The Life of Philip Ludwell, America’s First Convert to Orthodoxy

Philip Ludwell III, the first American convert to Orthodoxy. File photo

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 created in him 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 to seriously cultivate his spiritual life and the outward expression of his faith.

Ludwell’s quest led him to travel to London, England — and during that fateful summer he encountered a tiny community of Orthodox Christians there 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 America who keep his memory and writings alive.

After his fateful trip to London, Ludwell returned to Virginia, where he married and had three daughters, 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, just as their father had been years before.

The family returned to Virginia and Ludwell begun translating three of the most-used 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 to distribute 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 entire 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.

He used his power to advocate against the further importation of slaves from Africa and also headed up a committee tasked with finding 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 another trip to London which he undertook in the 51st year of his life, and he passed away there on March 14, 1767. The next Monday, at the beginning of the fifth week of Great Lent, his funeral service was chanted in the Orthodox church in London.

A prayer was found in Ludwell’s handwritten collection of Orthodox prayers and services that he had translated from the Greek. The prayer 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.”

If you would like 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.