Michael D. Kalopothakes, Tenacious Missionary to Greece

Michael D. Kalopothakes, Tenacious Missionary to Greece

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.

Michael Demetrius Kalopothakes was born in Aeropolis, Laconia, Greece, December 17, 1825. At the time of his birth the Greeks were involved in a fight 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 making Greece 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 Presbyterians in the United States of America,—Old School, missionaries, the Reverends George W. Leyburn and Samuel R. Houston who were both from Virginia and members of Lexington Presbytery. The team served in Greece between 1837 and 1842. After completing studies with his Presbyterian mentors, Michael continued his education for two years in a preparatory school graduating 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 in America 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 (local and regional bishops or priests) and they 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 because of its New School views. 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 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 reforming tracts were intended to do in the sixteenth century. Kalopothakes ended up purchasing his own press to print—Star—because none of the printers in Athens were interested in the controversial newspaper that challenged the theology of the Greek Orthodox Church.

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