Virginia’s rich history can be seen in places like Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestowne, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, but history can also be found in the oldest churches of Virginia. Take a trip to a few of these eleven historic churches and unearth some of Virginia’s deepest and most significant roots.*
*This is Part Two in a series. Read Part One Here.
Historic Polegreen Church—Mechanicsville
Although no longer a fully enclosed structure, a historically accurate framework of the historic Polegreen Church in Mechanicsville still stands as a representation of the successful struggle for religious and civil freedoms in America. The first church was constructed under Reverend Samuel Davies, who was known as the “Apostle of Virginia”. He led a Presbyterian church at the site, becoming Virginia’s first licensed non-Anglican preacher from 1747-1759. His speeches greatly influenced a young Patrick Henry, who attended Polegreen with his mother. In 1864, the church was destroyed by a fire during the Civil War, but the site is honored by the white framework designed by Williamsburg architect Carlton Abbott.
Christ Church Parish—Saluda
Christ Church was established as a parish in 1666, but the building that stands today was erected between 1712 and 1714 on the same site as the previous wooden structure. Over the years, minor changes were made to keep the structure up to date, but in 1843, the church underwent a full restoration and added a vestibule for their growing congregation.
St. Mary’s Whitechapel—Lancaster
On the Northern Neck in Lancaster County, St. Mary’s Whitechapel is about 15 miles from the historic Christ Church in Weems. The original parish existed in 1657, but the church was officially founded in 1669, with the building completed around 1675. In 1741, wings were added to fit a rapidly growing congregation, but in the early 1800s, the church fell into disrepair and the east and west wings were torn down, transforming the church into the rectangular structure it is today. In the church cemetery, members of the Ball family are buried, who were kin to Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother.
St. John’s Church—Richmond
The site of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, St. John’s Church was built in 1741 at its current site in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood (and is actually the church that the area is named for!). Henry met with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and about 100 other colonial leaders in 1775 to discuss whether to revolt against England. The passionate speech incited the Revolutionary War, changing the course of America forever.
Grace Episcopal Church—Keswick
One of only six Colonial churches in Virginia, Grace Episcopal Church was founded when Virginia was still under English rule in 1745. The parish added a second building between 1846 and 1855, but a fire burned the structure to the ground forty years later. In 1896, the current church was rebuilt on the site of the original church.
Pohick Church was built in 1774 and attended by famous Americans like George Washington and George Mason. The church sustained heavy damage during Civil War, but the original structure survived and was renovated to repair the destruction. Like Aquia Church, the war is evident in graffiti on the walls left behind by the soldiers.
Built in 1735, Blandford Church is the oldest structure still standing in Petersburg. Although originally constructed as an Anglican church, it became Episcopal after the Revolutionary War, but was soon abandoned and left neglected for 95 years. The church was eventually renovated as a memorial to Confederate soldiers that lost their lives during the Civil War, with each state contributing a stained glass window designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Today, guided tours are offered of the church and the adjacent cemetery, where about 30,000 Confederates were laid to rest.
Hebron Lutheran was constructed in 1740 by German settlers, making it the oldest Lutheran Church in continuous use in the United States and one of only four wooden churches remaining from the colonial era. The church was founded by German settlers and contains one of nine Tannenburg organs still in existence.
Manakin Episcopal Church—Powhatan
The first church built by French Huguenots in America, Manakin Episcopal Church was founded in 1701, but moved to its present site in 1730. Tragically, the church was burned during Revolutionary War. The congregation rebuilt the church in 1789, however, in 1895, due to steady decline in the structure, they tore it down and built a fourth and final church from salvaged materials.
Opequon Presbyterian Church and Cemetery—Winchester
Opequon Presbyterian Church bears the distinction of being the oldest Presbyterian congregation west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was erected in 1732 and has held continuous worship services since its founding. The cemetery also holds historic importance, with the oldest marked grave site in the Shenandoah Valley found here.
One of the oldest active colonial churches still operating in America today, Aquia Church dates between 1751 and 1757. Hand-painted calligraphy depicting the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments adorns the wooden alter, and the original silver church communion set is still used by the current congregation. The church survived three brutal wars, and during the Civil War, soldiers using the building for shelter carved their names into the walls and stone structures throughout the church.
While these are a few notable examples, there are countless churches throughout the Commonwealth that date back hundreds of years, providing a peek into Virginia’s rich history.