Antique map of Southern Sweden

War and Faith in the Swedish Empire

Unexpected Byways of Early Orthodox Presence in the West

by Reader Nicholas Chapman and Priest Mikael Fälthammar

New research sheds light on ear­ly expe­ri­ences of Ortho­doxy in Sweden.

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.

Portrait of Laurentius Norrmannus
Lau­ren­tius Norrmannus

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

Illustration of the signing of the Treaty of Stolbova
Sign­ing of the Treaty of Stolbova

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.

Fresco from the church in Garde.
Fres­co from the church in Garde.

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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About the Authors

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