As the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the South prepares for its 2016 Assembly in Wilmington, North Carolina, it is appropriate to think about how far Orthodoxy has come in America over the last 100 years. From a primarily immigrant Church concentrated in the northeastern United States, the Orthodox Church continues to spread throughout the southern region of the country.
The First Known American Convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity
At the same time, we find it the right thing to do to remember the person who arguably could have been one of the first members of the Diocese of the South, were it extant 275 years ago. After returning to his native Virginia from a voyage to London, where he was received into the Orthodox Church in December 1738, Philip Ludwell III privately practiced his faith at his properties in Tidewater Virginia. He owned three plantations: Green Spring, approximately five miles due west of the colonial capital of Williamsburg; Rich Neck, just south of the capital and the College of William & Mary; and Chippokes, just south of these two plantations, across the James River. These properties were among the very first areas settled by Europeans after 1607.
About an hour south of this area, one meets the Virginia-North Carolina border. Philip Ludwell III’s first cousin was married to William Byrd II, who helped mark the boundary between these two colonies. Byrd was a prominent planter and political official who founded the future capital of Virginia, Richmond, in order to help protect his properties and speculations during the British migration westward. Also an author of some renown, Byrd wrote The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, his account of the surveying of the border between the Colony of Virginia and the Province of Carolina in 1728.
It is probable that the young, orphaned Philip Ludwell III would have first read the ancient Fathers of the Church in Greek while staying at his cousin Byrd’s Westover Plantation, which is upriver from Green Spring and remains a private home to this day. Byrd was renowned for having probably the largest library in British America, featuring some 4,000 books. It is clear from his diary, The Secret Diaries of William Byrd of Westover, that Byrd regularly read from his books in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. (For proof, just follow Byrd’s Twitter account here.) Incidentally, Byrd’s second wife, Maria, spoke Greek and Byrd also recorded meeting with members of the Russian community in London in the 1720s.
North Carolina: Early 18th-Century Hotbed of Pirate Activity
In 1729, one year after Byrd’s border expedition, the two colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina were formed from their predecessor, the Province of Carolina. For modern-day pirate lovers, coastal Carolina would have been a paradise. With the Outer Banks protecting inlets and coastal rivers and streams, pirates found North Carolina a place of refuge, not to mention a business incubator. In 1718, two years after Philip Ludwell III’s birth, Lt Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia had had enough of these scoundrels who upset trade and sent an invading force into Carolina in order to end the menace and life of one Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard died at the hands of Spotswood’s men in a ship-to-ship battle off Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks – now a summer vacation paradise. That battle-to-the-death undoubtedly inspired many a Hollywood on-deck fight scene (think Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp), and the sports teams of East Carolina University in the nearby tidewater/coastal city of Greenville proudly call themselves the Pirates.
The Ludwell family name crops up at least one more time in relation to the Province of Carolina. In November 1691, Philip III’s grandfather Philip I was commissioned Governor of Carolina by the Lords Proprietors in London. Heading from Virginia to “Charles Town,” Ludwell was instructed to recall Seth Sothel as governor and return him to his superiors in London. He was then to determine:
“if King William and Queen Mary have been proclaimed in Carolina and if they have not by reason of the Disturbances you are to cause them forthwith to be proclaimed with as much Decency as possible.”
Having previously served as Secretary to Governor William Berkeley, who served as Virginia governor for nearly 40 years in the 1600s, Ludwell was said to have “soon restored order and good feeling in the colony” of Carolina, serving as Governor until 1693.
Philip I later returned to London, where he died in 1716, the year his grandson Philip III was born in Virginia. Six decades later, and with no Diocese of the South to turn to, Philip III returned to London in order to ensure his three daughters’ reception into the Orthodox Church. A few years later he also died in the capital of the empire, where he is laid to rest like his father, at Bow Church in Stratford, east London.
Note: The Associates of Colonel Philip Ludwell III are pleased to be attending the Diocese of the South 2016 Assembly this month.
Photo credit: Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, painted in 1920