The Historical Committee would report as follows:
1. There has come into our hands a manuscript history of St. Peter's Church in New Kent County, written by Dr. S. P. Christian, and one of Olivet Church. Olivet Church for years shared with Episcopalians the use of St. Peter's Church. We recommend that these documents be printed as a supplement to the next issue of the minutes of this Presbytery. The manuscripts have been deposited in the Union Seminary Library.
ST. PETER'S CHURCH IN NEW KENT COUNTY, VIRGINIA.
By the Late Dr. S. P. Christian, Ruling Elder in Olivet Church, Who 'Died in 1909.
This is one of the oldest colonial church buildings in the State of Virginia. As the old records have been destroyed the exact date of its erection cannot be ascertained, but from inscriptions on tombstones in its cemetery it dates back to some time in the seventeenth century, and not very long after the first settlement of the colony at old Jamestown. It is believed by a good many that the bricks of which it was built were brought from England, but I have always regarded this as a myth, as there is all around the church an abundance of good clay soil suitable for the manufacture of bricks, and the erection of the old brick church at Jamestown and others in different parts of the State soon afterwards proves that there must have been among the immigrants some who brought over with them the knowledge of brickmaking.
Of the old Episcopal rectors who preached there preceding and for a considerable time subsequent to the Revolution, there seems to be no knowledge left, except of the Rev. David Mossom, who officiated at the marriage of Genera] Washington, and whose memorial tablet is now on the walls of the church. It is said that during the war and for some time afterwards it had fallen so completely into decay that sometimes cattle took refuge in it as a shelter in stormy weather.
In the early part of the last century Christian people in the vicinity, mostly of the Presbyterian faith, repaired it, and the first worship conducted in it was by Presbyterian ministers. The Rev. Jesse Turner, whose wife taught a large female school in Richmond, and who was the son of the Rev. James Turner, a noted preacher in his day and the grandfather of the late distinguished divine, James Turner Leftwich, of Baltimore, preached occasionally at St. Peter's about this time, but there was no stated supply until the Rev. Jonathan Silliman was called from New England to take charge of the field.
In addition to his ministerial duties, he conducted a large classical school for boys. For the accommodation of the school, a portion of the church, which was originally built in the form of the letter T, was separated from the main auditorium by a brick wall and used as a schoolroom. I remember in my early manhood having seen this apartment in the rear of the church in a good state of preservation, but there is now not a vestige of it left.
The pastor took his meals at a neighboring farm house and slept in the old vestry room, which was in the tower of the church. He was a man of singular simplicity and purity of character, but had the peculiarity of not liking to answer a question directly, if he could do it indirectly. A friend once, knowing that he had performed a marriage ceremony, asked him what fee he received on that occasion. His reply was, "I lost a pair of gloves there and came off about even".
When someone, knowing that he slept with graves all around him, asked him if he did not sometimes dream about ghosts, he replied, "I was very much startled one night by hearing a loud noise on the long flight of steps leading to my chamber. On opening my door to find out the cause of it, I was met by an old negro man, who had hobbled up on a cane to talk to me about religion". His chamber in the tower, having to be reached by a long flight of steps extending from the archway below on the outside of the church solved the mystery.
My own acquaintance with him commenced in a very peculiar manner. When I was about five years old and just beginning to learn to read, my good old grandmother, proud of my accomplishments, as all old people are apt to be of the progress made by the youngest scions of their houses, persuaded me to go into my father's medical office at Cool Well, where Mr. Silliman was convalescing from an attack of fever, and read a verse in the Bible to him. I went in with a brave heart, but as I reached his side I was taken with a stage fright or something of that sort. My cowardly tongue refused to utter a word, and I broke down in a flood of tears. To console me in my distress he drew from his vest pocket and presented to me a small silver coin, the like of which I had never handled or ever seen before, but which I soon learned to know was a "fopensapenny", which translated into intelligible language meant four pence one-half penny in old English currency and six and a half cents in American coin.
I, do not remember whether I reported to my grandmother the utter failure of the main object of my mission, but as far as I was personally concerned I had abundant reason to be well satisfied with its result. Soon after this (at least to the writer) interesting event Mr. Silliman married Mrs. Meacher, a sister of Rev. Wm. J. and George D. Armstrong, and moved to the North.
He was succeeded by the Rev. John Watt, who was a brother-in-law of the Rev. Dr. Wm. S. White, General Jackson's pastor in Lexington, and an uncle of Mr. W. W. Jones, who now lives at my old birthplace, Cool Well, and is a ruling elder in Olivet Church. Mr. Watt remained but a short time, when the Rev. Henry Smith, who had been pastor of the Pole Green Church in Hanover, took charge of the work at St. Peter's. During the most of this period, extending back for several years, the church was in a very languishing condition, and on the occasion of the meetings of the Presbytery at Pole Green, which occurred quite frequently, the pastor, who was a tall, spare man, with a very solemn countenance, arose to make his report from the New Kent Church, which was invariably a discouraging one. A lady member said that every-body in the congregation seemed to have a long face.
After Mr. Smith left the Rev. John Howard occupied the pulpit. He remained but a short time, but while there, by his ardent piety and consecrated life, made a deep impression upon the community. At the close of his ministry, the Rev. Alexander Martin, who had a regular pastorate in Hanover, preached statedly once a month, and it was during his term of service that the Presbyterians ceased to worship in this old building and erected a church of their own.
During the latter part of these several Presbyterian pastorates, extending from about 1820 to 1856 (?), the pulpit was occupied by Episcopal ministers on alternate Sundays in the following order, Rev. Messrs. Dalrymple, Caldwell, Poyntz. The two congregations worshipped together in perfect harmony, and from the regularity of their attendance on each other's services, it would have been supposed that they all belonged to the same denomination. I believe that the Episcopalians were very sorry when we left, and one of the ladies remarked that it was like taking two bites at a cherry.
There seems to be a general belief that General Washington was married in this church, but owing to undoubted evidence to the contrary, the writer is not prepared to accept it as a fact. Mrs. Macon, who was a member of the church and the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman of the Establishment before the Revolution, said that she knew it was not so because she had been told by an aunt of hers that she was at the wedding and the marriage took place at the White House, Mrs. Custis's home, about three miles from the church, and that it occurred in the morning, as it was an invariable custom among the clergymen of that day, if not according to a canon of the church, to perform all marriage ceremonies before twelve o'clock in the day. In addition to this, it was not then a custom to perform them in churches, but in private homes.
As a matter of sentiment, I would have been glad to believe that so interesting an event occurred in the building, where I first registered my covenant vows to the church, as no doubt would the venerable lady, to whom I am indebted for the above facts, and who was deeply attached to the church of which she was a member, but no one has a right to substitute sentiment for facts. There is an old saying that if you give error a good start it is bard for truth to overtake it. As this one has had so good a start, as to become hoary with age, it goes without saying that it is high time that truth was sent out in pursuit of it, even if it should be so unfortunate as never to overtake it.
- Minutes of East Hanover Presbytery
Presbyterian Church in the U.S. Presbytery of East Hanover