George Alexander McGuire (1866-1934) was the first Patriarch of the African Orthodox Church under the regnal title of Alexander I. Consecrated in 1921 by Prince-Abbot Joseph III at the foundation of the church, he led the denomination to become a thriving example of Orthodox witness that continues today. He is considered an important figure in the development of religious movements among the Black community in the United States during the first half of the twentieth-century.
Patriarch McGuire was a member of the Order of the Crown of Thorns and received the title of Prince of the Crown of Thorns from Prince-Abbot Joseph III. He was invested by him as a Prelate-Commander of the Order in 1923 and in the same year, Prince-Abbot Joseph III bestowed the Grand Prix Humanitaire upon his wife, Ada, who was organist at the AOC Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd, New York.
At the time of his death in 1934, the African Orthodox church claimed over 30,000 members, fifty clergy and thirty churches located on three continents: North America, South America and Africa. According to Bertil Persson, emeritus Primate of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, McGuire was a layworker in The Moravian Church, St. Croix, West Indies, between 1888 and 1893, and was ordained minister in that church in 1893. He then joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA. On 22 October 1897 he was ordained priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church by Boyd Vincent (1845-1935), PEC Coadjutor Bishop of Southern Ohio between 1889 and 1904. He was Field Secretary of The American Church Institute for Negroes of the PEC. In 1919 he left the PEC and became a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church.
In 1918 he joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Marcus Garvey, the UNIA’s president, appointed him the first Chaplain-General of the organization, at its inaugural international convention in New York in August 1920. In this position McGuire wrote two important documents of UNIA, Universal Negro Ritual, New York 1921, and Universal Negro Catechism, New York 1921, the latter containing both religious and historical sections, reflecting his interest in religion and race history. Between 1921 and 1931 he was editor of The Negro Churchman. McGuire broke with Garvey in 1924.
McGuire had approached Prince-Abbot Joseph III to request that his church should receive the Apostolic Succession, and was particularly attracted to the Orthodox faith since, unlike the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches, the Orthodox had no history of support for racial segregation or ties to the prevailing establishment in the United States.
Accordingly, in the Church of Our Lady of Good Death, Chicago, Prince-Abbot Joseph III ordained to the minor orders, diaconate and priesthood from 25-27 September McGuire and William Ernest James Robertson (1875-1962) (who would eventually succeed McGuire as Patriarch of the AOC), and then on 28 September, assisted by Bishop Carl Nybladh, consecrated McGuire who was subsequently elected Patriarch of the AOC. In the period following this, McGuire initiated positive contact and discussions with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but while the Patriarch accepted the Holy Orders of the AOC as valid and its belief as Orthodox, he seems to have considered its liturgical basis to have been too Western in nature, and closer links were not to be forthcoming.
McGuire’s church spread in the United States, as well as abroad, and continues today as a highly active denomination. In 1929, the AOC General Synod decreed that 1 July with its Octave should be observed as a Festival of the Church in honour of Prince-Abbot Joseph III “in joyful Thanksgiving for the labour of this Apostle through whom we received our glorious heritage in the Catholic Episcopate. Let all the Clergy and Congregations observe this Festival.”
He was canonized by the African Orthodox Church on 31 July 1983.
Information in this article is taken from “The African Orthodox Church: Its General History” by Archbishop Philippe de Coster (Editions Eucharist and Devotion, 1993-2008) and from Rachel Gallaher’s biography of McGuire at blackpast.org