St, John’s Church, Richmond

WHERE PATRICK HENRY SAID, ” GIVE ME LIBERTY, OR GIVE ME DEATH”

In 1611 Sir Thomas Dale founded his town of Henricopolis, the second established settlement in Virginia. It was named in honor of Prince Henry, the eldest son of James I. A church was soon after built. The bounds of Henrico parish, to which it belonged, were quite large until 1634, when the parish was made to include the present Chesterfield, Powhatan, and Goochland counties.

Soon after the marriage of Pocahontas she moved to the plantation of her husband, John Rolfe, near Henricopolis, and they were both members of Henrico parish until they left Virginia.

The written records of Henrico parish begin with 1730. At that time the principal church of the parish was on Curie’s plantation, on the north side of the James, some miles below the present city of Richmond. Curie’s church disappeared during the Civil War. The bowl of the baptismal font in St. John’s Church, Richmond, is a relic of the old church. This was removed from the cellar of a house where it had been in use for beating hominy.

Steps were taken in 1737 to build the present St. John’s Church, because of the increase of population in Richmond. The first action was recorded as follows :

” At a Vestry held at Curls Church for Henrico parish ye 8th day of October Anno Dom. 1737 for laying ye parish Levey

” The Vestry do agree to build a Church on the most convenient place at or near Thomas Williamsons in this parish to be Sixty feet in Length and Twenty-five in Breadth and fourteen feet pitch to be finished in a plain Manner After the Moddle of Curls Church. And it is ordered that the Clerk do Set up Advertisements of the particular parts of the Said Building and of the time and place of undertaking the Same. . . . It is ordered that the Collector do receive of every Tithable person in this parish five pounds of Tobacco after the Usual deduction to be apply’d towards building the New Church at Williamsons.”

At a later meeting the location and the dimensions of the church were changed. Richmond was decided on, and it was stated that ” Richard Randolph Gent under-takes the Said Building and engages to finish the Same by the Tenth day of June, which Shall be in the year of our Lord 1741; for which the Vestry agrees to pay him the Sum of £317 10s. Current Money to be paid by the amount of the Sale of Twenty thousand pounds of Tob’o Annually to be Levyd on the parish and Sold here for Money till the whole payment be compleat.”

There is no record of the completion of the building, but probably it was finished at the appointed time. Since that date various additions have been made, yet it is possible to trace the lines of the original structure. The original pews are still in use, though they have been lowered. The hinges of the pew doors are handwrought.

The wainscoting and the window sashes are those first put in. The original weather-boarding is still in place. It is fastened by nails whose heads are half an inch broad.

For the new church there were imported from England:

” One Parsons Surples, a Pulpit Cushen and Cloth, two cloths for Reading Desks, a Communion Table Cloth, and a Dozen of Cushens—to be of good Purple Cloth, and the Surples good Hollond, also Large Bible and four large Prayer Books.”

An entry in the vestry book on December 17, 1773, shows that the rector, Mr. Selden, received as salary 17,150 pounds of tobacco, worth £125. The clerk of the parish received 1,789 pounds of tobacco, or £13 10s., the sexton had 536 pounds, or £3.10s.7d.

Selden was chaplain of the Virginia Convention which met in the church March 20, 1775. At the closing session of this convention Patrick Henry ” flashed the electric spark, which exploded the country in revolution,” as Burton says in his history of Henrico Parish. This was the speech that closed :

” Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun ! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms ! Our brethren are already in the field ! Why stand here idle? What is it that gentle-men wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Dr. Burton says that the orator ” stood, according to tradition, near the present corner of the east transept and the nave, or more exactly, in pew 47, in the east aisle of the nave. . . . He faced the eastern wall of the transept, where were the two windows. In the more northern of these stood Colonel Edward Carrington. He broke the silence that followed the orator’s burning words with the exclamation, ‘ Right here I wish to be buried ! ‘ ”

When the British took possession of Richmond in 1781, St. John’s Church became a barracks for Arnold’s men. And some of them stood on the spot where Patrick Henry spoke the words that had such large part in stirring up the people to drive all British soldiers from the Colonies.

After the close of the war the diocese of Virginia was reorganized in the building, and plans were laid to over-come the difficulties that would soon come through the loss of the property of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which led Edmund Randolph, later Governor of Virginia and Secretary of State in Washington’s Cabinet, to speak the famous words :

” Of what is the Church now possessed? Nothing but the glebes and your affections.”

That the affections of the people are a better dependence than rich endowments in money has been shown by the later history of the church, the parish, and the diocese.