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