An Orthodox Baptism in the home of John Quincy Adams – and much more besides

John Quincy Adams, 1818

On January 20, 1811, an Orthodox baptismal service took place at the home of the future President of the United States John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa. At that time they were living in St. Petersburg, Russia. Louisa Adams took an active part as one of the Godparents of the little girl being baptized, along with her fellow sponsors Martha Godfrey (the Adams American chambermaid) and Mr. Francis Gray, one of the secretaries to the American legation in Russia.

John Quincy Adams later became the sixth President of the United States, serving his one term of office between 1825 and 1829. He was the eldest son of the second U.S. President, John Adams. From a young age John Quincy lived in Europe with his father, as the latter served as American representative in France and the Netherlands. At the relatively tender age of 14, in 1781, John Quincy travelled for the first time to Russia as secretary to Francis Dana whose mission was to obtain recognition by Russia of the nascent American republic. This initial visit was to last almost 3 years.

John Quincy returned there for a further 5 years in 1809 when President James Madison appointed him as the first fully credentialed US ambassador to Russia. In this role his wife, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, who holds the distinction of being the only foreign born First Lady of the United States, ably supported him. (She was born in London to an English mother and American father.)

So how did Louisa Adams and the other Americans become co sponsors of an Orthodox baptism? As John Quincy recounts, on Russian New Year’s Day, 1811, his footman Paul, a Finnish man of Lutheran faith and his wife, “a Russian of the Greek church,” had a baby daughter. Because of the mother’s faith it was agreed that the child “was to be christened according to the fashion of the Greek Church.” At the request of the Lutheran footman Paul, Mrs Adams and Martha were asked to stand as Godmother and Mr. Gray as Godfather. The baptism took place at 8 o’clock in the evening in the parlor of the Adams home. The service was conducted by a priest “and an inferior attendant not in clerical habits, who chanted the Slavonian service, the priest from a mass book.”

Given the unusual time and location of the baptism and the use of non-Orthodox sponsors, (assuming none of the Americans had converted), one has to wonder if the child’s life was in danger and hence the unusual circumstances. Because at that time the calendar difference was 12 days, the evening of January 20, would have been the eve of the child’s eighth day, the traditional time for its naming. But whether this was deliberate or co-incidental cannot be said. It may also be that John Quincy Adams, as the head of the extended household, influenced the timing. In September of the same year the resident English chaplain of the Russia Company also baptized in his home, but according to the rite of the Church of England, his daughter Louisa Catherine. In connection with this baptism John Quincy wrote: “ (T)he rite itself, the solemn dedication of the child to God, I prize so highly, that I think it ought never to be deferred beyond a time of urgent necessity.”

In any event, John Quincy describes the service in meticulous detail. He writes:

A plated vessel of the size of a small bathing tub contained the water, which the priest consecrated at the commencement of the ceremony. Three tapers were at first fixed at the end most distant from the priest and at the two sides of the baptismal vase. The child was brought in and held by the nurse, until the priest took it naked and plunged it three times into the water. With a pencil-brush before and after plunging, he marked a cross on its forehead and breast, and finally on its forehead, shoulders and feet – repeating the same thing afterwards with a wet sponge. A shirt and cap, provided by the godmother, were then put upon the child, and a gold baptismal cross, furnished by the godfather. Tapers lighted were put into their hands, two of them from the sides of the vase, round which they marched three times, preceded by the priest. He then with a pair of scissors cut off three locks of the child’s hair, which, with wax, he rolled up into a little ball, and threw into the water in which the child was baptized; and finally, after a little more chanting from the book, the ceremony was concluded. During the first part of the ceremony the priest turned his back to the vessel of water, and the sponsors, with the nurse and child, to the priest. Another singularity was that at one part of the ceremony they were all required to spit on the floor.

John Quincy’s diaries report numerous other experiences of Orthodox worship during this second period in Russia, including attending the Paschal night service and a liturgy followed by veneration of the relics of St. Alexander Nevsky that took place at the monastery in St. Petersburg which bears the name of the saint. From a brief review of his diaries covering his five years in Russia as Ambassador it seems that Adams attended at least 50 Orthodox services, most commonly Te Deums, the short Orthodox service of thanksgiving and intercession. His writings also evince an interest in questions such as the dating of Easter and the moment of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic liturgy.

His experience of Orthodox services was far from being uniformly positive: In describing a baptism at St. Isaac’s Cathedral he recalls that, “The choir of singers at the left hand of the chancel was small, the singing, as usual, excellent.” But he moves on to say

The mothers appeared delighted to have obtained the blessings. The multitude of self crossings, the profound and constantly repeated bows, the prostrations upon the earth and kissing of the floor, witnessed the depth of superstition in which this people is plunged perhaps more forcibly then I had seen before.

Perhaps surprisingly his attitude to the Orthodox practice of fasting and abstinence was more positive. He recounts a conversation with his Russian landlord during the second week of Lent that is worth quoting in full:

He spoke of their Lent, of which this is the second week. They keep their first and last week with great rigor, and in them they are not allowed to eat fish, no animal food of any kind – scarcely anything but bread, oil and mushrooms. The common people he says, consider a violation of the Lent as the most heinous of crimes. Murder, they suppose, may be pardoned, but to break the fast is a sin utterly irremissible. He himself kept the fast last week, not from a religious scruple, but because he thought it a salubrious practice, and a useful one to form a habits of self-denial. I am of that opinion myself, and I have often wished that the reformers who settled New England had not abolished the practice of fasting in Lent. I am convinced that occasional fasting, and particularly abstinence from animal food several weeks at a time, and every year, is wholesome, both to body and mind. It is true that fasting is not expressly enjoined in the Scriptures, and therefore cannot be required as a religious observance; but, unless prescribed by a principle of religion, there is no motive sufficiently powerful to control the appetites of men.

John Quincy Adams’ engagement with Orthodoxy in the context of his ambassadorial duties was clearly substantial. In recent years it has become popular to refer to Orthodoxy as “the best kept secret in America.” The more I read from early sources the more it seems that Orthodoxy was in fact much better known two hundred years ago then now, at least amongst the educated and ruling classes of the nascent Republic. This is a theme to which I shall perhaps return in subsequent articles.

Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, New York, January 20, 2012

7 thoughts on “An Orthodox Baptism in the home of John Quincy Adams – and much more besides

  1. Great article. I certainly wonder if it was in fact an Orthodox baptism, or perhaps some joint affair deferring to the rank of the sponsors. There are many descriptions of Lutheran services in Petersburg, and I wonder if the second – apparently a reader – was a Lutheran minister, and that since the requirement was that the Baptism be conducted ‘in the style of,’ the Lutheran service would be similar enough to the Orthodox that one could easily meld the two into a common rite. Nice work, Nicholas!

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I don’t really see any evidence in Adam’s diary to suggest any kind of joint Orthodox/Lutheran baptism. He clearly states that the child was to be baptized “according to the rites of the Greek church” and his description of what took place is absolutely on the money for an Orthodox baptism, right down to spitting on the devil :)
    I don’t think I have ever been to a Lutheran baptism but believe that this practice, at least, is unique to Orthodoxy. Also the service was chanted in Slavonic.

  3. Sorry Nicholas, I must have missed the fact that the service was chanted in Slavonic, but that would be a giveaway. As far as the similarities, the Lutherans did not spit on the devil, but cursed him. The triple dunk was the same. We have to be careful about confusing what passes as Lutheran in the US with the continental variant. I was baptized German Lutheran, and the Russian church deemed it sufficient.

  4. Then again, there is still the apparent odd-ball in that none of the sponsors are, at least prima facie, Orthodox. The fact that significant gifts were given and that Adams is usually a pretty astute observer gives me pause that there were in fact no Orthodox sponsors, and that there was nothing wrong with the child, i.e. there was no emergency justification.

  5. Fascinating work Nicholas. I’m enjoying your theme of early American dignitaries and their connections to Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. I recently visited Middleton Place, north of Charleston, SC, a plantation and estate. One of its residents was Henry Middleton (the 2nd Henry there) who was ambassador to Russia 1820-1830. Within the house museum on site there are several Russian paintings and other items. Of particular interest was a silver broach with an icon of Theotokos and Child flanked by angels. If nothing else, one continues to see the religious aspects of early American diplomats and their encounters with the Orthodox Church.

  6. Pingback: A future President’s eyewitness account of an Orthodox baptism in Russia | Orthodox in the District

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