Col. Philip Ludwell III: The Forerunner of Orthodoxy in North America

When we think of the pilgrims, who came to the American continent from England to start a new life and a new country, we think of Puritans and Calvinists. But how many of us know that one of the largest landowners in the state of Virginia, a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, an ancestor of Robert E. Lee, was a pious Orthodox Christian? His daughters as well?

Meet Colonel Phillip Ludwell III, possibly America’s first Orthodox convert—the founding father of American Orthodox conversion. In this video, British historian Nicholas Chapman gives more detailed, fascinating information on the life of this “pious man, filled with zeal for the Orthodox Church” and his descendants. This is something Orthodox Americans can be thankful for.

In this video (posted to the YouTube page maintained by the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist), Mr Nicholas Chapman, a renowned British historian and editor at Holy Trinity Seminary Publications in Jordanville, NY, offers fascinating insights into the life and legacy of one of the first known converts to Orthodoxy in colonial Virginia.

Colonel Philip Ludwell III was the grandson of the first royal governor of the proprietary colony of North Carolina. Most of his family were nominally Anglican, as was expected of established Virginia gentry during the period, but some were Non-Juror Jacobites who refused to recognize the regime change of the 1688 Protestant Glorious Revolution which saw the Catholic Stuart James II abandoned in favor of his Protestant son-in-law and daughter, respectively, William of Orange and Mary II. Ludwell became Orthodox in 1738 as a young man while in London, where the Russian Orthodox church there, frequently attacked by local Protestants, attracted a considerable number of native English converts amid a mostly Alexandrian Greek congregation. Returning to his home country of Virginia, Ludwell would become a luminary in the pre-revolutionary colonies. He was the wealthiest man in Virginia, which was the wealthiest of the North American colonies, but had he made his conversion public, he could have faced capital punishment, as the Church of England (Anglicanism) was the established faith in colonial Virginia and any religion outside Protestantism was illegal. As one of the King’s ministers, his conversion was technically treason.

Col. Ludwell commissioned the young George Washington into the colonial militia, served in the Williamsburg House of Burgesses, endowed what would become the University of Pennsylvania, and alongside his close friend Benjamin Franklin established a school to educate blacks in Williamsburg. He died after a long illness in London in 1767 having translated many Orthodox liturgical and doctrinal writings into English, including the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and the Catechism of the venerable Peter Mogila (1596-1646), Metropolitan of Kiev. Following his wife’s untimely death, he eventually brought his three daughters with him to London, where they too were received into Orthodoxy of their own volition. One of his daughters would become a friend to President Thomas Jefferson, while Confederate General Robert E. Lee was also a descendant.

Mr Chapman’s lecture, given Sunday, March 10 at the Cathedral following the English Liturgy, is titled “The Righteous Shall be in Everlasting Remembrance: Further reflections on Colonel Philip Ludwell III, the forerunner of Orthodoxy in North America”. In his lecture, Mr Chapman expanded upon this article which he published through the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA), to which he is an active contributor.

Mr Saturday Night Special 6/13/2023 8:51 am
Lord have mercy on our Country
Susan12/2/2015 9:30 am
Mary, all the landowners in those days owned slaves, including Thomas Jefferson and the Washington family. I suppose in those days one test of your Christianity was how you treated your slaves--did you take care of them and treat them as human beings, or as cattle. The Orthodox practice is to pray for the departed souls of the Orthodox departed with a service for the dead--no matter who they are, unless they committed suicide.
Mary12/1/2015 11:54 pm
Yes, and he was also a slave owner. It is important to consider cultural implications when dealing with non-Russian communities. That must have been pretty offensive to the Black folks there for a bunch of men in strange robes running off to Virginia to mumble in Russian to honor a space owner. i understand everyone deserves forgiveness, but the cultural insensitivity is staggering.
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