St. John’s Episcopal Church is the oldest church in Richmond, Virginia, and a National Historical Landmark. As the location of the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, it was the place in which Patrick Henry challenged his comrades with his “Give me Liberty or give me Death” speech.
In 1611 Sir Thomas Dale, high marshal of Virginia, made way up the James River from the original settlement at Jamestown and founded Henricus in honor of Prince Henry, eldest son of James I. Accompanying Thomas Dale on this expedition was the Reverend Alexander Whittaker. Together they decided that the construction of a church would take precedence over other buildings, and so the first church in Henricus was built near the site of the present Dutch Gap Canal. The Reverend Alexander Whittaker was appointed rector for this first Henricus church. Whittiker was the clergy who baptized Pocahontas and married her to John Rolfe in 1614.
In 1634 the Virginia Colony was divided into shires in the English fashion and Henricus was shortened to Henrico. Consistent with the lack of separation of church and state, parish lines for the church were the same as the shire boundaries. In 1737 the first mention is made in the vestry records of plans to build the present church. The minutes record that the new church was to be 60 feet long and 25 feet wide. It was not until 1740 when William Byrd II donated two lots in the newly laid out city of Richmond that construction could begin. It is believed that the church was completed on June 10, 1741. The area of the city in which the church was prominently seen from many directions is referred to as Church Hill to this day. In 1752 The Reverend Miles Selden was appointed rector. In 1775, Selden was appointed the chaplain of the Second Virginia Convention, which took place in St. Johns Church. The First Virginia Convention had been held in Williamsburg in 1774.
There were approximately 120 delegates at the Convention. The President of the Second Virginia Convention was Peyton Randolph from Williamsburg. Patrick Henry was a delegate from Hanover County. Also present were Thomas Jefferson from Albemarle, George Washington from Fairfax, Benjamin Harrison from Charles City , Richard Henry Lee from Westmoreland and Francis Lightfoot Lee from Richmond County. The Convention came together to decide on Virginias willingness to join the other colonies in resisting the tyranny of King George III. On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose to deliver the speech that has lived on as the most famous cry for freedom in the world – “Give me liberty or give me death.” The Convention voted by a narrow margin to support Henry’s resolutions, and Virginia joined in the struggle to gain independence from the British.
The Third Virginia Convention met in St. John’s Church on July 17, 1775, to organize the troops and the war effort of Virginia. George Washington of Fairfax was appointed head of the Continental Army, and Patrick Henry was named the first revolutionary governor of Virginia the following year.
In January 1781, the traitor Benedict Arnold, by now a general in the British Army, quartered his troops in the church after he occupied Richmond, and the church suffered physical damage as a result. In 1785, repairs were undertaken by Edmund Randolph, who subsequently became a governor of Virginia. It is recorded that the Reverend Miles Selden died in that year, and The Reverend John Buchanan was chosen. The post-Revolutionary sentiment towards the British connection to the Episcopal church left Buchanan presiding over a declining congregation, and there are no significant records regarding the activities of the parish during his time there until 1812.
Colonial churches traditionally offered burial gardens for their parishioners. The original parish cemetery at St. Johns covered the two city lots surrounding the much smaller 1741 church. In 1799 the two city lots directly north of the church were purchased in order to expand the cemetery. The city then enclosed the whole block with a low brick fence and opened it as a public cemetery.
The churchyard holds over 1,300 burials. The oldest ones include both Native Americans and colonists. Much of the research on those resting here is incomplete. There is reason to believe that an infant son of James Monroe may lie here, but the exact spot has not been located. The oldest burials are by the original west door and is that of Robert Rose, a Rector of Albemarle Parish dated 1751.
One of the most prominent burials in the churchyard is that of George Wythe, the first Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence. Wythe was the first professor of law in America and taught Thomas Jefferson and former Chief Justice John Marshall. In the eastern section of the yard lies the grave of Elizabeth Arnold Poe, the mother of Edgar Allen Poe. It remained unmarked until 1927, according to folklore, because she was an actress -a profession typically held in low esteem in the era.
Directly beneath the plain glass window near the north corner of the eastern transept is the grave of Edward Carrington. It is said that he was so moved by Patrick Henrys brave words, Give me liberty or give me death, that he told his wife he wanted to be buried on the very spot from which he heard those words uttered. Near Edward Carrington is the grave of Governor John Page. He was governor of Virginia from 1802-1805. On the south side of the church is the memorial to Alexander Whittaker, first pastor of the parish in 1611.
The Adjunct Buildings
The Brick Schoolhouse in the southwest corner of the churchyard was built in 1835. This mission school served an important need in the community of Church Hill by providing one of the first schools for African-American children in Richmond.
The large white parish hall, built in 1876, was originally used as a small Sunday school building. In 1892 the small frame building was enlarged to its present size and began to be used as a parish hall. This building is now the center of church activities and contains the rectors study.
In the southeastern corner of the churchyard is the current gift shop, which is also known as the keepers lodge. The latter name refers to its original use by the groundskeeper. This Carpenter Gothic building was built in 1880 and moved to its present site in 1907. The lovely cathedral glass windows are original to the building, with the exception of the south window, which was replaced in the 1980s. The brick building nearest the gift shop was built in 1929-1930 to house the furnace and to serve as the churchs nursery.
St. Johns Today
St. Johns continues in its role as both an historical landmark and home to an active and vital congregational life. As a city oriented church, the mid sized (800-1200 members) is theologically liberal and politically proactive. They have an extensive network ecumenical affiliations throughout Richmond. As the city is the state capital, there is active involvement in political affairs throughout the congregation. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy holds meetings in the church, as many of the congregates are active members and advocates. The church sponsors daily feedings to the homeless of the Church Hill area, participates in the activities of Hope in the Cities, and contributes to the Richmond Hill Center.
St. Johns has an active youth group, and an economically and racially diverse congregation. The services are of the high tradition, and held three times on Sundays. There are Sunday school classes for children of all ages.
Historical information was gathered from the St. Johns Website at www.stjohns-episcopal.org
Congregational information was gathered from the Reverend Robert Hetherington
815 Grace Street
Richmond, Va 23219
Rector: Robert Hetherington
Indexed by Perry Threlfall (July 2005)