St. John’s Episcopal Church
St. John’s Episcopal Church, located in Hampton, Virginia, is the oldest continuous Protestant church in North America. The parish was founded in 1610 at the founding of the settlement at Kecoughtan, three years after the founding of nearby Jamestown, by a small group of colonists who left Jamestown hoping to escape the famine and disease wreaking havoc on the population there. When they first settled in the area, they were welcomed by the Kecoughtan Indians, who were members of the Algonquian Indians. The colonists and Indians lived peacefully together until a colonist was killed and the settlers took over possession of the area.
In 1619, the area was named Elizabeth City in honor of the daughter of King James I, although that did not prevent colonists from continuing to use the name Kecoughtan. In fact, there is a Kecoughtan High School in Hampton today. Later, the name of the area was changed to Southampton, in honor of an earl of Southampton who was a key leader of the Virginia Company of London, a company established to support colonization in North America. By 1680, the town name was shortened to Hampton.
The day that the settlers established a colony in this area, they also founded St. John’s Episcopal Church. Excavations indicate that the church first met about two miles south of where the church stands today, and there is a historical marker there indicating the exact site. The first minister of the parish was Reverend William Mease who was appointed by the Bishop of London to serve in this capacity.
In 1663, the colony had been reestablished on the east side of the Hampton River, where Hampton University is located today. The foundations of a second parish were discovered in this area in 1910. It was a small, wooden building with a vestibule that was added after the original construction. This site was abandoned by the colonists in 1667 and the parish structure remained only until 1698. Today, the original brick foundations are visible.
A third building of the parish was built approximately a mile west of the previous settlement site. This indicates that there was growth in the settlement on the west side of the Hampton River. This building was also made of wood and was around the same size as the previous church that the settlers used. It was used for about 60 years. The foundations of this building are visible today as well.
A view of St. John’s Episcopal Church today
The church that is still standing today was built in 1728 and is located in the section of Hampton that is now referred to as the Victoria Boulevard Historic District. The colonists appealed to the governor to move the location of their place of worship so that it would be closer to the population center. The church was built in the shape of a cross, and the walls are two feet thick. The church sustained damage during the Revolutionary War. During the War of 1812, the church was ransacked by British soldiers and used as barracks. Over the years, religious activity in the building declined as well. People worried that it was in danger of total ruin.
In 1825, funds were raised to restore the church and it was consecrated under a new name- St. John’s Episcopal Church. Up until this time, it had been referred to as Elizabeth City Parish.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers set fire to the church, along with their homes and businesses, in order to prevent the Union from using them to house troops and escaped slaves. When Union soldiers camped in the courtyard of the church, only blackened walls remained. Because of the fires, St. John’s is the only colonial structure that remains in Hampton today. After the war, funds were raised to rebuild the church again and services resumed in 1869. Throughout the 20th century, additions ere built, including the rear tower and the west gallery.
A view of construction being done to the church today, as well as the graves that surround the church
Today, the church is used as a place of worship and open to the public for tours. It is surrounded on all sides by graves, including the those of former rectors and parishioners. The oldest grave dates back to 1701. Inside, there is a door panel with stained glass pieces that date back to the 13th century, when they were laced in St. Helen’s Church in Willoughby, England, which is the parish where Captain John Smith was baptized. This panel was presented to the church in 1985, as part of the 375th anniversary of St. John’s. Another interesting component of St. John’s history is their communion silver. It was made in London in 1618 and has the longest history of use of any English church silver in the United States.