In the Old Testament, when God set out to settle the Promised Land, He lived in a tent before He lived in a temple. The Tabernacle in the wilderness preceded Solomon’s Temple by several hundred years.
When God set out to settle America, He started with log cabins.
Log buildings were not only popular for settlers’ homesteads. They were also commonly used by Russian Orthodox immigrants when building places of worship. Log churches were common in Russia, and also in Alaska. When Orthodoxy finally ventured into the continental United States, the first church building exhibited a sort of “log cabin” construction.
Russians had build an outpost in Northern California in 1812, and the first Orthodox church in the continental United States was built at Fort Ross.
In its early years, it served the Orthodox settlers, as they came together to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
But its spiritual impact extends far past the early 1800s.
Thom Nickels–raised Catholic–recounts his memories as a 12-year-old at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. At the fair, he noticed vast differences between the modernistic Vatican Pavilion and a replica of the old “log cabin” Orthodox Church from Fort Ross:
My first glimpse of Orthodoxy was at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. I’d gone to the Fair with my family primarily to visit the Vatican Pavilion, a modernist white building that had a futuristic look and that effectively mirrored the reformatting of Catholicism taking place in Rome at the Second Vatican Council. . . . Inside the Pavilion there was also the modernist Chapel of the Good Shepard with its minimalist altar table, glass stained windows but not much else. . . .
At the time, I sensed that the chapel design hinted at coming changes in Catholic Church architecture. I was right. . . . My sense is that many Catholics then excused minimalist, Protestant looking church interiors if there was enough stained glass to take the mind off what had been eliminated.
Not far from the Pavilion was a small log cabin church with a three-bar cross on top. I knew the cross to be Russian Orthodox. The chapel was a replica of the first Orthodox chapel in America built in the 1800s at [Fort Ross], California. While the rustic exterior put one in mind of Lincoln Logs or Lewis and Clark expeditions, the interior — we had to peer through the windows because the chapel was locked — revealed something startling: a small chandelier illuminating a colorful iconostasis in the center of which were circles of electric candles and a replica of the framed (miraculous) icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
The beauty of that small log cabin church far surpassed anything in the great white Pavilion monolith with its cold and empty Chapel of the Good Shepherd.
It was then that I asked myself:
What is this thing called Orthodoxy?
The little chapel at Ft. Ross holds a special place in my heart, too. As far as I can remember, that is the first Orthodox church building I ever saw.
I was a Protestant in my early 20s, visiting my Uncle Preston in Stockton, California. He took me sight-seeing, and we walked around Ft. Ross. That’s when I saw the little log cabin chapel, and read about Orthodoxy’s first entrance into the continental United States. At the time, it merely seemed to be a historical curiosity.
I am grateful to the faithful people who built that little log cabin for God in the early 1800s. They may not have realized that their humble efforts would impact people’s hearts for Christ, for centuries to come.
Never, ever, ever underestimate the impact that God can make through you, when you give Him the smallest and most humble offerings.
He can do more with a log cabin than anyone else can do with a cathedral.