Recently, Holy Cross Orthodox Press published the Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches, edited by Alexei D. Krindatch. I contributed several pieces to the Atlas, including the article “Ten Interesting Facts About the History of Orthodox Christianity in the USA.” With Alexei’s permission, we’ll publish excerpts from that article over the next couple of months. To purchase your own copy of the Atlas (for $19.95), click here.
1. The first American convert to Orthodoxy was an aristocrat in British Virginia who joined the Church in 1738.
Very recently, Orthodox researcher Nicholas Chapman made an astounding discovery: in 1738 – three years before Bering discovered Alaska for the Russian Empire – prominent Virginia aristocrat Philip Ludwell III traveled to London and was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. Ludwell lived in Williamsburg, Virginia; in fact, his home was the first to be restored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His grandfather had been the first British governor of the Carolinas, and his father a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Ludwell’s relatives include two U.S. Presidents and famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was Ludwell who, in 1753, gave a young George Washington his first commission in the British army. Ludwell attended the same Anglican parish as Thomas Jefferson, and his manservant was actually the father-in-law of Jefferson (and the father of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s reputed mistress).
Ludwell became Orthodox when he was just 22 years old, and his reception into the Church was formally authorized by the Russian Holy Synod. Remarkably, the Synod also gave permission for Ludwell to bring a portion of the Eucharist back with him to Virginia. Ludwell was blessed to translate into English the famous “Confession” of Metropolitan Peter Moghila, and later, he made a fresh translation of the liturgy.
Despite living an ocean away from the nearest Orthodox church, Ludwell never left the faith, although he may have hidden his Orthodoxy from British authorities. He traveled to London rather often, and in 1762, he brought his three daughters to be chrismated. One of those daughters, Lucy, went on to marry a man named John Paradise, who was born in Thessaloniki to a Greek mother and an English father (who himself was Orthodox). John Paradise seems almost like a fictional character – a member of the great Royal Society, he hobnobbed with the intellectual elite of London. His friends included American founding fathers Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. It was Paradise who taught Jefferson to read Greek, and in the middle of the Revolutionary War, Franklin arranged for Paradise to become a U.S. citizen – possibly the first naturalization in American history. Later, Paradise worked as a secret agent for the Russian Empire, administering a pro-Russian propaganda campaign in England. Empress Catherine the Great awarded Paradise a large pension as a reward for his service.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.