Unexpected Byways of Early Orthodox Presence in the West
by Reader Nicholas Chapman and Priest Mikael Fälthammar
Many readers will already be aware of the story of Philip Ludwell III, the earliest known convert to Orthodoxy from America. He was received into the Church in 1738 at the small parish in London that was under the jurisdiction of the Holy Synod of Russia. Almost three years ago we published the three hundred year history of this parish that has been at the center of so many individual and historical currents of Orthodox life in the West in modern times.
This book mentions in passing that the London parish was the second in Western Europe founded under episcopal oversight from Russia. The first began in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, in 1641.1 In the seventeenth century Sweden was one of the great military powers of Europe and its power only began to wane after the defeat of its forces by Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709.
What relations, if any, existed between the Stockholm and London parishes in their early years are beyond the scope of this article. That some may have existed could be evidenced by one intriguing detail: Philip Ludwell III whilst still living in Virginia translated the Orthodox Confession of Metropolitan Peter (Moghila) of Kiev, a systematic catechism. Ludwell’s English translation was published in London in 1762 with the blessing of the Holy Synod of Russia. His translation was made from an earlier Latin one of the original Greek by Professor Laurentius Norrmannus of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, that was published in Leipzig, Germany by J. Thomas Fritsch in 1695. How Professor Norrmannus knew of Moghila’s work and came to translate it is not known to the writers but it does cause us to look further at the presence of the Orthodox Church in Sweden that appears to date from the very earliest times following the Great Schism between East and West in the eleventh century.
In the early seventeenth century Sweden and Muscovy battled in the Ingrian war. The conflict ended with a peace treaty signed at
Stolbova near Lake Ladoga in 1617. The treaty’s provisions included in the fifteenth paragraph “…de måge hafue deris friie gudstjenst efter deris religion i deris hus och stufuur udi Stockholm och Wiiborgh” (…they [the Russians] are allowed to hold services according to their religion in their own houses and huts [?] in Stockholm and Vyborg).
Specifically the treaty allowed for a Russian trading house to be built in Stockholm at Brunnsgränd in the old town. In 1641 a new trading house was built in Södermalm, south of the sea lock. At this time, services were held in one of the warehouses, and no church was built. The first priest known by name is a Fr Emilian who was sent to Stockholm from Novgorod in 1651.
At the end of the 17th century this building was destroyed by fire and the church moved to a newly built house. It continued there until 1748. Many of the items found in the present day Church of the Transfiguration of Christ are from this period.
The original dedication of the church was most probably “the Church of the All-Merciful Saviour”, as recorded in the old Gospel book from 1707. During the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia in the early 18th century the name Praise of the Theotokos is found, but this was most probably not the name of the parish, but rather that of an icon placed in the church by Russian generals. The present day dedication to the Transfiguration of Christ dates from 1768 when the new church came into use.
But an even earlier Orthodox presence may have existed in Sweden after the Great Schism: In Visby, the main city on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland, there used to be a church under the jurisdiction of Novgorod. This is attested in a juridical dispute from the 17th century. The church was established for tradesmen and most likely dedicated to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. But its origins may stretch back hundreds of years earlier.
According to Elisabeth Piltz (Emiritus Professor of Byzantine Art History at the University of Uppsala), there is evidence of the presence of Russian Orthodox Christians on Gotland from sometime in the 12th century. The church on Gotland was under the jurisdiction of Bishops Niphon and Feoktist. The last letter from the bishop Feoktist that offers proof of an existing Russian trades guild in Visby is dated to 1307.
Gotland is also the home of two other early churches of possible Russian origin that were used by tradesmen from Novgorod. A document from the city of Novgorod states that they were “no longer useful to the Novgorodians in 1461.” We are not sure which churches those two were, but the Garda Church has Russian-style frescoes as does perhaps the Källunga church (according to Piltz this is more Greek in its iconography).
This Orthodox presence in the Swedish Empire clearly left an impression on its subjects. In 1679 the Lutheran Superintendent of Narva (then part of Sweden, now in Estonia) Petrus Bång wrote about his Orthodox subjects:
They have the Holy Sacraments, as do we, and many beautiful words from the Fathers. They believe in the one divine nature and also the three persons of the Trinity. They describe God in beautiful ways, both in respect to His qualities as well as the works of His nature and grace. They confess truthfully about sin and beautifully about the grace of God and the works of Christ. They hold Christ alone as their Saviour and do not add the saints or their own works in the process of forgiveness of sins. We2 have a higher and better knowledge, but their conduct of life is in some aspects worth emulating.
Despite the superintendent’s haughty portrayal of his own faith, officials became dismayed when many Swedes converted to the Orthodox faith after moving to populate the new areas of the empire. In doing so, the converts even defied regulations and laws forbidding apostasy. The wider extent of this Orthodox presence and its connections to the early Orthodox presence in the modern West in Britain and America calls for much wider investigation and research.
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Nicholas Chapman is director of Holy Trinity Publications in Jordanville, NY. He is also executive director of the Associates of Colonel Phillip Ludwell III, a group dedicated to preserving and disseminating the legacy of the first known convert to Orthodoxy in North America.
Priest Mikael Fälthammar serves at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, a parish of the Antiochian Church in Göteborg, Sweden