George Washington Prayed Here

Series: Old Churches & US Route 1

Pohick Episcopal Church

Quite a bit is known about George Washington, the stern looking man in the white powdered wig that is pictured in all the paintings in Federal buildings and schools across the nation and in every history book from about third grade on. He has been described as having long reddish-brown hair under that white wig, being maybe upwards of 6’3” tall and weighing about 220 pounds…. a big man, known for his strength. Yep, he had bad teeth and wore dentures and suffered for it using laudanum to ease the pain. And there’s that story about cutting down the cherry tree and then not lying about it when his father accosted him…. but, oh yeah, I seem to recall hearing that the cherry tree story has been discounted and moved over into the urban legend category.

But factually, he was a military officer (Commander of the Continental Army), one of the “Founding Fathers”, the first US President (“Father of the Nation”), a statesman, loving husband of Martha, a surveyor (Have you seen the Dismal Swamp Canal? Very straight), a landowner and speculator, a planter, and, yes, sadly, a slave owner. 

Wall surrounding the church property was built with the original church.

In addition to all that, George Washington was a religious man, a devout member of the Anglican Church from his baptism as a baby in April 1732 to his death in December 1799. His great-great-grandfather was, in fact, an Anglican minister. He was “raised” in the church and was a Christian though he was not a Christian in the sense that I think of Christians. Some of his biographers refer to George Washington as a “theistic rationalist” more than a “Christian”. Theistic rationalists have a hybrid belief system combining Christianity, religion, and rationalism whereby Christianity and religion “co-exist” with any conflicts being balanced out by rational thought and with rationalism being the predominant part.

Area of the altar

But he did believe in God. In his correspondence and communications, George Washington referred to God as “Providence”, the “Creator”, the “Almighty”, the “Divine Author”, and the “Supreme Being”. Strangely, he never mentioned Jesus Christ at all (Wikipedia – George Washington1) so I can see where he is thought of as being more “theistic” than Christian.

For all his sixty-seven years on this earth, he was known to read his Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer privately and to pray daily.  He also encouraged others to pray as he believed that God played a pivotal role in human life and did indeed answer prayers. And he was an upstanding member of the Pohick Episcopal Church near his home at Mount Vernon and later in his life at the Christ Church in Alexandria.

Altarpiece includes the Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, & Ten Commandments

Recently, I visited Pohick Church where George Washington attended services, served on the church vestry, worshipped God, and, yes, where he prayed. Like our first president, I also believe God answers prayers and I really love visiting old churches.

Some years ago…. way back in the last century (it’s like I’m lost somewhere in history myself), in the late 1980’s, I worked down at an office in Newington, Virginia. The straightest commute from Maryland was straight down Interstate 95. But straight is not always the best way during rush hour so I often used a less congested way home via Telegraph Road or US Route 1 – yes, the US Route 1 that runs 2,370 miles from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida.  Of course, I only traveled those 10 miles or so that ran from Newington to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. At any rate, every time I used that route, I passed by the old Pohick Church at the junction of what Washington would have called the Potomac Road (Route 1) and the “back road” (Telegraph Road). And every time I passed the church, I promised myself that I would stop and take a look. (Of course, I didn’t know George Washington used to be a member.) But I never did stop. Time passed, I changed jobs, didn’t think about it until recently when we were down in the area attending a seminar and had a couple free hours. What better to do than go see that old church?

View of the church interior showing the box pews.

The Pohick Church is an Episcopal church having been originally consecrated as an Anglican Church since it was established prior to the American Revolution. After the Revolution and with passage of the Religious Freedom Act in 1785, Virginia dis-established the Church of England and the Anglican churches in the “colonies” became Episcopalian churches. But things always seem to come full circle and today many of these Episcopal churches are now members of the “Anglican Communion” using the hymnals and prayer books from the “mother” church in England.

The church is comprised of several buildings including the church building itself, the Vestry house, the Parish House, a separate belfry for the church bell, and a cemetery.  The two ancillary buildings and the belfry are not considered to be historical as the vestry was built in 1931 and the Parish in 1955. But a church is not necessarily the building; it is the congregation – the people who worship there.

The Vestry was not part of the original church. A vestry was included in the original plans but considered to be too expensive to build at the time.

Pohick has been referred to as the “Mother Church of Northern Virginia”3.  It was first established in 1695 as a “chapel of ease”1 for Overwharton Parish in the area and occupied a building near Woodlawn & Mount Vernon (which would eventually be George Washington’s home). A chapel of ease is a building other than the parish church that is in the vicinity but is used for worship by those who cannot reach the regular parish church easily.

The Memorial Belfry was added at a later date in the 20th century.

In 1730, the church was moved south to Colchester and was referred to as the “church above Occoquan Ferry”. A stone marker marks the original church site which is on the grounds of another church just down the road. The name, “Pohick Church”, comes from Pohick Creek. George Washington attended the church and served as both a warden and a member of the vestry. Then, as the congregation grew, the church was moved to its current location at the intersection of Route 1 and Telegraph Road.

To be a Biblical “city on a hill” that couldn’t be hidden (Matthew 5:14), the site picked for the church was the highest point on the property consisting of 3 acres and 26 perches at that time.  (Now, that’s a great word – perches. It refers to a rod or pole which is used by surveyors and is between 3 and 8 meters long – about 16.5 feet.) The original design plan for the building by James Wren called for the church to be identical to two other churches in Virginia, The Falls Church and the Christ Church in Alexandria, but the footprint was altered sometime during the actual construction.

View of the pulpit with one of two old baptismal fonts in the church.

The church flourished for some years. George Washington attended along with other dignitaries in the area.  The first to preach there was the Reverend Lawrence DeButts who was a circuit rider hired to preach 3 times a month for 8000 pounds of tobacco a year. The first official rector was Dr. Charles Green who served for the about 20 years.  At some point, Washington started attending the Christ Church in Alexandria but kept up payments for his pew at Pohick until his death.

Over the years, the church at Pohick began to deteriorate. It remained relatively intact until the American Civil War when it was raided by the 2d Michigan Volunteers in November 1861. Those who thought the church “was sacred enough to be secure” were wrong. It was totally vandalized…. even the cornerstone laid by Washington in 1765 was unearthed. The pews, altar, everything was stolen or trashed. For the remainder of the war, the building was taken over by the army and used as a base of operations in the area. The graffiti carved into the walls is still visible today.

Sometime in 1874, renovations were begun, and the church was reconsecrated by the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, John Johns, in 1875. With renovation, some items taken during the war were returned but the early renovations focused only on restoring the building for use as a church.  Later between 1890 and 1917, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association working with the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began the process of restoring the building to its original design.

Pipe Organ

Today, the church – the congregation – remains active after more than 300 years. The building originally made of “good bricks well burnt” with corners (or quoins) made of Aquia Creek sandstone mined in Stafford, Virginia, stands as a testament to the faith and devotion of the people who make up the “church” and to the founding fathers of both the Pohick Church and this nation.

According to the church website, the church today is balanced on 7 pillars – worship, prayer, study, Christian fellowship, outreach/pastoral care, evangelism, and tradition/history3 citing the following Bible verse as the guide for the Pohick Church & Congregation:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Acts 2:42-47

Sources for Information:

  1. Wikipedia George Washington – George Washington – Wikipedia
  2. Wikipedia Theistic Rationalism – Theistic rationalism – Wikipedia
  3. Wikipedia Pohick Church – Pohick Church – Wikipedia
  4. Pohick Church Website – Pohick Episcopal Church – LORTON, VA • EST 1732