Interview with Nicholas Kosar on Colonel Philip Ludwell III

June 20, 2019 Length: 16:23

Frederica Mathewes-Green interviews Nicholas Kosar about Colonel Philip Ludwell III, the first known American convert to Orthodoxy.

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Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green: This is Frederica Mathewes-Green, and I’m sitting here at Antiochian Village at the conclusion of Ancient Faith Ministries’ Writers and Podcasters Conference, which has been terrific. I’m sitting here with Nick Kosar and talking about an obscure and unknown Orthodox Christian—American, probably the first American Orthodox, whose name was… Go, Nick; take it!

Mr. Nicholas Kosar: I’ll do that, thank you: Philip Ludwell III. There were three Philip Ludwells. I think today—we just had Liturgy—and it makes me think of what some of us… We have an organization called the Associates of Colonel Philip Ludwell III, which is researching Philip Ludwell’s life. Today is Soul Saturday, where we always want to remember all Orthodox Christians, and one of the things we’re trying to do is bring back his memory.

Philip Ludwell III was basically a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin. I think it’s hard for a lot of people to understand when he lived, because this is all pre-Revolutionary War. He was ten years younger than Franklin, 12 years older than George Washington. He was friends with both; he was actually a mentor to George Washington. And he died in 1767 in London. So we can talk about some of that, but I think one thing to talk about is sort of alternate history. There are a number of us who talk about this. If he lived ten years longer, he may have been the only Orthodox Christian to actually sign the Declaration of Independence.

Kh. Frederica: Wow!

Mr. Kosar: That is kind of his standing in society at the time.

Kh. Frederica: But he was born in America.

Mr. Kosar: Correct.

Kh. Frederica: So how in the world could he become Orthodox?

Mr. Kosar: Well, I think we have to read between the lines, unfortunately. He was born in 1716. When he was about 10 or 11, his father died. His father was a high government official and a planter in Virginia. Probably by about the time he was 14, his mother died. So I think part of it you have to say: Here was somebody who’s experienced loss. I think when that happens people tend to think a little deeper. Another thing is that his first cousin was married to William Byrd II. People who know what Richmond, Virginia, is… William Byrd II was the founder of Richmond, Virginia, and he was an eminent official in Virginia Colony. The thing about William Byrd was he had the biggest library in British America, and we know from his diary that he read in Latin and Hebrew and Greek. So it’s very likely that a young Philip Ludwell would have been tapping that library.

Kh. Frederica: Once he was orphaned he might have gone to live with his cousin.

Mr. Kosar: Absolutely, which is right up the James River from where he lived. It’s like a lot of converts. Part of it is they read too much.

Kh. Frederica: They read too much—I’ve heard that story over and over!

Mr. Kosar: So I think the same thing was happening in the 1730s that’s happening right now with a lot of people. You’re reading too much, and you can’t ignore it.

Kh. Frederica: Yes, yeah, the stone keeps rolling downhill, and before you know it you’re being chrismated. But of course for him it wasn’t that easy. There was no priest he could go to; there was no parish. How was he chrismated? I guess we’re positing that in his reading he was running across Orthodoxy, the Church Fathers maybe, and he was drawn toward it.

Mr. Kosar: Absolutely, and he was a young man of means. He went to the College of William and Mary, which is still a functioning college, graduated, married, had a daughter, and then he sailed to England. We’re talking about that could be anywhere from a month and a half to three months to get there.

Kh. Frederica: Just to get there.

Mr. Kosar: It was a dangerous journey. When he went there in 1738, he was chrismated in a Russian chapel on December 31, 1738, and he was about 22 years old. You always have to say “about,” because New Year’s Day was on March 1 back then, they were on the Julian calendar, etc., etc. Then he returned, and he quickly was elected to the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses: this year, 2019, is the 400th anniversary of what used to be the House of Burgesses and now is the Virginia House of Delegates. It’s the oldest legislative assembly in the United States. So he was elected to that.

Kh. Frederica: He was sort of parallel to being a senator or a congressman?

Mr. Kosar: Probably more like a congressman. And then in the 1750s, he served on the Council of State, which is basically the 12 most eminent and influential men in the colony, royally appointed, basically serving as the council advising the royal governor. In fact, if the royal governor died, which happened, the president of the council would serve as acting governor. We’re talking about serving at the highest levels of government, helping prosecute the French and Indian War…

Kh. Frederica: Even though he wasn’t Church of England. I guess I thought in Virginia you had to be Church of England to do anything.

Mr. Kosar: He wasn’t. Well, there was religious diversity. You had Quakers coming in, the beginning of Methodism and that sort of thing, but the thing is, what you read about, as you say, to be a public official, you had to be a member of the Church of England. I assume that he kept his Orthodoxy relatively secret, at least in an official capacity, because this is what you had to do.

Kh. Frederica: How do we know that he continued to be an Orthodox Christian?

Mr. Kosar: I think the evidence is there. He translated from Greek, and we know this through a Russian priest who filed reports back to the Russian Church, that he translated from the “ancient Greek” the three liturgies—St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and the Presanctified Gifts.

Kh. Frederica: Translated from Greek to English?

Mr. Kosar: To English.

Kh. Frederica: So this Russian priest would have been perhaps his spiritual father in London?

Mr. Kosar: Yes, yes, so he’s in London twice: once when he was a young man to convert, and then he came back and had a 20+-year career. His wife died, and in 1760, when he was in his 40s, he returned with his three daughters, and two years later in 1762, they were chrismated and became Orthodox. So really what you had was the creation of the first cradle Orthodox family in America.

Kh. Frederica: What do you know! Wow!

Mr. Kosar: So we have an indication that he was being given permission from the synod of bishops of the Church of Russia to bring back the holy Gifts to Virginia. You asked: How do you do this in a solitary manner? They were willing to accommodate him.

Unfortunately, he got ill. We know that from Benjamin Franklin who was saying, wrote him, “Oh, I wish I could find a cure to cure you.” But he did die in 1767 in London, and his daughters were still in Europe. The story goes on from there. But he obviously continued in his faith, whether that was private to what extent I don’t think we really know, but I wonder about myself or a lot of people: Could they really keep up that commitment to the Orthodox faith without any clerical or community support?

Kh. Frederica: How can you…? Yes, how can you do that? And yet he did, if he had prepared his daughters to the point where they would want to be chrismated. After all that time alone—there’s something very heroic about that, that dedication to the faith.

Mr. Kosar: I like that word you’re saying. I think there is sort of a heroic quality to it, sort of above and beyond the usual thing. His longest-surviving daughter, Lucy, after her husband died, she came back to Williamsburg at the beginning of the 1800s, and she suffered from mental instability, but we know from a letter she wrote to President Thomas Jefferson—I’ll paraphrase it—“Through the prayers of my spiritual father, who is a Russian priest in London, I am doing well.” So here it is, decades later, and his surviving daughter is still maintaining her faith.

Kh. Frederica: You know what this is an encouragement to is: I get emails from people all over the world, and often they’re living in America but in some small, rural town, and they write to me and they say, “It’s a three-hour trip for me to get to the closest Orthodox church. How can I sustain my Orthodox faith?” We try to cobble something together, where they go for a few of the feasts of the year, they stay in touch by email, they do a lot of reading, they can stream services over the internet. Philip Ludwell had none of that. He really had to do it on his own and exchange letters by mail that must have taken weeks to cross the Atlantic.

Mr. Kosar: Right. I think one thing is he used the means at his disposal. He used his wealth. I mean, there’s not many people who could sail over and stay there for a year or two or whatever and convert. So he did use the means that he had. The other thing is, back then, a lot of the religious life was on the plantation. To travel three, seven miles to go to your parish church was an undertaking, so I think it was natural that the head of the plantation would have had his own chapel and all of that. In fact, that’s something we’re trying to research. We know that there’s one structure at his estate, Green Spring Plantation, which was really the most eminent mansion and house in colonial Virginia at the time.

Kh. Frederica: That’s near Williamsburg?

Mr. Kosar: That’s five miles west of Williamsburg, two miles north of Jamestown. We wonder whether this one structure, that is under top soil now may have been his own private chapel. So the question is, for example, if he had the means, would he have brought back some icons or something and had his own Orthodox chapel?

Kh. Frederica: Well, it certainly seems like it. What makes you think this might be a chapel?

Mr. Kosar: Well, if you look… There have been a number of excavations of Green Spring, which is a National Park Service property. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public. I mean, you can walk onto the property; it’s unguarded, and I don’t think they want trophy-hunters there. But the archaeologists who have looked at it have said: This one chapel, which is sort of in the front yard of the estate, doesn’t match at all any of the other structures on the estate, whether they were built in the 1600s, mid-, late, or early 1700s.

Kh. Frederica: So it’s an add-on.

Mr. Kosar: Yeah, and if I recall correctly, that may have been added around the 1740s, which is after he came back from London.

Kh. Frederica: About the time he came back. I thought I’d read somewhere—it’s been a while since I’m up on this—there was an apse that’s kind of bumped out from it, and it faces east.

Mr. Kosar: This is one of the problems we in our organization— If you go to Ludwell.org, that’s L-u-d-w-e-l-l dot org, and we write about this. We’re doing research; we’re learning as we go. The very first house that was purchased by the Rockefeller family to create what is now Colonial Williamsburg—I’m sure a lot of your listeners have been to Colonial Williamsburg—the very first house that the Rockefellers purchased is called the Ludwell Paradise House, and that was built by Philip Ludwell in the 1750s, when he was on the council estate.

Kh. Frederica: “Paradise House,” my goodness.

Mr. Kosar: “Paradise” was the name of his daughter’s husband, John Paradise. Lucy Ludwell married John Paradise, who was an Anglo-Greek, spoke multiple languages, and was an Orthodox Christian.

Kh. Frederica: Wow!

Mr. Kosar: The reason it’s called Ludwell Paradise is when she returned, her name was Lucy Ludwell Paradise. But that house is emblematic of what we’re dealing with. It’s closed to the public, it’s owned by Colonial Williamsburg, and one of our colleagues, Nicholas Chapman, who is sort of the foremost scholar on Philip Ludwell, has visited that. The then architect of Colonial Williamsburg was referring to this, I’ll call it an apse-like indentation in the basement, that is on the east side, and basically said there’s no structural reason for this to exist.

Kh. Frederica: If anything, it would weaken the foundation.

Mr. Kosar: Exactly. So you have somebody who is probably familiar with the Eastern architecture. We know that from the books he had gifted his daughter and things like that. These were not uneducated people.

Kh. Frederica: You were saying also that he translated the Peter Moghila’s Confession.

Mr. Kosar: Right, so that was another project. When he went to London, he asked whether the Russian Church would publish the translation that he made, I think it was from Latin, of Metropolitan Peter Moghila, his book, Orthodox Confession, which is about the Orthodox faith. They I think declined to finance it, but said, “We give you our blessing to self-publish.” So here we are at this writers/podcasters conference, and nothing has changed. [Laughter] We are free to self-publish. Here’s my blessing. So that’s great, and he did. He published that in London, I think it was 1762, the same year that his daughters were chrismated.

Kh. Frederica: Do we have any writings by Philip Ludwell, any letters, or do we have this translation?

Mr. Kosar: That translation is available online. You can find it. Some of my colleagues have set his Presanctified Liturgy to music, to liturgical music.

Kh. Frederica: Oh, so we have that as well.

Mr. Kosar: That has actually been—I hate to use the word “performed,” but used in various churches and monasteries. So we encourage people to look at this. Again, if you go to our website—

Kh. Frederica: It’s all online.

Mr. Kosar: You can go to our website at Ludwell.org, find a lot of this, whether it’s about his life, about his works. He also had what is typically called a commonplace book, which is almost like… The term for it probably means more like a scrapbook, you know? Gardening techniques and recipes—but his was actually a spiritual one. So it was handwritten and handed down through his family for decades after he died. That is what our colleague, Nicholas Chapman, refers to as the Virginia Service Book, which is locked away in a vault in Austin, Texas, because a lot of his descendants ended up in Texas in the early 1800s.

Kh. Frederica: So you’re hoping to continue to gain more access to things like this.

Mr. Kosar: Absolutely, little by little. I mean, there’s a lot of work to do. In fact, I’ll be in London in a couple weeks, and I have an appointment with the Bow Church, which is in east London, where he is buried, along with a couple of his Orthodox daughters and his grandfather. From what I can tell, I don’t think an Orthodox memorial service has been done for him there probably since the 1700s.

Kh. Frederica: Isn’t that something.

Mr. Kosar: So, really, it’s circling back to today’s Soul Saturday Liturgy, which is: everybody wants to remember their family, their people. That’s what we talk about with the “Eternal Memory.” Partly what we’re trying to do is just re-remember him, because that’s simply what we do.

Kh. Frederica: Yeah, he’s part of the family, whether we knew him or not.

Mr. Kosar: That’s right, and this morning I snuck his name and his family’s names into the list of all the others.

Kh. Frederica: Thanks be to God. This is fascinating, and I do want to encourage listeners to go to Ludwell.org: that’s L-u-d-w-e-l-l, Ludwell.org. Philip Ludwell III, you said.

Mr. Kosar: Philip Ludwell III, and we’re on Facebook, we’re on Twitter. So if any of those platforms work for you, you can look at those, but the website’s the best place to start.

Kh. Frederica: First Orthodox Christian in America as far as we know.

Mr. Kosar: As far as we know. If we find out he was the sixth later on, we’ll be happy.

Kh. Frederica: That would be great.

Mr. Kosar: Yes.

Kh. Frederica: Thank you so much, Nick.

Mr. Kosar: Thank you.