Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Located in Alexandria, Virginia, Christ Church opened its doors in 1773 to serve the Church of England's Fairfax Parish. George Washington helped fund the construction of the church, and his personal bible was presented to the parishioners of Christ Church in 1804, by George Washington Parke Custis

Outgrowing more modest spaces, in November 1766, the Vestry of Fairfax Parish ordered a levy of 31,185 pounds of tobacco upon it parishioners in support of new structures at present day Falls Church, Virginia and in Alexandria. The vestrymen awarded James Parson the contract to oversee the construction of the Alexandria church, designed by James Wren, a descendent of Sir Christopher Wren of the famed St. Paul’s Cathedral. Parsons estimated the cost of completing the church at £600.1

After numerous delays, some the result of a decision to expand the building midway through construction, Christ Church was still incomplete in 1772. In May of that year, the vestrymen of Fairfax Parish called Parsons before them and asked if he believed construction could be completed by the end of the year. Parsons answered in the negative, and a new contract costing an additional £220 was eventually awarded to prominent Alexandrian John Carlyle.2

On February 27, 1773, the Vestry of Fairfax Parish took formal possession of the Christ Church. As was common practice, prominent members of the community “bought” pews in the church so that they could ensure their entire family had space to sit together, and as a way to defray the construction expenses. George Washington, a member of Fairfax Parish, supplied the greatest amount for his pew, £36 10s. While a vestrymen of neighboring Truro Parish closer to Mount Vernon, part of Washington’s property also lay within Fairfax Parish. This dual membership offered Washington access to, and the financial obligation of supporting, churches in both parishes.3

An English traveler witnessing the church in 1774 referred to it as “a pretty and large building.” The reverend Townsend Dade, however, was not popular with the congregation. In January 1775, Nicholas Cresswell, an English traveler residing in Alexandria, complained that Dade was “drunk and [couldn’t] perform the duties of his office.”4 On another occasion, Cresswell observed that Dade was “too lazy to preach.”5 The vestry was likewise frustrated with Dade, and terminated his ministry in June 1778.6

The church was observed to be a center of Whig activity during the Revolutionary War. Cresswell, a Tory, commented in November 1774 that he no longer wanted to attend, because the homilies consisted largely of “Political Sermons.”7 He later noted that the ministers were “mere retailers of politics, sowers of sedition and rebellion, serve to blow the cole of discord and excite the people to arms.”8 Reverend David Griffith, who became rector of the parish in 1780, was noted to be particularly fervent in support of the Revolution. Griffith was a veteran, who had served as both a surgeon and chaplain to the 3rd Virginia Regiment, prior to becoming the rector at Christ Church.

While most parishioners were Whigs, the church struggled to provide regular service during the conflict. Even after the start of the war, the Anglican Church remained the established church of Virginia, and all residents were taxed to fund the church. To gain support from dissenting Protestants, however, Virginia suspended the unpopular compulsory taxes during the conflict, eliminating the church’s primary source of income. Cresswell noted the effects of this change on October 20, 1776, saying “the Parsons are not willing to expound the Gospel to the people without being paid for it, and there is no provision made for the Episcopal Clergy by this new code of Laws.”9 Two weeks later, Cresswell again commented that no service was held.10

Interior of Christ Church. On the well to the left of the alter can be seen a memorial plaque to George Washington. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.In 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted his Statute for Religious Freedom, and submitted it to the Virginia legislature in 1779. The proposed law would formally disestablish the Church of England in Virginia and guarantee freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths.11 Successful passage of the law would potentially cripple Christ Church financially on a permanent basis if it could not find a new source of support. Fortunately for the church, it took several years for the Virginia legislature to finalize the legislation.

As it became increasingly clear that the Statute of Religious Freedom would be enacted, the Fairfax vestrymen solicited support from their fellow parishioners. George Washington again provided financial assistance to Christ Church on April 25, 1785, pledging that “the pews we now hold, in the Episcopal Church at Alexandria, shall be for ever, charged with an Annual Rent of five pounds Virginia Money each … for the Purpose of supporting the Ministry in the said Church.”12

In 1799, the rector of Christ Church, Thomas Davis, was one of four ministers to speak at the funeral of George Washington.

 

Notes:

1. Washington’s Church, An Historical Sketch of Old Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Together with a Brief Description of the Centenary Services Therein, November 20 and 21st, 1873 (Alexandria, Va: Christ Church, 1888) 9; Note 1, George Washington to John Dalton, 15 February 1775, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.

2. Washington’s Church, An Historical Sketch of Old Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Together with a Brief Description of the Centenary Services Therein, November 20 and 21st, 1873 (Alexandria, Va: Christ Church, 1888) 11; Note 1, George Washington to John Dalton, 15 February 1775, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.

3. Washington’s Church, An Historical Sketch of Old Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Together with a Brief Description of the Centenary Services Therein, November 20 and 21st, 1873 (Alexandria, Va: Christ Church, 1888) 11.

4. Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777 (New York: The Dial Press, 1924), 52.

5. Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 59.

6. Washington’s Church, An Historical Sketch of Old Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Together with a Brief Description of the Centenary Services Therein, November 20 and 21st, 1873 (Alexandria, Va: Christ Church, 1888), 14.

7. Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 46.

8. Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 165.

9. Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 165.

10. Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 167.

11. Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786.

12. Fairfax Parish Vestry Minutes. Christ Church Archives, Alexandria, Virginia.

Bibliography:

Bell, James. Empire, Religion, and Revolution in Early Virginia, 1607-1786. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Boller, Paul F. Jr. George Washington and Religion. Dallas: SMU Press, 1963.

Gutzman, Kevin R. C. Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840. Lexington Books, 2007.

Rhoden, Nancy L. Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England Clergy during the American Revolution. New York: NYU Press, 1999.

Thompson, Mary V. “In the Hands of a Good Providence:” Religion in the Life of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

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