BY THE REV. SAMUEL A. WALLIS, RECTOR FROM 1881 TO 1891.
“OLD POHICK CHURCH,” as it is familiarly and affectionately called by the people of the vicinity, stands out as one of the historical landmarks not only of Virginia, but also of the nation. It is pre-eminently the parish church of Mount Vernon, and shares the honor with Old Christ Church, Alexandria, of being intimately associated with the religious life and worship of Washington. It was also the parish church of another notable and noble figure of the Revolution, the celebrated George Mason, of Gunston Hall, the author of the Bill of Rights of Virginia. The association of two such immortal names with the history of “Old Pohick” justly entitles it to a foremost place among the ecclesiastical edifices of this land.
The present church, a commodious and solid structure, built of brick with stone dressings in the style of the Georgian period, so common in the churches erected during the last half of the eighteenth century, is the second church built in the lower part of Truro Parish. Its predecessor was a simple frame edifice, situated two miles nearer Gunston Hall, on the south side of Pohick Run, from which the church derives its name.
Fortunately for the history of the parish, the late venerable Rev. Dr. Philip Slaughter, historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia, recovered the old vestry book from some one in the North for the sum of twenty dollars, about twenty years ago. The vestry of Pohick gladly paid this amount to Dr. Slaughter, and counts this old volume, now deposited at Mount Vernon for safe-keeping, as amongst its most valued possessions. Before the book was acquired by the vestry Dr. Slaughter added to his valuable parish histories, already written, the history of Truro parish, of course taking this invaluable record of fifty-three years as the basis of his work. This is still in manuscript, in the hands of the writer of the present article, who confidently hopes that the rapidly reviving interest in the antiquities of Virginia many soon give him the long-desired opportunity of publishing this important contribution to the history of the Diocese and State.
The first record in the vestry book goes back to May, 1732, when the parish of Truro was, by Act of Assembly, formed from Hamilton Parish, which was coterminous with what was then Prince William county, “extending from Chappawamsick Creek and Deep Run along the Potomac to the great mountains.” Truro Parish took off the part bounded by Occoquan River, Bull Run, a branch thereof (so well known during the Civil War), and thence by a line extending to the Indian Thoroughfare (Ashby’s Gap), thence along the Blue Ridge to the Potomac river, and down that river to the mouth of Occoquan. This territory now comprises Truro, Upper Truro, Cameron, Fairfax and Shelburne parishes. There was a church building already at Occoquan, in Hamilton Parish, where the earliest meetings of the Truro vestry were held until the first Pohick church, the frame building already mentioned, was built within the limits of Truro Parish, about four miles from the town of Occoquan, and four miles from Gunston Hall, on the ridge of land between Occoquan River and Pohick Run.
The first minister of the parish was the Rev. Lawrence de Butts, who, however, did not remain long in charge. He was engaged for only one year, to preach three times a month at Occoquan church, then in Hamilton Parish, at the new church (or Mr. Gunwell’s), by which, I think, was meant Payne’s church, near the present town of Fairfax, and at the “chapelle” above Goose Creek, at the sum of 8,000 pounds of tobacco, clear of the warehouse charges and abatements, with the proviso that if he were prevented by the weather, or otherwise fails to preach at any of the times or places aforesaid, tobacco shall only be levied for him in proportion to his services. It is interesting to note that the first lay reader in the parish, elected at a vestry meeting held on the 12th of October, 1733, was Joseph Johnson, who was to receive 1,300 pounds of tobacco, provided he did his duty in his office.
On November 18, 1735, Augustine Washington was elected vestryman. He nominated, at a vestry meeting held in 1736, Mr. Charles Green, “as a person qualified to officiate in this church as soon as he shall receive orders from His Grace the Bishop of London.” The vestry then commended Mr. Green to the Right Honorable Lord Fairfax, for his letter of recommendation and presentation to the Bishop of London, to qualify him as aforesaid. Mr. Green then proceeded to England for orders, and on his return to Virginia, in 1737, it is recorded “that the Rev. Charles Green, M. D., by a letter from the Hon’ble Wm. Gooch, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, as by the letter of the Honourable James Blair, Commisary, is legally and regularly ordained, and it is therefore ordered by the vestry that the said Green be received and entertained as minister of this parish, and be provided for as the law directs.”
From all we know of the first regularly instituted rector, he was a man of high character, faithful to his duties, enjoying the friendship and esteem of George Mason, George Washington and other prominent members of the vestry and community. He remained in charge of the parish until his death, in 1765.
In the year 1741 Fairfax county was taken from Prince William, and the boundaries of this county and Truro Parish became coterminous. In February, 1749-50, it is recorded that George Mason was appointed church warden in place of Jeremiah Bronaugh, deceased. This is the first appearance of the name of the illustrious patriot of Gunston Hall on the vestry book. He continued as an active member of the vestry until after the Revolution, when all vestries, under the laws of the State, were dissolved; but he no doubt remained connected with Pohick church until his death, in 1792.
The next incident worthy of note is the division of Truro Parish by Act of Assembly in 1748, by a line running from the mouth of Difficult Run to the head thereof, ant thence running across the country to the head of Pope’s Head Run, and down this run to the mouth thereof, and all that part of the parish below this line to retain the name of Truro, and that above to be called Cameron Parish.
On the 4th of June, 1753, it was ordered by the vestry of Truro Parish, on the petition of Captain John West, that the Rev. Charles Green do preach on every third Sunday in the town of Alexandria. This is the first mention of that town in the vestry book, and gives us the probable date of the first Church service there, being ten years earlier than is generally supposed. In 1755 it is ordered that the church wardens have seats made for the church in Alexandria.
Then appears a most important entry. On the 25th of October, 1762, George Washington were appointed church wardens for the ensuing Peake, deceased, and in October, 1763, George William Fairfax and George Washington were appointed churchwardens for the ensuing year.
By an act of the General Assembly, passed October, 1764, the last division of Truro Parish during colonial times was made, to become effective after February 1, 1765. The line commenced at the mouth of Deeg Creek and ran to Mr. George Washington’s mill, the ruins of which can be seen to this day; thence by a straight line to the plantation of John Munroe, and the same continued to the line that divides Fairfax and Loudoun; and all southward of that line to the River Occoquan to retain the name of Truro, and all to the northward to be called Fairfax Parish, with the old Christ church, Alexandria, as the chief church of the latter parish. George Washington, as the vestry book states, became vestryman in both parishes by the vote of the freeholders and householders in each.
In this same year, as already noted, the Rev. Charles Green died, and shortly after the Rev. Lee Massey, a Lawyer and an inhabitant of the parish, was recommended for Holy Orders to the Bishop of London, and on his return from England in 1767, was accepted as the minister of the parish. He was also held in high esteem, and there still linger traditions of his wit and bon homie among the older residents of Pohick. Bishop Meade writes “that his sermons evince talent and are sound in doctrine, but like most of that day, want evangelical life and spirit, and would never rouse lost sinners to a sense of their condition.” He lived to his eighty-sixth year, dying in 1814, and lies buried at “Bradley,” his old plantation, on the slope of a hill overlooking the beautiful waters of Occoquan River.
It has sometimes been doubted whether the surplice was worn in the Colonial Church in Virginia, but this doubt is set at rest so far as one instance is concerned, by an order of the vestry, in 1766, to Hector Rose to pay George William Fairfax, of Belvoir, also a vestryman, the sum of £16 17s 0d., agreeably to the account lodged for surplices and books imported by him for the use of the parish.
In the year 1769 the plans of the church were drawn up, it is said, as the vestry book states the old building was out of repair. Though no record appears on that book verifying the accepted tradition of the manner in which Washington determined the central position of the present site of the church, and carried his point at a vestry meeting, we agree with Bishop Meade as to the evidences of its truth. The method adopted is singularly like Washington’s practical habits of business. When it was proposed to build on a new site, much opposition was aroused, especially by “old Mr. Mason.” who spoke of the spot then occupied as hallowed in the eyes of the people, and consecrated by the graves of their dead. Washington at once made a survey of this part of the parish, drew up a map, and marked the residences of the parishioners, and presented it at the next vestry meeting. This argument was conclusive, and the site on which the church stands to-day is an evidence of his careful survey.
by Washington. The building committee as appointed by the vestry, consisted of George Washington, George William Fairfax, George Mason, Daniel McCarty and Edward Payne, The undertaker, or contractor was Daniel French, Gentleman, who contracted to build the church according to the articles of agreement for the sum of £877. We wish that we had space to transcribe these articles in the columns of the Southern Churchman, but their best witness is the solidity of the walls of the old building to-day. The interior remained practically intact up to the time of the Civil War, when to quote Bishop Johns, “the church was shamefully damaged by its military invaders, who left it to crumble under the wasting influences of the weather, and to be carried off at pleasure by any one who fancied its material for private use.” All that remained of the interior woodwork after this desolation was the cornice around the ceiling. Bishop Meade, as all readers of his “Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia,” will remember, records a visit made by himself to Pohick church in 1837. He speaks of its neglected appearance and the dilapidation of the roof at that time. Through his suggestion a new roof was put on the church, which protected the interior for many years.
But to return to the closing days of its Colonial and is post-Revolutionary history. “His Excellency” General Washington resigned from the vestry in 1782, and shortly afterwards the Rev. Lee Massey ceased to conduct the services there, owing, it is said, to physical disability. The fortunes of the church appeared to wane, as little is heard of it for many years, with the exception of the time that Rev. Mason Locke Weems, the author of the famous “Life of Washington” was said to be its rector. Services must have been infrequent until about the year 1837, when the Rev. Mr. Johnson, who also acted as tutor to the children of the last Mrs. Mason, who resided at Gunston Hall, discharged the duties of rector for a few years.
Under the direction of Bishop Meade and the fostering care of Dr. Packard, of the Theological Seminary, students were sent to keep the church open and revive the decadent Episcopal interest. As was so frequently the case during that period, the church was occupied on alternate Sundays by Methodist ministers. The late Rev. Richard R. Mason related that as a young man he attended a debating society held on week days in the church.
This state of things continued until the year 1860 when, as the Rev. E. L. Goodwin, the present accurate historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia, has kindly reminded us, the Rev. R. T. Brown, of Zion church, Fairfax Court House, the representative of old Payne’s church, took charge of old Pohick, “with fair prospects of success.” But the storm of Civil War, already alluded to, swept over the country and desolated the churches and homes of Virginia and the rest of the Southland. So this fair beginning was nipped in the bud, and this old historic House of Prayer was left to its latter desolations until in the year 1874, a gentleman from New York became deeply interested in its rehabilitation. He collected about $2,400 from prominent men in New York and Philadelphia and had the building put in good condition. Unfortunately no true restoration was attempted. Ordinary pews were placed in the body of the church, a great platform ran across the whole eastern end, and a vestry room was partitioned off on the north end of this platform. The furnishings of the chancel were of modern Gothic type, given by a church in the Diocese of New York. But the thanks of the community and congregation are due to this kind friend in a time of need, for creating a general interest in this venerable edifice, and rendering it fit for use. The renovated building was consecrated on the first Sunday in October, 1875, by Bishop Johns, who also preached the sermon, the morning service being read by Drs. Packard and McIlhenny, of the Seminary. Students of the Seminary again served the church, under Dr. Kinloch Nelson, until in September, 1881, the writer of this article took charge, as a deacon, by the appointment of Bishop Whittle, and remained there thirteen years.
On the suggestion of some members of the vestry, shortly before this time, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association began to take an active interest in the church, and have for many years rented a pew and attended service there, on the Sunday falling during the week of their Annual Council held at Mount Vernon in the month of May.
The Rev. Henry F. Kloman became the next minister, and after an incumbency of two years was succeeded by the Rev. Everard Meade, who is still the earnest and energetic rector of the parish. During his rectorship the restoration of the church has been taken in hand and is now in progress. In this most worthy undertaking he has been ably seconded by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and Mr. H. H. Dodge, the superintendent of Mount Vernon, and a vestryman of Ponick, together with the other vestrymen and friends of the church. Various patriotic bodies and societies for preserving the antiquities of the country have undertaken certain portions of the restoration. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association will restore the Washington pew, and other pews will be restored by the descendants of the original pewholders, or by persons who now own some of the old estates around Pohick. It is hoped that the restoration will be practically completed this fall.
The present property of the church other than the church edifice consists of a rectory, a fine parish hall, mainly built through a generous contribution from Mrs. Hearst, of California, and forty-three acres of land around the church and rectory. Bishop Meade exclaimed in a pathetic apostrophe, when he visited the church in 1837: “Is this the house of God which was built by the Washingtons, the Masons, the McCartys, the Grahams, the Lewises, the Fairfaxes? the house in which they used to worship the God of our fathers according to the venerable forms of the Episcopal Church and some of whose names are yet to be seen on the doors of those now deserted pews? Is this also designed to moulder piecemeal away, or, when some signal is given to become the prey of spoilers, and to be carried hither and thither, and applied to every purpose under heaven? Surely patriotism or reverence for the greatest of patriots, if not religion, might be effectually appealed to in behalf of this one temple of God.”
How would his heart been gladdened if he could have lived to see what has been done there now! Notwithstanding the fact that the old church did become “the prey of spoilers,” as he almost prophetically intimated, it will soon be clothed in the full similitude of its our ancient liturgy have been wafted heavenwards, and the Word of God has been continuously preached to attentive congregations; while the silent lessons of its history, made illustrious by those immortal names of patriots who bowed in humble adoration at its altars, still teach the reverent worshippers, both young and old, to love their country and their God. May this venerable temple, replete with such holy and noble associations, continue to be a House of Prayer, and a living center for the preaching of the Gospel of Christ “as this Church has received the same,” through the years and centuries that are to come!
(Source: Colonial Churches in the Original Colony of Virginia, Publ. 1908, Transcribed by Helen Coughlin)
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