greece in his day should give American readers pause to reflect upon their own thinking and how it may be negatively influenced by such factors. It is very easy to go with what exists, with what is accepted, but what exists is not necessarily right and it should be continually examined via the mirror of the Word for prejudicial factors such as those experienced at great personal cost by Michael Kalopothakes.


Notes—A reader of Presbyterians of the Past–Ancient History Professor John Lee of the University of California at Santa Barbaraprovided new information about Pastor Kalopothakes’s  marriages and children which was used to correct this article from its original form published January 24, 2018; the author appreciates Professor Lee’s contribution to the historical accuracy of this post. When the PCUSA divided into the Old School and New School in 1837, East Hanover Presbytery continued as the Old School presbytery while Hanover Presbytery became the presbytery of the New School. T. Verner Moore (1856-1926) was the son of T. V. Moore (1818-1871). A PDF copy of the issue of The Missionary that includes the obituary for Mrs. Kalopothakes as well as a report on Rev. Kalopothakes’s ministry in Greece was kindly provided by Director Wayne Sparkman of the PCA Historical Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The series of three articles published by T. Verner Moore (1856-1926) in Record of Christian Work, vol. 33, 1914, which was edited by W. R. Moody and published in East Northfield, Massachusetts, with the title, “The Gospel in Greece, and Kalopothakes, Its Modern Apostle,” pages 18-23, 87-90, and 151-155, was helpful and the two-paragraph quote from Kalopothakes is on page 152. Virginia Presbyterians in American Life: Hanover Presbytery (1755-1980), edited by Patricia Aldridge and authored by R. P. Davis, James H. Smylie, Dean K. Thompson, E. T. Thompson, and William N. Todd, Richmond: Hanover Presbytery, 1982, provided information regarding the names of presbyteries and the Old School-New School division within the presbytery. Also, Harold M. Parker Jr.’s The United Synod of the South: The Southern Presbyterian New School Presbyterian Church, New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, provided information about the New School and related subjects. Another helpful article was “Religious Movements Among the Greeks of Macedonia,” The Christian World Magazine of the American and Foreign Christian Union, Vol. XII, No. 4, April 1861, New York, pages 106-108. Kalopothakes wrote, “Religion in Greece,” in History, Essays, and other Documents of the Sixth General Conference of the Evangelical Alliance, held in New York, October 2-12, 1873, which was edited by Philip Schaff and S. Irenaeus Prime, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1874.

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