Historic Churches in Virginia: Part One

by Patricia Keppel | Posted: Apr 18, 2017

Comments: 11 Comments


Virginia is steeped in history, which can still be seen in historic structures that date back hundreds of years. While many homes, businesses, and government buildings did not survive the test of time, churches were extremely important to communities, and their significance was shown through intense preservation and restoration efforts. Today, Virginia boasts some of the most beautiful and historic churches in the country, with many dating back more than 300 years. Here are a few of the oldest, most historically significant churches in Virginia that are located on the Eastern side of the state.*


Jamestown Memorial Church—Williamsburg

Historic Jamestowne Church

Built on the grounds of the original Jamestown Fort, Jamestown Memorial Church was reconstructed several times after misfortune continuously damaged the structure. Fires that broke out during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 burned down most of the wood church structure, but a brick tower that was added after 1639 managed to survive over time. The church that stands today was added to the brick tower in 1907, with the cobblestone and brick foundations of the previous churches currently visible on the church grounds.


Old St. John’s Church—West Point

Old St. John’s Church was founded in 1680, but the only evidence of its early existence is the graveyard on the church grounds. The historic church that now stands in West Point was constructed in 1734, and with careful preservation efforts over hundreds of years, the exterior of the sanctuary looks almost the same as it did when first erected.


Westover Episcopal Church—Charles City  

Historic Westover Church in Charles City.

Although Westover Episcopal Church dates to 1730 as a structure, the church has history that goes all the way back to 1613. Colonists that began to migrate west from Jamestown in 1611, and their small parishes merged in 1613 to become Westover Parish. The parish worshipped in several churches in the beginning of their existence, but constructed the current church in 1730. However, the church was abandoned as time went on, and was even converted into a barn for about 30 years around 1803. In 1833, prominent Virginia families like the Shirleys, Berkeleys, Harrisons, and Carters decided to work together to revive and repair the church. It flourished for decades, but the Civil War brought Federal troops, who caused significant damage to the historic church. After the war ended, restoration efforts began, and by 1867 the church looks much like it does today.


Bruton Parish Church—Williamsburg

The Bruton Parish Church name can be traced to 1633, but the original site of the church is unknown. The current church site was established in 1678 after a wealthy colonist donated the land, then rebuilt in 1715 due to the expanding congregation size. The church has undergone many renovations over the years, but parts of the historic structure are still visible today.


St. Luke’s Church—Smithfield

St. Luke's Historic Church

St. Luke’s Church in Smithfield is the oldest surviving church in Virginia, with the existing structure built in 1682. This single-room brick church began as an Anglican house of worship, but the congregation disbanded in 1777 and services were not held in the church again until 1821 when it was converted into an Episcopal church. Since its foundation, the church has undergone two renovations, but the original church structure remains standing after more than 330 years. The church also houses the oldest organ in the United States, adding to its historic significance.


St. Peter’s Parish—New Kent

The history of St. Peter’s Parish dates to 1679, although much of the structure would be replaced during renovations in 1703. It is the oldest parish church in the Diocese of Virginia and the third oldest in the entire Commonwealth, and holds the distinction of being the church where George Washington would marry Martha. Robert E. Lee referenced this fact in a letter that he wrote after discovering that the church had been desecrated by Federal troops, writing, “St. Peter’s is the church where General Washington was married and attended in early life. It would be a shame to America if allowed to go to destruction.” Fittingly, his son, General William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, superintended the work of restoring the old church, reopening to a congregation again in 1872. Many of the church’s current furnishings were crafted in the late 17th century, adding an authentic atmosphere to the interior.


Historic Christ Church—Weems

Historic Christ Church

Considered the best preserved parish church from Colonial Virginia, Historic Christ Church retains most of the original elements of the structure that was erected in 1735. This architectural masterpiece has vaulted ceilings, a walnut altar, colonial Virginia’s only surviving high-backed box pews, and impressive brickwork throughout. The church was a gift of Robert “King” Carter, the wealthiest planter in Virginia during the early 18th century. Carter’s generous contribution paid tribute to the previous wooden church his father had constructed on the site in 1670. Visitors can tour the church, learning about its history in the interactive museum and through the family-friendly educational programs provided by the museum.


St. John’s Church—Hampton

The original St. John’s Church was built in 1610, but after over 100 years of operation, it was rebuilt at its current location in 1728. Hampton burned to the ground during the Civil War, but the church was spared, making it the only building in the town to survive the fires and destruction of the war. Take a tour of the museum inside the parish to see the “Breeches” bible that dates to 1599 and the 1618 Communion silver set, the longest used English Church silver set found in America.


Christ Church—Alexandria

Christ Church

An English country-style church in the heart of Old Town Alexandria, Christ Church welcomed many distinctive attendees over the years, including George Washington, whose pew is marked with a silver plaque, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The gardens and cemetery grounds around the church were used by Union troops during the war for grazing their horses, but as a sign of respect to the first President of the United States, the church was preserved from the destruction that razed countless churches around Virginia.


Merchant’s Hope Church—Prince George

The oldest Episcopalian church used for worship in the United States, colonists founded Merchant’s Hope Church in 1657, then moved the church to its current site in 1740. The church has undergone renovation and restorations since its founding, but the building retains almost all of the original architecture today, as well as an English bible that was printed in London in 1639. Services are still held at Merchant’s Hope Church, but tours are available by appointment.


Grace Church—Yorktown

Grace Church

Originally established in 1697, Grace Church continues to serve as an active Episcopal church in Yorktown. The church withstood much misfortune over the centuries, including the Revolutionary War, a fire in 1814 that caused significant damage to much of the church, and the widespread destruction of the Civil War. Of the 1697 structure, only the original marl walls remained standing today.


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—Norfolk

Construction of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was completed in 1739, and as the only edifice in the city to survive British destruction in 1776, it is the oldest building in Norfolk. In fact, a cannonball fired by the British Fleet still remains in the southeastern wall, adding even more interesting history to the church. Visitors may walk the church grounds and cemetery at all times, and guided tours of the church are available by appointment.





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Madelyn Lawrence says:

You forgot St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chuckatuck, just 10 miles from St. Luke’s!

From http://stjohnsepiscopal-suffolk.org/parish-history/
“St. John’s roots go back to the earliest English settlements along the Nansemond River, dating back to 1642. The present church, the third on this site, was constructed in 1755. Its old walls are solid brick, approximately two feet thick. The aisle is paved with blocks of limestone from England. The chancel, with its elaborate wainscoting and carvings, was installed in the 1880’s. The colored glass windows date from the same period as well.”

Alison Towles says:

Saint Mary’s Whitechapel in Lancaster is a beautiful church, almost 350 years old.

Robin Wells says:

Christ Church Parish in Middlesex County celebrated its 350th birthday this year with the Presiding Bishop in attendance & preaching a magnificent sermon!

Mike says:

Thank you, this is of great interest to me. I have made a pilgrimage of sorts over the last five years to visit all of Virginia’s colonial era churches (or surviving remnants). I only have one more to go – Old Chapel Church in Franklin County. I have taken hundreds of photos of the churches and their grounds.

Zellhoefer says:

You should publish the photos in a book.

Arlene says:

Have you visited the Rock Churches in Patrick County and Floyd Va? They have a lot of history. There is a book called “The Man Who Moved the Mountain” that tells about the beginning of these churches. Very Interesting!

Tibby says:

While much newer than the churches listed, Clover Creek Presbyterian in Highland County is a gem of an old church.

Andrea Brazil says:

Don’t forget Glebe Episcopal Church, Suffolk! Our building dates to 1738 and we just put a new Buckingham slate roof on for another 100 years of worship. Check out our history at http://www.glebechurch.org Virginia’s contribution to the start of the Revolutionary War…

Lincoln H. Mueller says:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, VA was added to the list of Virginia Historical Churches last year, 2017. Emmanuel, Virginia Beach was built in 1843 and is still a vibrant and active church in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.