Church History

Orthodox Christianity and American Slavery

Published on: June 28, 2024
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American Slavery
Image: Slaves in Louisiana. Credit:

While it is fashionable of late to talk about the influx of racist actors into the Orthodox Church via conversion, we should probably admit that Orthodoxy in America has always had a race problem. Early 20th-century urban immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe were not exactly famous for their enlightened attitudes about race. Some of America’s worst racial tensions have been between Black Americans and the very sorts of immigrants who form the core of Orthodox Christian America. Of course, whenever this comes up, people like to deflect by observing that Orthodox Christians were not involved in the slave trade.

It is a strange response, if we are being honest. Whether or not Orthodox Christians were active participants in American chattel slavery is entirely irrelevant as to whether American Orthodoxy has a problem with racism today. There is something incredibly odd in supposing that 19th-century innocence (or more commonly, 19th-century absence) in some way absolves Orthodox Christians from a very 21st-century moral reckoning with slavery and racism, one of the most important acts of communal repentance demanded of our age. One need not have, after all, ever owned a single enslaved person to reap the benefits of that forced labor or to carry within you the prejudices inevitable in a post-slaveholding society.

Yet, the attempt to avoid responsibility is made all the more egregious by the fact that the history of blamelessness on which it relies is simply false, a mythic innocence. It is yet another instance wherein Orthodox Christians writ large are much too eager to construct for themselves a fanciful history that then becomes the evidence for superiority. While the pre-20th century presence of Orthodox Christians within the United States was small, 18th-and 19th-century Orthodox Christian immigrants to the United States frequently owned slaves or participated in the slave trade. Strikingly, immigrants from majority-Orthodox Christian countries and ethnicities who emerged as vocal abolitionists did so predominantly after disassociating themselves from the Orthodox Church, frequently converting to any number of explicitly anti-slavery Protestant faiths. Conversely, early American converts to Orthodoxy (limited in number as they were) came almost exclusively from the ranks of Virginia’s planter class. It’s noteworthy that these converts were not compelled to relinquish their slaves upon adopting the Orthodox faith. This is to say, the small Orthodox Christian presence in the pre-abolition United States was decisively pro-slavery on the whole and notably free of the conflict over that peculiar institution that threatened to destroy Protestant denominations in the era. Below, I offer three brief (and as a result of space, sadly abridged) “case studies”: one of the Orthodox immigrant community of New Orleans; the next of the Orthodox convert and Virginia planter Philip Ludewll III, widely known as the “first American Orthodox Christian convert”; and finally of Photios Fisk, a Greek immigrant social reformer and abolitionist who left Orthodox Christianity, becoming a Congregationalist minister.

New Orleans

New Orleans might be the site of the United States’s first Orthodox church (there had, of course, been other Orthodox churches built in territory that would become the United States, such as Florida and Alaska). The “might ” in this case is an important matter. While New Orleans had undoubtedly been part of the United States in 1859, when what would become the still existent Holy Trinity Cathedral was founded in the home of Nicholas Benachi, by the time a building had been constructed in 1864 the American Civil War was not yet a fait accompli, and New Orleans was the grandest city of the Confederate States of America. As the Cathedral’s website proudly proclaims, there had been a Greek, or rather Ottoman Christian, contingent in the city since the middle of the 18th-century. There is much to be written about the history of the Louisianans and their relationship to both Orthodoxy and Catholicism (New Orleans and Louisiana’s dominant religion), but it important to note that the city’s Greek and wider Ottoman Christian (and consequently Orthodox Christian, at least broadly in most cases) population were active participants in slavery and its defense. This includes Nicholas Benachi, a native of then Ottoman-controlled Chios, in whose palatial home that first Orthodox service was held.

There is also the religiously and racially complicated and Dragon-Dimitry clan, arguably America’s first Greek American family. Michael Dragon (Μιχάλης Δράκος) was born in Athens in 1739 and immigrated to what was then Spanish-controlled New Orleans in 1760. Importantly, Dragon likely found his way to New Orleans because of his involvement in the slave trade. He participated in the American Revolution as an officer in the Spanish militia (the Spanish, via their alliance with the French, fought on behalf of the Patriot cause). Around the time of the American Revolution, Dragon began a relationship with Marie Françoise Chauvin de Beaulieu de Montplaisir, a formerly enslaved Creole woman. The question of race in New Orleans, and in Louisiana broadly, is complex and greatly differed both legally and culturally from the rest of the United States.[1] As a consequence, it remains unclear whether Dragon and de Montplaisir were able to legally marry. Regardless, however, of the legal status of their relationship, the two remained together the rest of their lives, and came to number among Louisiana’s most prosperous planters. It also means, almost by default, they were among the state’s most prolific enslavers.

The couple had two children, one of whom, a daughter named Marianne Celeste Dragon, would marry Greek immigrant named Andrea Dimitry (Ανδρέας Δημήτριος). Andrea and Marianne did legally marry, and Marianne is listed as “white” on the marriage license, a fact that tantalizingly might be a consequence of her Greek origin. Despite what was clearly at times an unhappy marriage (Marianne at one point sued Andrea for mismanaging the family assets, winning a settlement of $27,000—approximately $1,000,000 today), the couple had four children. Alexander, the third child and eldest son, would become the first person of color to attend Georgetown University and the first person of color to serve as US Ambassador. He also has the dubious honor of being the only person of color in the Confederate cabinet, where he served as Assistant Postmaster General. While some attempts have been made to rehabilitate Alexander as an abolitionist, there seems little evidence for this. Alexander did grow frustrated and disillusioned with the Confederate government, but he never, it would seem, abandoned the Confederate cause.

Like many Creole families, the Dragon-Dimitry family leaned into their European heritage and, in the case of this particular family, not all that disingenuously. The children of Andrea and Marianne Celeste were, after all, 75% Greek. The family’s Greek heritage was extremely important to them, and this meant, for them, maintaining, at least to some extent, an Orthodox Christian identity. After all, it was an Orthodox Christian faith that was the defining characteristic of “Greekness” in the Ottoman Empire from which the family came.

Thus, it can be suggested that even as the family participated in the liturgical life of the dominant Roman Catholic Church, they continued to see themselves as Orthodox Christians. This is attested to by the fact that the family’s oral history maintains that as early as 1803, the family was attempting to form an Orthodox Church in the city (that is, as soon as New Orleans came into the United States via the Louisiana Purchase, making the establishment of a non-Roman Catholic church a possibility). And it is widely maintained, both by the family and others, that members of the family were among the first donors to and participants in the Orthodox church that first met at the home of Nicholas Benachi, the church that would become Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Because of the involvement of Beanchi, the Dragon-Dimitry family, and others, it is not untrue that the first Orthodox church in the United States was built with money made, at least in part, from the trade in human beings and from the exploitation of enslaved labor on the plantations of Louisiana. This is a fact that alone should be enough to compel American Orthodox Christians to see their history as firmly rooted in America’s larger history of slavery, but, as always, there is more.

Philip Ludwell III

Philip Ludwell III was born into a wealthy and illustrious family in the Virginia colony. Such families were, almost by definition, enslavers, and the Ludwells were no exception. When Ludwell was received into the Orthodox faith at the Russian Orthodox church in London on December 31,1738, he owned nine plantations and approximately 235 human beings. While the Moscow Synod that approved of Ludwell’s reception felt it necessary to grant him special dispensation to attend an Anglican church in Virginia and receive the Eucharist there, there is no record indicating that anyone felt it necessary to grant him special dispensation to continue to enslave his fellow human beings. Not that this should be all that surprising to us. In 1738, the Russian Orthodox Church was yet an active defender of serfdom, and in what is today Romania, Romas were held in slavery by Orthodox monks.

But let us not mistake what this means. One of the more disturbing facts of recent portrayal of Ludwell’s life among Orthodox Christians is the extent to which they have tried to diminish or exonerate his complicity in the evils of slavery. This disregard for the active participation of America’s first Orthodox Christian convert in America’s original sin speaks to the willfully ignorant approach to this topic.

Here are the facts, however scarce to come by: despite being a profuse writer on a variety of topics, Ludwell never penned anything resembling a denunciation of slavery, though the morality of slavery was a hotly debated topic among his fellow planters at the time. Furthermore, Ludwell’s contribution to the Bray School, an 18th-century school established in Williamsburg, Virginia to provide education for both enslaved and free African Americans is far from the proof of enlightened views that many attempt to make of it. If nothing else, Ludwell’s participation in the Bray School project demonstrates that he saw slavery as potentially morally beneficial to the enslaved, a paternalistic view of the institution that was not uncommon and, if we want to take the next step, is not dissimilar for Orthodox arguments made in favor of serfdom and the enslavement of the Roma. Moreover, many enslavers supported Bray School under the supposition that educated slaves, or at least slaves educated in a particular way, would be more docile ones. Similarly, there is frequently much celebration by Orthodox writers concerning Ludwell’s decision to free two enslaved people in his will. Considering Ludwell literally owned well over 200 human beings at the time of his death, freeing two (inarguably favorites) seems like a strange cause for celebration indeed. While many cite Virginia laws that made posthumous manumission difficult, Ludwell was resident in England at the time of his death. Were he truly interested in freeing his more than two people, that option was nothing more than a ship’s passage away from him.

In sum, the evidence would suggest that Ludwell felt quite comfortable continuing to participate in the institution of slavery throughout his life without seeing any significant moral error stemming from this choice. Moreover, his role as an enslaver was not considered a stumbling-block to his conversion by those who received into the faith. To be fair, most Christian churches at the time held the same position, but that similarity is significant. Orthodoxy was just like the vast majority of the Christian world in the midst of the evils of American chattel slavery, that is to say, somewhere between idle bystander and active supporter.

Photios Fisk

An interesting foil to Ludwell can be found in Photios Fisk, a Greek immigrant whose conversion from Orthodoxy forces us to consider the complicity of Orthodoxy in American slavery in a stark way. Born Photios Kavasalis in Hydra in 1905, his family moved to Smyrna when he was an infant. While Kavasalis was still in his early teens, most of his family was killed by an outbreak of disease, and Photios left Smyrna for Malta to live with an uncle and one of his surviving brothers, Anathasius. It was in Malta in 1822 that he met the American missionary Pliny Fisk. Photios was taken by the charismatic Fisk, whose deeply personal and intellectual faith posed a stark contrast to the Greek Orthodoxy of Photios’s childhood. The teenager resolved to become a missionary and, with the permission of his uncle and a local Orthodox priest, set sail for America with his brother.

Following a time at Amherst College, Photios, who was now at least on occasion using the surname Fisk, briefly returned to Europe, where his uncle secured him a position with the newly formed Greek government; however, the young man was anxious to return to America and secured passage on a ship headed to New York. It was on this voyage that Fisk (who had spent all his previous stay in the United States in New England, where slavery was illegal by the early 19th century) witnessed chattel slavery for the first time. Recalling the horrors of Ottoman slavery that he had been taught about as a child, Fisk was horrified by the institution, and upon his arrival in New York in 1828, he quickly connected to the city’s growing abolitionist community.

It was through his abolitionist friends that Fisk was invited to join the Congregationalist Church, eventually becoming a minister. He would devote the rest of his life to his ministry, a ministry in which he understood the spreading of the Gospel to be synonymous with the abolitionist cause and (after the Civil War) the recreation of a multi-racial republic. It was a conviction which he firmly ascribed to his chosen, Protestant faith.

The juxtaposition of Ludwell and Fisk is one that cannot go unnoticed by any contemporary observer of American Orthodox Christianity. While the social-minded reformer, horrified by the evils of slavery, left the Orthodox Church, an enslaver, a man whose wealth and status was derived from holding other human being in bondage, was welcomed into the faith, without anyone seeing any need for him to cease what was largely acknowledged even at the time, including by many Orthodox hierarchs, to be a grave moral evil.

We Are Weird About History

Of course, the failure to acknowledge this contrast is part of a larger problem within the American Orthodox community, and how we understand our history. Not that this should be a surprise. It is a history that we wish to be simultaneously deeply American and yet absolved, repentance-free, of America’s sins. In this way, Orthodoxy’s view of its American history fits well with its general construction of its past vis-à-vis the West. It is a view where Orthodox Christians can conveniently divorce themselves from any of its negative baggage. We are supposed to believe that there was no Orthodox Christian involvement in the Reformation, colonialism, the Enlightenment, or chattel slavery. It is, however, a view of history that makes little sense if you think about it, even for a minute.

There is an interesting 21st-century epilogue to the life of Philip Ludwell III. The Philip Ludwell III Fellowship describes itself as an association of Orthodox Christian believers from diverse jurisdictions who seek to serve the Church’s evangelistic mission in the South by promoting the enculturation of the Orthodox faith into the South’s unique ethos and “older religiousness.” Some have argued that the Fellowship is “one of many examples of recent attempts by the American right to normalize and mainstream the myth of the Lost Cause,” but we might better understand the instance of the Fellowship to point to a much more complicated, and likely less politically useful, truth about contemporary American Orthodoxy’s relationship to it pre-20th-century antecedent.

And before I go any further let me be clear: it would be painfully easy to score culture war points by simply dismissing the members of the Philip Ludwell III Fellowships as reactionaries, fundamentalists, and Christian Nationalists. Some might very well be one or all those things; it is an extraordinarily diverse collection of people. But that sort of dismissal would be entirely unhelpful. The fact is that the Fellowship’s existence is more indicative of the state of affairs for Orthodox Christians in America in general than many would like to think.

The pews of America’s Orthodox churches are filled with only two kinds of people: model immigrants (and their model descendants) and hyper-educated spiritual seekers who think they have found in the Christian East something lacking in the West. Both model immigrants and erudite pilgrims have one thing in common: both want to believe they are somehow excused from the ugliest parts of American life. For this reason, everything else, particularly where one falls on the secular political spectrum, is less important than one’s membership in one of these two classes when it comes to how one wants to view American history. Because when you have to believe you are special, you cannot bring yourself to admit that you have participated in America’s greatest sins, including slavery.

 As more and more attention is paid to the early history of American Orthodoxy (not least because those who believe the false narratives of innocence go looking into it believing they will find more innocence), we must take note of the ways we are implicated in slavery, among other crimes. To fail to do so, to seek a false innocence, makes a mockery of the very notion of repentance and proves an even poorer witness in the present than our complicated history has been able to provide in the past.

[1] A detailed discussion of the question of race and interracial relationships in pre-Civil War New Orleans is outside the scope of this discussion; however I recommend Thompson, Shirley Elizabeth. Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans. Harvard University Press, 2009 and Spear, Jennifer M. Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans. JHU Press, 2009.

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  • Katherine Kelaidis

    Katherine Kelaidis

    National Hellenic Museum (Chicago)

    Katherine Kelaidis is Director of Research and Content at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, IL. She holds a B.A. in Classics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of London.  Dr. Kelaidis is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Orthodox Chr...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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