Divorce Documents of First Black Orthodox Priest in America

Even if Morgan had not been accused of abuse and infidelity, there is no legitimate case for canonization. He has none of the characteristics we see in the saints — no miracles, no martyrdom, no evidence that he suffered for his faith . . .

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Originally appeared at: Orthodox History

Fr. Raphael Morgan was the first black Orthodox priest in American history. He was ordained in Constantinople in 1907 and lived in Philadelphia until his death in 1922.

He’s an incredibly fascinating historical figure who has captured the imaginations of many people who have learned about him. He’s also not a saint.

I first discovered Fr. Raphael Morgan in 2006, or thereabouts. I wasn’t the first Orthodox researcher to find him — the Greek-American historians Fr. Alexander Doumouras and Paul Manolis wrote papers on him before I was even born — but I was basically the person who made him known to the world, first in a talk at the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black conference in 2009 that was aired on Ancient Faith Radio, and then here at Orthodox History, and then in a 2009 paper in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. Along with my fellow researcher Fr. Oliver Herbel, I spent years researching Morgan’s life.

One day, I stumbled onto a newspaper article that referenced Morgan’s divorce. According to the blurb, Morgan’s wife Charlotte filed for divorce on the grounds of “cruelty and failure to support the couple’s children.” I knew that it was a long shot that any records from the divorce still existed, but Fr. Oliver Herbel and I decided to try to track them down. And lo and behold, the records DID still exist, and Fr. Oliver was able to get a big batch of documents from the court, through an attorney in Pennsylvania.

Reading through the documents was painful: Charlotte accused Fr. Raphael of physical and verbal abuse, as well as infidelity. A witness — the couple’s landlady — offered testimony that corroborated the abuse allegations. Fr. Raphael himself (likely through his attorney) submitted a written response denying any misconduct, but he did not appear at the hearing itself. The court granted Charlotte the divorce.

While I have referenced the divorce in my work on Morgan, I never published the details or the documents themselves, because I felt like it was unnecessary — what was to be gained from airing century-old dirty laundry? But things have changed.

Recently, clergy at St. Tikhon’s Seminary have done some truly outstanding research, discovering both Morgan’s death certificate (which I had never been able to locate) and, even more impressively, his unmarked grave at Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia. Efforts are underway to have a proper headstone made for Morgan, and I wholeheartedly support this. More and more people are becoming aware of Morgan’s story. Unfortunately — in my view — this has led to increasing speculation by some that Morgan is not merely an interesting historical figure, but might be a saint.

For this reason, I feel that I have no choice but to publish the Morgan divorce papers and disclose publicly the allegations made by Charlotte Morgan and the landlady against Fr. Raphael. The documents also include Fr. Raphael’s written statement in defense of himself.

At this vantage point, 110 years after the fact, we have no way of saying, for sure, whether the allegations are true or false — but with allegations like these on the record, it would be irresponsible of us to advocate for Morgan’s canonization, or even for him as an exemplary figure, a de facto patron of black American Orthodoxy.

Even if Morgan had not been accused of abuse and infidelity, there is no legitimate case for canonization. He has none of the characteristics we see in the saints — no miracles, no martyrdom, no evidence that he suffered for his faith. He was not a great missionary — we have no evidence that he converted anyone except for his own wife and children. There’s no evidence that he was a holy ascetic, or a clairvoyant elder, or a wise theologian.

Even without the allegations, he’s just a really interesting story — not only a convert to Orthodoxy in America when that sort of thing was uncommon, but the first black Orthodox priest in American history. That’s a story worth telling — but, as the person who has studied Morgan’s life at least as much as anyone else, I see no evidence for sanctity. Throw in the allegations in these divorce documents, and I can say with confidence: we should pray for his soul, but we should not pray to him.

Click here to access all of the divorce documents. (And just for the sake of clarity, Fr. Raphael’s legal name was Robert Josias Morgan.)

Below, I have excerpted the key testimony from the hearing. Please be forewarned: this is disturbing testimony. If you have experienced abuse, you may want to stop reading now.

***

From the testimony of Charlotte Morgan:

Q: Go on and tell the master [of the court] all the facts from the date of your marriage to the present date, upon which you base your assertion.

A: He mistreated me and called me names.

Q: How long was this after your marriage?

A: Just two weeks after my marriage. He also slapped me and called me a whore. […]

Q: Where was it that he slapped you?

A: In the house in Monrovia, where we were residing, waiting for the steamer, as the steamer comes very slow, because the woman there was a lady friend of mine, and he prohibited me from having anything to do with her. He slapped me for just saying “good morning” to the lady. He then left, taking a steamer to Grand Basas. […]

Q: What happened in Grand Basas?

A: In Grand Basas he had a mistress in the house, who did the housekeeping.

Q: Were you present? Did you live in the house at the same time?

A: I was living in the house then, and I discovered afterwards that this woman was his paramour. He abused me because of refusing to have the woman do anything for me, and he beat me. This occasion when he beat me was about four weeks after our marriage. It consisted of going into the yard, cutting down a stick of a tree, bringing it into the house and wearing it out on me. He deprived me of food, on account of my refusing to allow this woman to work for us. For two or three days — sometimes a week — I would have nothing from him in the way of food. All the food I would get, I would get from the neighbors. He would also take the native boy that we had by the name of Thomas and prevent him from doing anything for me, and when I would say something against that, he would strike me on the mouth with his clenched fist. He left me and went to England, and I went to Edina, Grand Basas, Liberia. And three months later, on his return, he joined me at Freetown, Sierra Leone, at my sister’s. He was cruel to me there, and would slap me and knock me down. He would not pay his laundry, and I asked for money to pay his laundry, and he wanted it done for nothing. It was on that account that he slapped me. We went back to Upper Buchanan, Grand Basas, and here he would beat me for objecting to his numerous love affairs. He was arrested as a result of his brutal treatment of me, and was put under bonds to keep the peace for six months. This was in Grand Basas, Liberia. He left then and came to the United States. It was in 1890 when he left for the United States. He refused to take me with him.

About January 15th, 1892, I landed in New York City and joined him in April, 1892. I joined him in Flushing, Long Island. Through letters which he had written to me and through the intercessions of friends, reconciliation was effected.

We went to Elmira, New York, shortly afterwards. In Elmira, New York, he refused to give me sufficient food, and he refused to furnish me with food for one and two weeks at a time, compelling me to get food from neighbors. He choked me also because I objected to his writing letters to numerous women. He would beat me in the dead hour of the night, without any occasion whatever. We separated in Elmira on account of brutal treatment. He was brutal to me in Elmira, and I was in a delicate condition.

We joined each other again in Brooklyn, New York, and in three months he left to seek work in the South.

In 1893 we went to Bloomhill, where he did not provide for me, and was living with another woman. He still beat me and abused me because I objected to these women. He beat me so in Bloom Hill that I was compelled to leave him and live with a neighbor. A month after that we became reconciled and lived together in Wedgefield, South Carolina. He beat me so brutally here without any cause, except his insane desire to prevent me from speaking to any of the neighbors, that, as a result of his constant beating and the noise and disturbances caused by them, he received a note from the white citizens to the effect that, if he did not stop beating me or leave town, they would tar and feather him. He left me and my first child, about a year old, in Wedgefield without any means of support.

In Georgetown, Delaware, we again because reconciled through the efforts of the late Bishop Coleman of Delaware, and we lived there for about two weeks.

We next lived together in Bayard, Delaware, and he continued his practice of forbidding me to speak to people or to have anything to do with anyone excepting himself. He constantly cursed and swore at me, calling me all sorts of vile, filthy and opprobrious names, beating me, knocking me down, kicking me, trampling on me, burning my clothes, tearing my clothes off my back, depriving me of food, and making my life a burden to me.

We next went to live at 1827 Addison Street, Philadelphia, and it was at that time that we roomed in the same house with Mrs. Bellinger, where the same kind of treatment continued. I was again in a delicate condition – in 1896 – and he was, if possible, even more unkind and brutal than he had been previously. He continued beating me without cause, still insisting that I should have nothing to do with any one but himself. He accused me of all sorts of improper conduct, of which I was not guilty – of drunkenness and keeping late hours – things which I never did; and whenever he was in a devilish humor, which was very frequently, he would strike, and beat and kick me, cursing me and reviling me all the time. Some of these things he did in the presence of Mrs. Bellinger.

We left this place in 1897, about February, and went to Wilmington, Delaware. He again beat me without cause, reviling and cursing me.

We next lived together at Naudain Street, Philadelphia, with Mrs. Woods. During 1898 I was separated from him, on account of his brutal treatment; and we were reconciled again as a result of his protestations that he would lead a better life, and writing me many penitent letters. We lived there about seven months, and then we went to 18th and South Streets, and lived with Mrs. Hill. We then left Mrs. Hill and went to another house, the address of which I do not remember – somewhere south of Carpenter Street, and during this time his unkind treatment continued, but I was able to live with him, although he would occasionally curse and beat me.

After leaving this last house, we went to Charles-town, West Virginia, in 1902, where he beat me with his fist on the face and head, and caused me to bite through my tongue, making my jaws so swollen that I could not eat; throwing dishes at me, and generally abusing me in every way that he could. His treatment towards me was so brutal and so notoriously bad, that the neighbors reported him to his Bishop, and he was discharged as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church.

We then left and went to the West Indies, and went to Almantown, Kingston, Jamaica. After we got there, the respondent [Fr. Raphael] left me when I was sick in bed, with no food in the house, and went to visit his mother at Chapleton, Clarendon, Jamaica. I wrote to him frequently for assistance, but he would write back and tell me that, if I wanted help, I must help myself and work for it. He gave me no food or money or support of any kind. He lived openly with another woman in Chapleton, Clarendon, and caused me great mortification and shame. Finally, my condition became so desperate, that I wrote to my friend, Mrs. Sadler in Philadelphia, and she sent me enough money to come home, and I sold out my personal effects, and, with the money I realized from the sale and the little she had sent me, I came back to the United States – this was in July, 1903.

We did not become reconciled again until 1904, when we lived together once more at sixteen hundred and something Webster Street, Philadelphia. We lived there for about a year, and I paid the rent and supported him and myself and my children during that time. He was still very brutal and unkind to me, beating me and cursing me in the manner I have already described.

He then deserted me in 1904, and I moved to Holmesburg, where he again joined me, and the same brutal treatment continued there.

He rejoined me again at Asbury Park in 1905. I paid for his board and his clothing at that place, and he still continued to curse and beat me, and stole all my money, and said that he would “raise hell”.

We next lived together at Mrs. Harewood’s on Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia, in 1906, and the same brutal treatment continued.

In December, 1906, we moved to Mervine Street, and lived there until the last week of April. In April, 1907, I left him on account of his brutal treatment, and I went to Mrs. West, and, after a short time, I took service with Mrs. Elmer at Wayne, Penn. Later, in 1908, after he had come out to Wayne and entreated me to return to him, and promised all sorts of things if I only would, I thought I would give him another trial, and I rejoined him at 235 South Sixth Street, Philadelphia, where I lived with him until July 10th, 1908, when his continued brutal treatment, consisting, as I have said before, of almost constant beatings, cursings and other ill treatment, caused me to leave him finally, and I have never returned to him since or lived with him as husband and wife. The night before I left, he turned me out into the street at eleven o’clock at night, dressed only in my night clothes, and forcibly kept me out of the house until about one o’clock, without any cause whatsoever excepting his own vicious and ugly temper. His brutal conduct towards me practically continued without interruption from two weeks after the date of our marriage until the time when I left him in 1908.

***

From the testimony of Julia Bellinger, the Morgans’ landlady in 1896 and in a couple of other years:

Q: How did Mrs. Morgan treat Mr. Morgan?

A: She treated him like a wife, and like a lady.

Q: How did he treat her?

A: Very rough.

Q: What did you see?

A: I saw him beat her with his fist over the face and head, slapped her and pulled her by the hair from the bath room over to their bed room.

Q: When was that?

A: During the time they lived there.

Q: What else did you see?

A: He shoved her down the stairs in my house, and beat her, and I remonstrated with him and told him I could not allow such treatment of a woman in my house. He never gave her anything to eat, and when I fed her, he would get mad, and start and beat her again, because I gave her food. I heard him constantly cursing and reviling her in their room, and he would make such noise and trouble that I would have to go upstairs and beat on the door and tell him to stop.

Q: Did he do anything else in the house?

A: One day he came in in a terrible temper, and went to her and slapped her and tore her clothes, and cut up a new pair of shoes. That continued all the time until they left. They lived in the house with me for about three years.

***

From Fr. Raphael’s response to Charlotte’s written accusations (which are not excerpted here, but are included in the PDF I have made available). Neither Fr. Raphael nor the Greek priest he references appeared in court, so all we have is Fr. Raphael’s written response.

FIFTH. The respondent [Fr. Raphael] further avers that he has always treated the libellant [Charlotte] with kindness, consideration and affection, was always ready and willing to furnish her with a home and with support, and always has had a home in which she and their said children could live and be provided for.

That the libellant is of a jealous and suspicious, vindictive and vicious nature, and of a violent temper, and since shortly after the date of their marriage, has unjustly accused the respondent of misconduct, has deserted him many times, has broken up his work in the various mission fields in which he has been laboring, and has continuously annoyed, hindered and interfered with his work as a minister, and has made his life intolerable and wretched. This condition of affairs has continued up until July, 1908, when the libellant and respondent were residing together, with their two children, at 245 South Sixth Street, Philadelphia, where the Greek Church then was and where the priest of the Greek Church also resided. While the libellant and the respondent were living there in July of 1908, her conduct was so unbecoming that the respondent spoke to her concerning it, but without avail. The white priest of the said Greek Church then remonstrated with her for said conduct, whereupon she became violently abusive of both him and of the respondent, using vile language and creating a disturbance. The following day, during the absence of the respondent for a few hours, she left their home, taking the boy, a lad of about eight years of age, with her, and has remained away from the respondent ever since.

***

As you can see, there are two sides to this story — Fr. Raphael denied any wrongdoing and claimed that it was actually Charlotte who behaved improperly, although he did not appear in court to respond directly to the allegations of Charlotte and the landlady Julia Bellinger. As I said above, there is no way for us, 110 years later, to come to a firm conclusion about whose story to believe. We can also hope that Fr. Raphael, to whatever extent necessary, spent the remaining 13 years of his life in repentance. We most certainly should pray for his soul, but, as I already said, we should not consider him for canonization or hold him up as a model.

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