Orthodoxy in Virginia before Alaska?

The following essay appears on The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas website.

Orthodoxy in Colonial Virginia

A note from Matthew Namee: What follows is a first glimpse of what is, I am confident, the most exciting research currently being done on the subject of American Orthodox history. As I’ve been telling others, my own research is pretty interesting stuff, but Nicholas Chapman’s work blows mine out of the water. Nicholas is a native of England, but he now lives in New York, where he works for the presses of both St. Vladimir’s and Holy Trinity (Jordanville) seminaries. I hope to interview Nicholas for my American Orthodox History podcast in the near future, and his article below is only the first of many.

It will come as a surprise to many, if not all Orthodox Christians in America, to learn that the story of their Church here begins not in 1794 but in 1738. Not in Russian Alaska, but rather British Virginia. Furthermore, what began in 1738 was not a mere blip on the radar, a passing moment of no historical import. Otherwise, how could it be that the daughter of a man described as “renowned in early Virginia history “(Annette Gordon-Reed: The Hemingses of Monticello) would write to President Thomas Jefferson early in his second term of office (Aug 27, 1805) “With the blessing of God I am now in good health, and with my priest’s blessing and command who is the Rev. Mr. Smirnov.”

Where does this story begin and who are its principal characters? Where are there descendants today and what became of their heritage of Orthodox faith and life that lasted for at least sixty/seventy years? My early research is only beginning to answer some of these questions, whilst posing many more.

Let’s begin with Colonel Philip Ludwell III, a third generation Virginian. He was the man who in 1753 gave George Washington his commission in the army and they exchanged frequent correspondence. Ludwell was a cousin of Washington’s wife, Martha. He was also a relative of Confederate General Robert E Lee and Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, amongst many other distinguished figures of American history. His grandfather, Philip Ludwell I was the first British Governor of the Carolinas and his father, Philip Ludwell II a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and Rector of the College of William and Mary. (The second oldest college in the USA and its first University.) Ludwell’s English manservant, John Wayles, was the father in law of Thomas Jefferson and the father of Jefferson’s African American mistress, Sally Hemings!

When, where and why did Colonel Philip Ludwell become Orthodox? He was received in the Russian Orthodox Church in London, on December 31, 1738 (Old style) by Fr. Bartholomew Cassano, a half French, Alexandrian Greek whose wife Elizabeth (nee Burton) is one of the first recorded English converts to Orthodoxy. Ludwell would have been twenty-two years old at the time. His reception was authorised at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia, who blessed him to take the Holy Gifts back to Virginia and which approved of his translation into English of the “Orthodox Confession” written by Peter Moghila, Metropolitan of Kiev, one hundred years earlier. They also granted him a dispensation to continue attending the Anglican church in Virginia, taking into account his position as “an important Royal official” and recognising that “apart from the Province of Pennsylvania, all religions but Protestantism are banned.”

His extensive business interests seem to have led him to travel frequently between Virginia and London. The London parish register documents his participation in the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion on twelve occasions between August 5 1760 and his death on March 14, 1767. (This is very frequent by the standards of the time when once a year communion was the norm.) On April 3, 1762 (Holy Wednesday) he brought his three daughters to be chrismated and somewhat unusually also stood as their sponsor.

His health began to fail him during 1766 and the register records that on Sunday, September 17, 1766, “The sick Philip Ludwell received Holy Communion in his house during the day.” On February 22, 1767 it states “the sick Mr. Philip Ludwell confessed and received Holy Communion, and was anointed with oil at his home.” Shortly thereafter on March 14, 1767 “Philip Ludwell died at five o’clock in the afternoon” and that the following day the “Canon after the departure of the soul from the body” was read at the church. On March 19, 1767 (the fourth day of Great Lent) his funeral took place. On March 22,1767 he was buried in the crypt of the church of St. Mary Bow. (A small Anglican Church to the east of the City of London, which at that time was a distinct village apart from the city.)

Another hint of the intensity of Ludwell’s commitment to the Church is found in Edward L Bond’s 2004 work Spreading the Gospel in Colonial Virginia. Writing in the context of what Bond describes as “Private devotional exercise common among some of Virginia’s elite gentleman” he states that “Philip Ludwell III transcribed from the Greek his own translation of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom “The Divine and Holy Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as it is performed without a Deacon.” ” Did Ludwell’s so called “private devotion” set him on a path to Orthodoxy? Perhaps it is so.

For now, I have only one clear statement, which is found in a letter written in 1791 by the Russian Ambassador in London, Count Vorontsov to his brother Alexander in St. Petersburg. The relevant passage is actually focusing on John Paradise (of whom there is much more to say.) Vorontsov writes “By a strange coincidence an Englishman, a friend of his (i.e. Paradise’s) father’s, who had some property in Virginia, took it into his head to read in the original all the Fathers of the Church and become convinced that our religion was the only true one; he forsook his own to study it and brought up his only daughter who afterwards married my friend Mr. Paradise.”

As mentioned previously, Ludwell in fact had three daughters, but only one was alive in 1791 and known to Count Vorontsov. All three daughters had been baptized as Orthodox Christians and at least one (Lucy who wrote to Jefferson in 1805) was married in the Church. In my next articles I will turn to their stories and those of the men they married.

Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, NY, Nov 11, 2009