St. John's Episcopal Church (Richmond, Virginia)
St. John's Episcopal Church
St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia on a winter day
|Architectural style||No Style Listed|
|NRHP Reference #||66000920|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||January 20, 1961|
St. John's Church is an Episcopal church located at 2401 East Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia. Formed from several earlier churches, St. John's is the oldest church in the city of Richmond, Virginia. It was built by William Randolph's son, Colonel Richard Randolph in 1741 and giving its name to the Church Hill district. It was the site of two important conventions in the period leading to the American Revolutionary War and is famously known as the location where Patrick Henry gave his closing speech at the Second Virginia Convention with the famous quotation "give me liberty, or give me death!"
The earliest precursor of St. John's was Henrico Parish Church, initially located at Sir Thomas Dale's progressive development at Henricus (also known as the "Cittie of Henricus", "Henricopolis" or "Henrico Town").
Founded in the Virginia Colony in 1611, Henricus was notable for a number of "firsts". It was the first to allocate land to individuals and the site of the first "College" in the English colonies, a school modeled after those in England of that era. The College at Henricus was to include education for the children of the Native Americans.
It was at Henricus that Pocahontas, the Native American daughter of Chief Powhatan, leader of the Powhatan Confederacy, was held in captivity by the colonists. During the year-long wait, the first rector of the church, Reverend Alexander Whitaker, an Englishman, taught her about Christianity and helped to improve her English. After she was baptized, her name was changed to "Rebecca". She married John Rolfe, who established Varina Farms, a plantation across the James River. Rolfe smuggled seeds sweet Spanish tobacco into Virginia, where it rapidly replaced the much harsher local strains.
Reverend Whitaker was drowned in the James River in 1617. His associate, Reverend William Wickham, held the Henrico Parish Church together awaiting the arrival from England of the Reverend Thomas Bargrave in 1619. Also in 1619, Henricus became located in Henrico Cittie (sic), one of four large "incorporations" or "burroughs" formed by the Virginia Company of London in 1619.
Henricus was an outpost of Jamestown, one of the most westerly-located of the developments at the time. This proved a severe disadvantage on Good Friday in 1622, when the entire development at Henricus and the church there were destroyed in the Indian Massacre of 1622. A third of the English colonists in Virginia were killed.
The Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624 and Virginia became a royal colony. Henricus was not rebuilt, but its long-lost site, now located in Chesterfield County (formed from Henrico in 1749), was discovered in the late 20th century. A county historical park is located there.
Varina, Henrico Parish
Despite the destruction of Henricus, the Colony continued to grow, and a small village of the colonists grew at Rolfe's Varina Farms Plantation which became known as Varina (also called "Henrico Parish" in early years). The Shire of Henrico (soon renamed Henrico County) was formed in 1634 as one of the eight original shires of Virginia. The initial county seat was at Varina, which officially became a town in 1680. In those days before separation of church and state, the parish boundaries were the same as the shire/county.
Notable among Henrico Parish's leaders was the Reverend Dr. James Blair (1656–1743), who was named Commissary in the Virginia Colony for the Bishop of London, making him the colony's highest-ranking religious leader. At the urging of the House of Burgesses, he became a founder and the first president of the College of William and Mary. In doing so, James Blair is said to have used some of the plans of the ill-fated earlier College at Henricus. Apparently taking no chances, the newer College was sited at the fortified location of Middle Plantation in James City County, to which the capital was later moved from Jamestown, and the community was renamed Williamsburg. There, Reverend Dr. Blair became the rector of Bruton Parish Church.
Exact locations of the church buildings at Varina are unknown. A 3rd or 4th church building was built a few miles east of Varina Farms on a plantation known as "Curles" some 20 miles east of the present city of Richmond in the current Varina District of Henrico County. The only relic of that church still surviving is the bowl of the baptismal font in use today at St. John's. 
Richmond, Church Hill
Henrico Parish Church moved to Richmond in 1741 and was built in what is now the Church Hill neighborhood on land donated by William Byrd II. Byrd also donated timber used to build the church and for the fire used to fire the kiln and bake the bricks for the foundation. Henrico's county seat was also moved from Varina to Richmond in 1752, to a building still extant at present-day 22nd and Main Streets nearby, where it remained until the 1970s.
The builder of the new church was Col. Richard Randolph (1686–1748), great-uncle to Thomas Jefferson. The original 1741 church building was completed on June 10, 1741. It remains as the transept of the current church, built along east-west lines. In 1772, a 40 foot square extension was added to the northern side, orienting the church towards the south, to which end the altar was moved.
Second Virginia Convention
On March 23, 1775, the Second Virginia Convention took place at the church. The President of the Convention was Peyton Randolph. Reverend Miles Selden was the rector of St. John's church at the time, and when the Convention assembled, he was chosen as Chaplain. Selden was popularly referred to as the "Patriot Parson." Among the 120 delegates were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Other notable delegates were Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Mann Randolph, Richard Bland, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. Debate centered around the perceived need to raise a militia to resist encroachments on civil rights by the British Government under King George III. Patrick Henry, a delegate from Hanover County, rose in support of a militia and, with his fiery speech (concluding with the words "Give me liberty or give me death!"), swayed the vote.
Under a Resolution offered by Richard Henry Lee, the House of Burgesses on May 15, 1776 resolved that "the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the united Colonies free and independent states."
It is also notable that the Second Virginia Convention authorized Baptist chaplains to minister to soldiers, an important early step to Freedom of Religion in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Third Virginia Convention
The Third Virginia Convention was held at St. John's Church on July 17, 1775 to organize the troops and the war effort of Virginia. George Washington of Fairfax had been appointed head of the American Army. The delegates acknowledged the debt to Patrick Henry whose wisdom had already begun the arming of the colony, and he was named the first Governor of Virginia.
American Revolutionary War
Although an active church with a ministry and congregation, a small souvenir shop is located within the churchyard, from which regular guided tours depart. These tours take place inside the church and explore the events in Virginia leading up to the Second Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry's famous speech, and his political career.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15.
- "Historic St. John's Episcopal Church". Church History.
- "St. John's Episcopal Church (Richmond)". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved June 27, 2008.
-  Kennedy, Mary Selden. Seldens of Virginia and Allied Families: Volume I. New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 1911. 122.
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