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The First American to Become an Orthodox Christian

Philip Ludwell america first orthodox convert
Philip Ludwell III, the first American convert to Orthodoxy. Credit: Public Domain

On December 29, 1716, a remarkable man was born in the Tidewater of Virginia. Fated to become America’s first Orthodox convert, Philip Ludwell III experienced many traumas which may have led to a deep philosophical bent very early on in his life.

Nothing is known of Ludwell’s childhood except that the young, impressionable boy lost his father at eleven years of age and experienced the loss of his mother, Hannah, when only fifteen.

After completing his education at the College of William and Mary, Philip was married to Frances Grymes at her family’s home, Morattico, also in the Tidewater area of Virginia.

By the summer of 1738, Ludwell had become one of the largest landowners in British Virginia, but his worldly wealth must have dissatisfied him to a certain extent. He then began to turn inward once again to begin seriously cultivating his spiritual life and the outward expression of his faith.

Philip Ludwell was the first Orthodox convert in America

Ludwell’s quest inspried him to travel to London, England—and during that fateful summer he encountered a tiny community of Orthodox Christians who changed the course of his life forever. In a strange coincidence, the small community of Orthodox Christians had begun to worship there twenty-two years earlier at the time of his birth.

He would go on to be the very first American to reject the Protestantism of his forefathers and convert to Orthodox Christianity.

The Orthodox community in America has not forgotten the courageous conversion of Philip Ludwell, who was confirmed on December 31, 1738 with the holy Chrism in London. The 300th anniversary of Ludwell’s birth was celebrated by a group of Orthodox faithful in the United States who keep his memory and writings alive.

Following his fateful trip to London, Ludwell returned to Virginia, where he married and had three daughters, namely Hannah, Frances, and Lucy. In 1753, his wife Frances passed away and Ludwell took his daughters to London. In 1762, they too were received into the Eastern Orthodox Church much like their father had been years before.

Ludwell translated important Orthodox liturgies into English

The family returned to Virginia, and Ludwell began translating three of the most well-known Orthodox liturgies and other popular services into English. The Holy Synod immediately blessed the printing and distribution of Ludwell’s work.

Encouraged by this approval, Ludwell began distributing his English translation of the Orthodox liturgies to whomever was interested in reading the passages. Intriguingly, his family motto was “pensieri stretti edil viso sciolto,” or “The thoughts secret and the face open.”

Accordingly, he wisely said the prayers of his newfound faith and observed Orthodoxy as  well as he could in private even as he grew in public prominence in the colony.

He went on to serve in the House of Burgesses, the first popularly-elected, deliberative body in the New World, beginning in the 1740’s. By 1752, he had risen to prominence to the degree that he was made part of the Royal Governor’s Council.

America’s first Orthodox convert advocated against slavery

Ludwell used his power to advocate against the further importation of slaves from Africa and also headed up a committee tasked with discovering a cure for cancer. Additionally, he helped organize the resettlement of French-speaking Acadian refugees from Nova Scotia who had been ethnically cleansed from their homeland by British troops.

In another show of Ludwell’s forethought, in a 1756 address welcoming Lord Loudon as the new commander of British forces, he advocated for the appointment of another young Virginian, George Washington, as the Colonel of the Virginia Regiment, part of the first colonial military force.

This remarkable man also donated toward the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and others for the establishment of the first school for African-American children in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Ludwell became ill on a subsequent trip to London undertaken in the 51st year of his life, and he passed away in London on March 14, 1767. The following Monday, at the beginning of the fifth week of Great Lent, his funeral service was held in the Orthodox church in London.

Philip Ludwell’s prayer

A prayer was found in Ludwell’s handwritten collection of Orthodox prayers and services that had been translated from Greek. The prayer, as seen below, is entitled “The Eucharistical Prayer for the Steadfastness in the Faith.”

This God is my God forever & ever, he shall be my guide until Death,
Everyday will I give thanks unto thee & praise thy Name.
for ever and ever.

O Let me have understanding in the way of Godliness. For thereby is thy Servant taught & in keeping of thee there is great Reward.

To learn more about the fascinating life of Philip Ludwell III and his important role in bringing Orthodox Christianity to the Americas, the website dedicated to him, here, has a great deal of information on his life and writings.

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