St. John’s Church

Richmond
VA

St. John’s Church in Richmond

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QUICK FACTS
  • Following the dissolution of the House of Burgesses (by Royal Governor Lord Dunmore on 26-May-1774), there are five Virginia Conventions (1774 - 76) which lead to a declaration of separation from Britain.
  • The Second and Third Virginia Conventions are held in Richmond at St. John’s Church.
  • St. John’s is chosen because it is the only place large enough to contain the 120 delegates.
  • Peyton Randolph is elected President of the Second Virginia Convention, which was held for one week (20-Mar to 27-Mar-1775).
  • Among the delegates are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee.
  • Patrick Henry, representing Hanover County, is also a delegate. To rouse support for raising a militia, he delivers a fiery speech (23-Mar) ending with the words give me liberty or give me death!
  • Those final words become as much a part of the founding fabric as the phrases no taxation without representation and all men are created equal.
  • George Wythe, who went on to sign the Declaration of Independence and attended the Constitutional Convention, is buried in the Church’s cemetery (1806).
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I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

With those now famous words by Patrick Henry in 1775, St. John’s Church became one of the canonical places of the American Revolution.

Built in 1741 by Colonel Richard Randolph (great-uncle to Thomas Jefferson), and referred to as the Old Town Church, St. John’s was the first church in Richmond. It was expanded in 1772 with a 40-foot extension, which gave the church a T shape, with the sanctuary reoriented at the top of the T. The original church was now the transept to a newly built nave.

It was this structure, because it was the largest in Richmond, that gave the delegates to the Second Virginia Convention a place to discuss what actions to take in their escalating conflict with the Britain. It was here that Patrick Henry gave the speech (to raise a militia) that ended with words that every American school child knows.

Today, St. John’s continues to be an active Episcopal church — the oldest wood-frame place of worship in Virginia — but with a significantly changed structure.

In the 19th century a number of alterations were made, including another extension (smaller than in 1772 and placed vertically atop the T), which gave the church the rough shape of a cross. Also a church tower and steeple were added in the early 1830s to what was now the main entrance (at the bottom of the T). Toppled by a storm in 1863, it was replaced in 1866, and then again in 1904, but replicating the design of the original tower and steeple — and this is what one sees today.

The Church adjoins a cemetery where several notable Virginians are buried. Guided tours begin at the Visitor Center. Reenactments of the Second Virginia Convention and Patrick Henry’s speech are performed by actors in period costume on Sunday afternoons during the summer.

The most inadvertently prophetic words that Adams ever uttered were his last: Thomas Jefferson survives. For it was the Jeffersonian image that broke free of the aggregated anonymity, the founders or the fathers, and eventually ascended into heaven with Washington. During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Jeffersonian legacy became the most adaptable and all-purpose political touchstone in American political history.

Joseph J. Ellis
Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993)