Nicholas Chapman: Was Fr. Samuel Domien a Greek Catholic? Part 2

Editor’s note: What follows is the second 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, from back in March, click here, and to read the first article in this latest series, 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.

The Unia

Markov explains that the Greek Catholic Church came into existence in Transylvania in 1701, when the previously Orthodox Metropolitan Atanasie recognized the authority of the Pope and was followed in this allegiance by some sixteen hundred clergy in Romania. Markov does recognize that there was considerable contiunuing opposition to this which gained new impetus in 1744 with the arrival of Visarion, a Serbian Orthodox monk. This in turn led to an intensification of persecution of the Orthodox. Markov says that at the same time the favored status of the Greek Catholic Church enabled then to send clergy of a scholarly disposition abroad to further their education. Without citing any particular evidence he concludes that Domien was most likely one of these scholarly Uniate clerics, rather than an Orthodox fleeing persecutions. He assumes that Franklin would simply not be aware of the difference.

This assumption is open to challenge. Early American newspaper accounts illustrate that the difference between an Orthodox and Greek Catholic was understood by the educated classes, of whom Franklin was most certainly one. Here is one example, from The Boston Newsletter of August 17, 1713:

Rome, April 29. A Father Missionary arrived here some days ago with 3 Deputies of the Patriarch of Alexandria, who have full Powers to abjure in his Name the Rites & particular Doctrines of the Greek Church, and embrace the Roman, which has given a great Satisfaction to the Pope. A Select Congregation met on Sunday Morning in the presence of the Pope, to examine the Validity of the Powers given by the said Patriarch, which were admitted, and on Wednesday Morning those Deputies made the abjuration aforesaid before the Cardinals of the Holy Office, which was yesterday morning ratified in a public Consistory held for that purpose. The Bulls of the Pope in favour of the said Patriarch are to be forthwith dispatched, and his Holiness has granted him the Pallium. They hope that this will prove a means for reconciling the Greeks with the Romish Church, which has been always aimed at by the Holy See, and so often attempted to no purpose.

In this article it is said that the Alexandrian Orthodox will abjure the rites as well as the doctrines of the Greek Church, which may suggest a less nuanced form of conversion to Catholicism. But in an article published on October 11, 1731 in the Weekly Boston Rehearsal it is clearly Uniatism being described:

Constantinople, May 17, New Style. Here has been a great commotion of late among the Greeks, about their Patriarch Jeremias, who was deposed, and banished to Mount Sinai, but found means to return, and endeavoured to raise a Posse, that should not only make him Patriarch again, but subject the Greek Church to the Government of the Pope of Rome……….For we are credibly informed, that besides the Money promised by Pater Jeremias both to Turks and Franks, he had entered into an engagement to assist the Romish Missionaries, in bringing the Greeks over to Popery, and to acknowledge the Bishop of Rome to be Head of the Greek Church.

An analysis of the specific situation of the Greek Church in Transylvania is found in an essay on European Affairs printed in The American Magazine and Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies in 1758. Within the context of a discussion of Russian-Turkish relations the writer explains that:

the Russians are by far the more dangerous enemy to the Turks, for the greater part of the grand Seignior’s subjects being christians, and these generally of the Greek Church, are naturally inclined to the Russians,who are of the same communion; whereas they are much better pleased to live under the power of the Turks, then to fall under that of the Austrians, because the latter are papists, which implies a disposition to persecute. Nay so true is this remark, that any liberty of conscience the Greek christians enjoy in Transylvania, is owing to their Ottoman neighbours, under whose milder government, the Austrians have just reason to apprehend, they would take refuge, if occasion were given them, from the intolerant spirit of popery.

This extract is particularly pertinent to the question of Markov’s identification of Domien as a Greek Catholic as it was published in Philadelphia within three years of Franklin’s letter identifying Domien as a priest of the Greek Church from Transylvania. The publisher was William Bradford, who like Benjamin Franklin was a Philadelphia printer who published The Weekly Advertiser, the main competitor to Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer NY, May 21 2012

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