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Hanover County
Fork Church History

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     THERE is a record in the county of Louisa, Virginia, according to a letter in my possession, a copy of a petition sent by certain taxpayers of that newly-formed county to the house of Burgesses in 1740, praying to have refunded to them a certain tobacco tax that had been levied on then to build a large, new and convenient church in St. Martin’s Parish, Hanover county.
That this church was The Fork church, or “The Old Fork Church,” as it is generally known, is asserted by two eminent Virginians who formally lived in the respective counties of Louisa and Hanover.
     This petition bears date two years before the cutting off of Louisa from Hanover, and of Fredericksville Parish from St. Martin’s Parish, which appear from Henning’s Statutes ( Vol. V., pp. 21 and 208 ) to have been so separated in the year 1742.
     It may add to the value of this paper to state that the boundary between the two parishes was a line drawn from the mouth of Gladys creek, on the south side of the North Anna river, a course south 20 degrees west, till it intersects the Goochland line. And when Fredericksville Parish was divided, that part which adjoined St. Martin’s was called Trinity ( Hen. Sts., Vol. VII., p. 428).
     St. Paul’s Parish in Hanover was divided in 1726, six years after the county of Hanover was cut off from New Kent, and to the parish was given the name St. Martin’s, after St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. For it was in that very year that London church was built by Gibbs ( See Brit. Enc., Title “London” ).
     The church was no doubt called St. Martin’s, but was soon known as “The Fork Church,” from its position with reference to the two forks of the Pamunkey, as the North Anna and South Anna were called in many of the legal documents of that time. In the last twenty-five years the name has been applied to the neat little church at Doswell, five miles away from the mother church. Two other churches in the western end of the parish, Allen’s Creek and Hollowing Creek, in the memory of the oldest inhabitant of the parish, have passed away, and no trace of their existence survives. In the place of these, two other churches have been built in the parish, but The Old Fork church survives as a noble monument to the Colonial Churchmen.
     Built of the glazed end brick, so familiar in Colonial buildings, its birthday is fixed at 1735, two years after that of the courthouse some twelve miles to the east, which sheltered the throng assembled there in 1763 to hear Patrick Henry in the “Parsons’ Cause.” It is a matter of great satisfaction to all lovers of the history of the community to know that both of these noble buildings are in an excellent state of preservation. Tradition says that these building were built of brick brought from England, as it says of many other of our Colonial buildings; but, thankless as the task is to destroy such a tradition, am compelled to state that neither these, nor the brick for any other of our churches, were brought from England. I am confirmed in this statement by the answer of the learned Dr. Philip Slaughter, to whom some years ago I propounded the question.
     The Fork church is a solid structure, whose length, 75 feet, is about three times its breadth, with a door at the southern end, and another on the side, near the northeastern corner. Over each door there is a portico on brick columns, whose proportion and entasis are the admiration of lovers of architecture.
     Although the records of Hanover county and of St. Martin’s Parish have been lost or destroyed, the history of the old church is safe in the tradition and life of the people.
     In 1886 the Rev. Dr. Philip Slaughter published in the Southern Churchman an account of his recovery of what he called “The Rectory Book” of St. Paul’s Parish, without which, he says, even Bishop Meade had been unable to give a full history of that parish. Among the names he mentioned as figuring in the vestries of St. Paul’s Parish, which as we have seen embraced St. Martin’s, Trinity and Fredericksville Parishes until 1726, were the Crawfords, Merewethers, Winstons, Henrys, Grymeses, Bickertons, Jones, Andersons, Rylands, Garlands, Merediths, Pages, Pendletons, Timberlakes, Lipscombs, Goodalls, Abbotts, Macons, Skeltons, Pierces, Taylors, Darracotts, Chapmans, Streets, Crosses and Pollards.
     An entry of some interest is the following: “September, 1708, Mr. Thomas Sharpe having offered to be our minister, it is agreed that he preach in both churches till the last day of December come twelve months, and if at the end of that time he likes us and we like him, to continue. Otherwise each party to provide for themselves.” It is a satisfaction to know that preacher and people liked each other, for he continued to “be hired” from year to year until 1720, when St. Martin’s was cut off as we have seen.
     The Fork church is rich in historic associations. Hither came Patrick Henry in his early infancy, and in later life while living at “Scotch Town,” the interesting old hipped roofed structure some five miles away, through whose wide hall, in spite of the stone steps, Tarleton and his raiders rode. For Patrick Henry, with all of his zeal and enthusiasm for the liberty of his country, and with all of his feeling in behalf of the people which burst forth in their defense against the Parsons when they demanded more than was thought their due, always revered the Episcopal Church in which he was baptized and in which his father, John Henry, had been vestryman, and his uncle the Rev. Patrick Henry, for whom he was named, was a parish minister for forty years. ( Records of St. Paul’s Parish ante. ) To the Fork church from “Scotch Town” came Henry’s cousin, Dorothea, better know as Dolly, little dreaming, perhaps, as she sat in the high-backed pew over which she could hardly see when standing on tiptoe on a cushion, that she was one day to be the wife of James Madison, President of the United States.
     There preached in this parish, and at a church called The Fork, near “Ground Squirrel Bridge,” Samuel Davies, the great Presbyterian preacher and president of Princeton College, as well as founder of the Hanover Presbytery, that virile body, whose staunch stand against the Establishment has been well described by Cooke, the Virginia historian.
     St. Martin’s Parish still owns the beautiful communion service, the paten and chalice inscribed with the following legend: “For the use of the churches in St. Martin’s Parish, in Hanover and Louisa counties, Virginia, 1759.”
The history of this service is lost. There are two traditions about it. One that it was presented by St. Martin’s church, Loudon, and the other that it was presented by William Nelson, president of the Council, and brought over by his son Thomas (afterwards Governor Nelson ) upon his return from England that year, upon the completion of his education.
     The following incidents are also related of this old service, in each of which Mrs. Berkeley, of “Airwell,” is the heroine: 1st, that she defied General Tarleton and his raiders when they demanded the service: and 2d, that she defied the overseers of the poor who demanded it after the glebe lands were taken from the church. Bishop Meade is authority for the last statement. ( Vol. II., Old Churches, p. 26. ) It is of interest to note that this same service is now kept at the same place by the descendants of that redoubtable Churchwoman.
     Near the Fork church were grants of land made by the crown to Thomas Nelson, grandfather of General Nelson, upon a part of which his descendants now reside. The Marquis de Chastellux, who served in America as Major-General under Rochambeau, describes his visit to the “Offley,” the home of General Nelson, a few miles above the Fork church. ( Howe’s Miscellanies, p. 295. ) It was at Mont Air, the home of his son Francis, Who so long represented the parish in the councils of the Church, that General Nelson died; and it was within a few miles of the old church at “Springfield” that his widow lived, having survived him nearly forty years. Beneath the shadow of the old church her remains lie buried along with those of a great number of her descendants. It may be safely asserted that from this sainted lady the Church has had as many adherents both clerical and lay, as have ever sprung from one stock in the same length of time. With the aid of one of her granddaughters, I have counted up twenty-four clergymen of the Episcopal Church among her descendants. When during the war the vestryman were unable to raise the minister’s salary, a daughter of hers sent them word that she would guarantee it personally.
     Among those ministers furnished by this parish, Bishop Meade mentions the Rev. W. N. Pendleton, Washington Nelson, Robert Nelson and Farley Berkeley. To these may be added the names of the Rev. G. W. Nelson, late rector of Warrenton, and the Rev. Frank Page, of Brooklyn.
It was to this parish, and to the home of Dr. Carter Berkeley that Bishop Meade came to choose his second wife, Thomasia Nelson, stepdaughter of   Dr. Berkeley. She, too, is buried at the Old Fork church.
     To the neighborhood of this old church came Lewis Minor Coleman, with his Hanover Academy and his influence for good hardly second to that of Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, which school and influence were well maintained by his successor, Colonel Hilary P. Jones, who had, however, to yield to the inevitable, and this great school is now but a memory.
     The picture of this old church will recall many recollections to the former students at Hanover Academy, many of whose names may now be found on the backs or seats of the solid heart-pine pews.
     In the early part of the last century that demon of architecture, which Mr. Jefferson said had spread its maledictions over the land, broke loose, and the high-backed pews were taken out, and the pulpit which had been at the side of the church, was put at the end.
     An old Bible in the parish, that of the Fontaines, shows that in 1787 the Rev. Robert Barrett was in charge. It was he of whom Bishop Meade ( Vol. II., p. 43 ) says he received 320 pounds of tobacco for each sermon preached in Louisa county, where he preached twenty-four times a year during days of labor.
     The list of clergy who have ministered in the parish since Mr. Barrett includes the Rev. Messrs. Peter Nelson, who became a Baptist; Boggs, Phillips, Wydown, Cooke, Bowers, Stringfellow, Isaac Gibson, Wm. A. Alrich ( whose first wife, a lovely woman, the sister of James M. Love, Esq., of Fairfax county, lies buried at the Fork church ), R. Douglas Roller, Edward S. Gregory, R. Roane Claiborne, Curtis Grubb, Anselem Buchanan, S. S. Hepburn and Alexander Galt. To all these godly men the parish and this church are greatly indebted. Perhaps to Mrs. Hepburn more than any other person is due the present excellent condition of the Fork church, and the grounds surrounding it.
     The present wardens of the church are Nathaniel Burwell Cooke and Joseph F. Grubb.
     Within the last few years two funds of $3,000 and $200, respectively, have been established for the benefit of the church, the larger fund subject only to the maintenance of the Nelson-Page burying ground.
Bishop Meade gives the list of the true friends of religion and of the Episcopal Church in the parish as Fontaines, Nelsons, Morrises, Wickhams, Taylors, Winstons, Pollards, Robinsons, Pages, Prices, Shepherds, having already mentioned the Berkeley family, and made note of Dr. Carter Berkeley, “whose name may be so often seen on the Convention journals of the last and present century.”
     Among the names of the vestry since Bishop Meade’s time, in addition to those mentioned by him, many of whom are related to those so mentioned, are Minor, Noland, Fleming, Hunter, Jones, Cooke, Doswell, Terrell, Thompson, Grubb and Duke. There are many other families about the church whose love and affection for it are exhibited in the fact that though members of other churches, their attendance is regular, their aid efficient and their pride in the old church as marked as if they were members of the Episcopal Church. Thither they bring their dead to be buried, and often their young people to enter this old church of their forefathers.
     The only monument inside the church is a beautiful tablet to three of its faithful sons:
     “The Rev. Robert Nelson, Missionary to China during thirty years of whom it is alleged, ‘He followed the Holy doctrine which he taught, comforting many.”
     “William Nelson, late Colonel of Artillery C. S. A., who in this parish served God and helped his fellowman for over sixty years.”
     “John Page, late Major C. S. A., who in this parish through a long and honorable life did his duty to God and his neighbor.”
     On the outside of the church lie buried many of those already mentioned and not mentioned. Among the latter may be named Captain and Mrs. Charles William Dabney, whose names are honorably associated with the history of the county and parish, and over whose remains a handsome monument has been erected by their children.
     A strong iron fence surrounds the church grounds, and this noble old church, with its massive walls and slate roof, bids fair to stand for generations as a lasting monument to the zeal and good taste of its builders. That its history should be lost is a great misfortune. It is, indeed, one of the pathetic things about our Church’s past, no less than about many of the cherished possessions of our State, that any adequate history thereof is entirely lacking. Nineveh and Karnac are hardly less known.
[Colonial Churches in the Original Colony of Virginia, Publ. 1908. Transcribed by Helena Lane]





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