In 1800, Alexandria, Virginia is a busy little harbor town, with nearly 5,000 people living here. Large quantities of agricultural products—wheat, flour and tobacco, are brought here from farms out in the Virginia countryside, and shipped from Alexandria to ports throughout the world—the West Indies, Portugal, Spain, as well as domestic ports in New England and New Orleans. Likewise, cargo-laden ships arrive down at the riverfront bringing in rum from Antigua, coffee from Puerto Rico, wine from Lisbon and products from factories in Great Britain. What’s more, by 1810, Alexandria ranks third nationally in the production of refined sugar, an important commodity that feeds a hunger for sweet things both here among our own people as well as those in distant ports. The capital city of our new nation is being constructed just up the Potomac River. In fact, in 1801, Alexandria officially was ceded by the Commonwealth of Virginia to help form part of the area designated as the District of Columbia. In ten short years—between 1800 and 1810, the population of Alexandria increases by nearly 50%. So obviously, this is a thriving place to be--intimate in scale, but cosmopolitan in breadth, as well as industrious by nature. The future is bright here in Alexandria, the prospects are limitless and optimism abounds.
But unfortunately at this point in time, the same cannot be said about the state of the Episcopal Church in Virginia; because by 1800, the Church here is in ashes—a drastic change from the not-so-distant past.
It was only 25 years ago, prior to the American Revolution, that the Anglican Church—the predecessor to the Episcopal Church, it was the established church here in the colony of Virginia. For generations, it served as the authorized and recognized body of Christian worship in this colony, an instrument of the British Crown. To hold political office in Virginia, you must be an active member of the Anglican Church. All citizens—whether or not you subscribe to the practices of the Church of England—were taxed by the legislature to support the efforts of the Church. This public money was used to buy land, build churches, pay the clergy, and make provision for the poor and disadvantaged in our local communities. Needless to say, those who were Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and other faith traditions not officially recognized by the Crown—they were known as “dissenters” and bristled at the thought of being taxed to support a church they did not attend.
So in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of Revolution, the Anglican Church in the former colonies, and particularly here in Virginia, was thrown into complete turmoil. No longer were we connected to the Church in England, which, in and of itself, may not seem such a bad thing. But, as a hierarchical church, it meant we didn’t have a system in place to govern ourselves. Traditionally, we are a church who relies on the governance of bishops, and we had no bishop in place in this country. Our source of income, which had been based upon tax revenue, was now cut off. We had no established means of educating and ordaining our clergy. Dissenters are calling on the new Virginia Assembly to confiscate all our property which had been bought and built with public money. Our Disestablished Church is scrambling to save itself as its institutional foundations crumble. Yet at the same time, we are struggling to re-define ourselves for a future and mission we cannot clearly see. In 1799, there are at least 59 parishes with clergy in Virginia. But by 1814, that number drops to 19. Obviously, the beginning of the 19th century is a depressing time for the Episcopal Church in Virginia. It is said, “The older generation found it difficult to shake off the sense of loss or to imagine a new and different church. Some still hoped for a return to state support….” In this period of darkness and confusion, the question facing the Church is, “Who are you? Are you are an heir to the defunct colonial church of the past or are you going to be a new Christian denomination shaped in the spirit of this bold and exciting, young republic?
This is the context, the setting, into which St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is born. It’s here, that St. Paul’s comes into being, as a provocative, inspirational answer to this important and challenging question.
It begins on Sunday morning, Oct. 15th, 1809. The Rev. William Lewis Gibson, the Rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, suddenly resigns his position from that parish. He does so because of the extreme criticism he receives over his choice of clerical garb and the style in which he preaches.
At the time in Virginia, the established tradition is for clergy to wear a black cassock while leading worship—an austere expression of the “low church” Anglican piety prevalent in this part of the world. Even though prior to his arrival at Christ Church, Mr. Gibson made it clear to the Vestry he intends to wear a white surplice over his cassock, to which they reluctantly agreed. But many in the congregation are offended by this expression of “pomp and ceremony” that runs counter to their Protestant sensibilities; so much so that a prominent member of the congregation walks out of the church in protest. Likewise, Mr. Gibson hears complaints that his sermons are too abrasive, that they are delivered with too much frankness, contrary to the more subdued and reverential sermons to which the congregation is more accustomed. And as a result, Mr. Gibson decides that Christ Church is not the place for him and so it’s time to move on. And with him, approximately half of the congregation follows to establish what becomes St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
For many, a move like this may seem somewhat ordinary; new congregations have split off from established congregations for years and years. But for the Episcopal Church in early 19th-century Virginia, this move is unprecedented.
That’s because for the previous two centuries, as the Church of England established itself in the colony of Virginia, it followed the traditional pattern of dividing the landscape into a series of parishes. For any given geographical area of land, it was viewed as one parish/one church/one congregation. If the population increased in a part of the parish that was a significant distance from the original “mother church,” then a “chapel of ease” was constructed. But that congregation remained part of the “mother church.” The unity of the parish remained intact.
A case in point is the “chapel of ease” constructed in Alexandria in 1753. At the time, it was part of Truro Parish, with the “mother church” being Pohick, 15 miles away. As the population grew in this part of the colony, Truro Parish was divided and the northern portion became Fairfax Parish, with the Falls Church as the “mother church” and the chapel still in Alexandria, which would become Christ Church. Consequently, Christ Church is recognized as the established place where Anglicans in Alexandria worship. Options are not available. It’s an approach that represents a very “top-down” strategy of governing the institutional church.
However, when St. Paul’s Church comes into being, it’s not a product of the institutional church. It’s a “grassroots” movement. In fact, it’s the first instance in Virginia when a separate, alternative Anglican congregation is created within a given community that already has an established congregation. In other words, by the very act of its birth, St. Paul's establishes a new way of being church that breaks with traditional Anglican practice and now offers people a choice. A bold move that undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows among long-time Episcopalians in the Old Dominion.
During its formative years, St. Paul’s is fortunate to have inspiring clergy to help chart its path forward.
Of course, the Rev. William Gibson is instrumental in the very beginning, but in two years, he leaves in 1811 to return to Maryland.
In 1812, the Rev. Dr. William Holland Wilmer is called to be rector of this fledgling congregation. Under his leadership, St. Paul’s “experiences a period of great growth and prosperity.” In reading this man’s biography, it’s a wonder he even finds time to sleep!
Dr. Wilmer is an impressive young man with boundless energy and creative ideas. Ordained a priest just two years earlier, he is one of a small band of evangelicals who come to the Diocese of Virginia at this time, determined to raise the Church up from its broken state.
Once installed as rector here at St. Paul’s, Dr. Wilmer immediately is elected to the Diocesan Standing Committee. Along with his fellow evangelicals, he refuses to support the newly-elected Bishop John Bracken because they believe it’s time for younger and more inspired leadership. They work behind the scenes to find an alternative leader and pressure Bracken into resigning his election. In his place, Dr. Wilmer and his colleagues push for the election of the Rev. Richard Channing Moore as the next bishop, whom they proclaim as “the kind of forward-thinking person Virginia [needs].”
Not only is Dr. Wilmer influential in the Diocese, but his ministry extends to the larger Church as well. In 1815, he is instrumental in establishing St. John’s Episcopal Church at Lafayette Square in Washington; and even serves there as rector for two years while he simultaneously continues to serve here at St. Paul’s. In 1817, Dr. Wilmer is elected president of the House of Deputies for the entire Episcopal Church, only seven years after ordination, the youngest person ever to serve in that role.
Back here at St. Paul’s, Dr. Wilmer works diligently to grow and strengthen the congregation. So much so, that in 1817, the church outgrows the small meetinghouse on Fairfax St. where it worships and needs a new, larger place of worship.
Keep in mind, the traditional approach to building a church at that time was to hire a local builder and ask him to put up a simple brick box. Some builders were sophisticated enough to refer to architectural pattern books, that were popular at the time, and plug some decorative doorways, windows and other elements into the box to make it more attractive. But in the end, the final result still was a basic brick box built for preaching.
Rather than turning to a local builder for a predicable box church, Dr. Wilmer encourages the St. Paul’s leadership to think outside the proverbial box and act differently. And do they ever! In what certainly can be characterized as unconventional and some might say audacious, St. Paul’s hires the first and most prominent architect in the United States at the time—Benjamin Henry Latrobe. A favorite of Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Latrobe is actively involved in the design of a number of prominent buildings in the new Capital city—the U.S. Capitol building, the White House, Decatur House, St. John’s, Lafayette Square, Christ Church, Capitol Hill; along with important buildings in other major cities—the Roman Catholic Basilica in Baltimore, the Bank of Pennsylvania building in Philadelphia, and the Customs House in New Orleans. Latrobe is a conspicuous, progressive choice to make, signaling that St. Paul’s is eager to embrace the future and assuring the new building where it worships will be a landmark on the streetscape of Alexandria, even, perhaps, the entire country.
Not only does the choice of Latrobe as architect for the new church grab attention, but the design of the building is eye-catching as well. For 300 years, since the start of the Reformation, Protestants have steered away from anything in the life of the church that brings to mind the medieval church and the abuses which took place then—particularly church buildings in the Gothic style. Protestants in Europe preferred to build their new churches in the Classical-Revival style that recalls the glories of ancient Greece and Rome— a time of presumed purity before the onslaught of corruption that tainted the Roman Catholic Church. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is an example of this school of thought. Also in England, the Georgian style—a derivative of Classical-Revival—is widely popular and its influence extends to these shores, as we can see in the building fabric of Christ Church, here in Alexandria.
In fact, Latrobe is well-known for his mastery of the Classical-Revival style. His designs are celebrated for their simple elegance, their noble, uplifting spirit. Any sense of darkness and mystery is removed, the spaces are enlightening and inspiring, encouraging its inhabitants to see the theoretical in the world round about them. Latrobe’s design of St. John’s/Lafayette Square encapsulates his skills with the Classical-Revival.
But with the design of St. Paul’s, Latrobe departs from his preferred and predicable style of Classical-Revival. Here, he designs one of the first churches in the United States in the Gothic-Revival style. Collaborating with Dr. Wilmer, the two actually succeed at “turning the tables” on conventional thought and capitalize on the associations the Gothic style brings to mind. Rather than shy away from its allusions to medieval corruption, they proclaim the Gothic-Revival style serves to remind people of the passion and fervor of the early English Church—a “high-water mark” when Christianity permeated all aspects of peoples’ daily lives. The design of the main façade, with the three lancet arches rising to the full height of the building, provides a monumental scale similar to the great cathedral at Peterborough, and signals that a new era of Christian influence is underway in this new republic.
The interior of St. Paul’s is shaped around the prominence of the spoken word—the proportions of the worship space are as wide as it is deep to allow the congregation to gather as close as possible to the preacher in the pulpit. Remember this is a time when Morning Prayer is the principal form of worship, not Holy Eucharist. Of course, an altar is present, but the pulpit is centrally-located and dominant in size. The space is open, originally envisioned to be without piers and columns, or the gallery overhead to interfere with peoples’ experience of the sermon and the transformative power of the word of God.
From the unapologetic use of pointed arches, to shunning the tradition of exposed brickwork in favor of the more sophisticated practice of scored stucco to simulate blocks of stone, Latrobe’s design of St. Paul’s makes a dramatic break with the Georgian architecture of the past and points the way toward a new, confident age in church architecture—the Gothic-Revival age, arguably the most influential and widely-accepted style of church architecture in western Christendom for the next hundred years. It’s a bold statement by a breakaway congregation who refuses to think of itself as second-class in any form or fashion.
But the precociousness of St. Paul’s doesn’t stop here. In 1819, Dr. Wilmer continues to develop creative ideas to rebuild the larger church beyond the walls of St. Paul’s itself. In August of this year, he establishes the Washington Theological Repertory—a monthly journal that reaches out to scattered Episcopalians throughout Virginia and the church beyond. It publishes serious theological discussions, poetry, memorials, and notices of church activities from all over the country. In 1835, it is replaced by the Southern Churchman, a weekly journal that relocates to Richmond and serves the Episcopal Church for well over a century—until 1952.
In addition to his publishing endeavors, Dr. Wilmer is determined to establish a suitable institution for the education of future Episcopal clergy. The College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, had provided a divinity school for aspiring Anglican clergy. But since the American Revolution, it discontinued this course of study. In 1820, the College tried to revive the school, only to fail. The only other functioning Episcopal seminary in the US is General Seminary in New York, founded in 1817. But evangelicals are suspicious of its “high church” leanings and want a place of learning closer to Virginia.
In 1818, Dr. Wilmer takes the lead in organizing ”The Society for the Education of Pious Young Men for the Ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Maryland and Virginia,” an organization with a monstrous long name and whose purpose is to raise funds to support theological education for students at a seminary or privately. After several years of “starts and stops” by the Church to provide a school locally, Dr. Wilmer becomes frustrated and takes the initiative to hold classes here at St. Paul’s. On Oct. 15, 1823, two professors and fourteen students begin meeting here and their efforts are the genesis of what becomes Virginia Theological Seminary—the largest Episcopal seminary in the United States.
From its birth and through its formative years, St. Paul’s Church redefines what it means to be the Episcopal Church in Virginia. It’s a hot-bed of new ideas and new ministries! This church epitomizes the qualities necessary to embrace the future: believe faithfully, act confidently, think creatively, care unselfishly, and live hopefully. These characteristics are inherent in the nature of St. Paul’s; they are part of its DNA.
 Joan R. Gundersen, “Like a Phoenix from the Ashes: The Reinvention of the Church in Virginia, 1760-1840” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 115, No. 2 (Richmond, VA: Virginia Historical Society, 2007) 219.
 Ruth Lincoln Kaye, The History of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia: November 12, 1809 – November 12, 1984 (Springfield, VA: The Goetz Printing Co., 1984) 17.
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