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

Under the Oaks – Christ Episcopal Church

Charles Wesley preached here on March 14, 1736.  It was the first service to be held at the new mission on St. Simon’s Island. There was no actual church building so Reverend Wesley preached right there under the live oak trees with limbs stretching out over an acre and with trunks so large you cannot reach your arms around them – trees that were as old as, well…. the trees.

I like to think that first sermon was in the cool of the evening after a long hot day… new settlers in from a long day’s work clearing fields, soldiers from nearby Fort Frederica, watermen brought in with the tide hauling bushels of crabs or shrimp – everyone from the small colony…. men, women, and children gathering to sing a few hymns and hear the words of the Lord.  George Whitfield, who was a deacon at the Savannah church at the time remembered:

In the evening we had publick Prayers, and expounding of the second Lesson under a large tree, and many more present than could be expected.” 1 (Aug 8, 1737)

The oak no longer stands. It has long since succumbed to storms and damage and time.  There is a Georgia Historical Marker at the site that commemorates the “Wesley Oak” that stands very close to another ancient oak tree, so everyone just seems to think that is the actual oak where Wesley preached.  Yep, me too. Even took a photo with Jerry hugging the tree.  Actually taking the time to read the marker helps.  So, I have a great photo of an old oak tree that is NOT the Wesley Oak…. still a beautiful oak tree that is very picture worthy in its own right.  The original oak is gone but a cross was made from the wood and now hangs inside the church to further commemorate the man and the sermon that evening on St. Simon’s Island.

Charles was the brother of the Reverend John Wesley, the rector at the Christ Chapel in Savannah. Both brothers were sent out from the Church of England.  Brother Charles had traveled to St. Simon’s Island in the Georgia colony as a chaplain for James Oglethorpe, credited as the founder of the state. Oglethorpe had established Fort Frederica on the island on February 15, 1736 and brought in Scottish soldiers to help secure the frontier.  I do not suppose anyone thinks of the low country and barrier islands along the Georgia coast as “the frontier” these days and I daresay not too many people worry about protection when they visit, but in 1736, it was pretty much the edge of nowhere, full of all sorts of danger…. and possible Spanish colonists that couldn’t be allowed.

Charles Wesley established a mission on the island and preached that first sermon on March 14, 1736.  In the beginning, he held services in a small tabby (cement & broken up seashells) building within the walls of Fort Frederica. He served the congregation on the island at the small mission until July 1736.  The United Society Partners in the Gospel provided clergy for the mission/church during the 1700’s. After America’s Revolutionary War, the local churches broke away from the Church of England (understandably) becoming Episcopal churches in the US.

The first permanent church on the property was built in 1820. This church stood until the American Civil War when it was mostly destroyed.  Christ Episcopal Church at St. Simon’s was incorporated by state legislature in 1808 and given one hundred and eight acres on the island near Fort Frederica. Reverend William Best was the first rector of the newly incorporated Christ Episcopal Church which joined other churches to form the Episcopal Diocese in 1823.  On a sidenote, church history from Wikipedia 5 indicates that in 1840, bees built a hive in the church steeple. The congregants collected and sold honey to raise money for building repairs.  Two thoughts come quickly to mind; 1) this just has to be an early predecessor to more church bake sales than you can shake a stick at, and 2) I wonder if the bees “hummed” along with the singing during church services.

Christ Church continued to be served by lay ministers who visited the area as circuit riders at intervals in the 1800’s. It wasn’t clear where the congregation met once the church building was destroyed although under the trees seems to have worked out okay.  In 1879, Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. (Deacon and then Rector) reorganized the parish and, in 1884, had the church rebuilt in memory of his wife who was buried on the grounds. 

Reverend Dodge also established another church, St. Ignatius, nearby on Demere Road as an outreach to slaves that had been freed after the war.  Anna Alexander, a deaconess who served at St. Ignatius, is noteworthy as the first black deaconess in the Episcopal Church.  In 1998, she was named as a saint in the church by the Episcopal Diocese.  In the 1980’s, St. Ignatius was closed and merged with Christ Episcopal Church.  Christ Episcopal Church continues to be an active congregation with services still being held throughout the year.  Visitors are made welcome. (According to the church website, about 20,000 people visit the church each year.)

“Our grounds and our faith are historic, built upon the foundations laid by our ancestors on this island and the host of saints who have come before us.” 4

We were blessed in that the church was open on the day we visited, and we were able to go inside and enjoy the beauty of the church.  The interior of the building, which is quite simple and beautiful, was built with local heart pine which has never been stained or painted. 

We also spent quite a bit of time in the cemetery on the grounds. Many of the tombstones there are as old as the trees that surround them.  The oldest tombstone is 1803 although it is thought that there are older graves there. The cemetery includes the graves of the Rectors of the church and their families, early settlers, Officers of the British Army who served nearby, and soldiers from every war fought by the US.3

The day we visited was a quiet one with only one other couple strolling through the grounds reading the inscriptions on the gravestones, a Pastor and his wife visiting from Tennessee. 

Before we left, we asked the pastor to say a prayer with us. He obliged praying for safety in our travels and asked God to bless the church and bring souls to salvation there in the future. We prayed under the beautiful live oak trees where some 300 years ago, the Reverend Charles Wesley had preached and, no doubt, had prayed the same prayer for mercy and salvation. Amen

Notes & Sources with links:

  1. Georgia Historical Marker 063-33A, 1968, Christ Episcopal Church (I was unable to locate the link for the specific marker online so included the link for the main site.)
  2. Georgia Historical Marker 063-34A, Wesley Oak (Unable to locate the link for the specific marker.)
  3. Georgia Historical Marker 063-35, Christ Church Cemetery
  4. Christ Episcopal Church Website/About Us /(
  5. Wikipedia, Christ Church (St. Simons, Georgia)

If you’d like to visit Christ Episcopal Church:

There are two locations on St. Simons Island. The main Church and offices are located at 6329 Frederica Rd., St. Simons Island, GA 31522. St. Ignatius Chapel is located at 2609 Demere Rd., St. Simons Island, GA 31522. 4