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Posts by Nicholas Chapman
Editor’s note: What follows is the first of three articles by Nicholas Chapman on Fr. Samuel Domien, the first Orthodox priest known to have set foot in the Western Hemisphere. Domien was fascinated with electricity and became friends with Benjamin Franklin, who mentions Domien in his letters. To read Nicholas’ original article on Domien, click here.
In a recent article on this website I introduced Fr. Samuel Domien as the first Orthodox priest in the Americas. I acknowledged that this statement contradicts the only known published research about Domien found in two articles by Demetrius Dvoichenko-Markov:
1. A Rumanian Priest in Colonial America, (published in the October 1955 issue of The American Slavic and East European Review.)
2.Benjamin Franklin and the first American Romanian-Relations (Cahiers roumains d’etudes litteraires 1/1977 – The Romanian Book of Literary Studies, a French language publication of the University of Bucharest.) I am indebted to Matthew Namee for finding this second work.
In both of these essays, Markov takes the view that Domien was not an Orthodox priest, but rather a Greek Catholic (Uniate) clergyman. I believe that all of his arguments for reaching this conclusion are weak and do not stand up to serious examination. I hope that I can retain the interest of the reader whilst showing in some detail why I reach the opposite conclusion to Markov. I will do this by introducing a substantial amount of recently unearthed materials that further evidence the level of awareness of Orthodoxy in eighteenth century America.
Was Domien a Tartar?
Markov states that Benjamin Franklin made a mistake in identifying Domien as being of Tartar descent. He observes that Domien himself, in his advertisements for his electricity experiments in the South Carolina Gazette, does not claim Tartar descent, but only that he is a native of Transylvania. This is essentially an argument from silence. Why should Domien use up precious column space in a newspaper advertisement to mention his Tartar descent?
Markov also believes that Franklin would not have understood who the Tartars were and would simply identify any inhabitant of the Russian Empire as a Tartar. He suggests that John Ledyard, the Connecticut Yankee explorer who travelled across the Russian Empire in 1787-1788, makes such a misidentification. My own reading of Ledyard’s journals suggests the exact opposite. For example, when Ledyard is in Siberia he dines with a Mr. Karamyscherff. Ledyard writes of this name It is a Tartar name and he is of Tartarian extraction. Why would Ledyard write this if Tartar and Russian were synonymous?
What is much more commonly the case is to the wider use of the word “Tartar” in eighteenth century English to refer to any native, non Caucasian people group of Europe, Asia and the Americas. But this wider usuage does not preclude a more specific one. An American source much close to the time of Domien’s meeting with Franklin in Philadelphia in 1747/48 evinces such an understanding. In the Boston Weekly Newsletter of December 20, 1750 O.S. the following news is reported from Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire:
Sept. 8 – The Synod (i.e. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.) has received letters from the college established for the Propagation of the Gospel among the people of Asia, whereby it appears, that during the first six months of the present year they have brought into the Pale of the Greek Church 5182 men, and 2532 women; all which converts have been made among the Tartarian Nations inhabiting the Kingdom of Kazan and the Government of Orenbourg…
Even today the Kazan Republic in Russia is the principal center of Tartar peoples. The Tartars were subjugated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and are often thought of as being synonymous with them. As the Mongols also overran Transylvania at that time I cannot see why people of Tartar descent in Transylvania should not have existed some four/five hundred years later.
In this regard I was particularly intrigued to learn of a village called Tartaria in the Săliştea region of Transylvania. In the 1750’s this area became the center of Orthodox resistance to the attempts by the Austro-Hungarian empire to force union with Rome upon the Orthodox.
Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer NY, May 21 2012
It may come as a surprise to learn that one of the earliest descriptions of Orthodox worship in Alaska comes not from the pen of a Russian missionary or fur trader, but from that of a young Anglo-American explorer who visited the “Great Land” in 1778, sixteen years before the first missionaries arrived in Kodiak. His name was John Ledyard, born in the small town of Groton, Connecticut, in 1751.
Having dropped out of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, he embarked upon a life of travel. After a brief visit to the British colony of Gibraltar at the southern tip of Spain, he made his way to England and joined the British navy. One month before his fellow countrymen were to declare their independence from Great Britain, Ledyard set sail from London in June 1776 in the service of Captain Cook, bound for the Pacific as a member of the Royal marines.
By the summer of 1778 the expedition had reached southwest Alaska and in October of that year they came to Unalaska in the Aleutian islands of southeast Alaska. At the recommendation of John Gore, the first lieutenant of his ship The Resolution, Ledyard went on shore and traveled for several days. Ledyard describes Gore as his intimate friend and a native of America as well as myself. Gore was most likely a Virginian.
During the second evening on shore Ledyard met Russians for the first time, in the company of the native Aleutians. After enjoying a feast of whale meat, salmon and halibut he went to rest for the night. He writes:
After I had lain down, the Russians assembled the Indians in a very silent manner, and said prayers after the manner of the Greek Church, which is much like the Roman.
I could not but observe with what particular satisfaction the Indians performed their devoirs to God, through the medium of their little crucifixes, and with what pleasure they went through the multitude of ceremonies attendant on that sort of worship. I think it is a religion the best calculated in the world to gain proselytes, when the people are either unwilling or unable to speculate, or when they cannot be made acquainted with the history and principles of Christianity without a former education.
This was not to be Ledyard’s only encounter with Orthodox Christianity. After escaping the service of the British in Long Island in 1782 he remained on the east coast of the newly independent United States for barely two years, before heading to Paris in 1784. There, in June 1786 he met Thomas Jefferson, the American Minister to the French court. Jefferson later recounted:
Ledyard had come to Paris in the hope of forming a company to engage in the fur trade of the Western coast of America. He was disappointed in this, and being out of business and of a roaming, restless character, I suggested to him the enterprise of exploring the western part of our continent, by passing through St. Petersburg to Kamchatka, and procuring a passage there in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, whence he might make his way across the continent to America; and I undertook to have the permission of the Empress of Russia solicited.
Had Ledyard succeeded in making the journey Jefferson outlined his place in history would probably rival, if not exceed that of Lewis and Clark who were to follow a similar mandate from Jefferson some twenty years later. Ledyard set out on his monumental journey and made it as far a Yakutsk in eastern Siberia, a journey of some 7500 miles overland and within several hundred miles of the Russian Pacific coast. There he was arrested as a spy and forced to return via St. Petersburg to London!
Whilst on this trip Ledyard had several meetings with Gregory Shelikhov in Irkutsk, Siberia. At this point Shelikhov had returned to Siberia after founding the Russian settlement of Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 1784. It was the Shelikhov-Golikov company that would later sponsor sending the future St Herman and other Russian Orthodox missionaries to Kodiak in 1794. (Although it should be noted that Shelikhov asked for only one priest to be sent to the fledgling settlement at Three Saints Bay.) Ledyard’s interest in the Pacific north-west fur trade was most probably what led to his expulsion from Russia. Catherine the Great was eager to integrate Russian America into her empire in the face of emerging competition from the Americans, British and Spanish. It is in this context the Orthodox mission six years later arises. Ledyard also records meeting with the Orthodox Archbishop in Irkutsk and visiting the village of St. Nicholas, with its church of that dedication on the shores of nearby Lake Baikal.
After his return to London the ever-restless Ledyard set out to visit Egypt, traveling there via Paris, where he met again with Jefferson and also Lafayette. He subsequently wrote to Jefferson from Cairo:
The city of Cairo is about half as large in size as Paris, and is said to contain several hundred thousand inhabitants. You will therefore anticipate the fact of its narrow streets and high houses. In this number are contained one hundred thousand Copts, or descendents of the ancient Egyptians. These are likewise Christians, and those of different sects, from Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo and other parts of Syria.
After extensive travels throughout Egypt Ledyard wrote the last letter of his life (still extant) to Jefferson on November 15, 1788. Shortly after this he died of a fever in his thirty-eighth year and was buried in Cairo. The account of his travels with Captain Cook was published in Connecticut in 1783. This is the first work ever published in America to be subject to copyright law.
As a publisher myself, who was born in the British crown colony of Gibraltar and spent a portion of childhood in Ledyard’s home town of Groton, Connecticut, it is hard not to identify with him. Even more so after having made three trips to Alaska, visited the grave of Gregory Shelikhov in Irkutsk and celebrated the feast of Pentecost 1988 in the church of St. Nicholas, on the shores of Lake Baikal, Siberia.
Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, New York, April 9, 2012
Tuesday, March 14/27, 2012 marked the two hundred and forty fifth anniversary of the repose of Colonel Philip Ludwell III, a native of Williamsburg, Virginia. The metrical books of the Russian Orthodox Church in London, England record that Ludwell died at his home in London at 5p.m. on March 14 O.S., 1767, having previously been confessed and received holy communion and holy unction. His funeral was served several days later in the London church. He is the first known convert to Orthodoxy in the Americas, having traveled from Virginia to be received at the Russian Orthodox Church in London, England in 1738. Further details of his life may be found elsewhere on this site.
With the blessing of Archimandrite Luke, Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, a memorial (panikhida) was served in English by Archpriest Gregory Naumenko, rector of the Protection of the Mother of God Church in Rochester, New York, who teaches pastoral theology and homiletics at Holy Trinity Seminary. Responses were sung by a small choir of seminarians under the direction of Reader Ephraim Willmarth, who is the administrative assistant to the dean of the seminary. Members of the monastic community and local Orthodox believers also joined in the prayers. Archpriest Gregory also remembered the other known Orthodox members of Colonel Ludwell’s family: his daughters Hannah, Frances and Lucy, and the latter’s husband John Paradise. A short reflection on the significance of Colonel Ludwell’s life for the Orthodox Church in Russia and the Americas, and his role in early American history, was offered by Nicholas Chapman before the commencement of the memorial.
On the evening of the same day a pahikhida was also served at the St. John of Kronstadt Russian Orthodox Memorial Church in Utica, New York. The parish’s rector, Archpriest Michael Taratuchin, when announcing the service on the previous Sunday, had noted that his own place of birth was very close to the church in the East End of London, where Colonel Ludwell was buried in 1767. Archpriest Michael chose to remember Colonel Ludwell as a voina (warrior) because of his role in the appointment of the young George Washington as a colonel in the colonial militia and his work with Lord Loudon (Commander in Chief of British Forces in North America), with whom Ludwell interceded for the strengthening of the Virginia frontier.
Both memorials were served with the blessing of Metropolitan Hilarion, the first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, in his capacity as the head of the ROCOR diocese of Eastern America. It is not known to the writer at the present time whether other memorials were held on the same date elsewhere or on the date of Ludwell’s repose according to the revised Julian (new) calendar.
May Colonel Philip Ludwell’s memory be eternal!
Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, New York, March 28, 2012
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.”
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