A Transatlantic Transylvanian: The First Orthodox Priest in the Americas?

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, commissioned by Philip Ludwell III in 1762

It is generally considered that the first Orthodox clergy to set foot in the Americas were part of the group of Russian monastics who landed in Kodiak, Alaska in September 1794. I have recently come to hold a different view, as whilst researching another story I encountered evidence of an earlier Orthodox clerical presence on the Eastern seaboard of what is now the United States: that of a priest of Tartar descent (A Turkic language people group within the Russian Empire of Mongolian origin), who in 1747 made his way from his native Transylvania (part of present day Romania), via northern continental Europe and England, to the eastern seaboard of North America, landing in the then British colony of Maryland. It was some time towards the end of 1747, some forty-seven years before the Russian hieromonks reached the distant Pacific shores of Alaska.

Unlike the Russian monks, this priest, Fr. Samuel Domien, appears to have had no interest in sharing his Faith with the then predominantly English settlers of the Eastern seaboard. His concern appears to have been scientific, in particular spreading awareness of electricity. It seems to have been this that brought him from Maryland, via New England, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1747/1748. There he was the guest of a somewhat better known figure in early American history – Benjamin Franklin. It is from the pen of Franklin that we have the most substantial account I have yet found of Fr Samuel and his travels. In a letter from Philadelphia dated 18 March 1755, Benjamin Franklin writes to John Lining in Charleston, South Carolina:

All I know of Domien is, that by his own account he was a native of Transylvania, of Tartar descent, but a priest of the Greek Church; he spoke and wrote Latin very readily and correctly. He set out from his own country with an intention of going round the world, as much as possible by land. He traveled through Germany, France, and Holland, to England. Resided some time at Oxford. From England he came to Maryland; thence went to New England; returned by land to Philadelphia; and from hence travelled through Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina to you. He thought it might be of service to him, in his travels, to know something of electricity. I taught him the use of the tube…He wrote to me from Charleston, that he lived eight hundred miles upon electricity; it had been meat, drink, and clothing to him. His last letter to me was, I think, from Jamaica…. It is now seven years since he was here. *

Franklin goes on to say that he believes it was Domien’s intention to make his way home to Transylvania from Jamaica via Cuba, Mexico, the Phillipines, China, India, Persia and Turkey! Apparently, Domien promised to keep Franklin informed as he traveled but nothing further was ever heard. This led Franklin to conclude that Domien had either died en route or perhaps been imprisoned in New Spain (Modern day Mexico). He concludes to Linings with classic understatement: He was, as you observe, a very singular character.

Domien’s presence in America is confirmed by an advertisements he placed in late 1748 in the South Carolina Gazette to come and see his many wonderful experiments in electricity. The last of these was on December 26, 1748. As at this time America was still on the Julian calendar, then eleven days behind the Gregorian, and this would suggest he probably left Charleston and headed south  to Jamaica in early 1749. Thus, in total, he would have spent more than one year traveling throughout what is now the United States.

Is the story of Fr Samuel Domien of any real importance for the history of Orthodoxy in the Americas? I think it is and here’s why: The very existence of Domien and his presence in America nearly half a century before the Russian mission to Kodiak once again illustrates that mainstream America was not completely unknown to the wider Orthodox world of its time, centered as it was in Russia, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean.

At this juncture, I should mention that I am aware of the writings about Domien by Demetrius Dvoichenko-Markov, who published an article A Rumanian Priest in Colonial America in the October 1955 issue of The American Slavic and East European Review. Markov attempts to argue that Franklin did not really understand who Domien was and essentially mistook an eastern rite Catholic for an Orthodox. I do not think that any of the arguments Markov makes stand up to closer examination and will be writing a separate article to address these more closely. Suffice it to say at this point that Markov’s arguments all seem to flow from the assumption that Franklin would not have known the difference between eastern rite Catholic and Orthodox, despite the fact that Franklin’s own words quoted above, but a priest of the Greek Church, seem to fly in the face of this very assumption.

I also think it is too early to say with certainty that Domien did not have any churchly interest whilst in America. Franklin identifies him as a priest of the Greek Church and for him to have done this demonstrates that Domien was not keeping his identity in this regard a secret. Franklin clearly had some awareness of Orthodoxy long before his meeting with Domien. The second edition of Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard Almanack” tell its readers that the year 1733, makes since the Creation by the account of the Eastern Greeks 7241 years.

We also know that by the 1760s Franklin was a friend of Philip Ludwell III of Williamsburg, Virginia, who converted to Orthodoxy at the Russian church in London at the end of 1738. They saw each other regularly whilst both living in London in the early 1760’s, but I have not yet been able to establish if this was when they first met. Ludwell was definitely in Philadelphia in the 1750’s and it is not at all impossible that their friendship went back even earlier than this. As Franklin states that Domien went to Virginia, a visit to the colonial capital of Williamsburg and some interaction with Ludwell cannot be ruled out. Finally, I came across Franklin’s account of Domien whilst researching another interesting figure of pre-revolutionary America who also had contacts with the Orthodox East. But as one of my favorite British comedy shows says: More on that story later.

Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, NY, March 2, 2012

 

* Sparks, Jared, The Works of Benjamin Franklin Vol 5, Boston, Tappan & Whittemore, 1837. The quotation is on page 348, within the section “Letters and Papers on Electricity.”

One thought on “A Transatlantic Transylvanian: The First Orthodox Priest in the Americas?

  1. Bravo and well done, Nicholas! I hate to use that awful phrase, but I’m having trouble resisting at the moment, so… “I told you so!” I knew I read something about “Fr. Samuel of the Greek Church” long ago and it was so intriguing. I’m glad you found something more substantial!

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