Nicholas Chapman: Was Fr. Samuel Domien a Greek Catholic? Part 3

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

Why did Fr Samuel Domien leave Transylvania?

As mentioned earlier Markov suggests that Domien left Transylvania in 1747 to further his education, with support from the Vatican. Perhaps The Boston Gazette of January 26,1748 offers an alternative reason. In that issue it publishes an Extract of a Letter from Transylvania dated August 23. (Presumably 1747) The letter describes in fairly apocalyptic terms and great detail the progress of a plaque of locusts across the Transylvanian countryside. The locusts are said to be of “an enourmous size” and they eat “the Leaves, the Grass, the Cabbages, the Melons, and Cucumbers to the very Roots. “ So starvation could well have been a factor in Domien’s departure from his native land.

Orthodoxy and knowledge of Latin

Markov argues that Domien’s knowledge of Latin is further evidence that he is a Greek Catholic rather than an Orthodox. This argument fails to give credence to the importance of knowledge of the Latin to the Orthodox in Eastern Europe in the years following the counter reformation (that began at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in the mid sixteenth century) and the subsequent Union of Brest in 1595 that created the Slav Eastern Rite Catholic churches.

The use of Latin in the Orthodox churches at this time is ilustrated by the famous catechism of Metropolitan Peter (Moghila) of Kiev (that Philip Ludwell III later translated into English) which was probably origininally written in Latin or at the very least translated into it at a very early stage in the mid seventeenth century.

The Orthodox clergy were also being taught Latin.The precursor of the present day Moscow Theological Academy was the Slavic Greek Latin Academy which began in Moscow in the 1680’s. So it should not be at all unusual for Orthodox clerics, particularly from Ukraine and points west, to know Latin. For a Orthodox priest of Romanian orign to acquire a knowledge of Latin should be even less surprising given that Romanian is considered to be the living language that is closest to Latin.

A Glimpse into the Theology of Fr Samuel Domien

Finally, I am indebted to Joel Brady of the University of Pittsburgh for finding a further reference to Fr Samuel Domien in the writings of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin writes from Philadelphia on May 9, 1753 to Peter Collinson (a London based cloth merchant and avid botanist) on the subject of “The Support of the Poor.” Franklin contrasts attitudes to labor amongst both Protestant and Catholic workers in Europe and then says:

We had here some years since a Transylvanian Tartar, who had travelled much in the East, and came hither merely to see the West, intending to go home thro’ the spanish West Indies, China &c. He asked me one day what I thought might be the Reason that so many and such numerous nations, as the Tartars in Europe and Asia, the Indians in America, and the Negroes in Africa, continued a wandring careless Life, and refused to live in Cities, and to cultivate the arts they saw practiced by the civilized part of Mankind. While I was considering what answer to make him; I’ll tell you, says he in his broken English, God make man for Paradise, he make him for to live lazy; man make God angry, God turn him out of Paradise, and bid him work; man no love work; he want to go to Paradise again, he want to live lazy; so all mankind love lazy. Howe’er this may be it seems certain, that the hope of becoming at some time of Life free from the necessity of care and Labour, together with fear of penury, are the main-springs of most peoples industry.

If we allow for what Franklin describes as Domien’s “broken English” his words could be said to indicate an Orthodox understanding of redemption as a return to the paradisical state from which we fell. The passage also evidences that Domien’s interactions with Franklin were not linked exclusively to scientific matters.


In the extract from his journals which I quoted in my previous article Franklin states that Domien is “a priest of the Greek Church.” Having examined Markov’s argument I see no reason why Franklin’s words should not be taken at face value. I think “the ball is in the other court” for more compelling evidence to be presented to support Markov’s contentions that he was in fact a Greek Catholic.

There is also a wider undercurrent to this story related to Franklin’s links with other Orthodox scientific scholars and clergy which further contextualise his relation both with Fr Samuel Domien and Philip Ludwell III. I hope to have time to write about these over the coming months.

Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer NY, May 21 2012

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