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
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
*THIS IS PART ONE OF HISTORIC CHURCHES IN VIRGINIA; STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO!