Two Of Virginia’s Oldest Church Buildings

ST. LUKE’S, IN SMITHFIELD, AND ST. PETER’S, IN NEW KENT COUNTY

Captain Smith in 1607 wrote of his discovery of the Indian kingdom of Warrosquoyacke. Soon settlers were attracted to its fertile lands. Twenty-seven years later the more than five hundred residents were organized into Isle of Wight County.

In 1632, the ancient brick church near Smithfield was built. The tradition fixing this date was established in 1887, when the date 1632 was read in some bricks that fell from the walls.

The builder of the staunch church was Joseph Bridges, who was Counsellor of State to Charles II. He is buried not far from the church, and on his tomb is the inscription : ” He dyed April 15 Anno Domini 1688 Aged 58 years. Mournfully leaving his wife, three sons and four daughters.”

The oldest vestry book dates from 1727, for the first book was destroyed at the time of General Arnold’s expedition made to Isle of Wight County, in the effort to capture General Parker, of the Continental Army. Fortunately, however, a few other records were saved. An entry in 1727 spoke of ” The Old Brick Church “; evidently the name St. Luke’s was of later origin.

The architectural beauty of the old building is described in a pleasing manner by Aymar Embury, II, the well-known New York architect, in his ” Early American Churches “:

” The building is an extremely picturesque brick church, reminiscent not of the Renaissance work then becoming dominant in England, but of the older Gothic; it is not at all unlike many of the small English parish churches of the sixteenth century, when the Gothic style was really extinct, although its superficial characteristics, the buttresses and the pointed arch, still obtained. The stepped gable at the chancel end of the church is an unusual feature in English architecture. The tower is the only part of the building which shows the Renaissance influence.”

When the building was some two hundred years old it began to fall into disrepair; the people preferred to attend the church in Smithfield. Bishop Meade wrote his ” Old Churches and Families of Virginia ” at the time when the old church was most dilapidated. He said :

” Its thick walls and high tower, like that of some English castle, are still firm, and promise to be for a long time to come. The windows, doors, and all the interior, are gone. It is said that the eastern window—twenty-five feet high—was of stained glass. This venerable building stands not far from the main road leading from Smithfield to Suffolk, in an open tract of woodland. The trees for some distance round it are large and tall and the foliage dense, so that but little of the light of the sun is thrown upon it. The pillars which strengthen the walls, and which are wide at the base, tapering toward the eaves of the house by stair-steps, have somewhat mouldered, so as to allow various shrubs and small trees to root themselves therein.”

For nearly fifty years the church was closed. But in 1884 Rev. David Barr, who was in charge of a church nearby, began to raise funds for the reconstruction of the building. He persisted in spite of many discouragements. When matters looked darkest a man who signed himself ” A Virginian ” made the following appeal:

” There is still some plastering to be done in the tower, and the pews are to be made or bought. The church cannot be completed until the money is raised. Can no generous giver be found who will contribute the money necessary to bring the east window from Lon-don? . . . For sixty odd years the church has stood there silent, without a service, facing and defying storms and decay, appealing in its desolation to every sentiment of the State, of the Church and of the Nation against abandonment and desertion, and now in its half completed condition, feeling the touch of revival and restoration, it pleads more imploringly still for just enough money to complete the repairs and to enable it once more to enter upon its life of activity, and to utter again with renewed joyousness the ancient but long suppressed voice of prayer and of thanksgiving. Shall it appeal in vain? ”

The appeal was not in vain. The church was completed. Twelve beautiful memorial windows were put in place. These bore the names of George Washington, Joseph Bridger, the architect of the church, Robert E. Lee, Rev. William Hubbard, the first rector, Sir Walter. Raleigh, John Rolfe, Captain John Smith, Bishops Madison, Moore, Meade, and Johns, and Dr. Blair, whose connection with Bruton Church and William and Mary College is told in another chapter of this volume.

A building that is similar and yet in many respects quite different is in New Kent County, about as far above Williamsburg as Smithfield is below that university town. This is St. Peter’s Church. It is thought that the parish dates from 1654, though the present building was not begun until 1701. The minute which tells of the first plan for the structure is dated August 13, 1700:

” Whereas, the Lower Church of this Parish is very much out of Repair and Standeth very inconvenient for most of the inhabitants of the said parish ; There-fore ordered that as soon as conveniently may be a new Church of Brick Sixty feet long and twenty fower feet wide in the clear and fourteen feet pitch with a Gallery Sixteen feet long be built and Erected upon the Main Roade, by the School House near Thomas Jackson’s; and the Clerk is ordered to give a copy of this order to Capt. Nich. Merewether who is Requested to show the same to Will Hughes and desire him to draw a Draft of said Church and to bee at the next vestry.”

The cost of the new church was one hundred and forty-six thousand pounds of tobacco. This included the main building only, for the belfry was not built until 1722.

Rev. David Mossom, who was rector of the church from 1727 to 1767, was the minister who married General Washington, at the White House, as the home of his bride was called, a few miles from St. Peter’s Church. The story is told of this eccentric minister that on one occasion, having quarrelled with his clerk, he rebuked him from the pulpit. The latter avenged himself by giving out to the congregation the psalm in which were these lines :

” With restless and ungovern’d rage Why do the heathen storm? Why in such rash attempts engage As they can ne’er perform? ”

The epitaph on the tomb of Mr. Mossom in St. Peter’s churchyard states that he was the first native American admitted to the office of Presbyter in the Church of England.