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History of Old St. John's

St. John’s Parish came into being in 1680 with the division of Stratton Major Parish (which covered the equivalent of several modern counties) into smaller, more compact areas.

There were two churches in the parish at an early date. John Fontaine, who accompanied the governor, records in his journal that Gov. Alexander Spotswood and his party stopped for Sunday services at the upper church during the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe” expedition that explored the Blue Ridge in 1716.

The lower part of the parish was served by Pamunkey Neck Chapel, constructed between 1650 and 1680 within the boundaries of what later became the town of West Point. The only physical evidence left of the chapel is what was apparently the graveyard, located near the side entrance of West Point’s First Baptist Church.

One of the headstones, legible until some years ago, marked the last resting place of a seafaring man:

    Though Boreas’ blasts and Neptune’s waves
    Have tossed me to and fro,
    In spite of all, by God’s decree
    We anchor here below
    Now here do we at anchor lie
    With many of our fleet,
    Yet once again we must set sail
    Our Savior Christ to meet.

In 1729, the vestry of St. John’s Parish expressed concern about the decay of the two churches and agreed to set about replacing them. The church to serve the lower part of the parish was to be built first, and both churches were to be of “equal dimensions and goodness.”

To finance the two churches, the vestry levied a tax of 19,050 pounds of tobacco on the parishioners. The proceeds from the sale of this commodity, however, were insufficient to construct both churches. So in 1731, a decision was made to build only one church on a site to be selected by agreement among the vestrymen.

The site chosen for St. John’s Church was a piece of land on the colonial road between King William Courthouse and Pamunkey Neck, where the town of West Point grew up in the mid-nineteenth century. It is approximately ten miles from West Point and 150 yards west of Virginia State Route 33.

Though it has been conjectured that the church was built in 1732, it seems more likely that it was completed in 1734. As it happens, someone had carved the latter date in the brick of the door facing the highway, on a wing or transept that was added on the north side some time after the date of the original construction. Except for this addition and the raising of the floor of the nave approximately twelve inches, St. John’s in its structural aspects remains the same today as it was in 1734.

The brick is laid in English bond below the water table, but in Flemish bond with all glazed headers above the water table. The west and north doorways are gauged brick. The west doorway has a segmental head, and the north one has a triangular pediment, of which the field is gauged. The west doorway is flanked by pilasters, one of which went to pieces and has recently been restored. In its construction the church offers a fine example of the colonial brick mason’s art.

The first rector of St. John’s on record was the Reverend John Monro Jr., a Scot who came to the parish in 1693. Monro’s tenure fell during a period of stormy relations between church and state in Virginia. He was a brother-in- law of the Reverend James Blair, commissary of the church, who strongly opposed the administration of Gov. Francis Nicholson.

Politically powerful vestrymen like Thomas Claiborne, Henry Fox, and John West supported Nicholson, and Monro took the part of Blair. Monro was accused of slandering the royal governor. The minister, in reply, denounced the vestry for failing to make provision for his living and for having “nay’d and lock’d” the chapel door to keep him from preaching. The vestry denied this, and also denied any prejudice against Mr. Monro because of his Scottish birth, but did admit they believed an Englishman “would be more accept able” in the pulpit. The quarrel was eventually patched up, and Mr. Monro remained rector until his death about 1723. His widow died in 1725 and was buried beneath Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.

The next rector of St. John’s Parish was the Reverend William Nelson, who remained only briefly, until about 1724. The first rector to minister to the newly built St. John’s Church was the Reverend Daniel Taylor Jr., son of the Reverend Daniel Taylor of Blisland Parish, New Kent County. Young Mr. Taylor studied in the grammar school of the College of William and Mary. In 1723, when he was about nineteen years of age, he entered Cambridge University, studying at St. John’s College and Trinity College. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree, he took holy orders, and on his return to Virginia in 1727, he was chosen rector by the vestry of St. John’s Parish. Mr. Taylor remained rector until his death on 9 September 1742.

Apparently, Mr. Taylor was an exemplary minister, and the building of the new church during his rectorate is a testimonial to the unity of the parish under his charge. His wife was Alice Littlepage, daughter of Richard Littlepage of a well-known Virginia family.

For nearly ten years after Mr. Taylor’s death, St. Johns was without a regular clergyman, though the Reverend James Maury (one of several Anglican clergymen in Virginia who filed suit in the renowned “Parson’s Cause” court case of 1763) seems to have served a year or more in the parish. This long deprivation ended with the coming of the Reverend John Robertson as minister in 1752. We know little about Mr. Robertson and his ministry. Apparently he served until around 1756, though there is no record of his being at St. John’s after 1756.

During the years 1760 to 1764, St. John’s was served by the Reverend Robert Reade, of whose ministry also little is known. Then the church acquired one of the truly gifted clergymen of colonial Virginia: the Reverend Henry Skyren. Mr. Skyren was born in the port of Whitehaven on England’s east coast in 1729. In 1763, he emigrated to the colonies and preached alternately in King and Queen and King William Counties before being elected rector of St. John’s. He married Lucy Moore, daughter of Col. Bernard Moore and Anne Catherine Spotswood, daughter of the royal governor. Colonel Moore was master of the great plantation “Chelsea” in lower King William County.

The vestry of St. John’s was impressed with Mr. Skyren’s abilities. In 1771, they sought legislation in the House of Burgesses to increase the glebe (the land that yields revenue to a parish church) in order to keep him as rector. He remained at St. John’s until he was in his sixties, an advanced age for the day, and he brought to the church its golden years as a house of worship.

Mr. Skyren was blessed with remarkable eloquence. H. I. Lewis, in a series of articles on King William County, wrote of him: “Crowds attended services held in this church to listen to the eloquent sermons from the above celebrated divine, Parson Skyren. Many families brought with them to the church chairs that they might be seated in the aisles, so great were the crowds attending the same.”

During Mr. Skyren’s early years at St. John’s, the vestry was the cockpit of a sharp rivalry between two members, Carter Braxton and Thomas Claiborne, who were bitter political opponents in King William County. They vied for power in the church as well as in politics. Their disagreement was carried to the House of Burgesses, which ordered the vestry to be dissolved and new members to be chosen.

Despite the disunity, which ended in the supremacy of the Braxton faction, Mr. Skyren was able to pack his church with supporters of both sides. Again in 1775, the people of the church raised the glebe in order to provide him with a more adequate living.

The Claiborne-Braxton disputes seemed to foreshadow the deep divergence that developed in the parish during the struggle with Great Britain. Claiborne became an outspoken Tory, while Braxton took the part of the colonies as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Tory raiders burned Braxton’s home in 1780, while he was attending a session of the Continental Congress.

St. John’s suffered more than many other Anglican churches from the effects of the Revolution. Many of its members either went away to war and never returned or, like Col. John West, owner of the West Point tract and a descendant of the third Lord Delaware, they fled the New World.

Unlike many Anglican clergymen, Mr. Skyren remained with his church to lead it through this difficult period and to assist in its rebirth without its historic ties to the royal government. In 1785 and 1786, we find Mr. Skyren and Carter Braxton listed as delegates from St. John’s Parish to the first two Episcopal Conventions. In 1787, Mr. Skyren and William Claiborne served as delegates.

Also in 1787, Mr. Skyren ended his long ministry at St. John’s, probably because of advancing age. In 1790, he moved to Hampton and five years later, he died there. St. John’s was never to be the same without him.  With the end of Mr. Skyren’s ministry, the church could find no clergyman able to measure up to him as a spiritual leader. In 1792, the Reverend James Price became rector, but he left in 1796, apparently having accomplished little. (Reverend Price appears to have been the son of the Reverend Thomas Price of Gloucester County).

The Reverend John Dunn succeeded Price around 1797. It is not known how long he served, although it is clear that he had left St. John’s by 1799, when he shows up as rector of Manchester Parish in Chesterfield County Mr. Dunn appears to have been St. John’s last full-time rector. However, Bishop William Meade states in his book Old Churches, Ministers, and Families in Virginia that a Rev. John McGuire often served St. John’s while he was a pastor in Essex County.

In a legal sense, St. John’s seems to have become state property after the Revolution along with other Crown properties, but as long as it was being used by an Episcopal congregation, there was no question of the state asserting any legal title.

There is no record of St. John’s last years as an active Episcopal church or of when it closed its doors as such. The fact is, however, that the Episcopalians ceased to worship there, leaving the way open for other denominations to occupy it in subsequent years.

Capt. J. Churchill Cooke wrote in 1930 that St. John’s appeared to be a free church and that “any and all of the various denominations had the right to worship there.” He stated that the Baptists and Methodists held regular services in the church after the War Between the States and that they probably did so before the war, as well.

A Methodist congregation attempted to take over the church, and probably would have obtained legal title to the property had it not been for the efforts of Capt. Robert E. Lee Jr. of “Romancoke” and Dr. Buchan Richards of “Tuckoman.”

In 1876, Captain Lee and Dr. Richards ran a survey of the property and began proceedings through the State Land Office to claim the building and its site. By treasury warrant No. 30284, dated 14 April 1877, they purchased the two- acre lot for the current land-grant price of one dollar per acre, and the site, with the church, became their personal property.

Meanwhile, an Episcopal congregation was growing up in the town of West Point, which had been incorporated in 1870 and was developing as a railway port terminal. By 1882, the members had built their own church, also called St. John’s. Since the old St. John’s was no longer used by any denomination, it was rapidly becoming a ruin.

Dr. Richards died, leaving Captain Lee and his wife, Juliet Carter Lee, the sole possessors of the church and its site. By deed of 12 December 1913, the Lees gave old St. John’s to the vestry of the new church. At that same time, the St. John’s Church Restoration Association was formed. Since then, this interdenominational association has worked to preserve and restore old St. John’s.

Among those who have given their time and money to this effort, none is more deserving of mention than the late Dr. G. MacLaren Brydon, a former rector and later historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia, one of the founders and organizers of the Restoration Association.

Two other leaders in the restoration movement are Capt. J. Churchill Cooke and Rev. Arthur P Gray Jr. for many years rectorship at St. John’s in West Point. In 1931, we find Mr. Gray moving that the association and the parish encourage the people of the country to use the church for religious services and to “consider old St. John’s as a shrine belonging to this country” Mr. Gray worked tirelessly during his life time to encourage national recognition of the historic site. At present the association is engaged in a well-organized and realistic program of preservation looking toward ultimate restoration of this lovely colonial church. Phase I of the plan calls for basic preservation and is now virtually completed. Phase II consists of structural replacement and is being carried out as funds become available. Phase II envisions preparation of the church for services or for similar use as a shrine.

To raise money, donations from individuals and organizations are solicited and collected. The restoration movement is not a church or sectarian movement, but is interdenominational in every sense.

When completed, the restoration should bring about a new period in the history of the ancient church. Situated as it is on George Washington’s Burgess Route to Williamsburg —a road that was used by Washington and so many other famous Americans—the old church has probably looked upon as many great men from our country’s past as any other in the nation. It seems fitting that it should be preserved and restored to its former glory.