On the latest episode of our American Orthodox History podcast, Nicholas Chapman recounts the almost incredible story of Orthodox Christianity in colonial Virginia. Last month, we published Nicholas’ first article on the subject. Below, he continues his series.
On July 4, 1789, after nearly five years of service, Thomas Jefferson was coming to the end of his time as US minister plenipotentiary to France. It was the eve of what would come to be known as the French revolution, but this did not prevent Jefferson from hosting a celebration to mark the recently won independence of the United States. The party was attended by many of Jefferson’s closest friends in Paris, including John Paradise, the son in law of Philip Ludwell III.
John Paradise was by any account a remarkable man: an extraordinarily gifted linguist with a talent for friendship which brought him into contact with almost all the great men of his day. English was probably only his seventh language and by all accounts he never spoke it well! He was, however, able to converse freely in Greek, Italian, Turkish and Arabic amongst others and almost certainly knew Russian. He used his gifts to teach Thomas Jefferson classical Greek whilst visiting him in Paris.
John Paradise was also an Orthodox Christian. His father, Peter Paradise, had been the British Consul in Salonika (Thessalonica) and his mother was half Greek. It is possible that his paternal grandfather was also both English and Orthodox, making John Paradise a third generation English Orthodox at the time of his birth at Salonika in April 1743. His father, Peter, had contacts with monks from Mt. Athos during his years in Salonika and it is not known whether it was these, or his marriage, that had brought him to the Church.
After his early years in Greece, John was sent to the University of Padua (modern day Italy) and ultimately to Oxford to complete his education. At some point in the 1760’s it seems that the Paradises met Philip Ludwell and his three daughters in London. On April 20, 1766 they are all recorded as partaking of the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Russian Orthodox Church in London. When Philip Ludwell III died less than a year later, Peter Paradise became one of the legal guardians of Ludwell’s three daughters. When Frances died less than a year after her father and Hannah (the eldest daughter) married in March 1769, Lucy Ludwell went to live at Peter Paradise’s London home. Barely two months later Lucy married Peter’s son John.
Philip Ludwell III’s London house was also a home for an extended Virginian family including three of his sister Hannah’s children: Alice, Arthur and William Lee. It was William who was to marry the eldest Ludwell daughter in March 1769. She was also his first cousin. Close to the Ludwell house in Cecil St. was the London home of Benjamin Franklin, who at that time was on his second extended visit to England. Franklin was one of the early members of the Royal Society, to which John Paradise would subsequently be elected. Philip Ludwell III was very proud of the inventive achievements of his fellow countryman and in 1762 commissioned a portrait of Franklin. This became Franklin’s preferred painting of himself.
Franklin was an intimate of the Ludwell household and on his return to America he sent his “best wishes to Miss Ludwell and the other ladies.” This familial contact with Franklin was to prove vital for John Paradise and Lucy Ludwell Paradise. The division of the Virginian estates of Philip Ludwell III after his death was to prove complex and made even more so by the outbreak of war between the American colonies and the British Empire. By that time Franklin was the first US minister plenipotentiary to France. In this capacity John and Lucy Ludwell Paradise visited him in Paris in 1779. Through his office John Paradise was to be granted US citizenship in October 1780, whilst the War of Independence was still raging. It can be said therefore that one of the first (and perhaps the first) naturalized American citizen was an Orthodox Christian, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church of mixed English and Greek ethnicity!
It was not until September of 1787 that John and Lucy Ludwell Paradise were finally able to travel to their estates in Virginia. During their time in America they were able to spend four days at Mt. Vernon with General George and Martha Washington. Washington’s diary for Sunday, December 30, 1787 records that at around eleven o’clock that day “Mr. Paradise and his Lady, lately from England but now of Williamsburgh , came in on a visit.” Sadly, we have no detail of the conversation that was exchanged during their stay, although it is known that Washington suspended the normal conduct of his affairs during their visit, which was not his normal practice. As John Paradise was on intimate terms with the two most important representatives of the United States overseas (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) and personally acquainted with so many other persons of note, it is not difficult to think that Washington would have found his visit of immense interest.
Barely two months after their visit to Mt. Vernon, the Paradises were to receive the shocking news of the death of their daughter Philippa, aged only thirteen, in London. So it was, that shortly afterward, they were to return to London. Here it was that they met the newly appointed Russian priest, the Rev. Yakov Smirnov, who was to become Lucy’s cherished spiritual father. John Paradise was to work very closely with Fr. Smirnov is 1791 in a concerted public campaign to persuade British public opinion against war with Russia. For his service in this respect Paradise was awarded a pension of £150 p.a. by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, a substantial sum for its time.
It also seems likely that Paradise recruited the assistance of Frederick North, the future Earl Guildford, whose father Lord North was British Prime Minister during the American War of Independence. The young North was secretly baptized as an Orthodox Christian in Corfu in 1791 and at the same time was composing and publishing sonnets in praise of Catherine the Great! When John Paradise died in 1795 he left Frederick North some of his most precious possessions, thereby indicating the closeness of the relationship they must have enjoyed during his lifetime.
I have only briefly skimmed the facts of John Paradise’s life and adventures here. There is more to be written. But it must be of considerable interest that a man who was clearly an active Orthodox Christians was on intimate terms with the first three Presidents of the United States. James Boswell in his famous “Life of Johnson” penned the best obituary of him. He wrote: “John Paradise (1743 1795). Son of the British Consul at Salonica and a native woman of that country. He was distinguished by his learning and a very general acquaintance with accomplished persons of almost all nations” (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, vol. IV, p. 364, note 2).
Nicholas Chapman, Yonkers, NY, December 14, 2009