The first American Orthodox Christian
…was a convert in the colony of Virginia!
Colonel Philip Ludwell III (1716–1767) was a prominent Virginian (his grandfather, also Philip Ludwell, had been the first British Governor of the Carolinas). In 1738, aged 22, he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in London. It‘s not clear what paths brought him to Orthodoxy, though before his reception he had published his own translations of the Divine Liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great. Did his intellectual interests lead him to a deeper conviction, or did these translations spring from an already-existing attraction to Orthodoxy? Probably we’ll never know.
In the course of business, Ludwell made frequent voyages to London. He communed regularly at the Russian church there, and had his three daughters baptized in the Church. At least one daughter later married in the Church. Ludwell himself died in London after receiving the Holy Mysteries, and was given an Orthodox funeral.
The Church of Russia recognized Ludwell’s conversion as an unusual event: his reception was authorized at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia. The synod also showed its sensitivity to Ludwell’s unique position as the sole Orthodox Christian in the British colonies: they authorized him to return home with the Holy Gifts, and gave him a dispensation to attend services at the Anglican Church when in Virginia, noting that he was an “important royal officer” and that “apart from the Province of Pennsylvania, all religions but protestantism are banned.”
At least one of Ludwell’s daughters continued in the Faith: in an 1805 letter to President Thomas Jefferson, she wrote “With the blessing of God I am now in good health, and with my priest’s blessing and command, who is the Rev. Mr. Smirnov.” But as far as we know the family left no continuing Orthodox presence in America.
Who knows how, in God’s plan, the prayers and faithfulness of Col. Ludwell and his family affected the planting of Orthodoxy in America, a planting which is still just beginning to blossom?
(The information in this post comes from the online article Orthodoxy in Colonial Virginia by Nicholas Chapman.)