We have a long and beautiful story dating back to the first English settlers’ presence in this area. Read about our history and the variety of high-profile individuals who have made St. John’s their home.
English settlers established a community and church on the tip of the peninsula in 1610, three years after the colonization of Jamestown. A small group of civilians and soldiers moved to the fertile shores of Hampton Roads to escape the famine and disease which had decimated the residents of Jamestown. Here, with the friendly Kecoughtan Indians, they found a more congenial environment. But the killing of a settler ended the peacefulness, and the English took full possession of the area.
In 1619, “Kecoughtan” was named “Elizabeth City” in honor of the daughter of King James I, but the beautiful Indian name continued in popular use for another century. The settlement was then renamed “Southampton” to honor the Earl who was a major stockholder in the Virginia Company. In time the name was shortened to “Hampton.” The church also evolved through the centuries. The following information will assist you in understanding and appreciating the great heritage, history, and Christian faith that is St. John’s.
1610 – 1623
First Parish Site
Excavations in the Church Creek area of Hampton indicate that the earliest English settlements were near present-day LaSalle and Chesapeake Avenues. Tradition has it that services of the parish were held there, and a historical marker to that effect can be seen on LaSalle Avenue. The first minister of the new parish was the Reverend William Mease who was appointed by the Bishop of London to lead the church at Kecoughtan. After serving from 1610-1620, he returned to England, and then later returned to the colonies.
1623 – 1667
Second Parish Site
By 1623 the settlement had re-established itself east of Hampton River where the second church of Elizabeth City parish was built on a site that is now located on the grounds of Hampton University. Its foundations were discovered in 1910. It was a small wooded structure to which a vestibule was added later. Abandoned in 1667, it remained standing until 1698 when a levy of 400 pounds of tobacco was made by the vestry to one William Bailey to tear it down and to set up its seats in the courthouse.
This site has been painstakingly excavated. (See picture of site.) The original foundations and some of the brick floor can be seen at the second site along with conjectural paintings and other information. Artifacts found during the excavation are on display in the parish house museum.
1667 – 1728
Third Parish Site
The third building of the parish was constructed more than a mile to the west of the second church at “Westwoods Town Quarter” indicating that there was growth of the settlement on the west side of Hampton River. Like the previous structure, it was made of wood and was of similar size. This building continued in use for about 60 years. The site is located off West Pembroke Avenue east of LaSalle Avenue and features a historical marker, building foundations outlined by bricks, several 17th and 18th century gravestones, and a protective brick wall. (See picture of site.)
The parish has retained ownership of both the second and third parish sites, and visitors are welcomed to visit these historic locations at any time.
1728 – Present
Fourth Parish Site
As the community progressed into the 18th Century, activity centered about the busy port which has become downtown Hampton.
The parishioners petitioned the Governor for permission to relocate their place of worship closer to the population center. It was granted, and construction of the fourth church on 1/2 acres on the outskirts of Hampton began. Henry Cary, Jr. of Williamsburg completed the present cruciform building in 1728. A belfry was added to the west front in 1762.
The British heavily damaged the church during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But more serious than the physical damage was the decline of religious activity. Not only this parish, but also the Episcopal Church throughout Virginia became so depressed that it was in danger of total ruin.
Among factors causing this decline were antagonism by newly independent Americans for anything English, withdrawal of tax support for the church, and the rise of denominations whose structure and style of worship appealed to the average person. Although several priests officiated in the parish in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, its life could be described as moribund, and the building was severely neglected.
Then came a revival of interest. In 1825 funds were raised to restore the church, a vestry was elected and a new rector called. In 1830, the Rt. Rev. Richard Channing Moore, Bishop of Virginia, consecrated the restored Elizabeth City Parish church under its new name, St. John’s.
The War Between the States was the occasion for yet another assault on the building, this time by Hamptonians themselves. On Wednesday, 7 August 1861, to keep the town from Federals hands, they set fire to their homes, businesses and the church. The great bell was destroyed, and only the blackened walls remained when Union soldiers camped in the churchyard. (See painting of ruined church below.) As a result of this fire, St. John’s is the only surviving colonial structure in downtown Hampton.
At war’s end, contributions to a widespread appeal to rebuild the “ancient church” were used to remove the ruined belfry and restore the building so it appeared much as it does today. Early in the 20th century the rear tower was added to include a 1926 Skinner manual tracker organ left of the altar. A west gallery was built in 1957. In 1981 construction began to place an organ in the west gallery to replace the the Skinner organ which was destroyed by water. The chapel was completed in 1985 where the Skinner organ use to be. And finally, the current Parson’s organ (see the Music page) was installed in the gallery in 1993. In the early 21st century the church and its stained glass will be undergoing renovations to keep America’s treasure around our children and yours. (See picture of south side of the church below.)
Some Points of Interest
For more information about the history of this Parish, please drop by the Parish office and purchase James Tormey’s book, How Firm a Foundation. Read An Article by Paul Clancy for the The Virginian-Pilot/PilotOnline.com newspaper on 20 June 2009: “St. John’s is a fulcrum for Hampton’s history”.
Approaching the church you will notice the graves of many former rectors and parishioners of the parish. The oldest grave is that of Capt. Willis Wilson who died in 1701. The Wilson family owned land in this area, and apparently, the 1728 building was built next to the family burial ground so that their graves occupied a place of honor at the altar end of the church.
Near the gate at the southwest corner of the churchyard are markers describing the remnants of the original enclosure wall dating from about 1759.
Next to the south wall of the church stands a memorial to Virginia Laydon, born in 1609, and who was the first surviving child born in the New World to English parents and, who with her parents were member of the parish.
The 1728 church walls are of Flemish Bond brickwork with superbly glazed headers, and the colonial window arches and jambs of rubbed brick are among the most handsome in Virginia.
Inside the building one can see the Pocahontas window given in 1887 in part, by Native American students from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), who participated in the life of this parish. (A picture of the Pocahontas Window.)
The 1618 Communion Silver used today have the longest history of use in America of any English church sliver. They have been termed “the most precious relic in the Anglican Church in America”. They were brought from England in 1619 and used in a church founded in 1618 located in Smith’s hundred in Virginia, which lay in the point between the Chickahominy and the James Rivers, eight miles northwest of Jamestown. The church was nearly destroyed in the Indian Massacre of 22 March 1622(NS). The silver was carried by Governor Yeardley to Jamestown and afterward given to the second Elizabeth City Church, which had just been built. The chalice has inscribed the London date-letter for 1618-1619 and the text “THE COMMVNION CVPP FOR SNT MARYS CHVRCH IN SMITHS HVNDRED IN VIRGINIA.” There are two patens with the same London date-letter. The first paten has the inscription “Whosoever shall eate this bread and drinke the cupp of the Lord/unworthily shalbe gilty of the body & blood of ye Lord Cor Ixith.” The second paten has written “If any man eate of this Bread he shall live for ever Jo VIth.” St. John’s continues to use communion silver on special occasions.
Rectors of St. John’s
NOTE: Interim Rectors are not included.
|1||William [Mease or Mays]||1610-1620|
|21||John Jones Spooner||1796-1799|
|23||Robert Seymour Symms||1806|
|25||Mark L. Chevers||1827-1843|
|26||John P. Bausman||1843-1844|
|27||William H. Good||1845-1848|
|28||John C. McCabe||1850-1856|
|29||Edward H. Harlow||1856-1858|
|30||William F.M. Jacobs||1860-1861|
|32||John J. Norwood||1871-1872|
|35||John J. Gravatt||1876-1893|
|36||C. Braxton Bryan||1893-1905|
|38||Edwin B. Carter||1912-1922|
|39||Charles E. McAllister||1922-1926|
|40||George O. Watts||1927-1931|
|41||Theodore S. Will||1932-1938|
|42||Carter H. Harrison||1938-1959|
|43||Francis W. Hayes, Jr.||1960-1979|
|44||Rodney L. Caulkins||1980-1999|