Orthodox America

  A Linguistic Bridge to Orthodoxy In Memoriam Isabel Florence Hapgood

 by Marina Ledkovsky

The author is Professor Emeritus of Slavic Lanaguages and Literatures, Barnard College, Columbia University, and a member of the Synodal cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York City, where her late husband, Prof. Boris M. Ledkovsky, a renowned church composer, was choir director for many years.

The following is abridged from a lecture delivered at the 1998 Russian Orthodox Music Conference in Washington DC. 

 Most Eastern Orthodox Christians in America know Isabel Hapgood by name, but possibly not much about her life and activities. And yet, she merits to be remembered with respect and gratitude, as she was a champion in the awesome task of translating Orthodox liturgical texts from Church Slavonic into English. This year is the 70th anniversary of Isabel Hapgood's death and almost the 150th of her birth. Therefore, it is indeed fitting to at least inform ourselves about her personality and her contribution to the English-speaking Orthodox world.

Perhaps all of us know her Service Book1 as it concerns us directly. But Isabel Hapgood is memorable for many more reasons. She was a formidable lady of many talents and vocations: a polyglot-translator of works by great literary masters, a prolific journalist and writer, a successful lecturer and administrator, a moral crusader, an organizer of charitable work, a liturgical scholar and a prospective musicologist as she harbored a project of a History of Russian Orthodox Church Music. Her love of Russia and particularly of the Orthodox Church, with its beautiful choral singing, prompted her to make available the glory and wealth of its tradition to the English-speaking world. By the turn of the century the quest by Anglican-Episcopalians for unity with the Russian Orthodox Church was on the mind of most earnest theologians, prelates and ordinary faithful on both sides. This cultural-historical phenomenon had a long history and, in a very real sense, culminated in Isabel Hapgood's Service Book, first published in Boston, in 1906, under the spiritual guidance and with the moral support of Archbishop Tikhon of North America and the Aleutian Islands (later to become Patriarch of Moscow and of all Russia and a New Martyr). As a devout Episcopalian, Isabel Hapgood "played a seminal role in promoting Anglican-Orthodox dialogue on church unity." From her early years she had been fascinated by Christ's mandate: There shall be one fold and one shepherd (John 10:16), and later she tried to fulfill it by revealing the Orthodox Liturgy to her fellow Episcopalians in her translation. "Her singular accomplishments in this direction laid solid groundwork for a century of efforts towards some level of Anglican-Orthodox unity."2

Early attempts by Anglicans to reunite with the Orthodox Church began three hundred years ago with the English and Scottish Nonjurors, who refused to pledge allegiance to William of Orange, King of England after the Revolution of 1688-1689. The excommunicated Anglican bishops turned to the Orthodox East for reunion. Those first attempts failed due to fundamental theological and dogmatic differences. The dialogue between Anglicans and Russian Orthodox resumed in the beginning of the 1840s, when Reverend William Palmer, an eminent Anglican churchman and member of the Oxford Movement, made an earnest effort to prove that there were no differences between Anglican and Orthodox dogmas. For ten years Palmer pursued an intense correspondence with Alexei Stepanovich Khomiakov, the great Russian religious thinker. Khomiakov's letters to Palmer are a sort of introduction to his own ecclesiology. In them he tried to state the Orthodox doctrine as he understood it.  Palmer, insisting on his own interpretation of dogmas and sacraments, eventually gave up and converted to Roman Catholicism.

Palmer's efforts in seeking unity with the Eastern Church were continued by Anglican-Episcopalians well into the twentieth century. An intense reciprocal research arose among theologians and high clergy in England, Russia, Greece, and America. Their contacts brought about sincere feelings of mutual respect and brotherly love on both sides, as manifested in a remarkable symbolic gesture by St. John of Kronstadt at a meeting with visiting Anglican clergy. Saint John kissed the pectoral cross of an Anglican bishop exclaiming, "This is what unites us!" As a result of this dialogue, the availability of good translations of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy became a first priority. Simultaneously there arose an urgent need for liturgical texts in English in the United States - for obvious practical reasons: the descendents of early immigrants from various countries of Eastern and Central Europe and the Near East began to lose the language of Divine Services in their respective traditions. Isabel Hapgood was the ideal person to undertake that important mission. She set to work with enthusiasm and devotion and justified her mission by confirming "the policy of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church of the East to have her services celebrated in the language of the countries inhabited by her members."3 This "policy" refers, of course, to the commandment of Our Lord, Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47). Hapgood endeavored to make English the "Pan-Slavonic language in America" because it would be "the sole solution of many difficulties encountered by priests [...] in administering to the spiritual needs of their flocks, who came from many countries, each of which has its own language or dialect"4 (Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Carpatho-Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, Syrian, etc.).

How and why did Isabel Hapgood get involved with Russian culture and, specifically, with the Russian Orthodox Church? There was very little interest in Russia at that time in the U.S. Her life story, though, points to an ever growing interest in and concern and love for Russia, which caused her to become a sort of spokesman for it before Americans who knew almost nothing about that distant country and whose misconceptions of Russia, its people, its culture and Orthodox Faith she sought to correct whenever possible.

Isabel Hapgood was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1850,5 to English-Scottish parents, Asa Hapgood and Lydia Anna Bronson Crossley. She had two brothers. Her father descended from Shadrach Hapgood, a New England settler of 1656; her mother Lydia's English-born father owned a large plantation in Kentucky. Isabel grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, the family home between 1855-1881. The family had sufficient means to send their children to private schools and the boys to college. Isabel attended the Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester (1863-1865) and transferred to the famous Miss Proctor's School in Farmington, Connecticut for the next three years. Her father died in 1868, the year of her graduation. She must have received a solid education similar to that of many women's colleges. She was formally instructed in French, Latin, mathematics, and the usual English branches. After graduating she used her exceptional gift for languages to master most Romance and Germanic languages and, most importantly Russian, Polish, and Church Slavonic. She obviously was taken with Russian and, being a persistent and well-organized student, she engaged a Russian lady to achieve natural fluency in spoken Russian. After having mastered conversational Russian, she made her first prolonged trip to Russia, accompanied by her mother, in 1887, and traveled across European Russia until 1889.

Before that journey, she already had published several translations from Russian into English, the first being Epic Songs of Russia with ample annotations. It was published in 1885 and received rave reviews in several journals. In 1886 appeared her translations of Tolstoy's Trilogy: Childhood, Boyhood, Youth; and Gogol's Taras Bulba, Dead Souls and other tales. Many more of Hapgood's translations of Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Polish literature appeared throughout the following years and almost up to the end of her life. Among them were more works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, a 16-volume edition of Turgenev's Novels and Stories, Gorky's novels, Chekhov's The Seagull, Sonia Kovalevsky's Recollections of Childhood (Hapgood was interested in Russian women's issues and wrote several articles on Russian women's education); her last undertakings include Leskov's The Steel Flea, The Cathedral Folk, and Bunin's Village. These translations achieved immense popularity and Hapgood-the translator-became as widely known as the authors of modern bestsellers. In the 1928 obituary of The New York Times, Hapgood is hailed as "one of the few members of an honorable profession who succeeded in rising above the obscurity" and who "raised the middleman's craft in world literature to the level of art."6

Thus, Isabel Hapgood came to Russia in 1887 as a successful translator, renowned in the literary world. Her achievements opened doors to those important persons and institutions she wanted to visit. She made the acquaintance of poets, writers, painters, composers, conductors and choirmasters, the Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantine Pobedonovtsev, and many representatives of the higher clergy. She received invitations to several Imperial ceremonies, even to a ball at the Winter Palace, and to Tolstoy's estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where she spent an entire summer with her mother.

One result of Hapgood's first stay in Russia was a lively travelogue, Russian Rambles, published in 1895 and marked by humor and shrewd observations by which she hoped to dispel the misconceptions and fantastic myths gained by Western readers from earlier stereotyped accounts. In her efforts to enlighten her fellow countrymen about Russia, she also wrote a Survey of Russian Literature, with representative selections (1902) for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific circle, which was considered an excellent introduction to a then virtually unknown field.

After that first trip, Miss Hapgood returned to Russia almost annually. She visited the great cathedrals, monasteries and parish churches collecting materials, especially on chants and rituals, while befriending the high and low clergy and many outstanding church musicians. Still during her first visit, she had a memorable experience of Russian choral singing while attending a weekday vespers service at Saint Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev. She later wrote ecstatically about the soft chanting of the male and boy's choir which "shifted her stance from that of a foreign observer [...] to that of a devout worshiper experiencing the sublime."7 This experience triggered her endeavor to make the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy available in English. The result was the Service Book.

Back in the U.S., she was warmly supported by all successive Russian Orthodox Bishops of Alaska and the Aleutian Isles in her endeavor to produce an English Service Book of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. Archbishop Nicholas was her book's first enthusiastic friend. He gave her a complete set of valuable Church Slavonic books for her translation task. He was also "the first to see and approve [her] systematic arrangement [of the services to be translated] and of the manuscript."8 Pobedonovtsev had shown "sympathetic and practical interest in [her] work" through the eleven years (1895-1906) of her labor on that task. But the deep interest and practical advice of Archbishop Tikhon during his appointment as Head of the Russian Orthodox Mission to North America was of inestimable value. In all matters concerning the Service Book, Miss Hapgood referred to the future Patriarch as to a sincere friend. We will not discuss the quality of the translation; that topic deserves special attention and a separate article. Many new, revised translations have appeared since then, and we are still not sure which should be the officially approved one. We should, though, acknowledge that the Hapgood Book was a significant improvement over earlier attempts as e.g., "The lengthy and bulky Rites and Ceremonies of the Greek Church in Russia by John Glen King (London, 1772), or the Horologian and General Menaion (Oxford, 1897) by the church scholar, Nicholas Orloff, who occupied the chair of Professor of Russian at Oxford University. Its value was in its practicality, as Hapgood had selected the most important Divine services in general use, with the intention to complete, revise and improve this first volume "in a new edition [...], should there be demand for it, or in special volumes."9 Indeed, several revised editions did appear, as a continuous demand for the book bore witness to its usefulness. Hapgood herself made revisions for the second edition, for which she solicited Archbishop Tikhon's approval on her last visit to Russia (1916-1917). On November 3, 1921, Patriarch Tikhon sent his endorsement for this second edition, ending it with the following words: "Our Patriarchal Blessing be upon Our American flock, always so near to Our heart; and upon Our never-to-be-forgotten American friends, and unto you all. Our Patriarchal Blessing and prayerful greeting." This second edition of the Service Book was published in 1922. The ensuing six reprints (the last one in 1983) appeared under the auspices of the Syrian Antiochian Archdiocese and were recommended by Archbishop Antony Bashir as "an English-language classic of Orthodox church literature."10 Miss Hapgood used for her Service Book the church Slavonic texts of the Russian Church, carefully compared with the original Greek. For the Scripture lessons she used the King James version of the Bible, and for the Psalms and Verses, with occasional exceptions, she used the Psalter contained in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer. In a few cases she had to recur to invented words. Her work had been revised by the Very Reverend Father Alexander Hotovitzky, Dean of St Nicholas Cathedral in New York, characterized by Isabel Hapgood as "a very able and thoroughly competent priest"; occasionally it was also revised by Archbishop Tikhon himself, whose "practical aid" consisted mainly in providing one thousand dollars from the Holy Synod for the publication of a the book. In addition, a $2,000 grant from the Russian Imperial Government was procured by the Russian Ambassador, Count Sergei Witte. The remaining costs were covered through a loan made by St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York. Isabel Hapgood received an honorarium of only $500 for her labor of eleven years. But she did not mind; she considered it "a gift of love" to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Copies of the Service Book were sent to the Imperial family and her "beautiful book" was acknowledged with "innermost thanks."11 On November 29, 1916, during her last visit to Russia, Miss Hapgood was invited to visit the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, who gave her an album on the consecration of the Feodorov Cathedral in Tsarskoe Selo in 1915 (one of the precious items at last year's exhibit at the New York Public Library, "The Romanovs: Their Empire, Their Books").

After the consecration of St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York in 1903, Hapgood was involved in organizing its choir. The generous financial backing of the great American philanthropist and admirer of Russian ecclesiastical music, Charles R. Crane, made it possible to invite the highly competent choirmaster, Ivan Timofeevich Gorokhov; Gorokhov came from Moscow, where he had been an assistant to Kastalsky at the Synodal Choir School. He brought with him six adult male singers; the boy voices came from the Russian colony in New York. At the insistence of Charles Crane, the choir was patterned on the famous Moscow Synodal Choir, consisting of male voices only. Beginning in 1913, Hapgood assisted the choirmaster in the organization of public concerts, and her energetic support led to extraordinary success. She frequently accompanied the choir as a lecturer and publicized the group in magazines and newspapers. In her articles she expressed her wish for a strong foundation for the Orthodox Church in America through its "angelic" liturgical singing. This successful enterprise came to an end after the 1917 events, because the Holy Synod was no longer able to provide funds for its churches in America.

Hapgood's love for Russian Orthodox liturgical singing inspired her to write a history of Russian church music. Disregarding the sad and frightening events of World War I, she set out on her last trip to Russia in 1916-1917, to collect materials for such a book. For this purpose she met again with representative choir directors and church musicians, seeking advice and source books. Hapgood was especially enchanted by the choir at the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, led by Alexander Dimitrievich Kastalsky (1856-1926), whom she described as "the wonderful composer and director." Kastalsky autographed for her his newest composition, "Khristos Voskrese" [Christ is Risen] with warm wishes on April 2, 1917. Hapgood later adapted her translation to this piece and published it in New York.

She did the same for Count Sheremetev's "Spasi Gospodi" [O Lord, Save Thy people]. Count Sheremetev had been Head of the Imperial Capella for several years. Miss Hapgood's stay in Moscow was cut short by the outbreak of the revolution, and she managed to escape to Vladivostok only thanks to the assistance of the American consulate in Moscow and her personal acquaintance with Russian officials. From Vladivostok she proceeded to America.

Back home, Hapgood resumed her usual activities. She had offered charitable assistance to many persons and causes throughout her life and now extended it to those Russians who were in danger in their country or who had been forced to flee it to save their lives. She also continued her work as a journalist. For over twenty years she had served as a foreign correspondent to The Nation and The New York Evening Post and had also contributed articles, news reports, and feature stories to various newspapers and magazines (The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Weekly and The Century among others), interpreting Russian and European culture and literature to Americans. Her deep knowledge of Russia enabled her to assess Lenin and the Bolshevik terror in fair and sober reports. She was one of the first to comment on the murder of the Emperor and his Family. At the end of her report she said "that the most dangerous of all [for Bolshevik Russia] is a murdered Czar [..., such] a mild, quietly enduring one, without a grave."12

Hapgood did not manage to publish her prospective History of Russian Church Music. She might have needed additional materials, but further visits to Russia were impossible. (I have been unable to locate her manuscript, which is mentioned in some sources. Maybe it never existed.) She continued to work almost to the end, remaining a steadfast friend of Russia and its people, and a faithful devotee of Russian Orthodoxy yet not converting to it. She died of cancer on June 26, 1928, in New York City and is buried in Worcester, Massachusetts. The New York Times printed two laudatory obituaries.

The Orthodox in America owe Isabel Hapgood gratitude and respect for her dedicated work on their behalf; her fellow Anglican faithful are indebted to her in like measure for helping them to a better understanding of the Orthodox liturgy, while general English readers will be ever appreciative of her for opening to them the works of great Russian and European authors. 

Eternal Memory!


1. Isabel Florence Hapgood, tr., Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic (Greco-Russian) Church. Compiled, translated and Arranged from the Old Church Slavonic Service Books of the Russian church, and collated with the Service Books of the Greek Church (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1906).

2. Reverend Stuart H. Hoke, "A Generally Obscure Calling: A Character Sketch of Isabel Florence Hapgood," [unpublished article] (New York General Theological Seminary, June 197), 2, passim.

3. Service Book (1906), iii. 
4. Ibid.

5. In all biographical sources consulted, her brith year is given as 1850; but Warren Hapgood, author of The Hapgood Family: Descendants of Shadrach 1656-1898 (Boston: T.B. Hapgood, 1898), 257, gives it as 1851. Since Isabel's parents were married in New York in the spring of 1850, and she did not correct her birth date in her own copy of Warren's book (while making several other corrections in the margins of that copy), we may accept November 21, 1851 as the correct date. See also Hoke, 5.

6. The New York Times, June 28, 1928, p. 24, col. 4.

7. Hoke, 13,18. This experience in Kiev is recounted at length in Russian Rambles, 230.

8. Service Book (1906), vii. 
9. Ibid., iv.

10. Service Book, Forewords to Third-Sixth Editions, n.p.

11. Hapgood Papers, Box 3. Letter from E. Naryshkin, March 2/15, 1908, Manuscripts and Archives section, New York Public Library, New York. 

12. Isabel Hapgood, "The Murdered Czar," The New York Times (September 8, 1918), sec. 3, 2.

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