HISTORY of POHICK CHURCH
- Colonial Origins
- Mid-19th Cent.
- Civil War
- Post Civil War
- Historic Foundation
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Rightly called "the Mother Church of Northern Virginia," Pohick was the first permanent church in the colony to be established north of the Occoquan River, sometime prior to 1724. Originally called "the Occoquan Church," it was soon referred to as "Pohick Church" because of its proximity to Pohick Creek. George Washington's map of the area locates this long-lost wooden edifice near a site now occupied by Cranford Methodist Church.
The only artifact surviving from this period is the baptismal font, which experts from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford identified as a large Medieval mortar. Likely dating from the eleventh or twelfth centuries, its large size suggests that it was taken from a monastery kitchen in England. After the closure of the monasteries during the Reformation, many such articles were shipped to the colonies for liturgical use. This pattern probably explains how this ancient artifact came to be used as a baptismal font at the earlier Pohick Church. Since its restoration in 1890, the font has continued to be used for baptisms to this very day.
In 1732, the Virginia General Assembly established Truro Parish, defining it as all the lands in the colony above the Occoquan River, extending to the western frontier. As the only church within these boundaries, Pohick became the Parish Church of the newly formed district. Colonists residing within the parish soon elected twelve men to serve on the governing board known as the Vestry. Shortly thereafter, vestryman Augustine Washington (father of George Washington) successfully sponsored the nomination of Dr. Charles Green to serve as the parish's first permanent minister, known as the Rector. The preserved colonial Vestry Book records this and other vestry deeds during this period.
Over the next several decades, the Vestry and Rector provided for the spiritual welfare of not only those attending Pohick Church, but also colonists who were moving into the northern and western reaches of the parish. During this period, they built chapels and/or provided nearby worship services for these parishioners. These congregations and their houses of worship would eventually become known as The Falls Church (1733 & 1763, in the present-day city named after it), Goose Creek Chapel (1733/34, near present-day Leesburg; lost), Rocky Run Church (1745/46, in present-day Centreville; lost), Christ Church (1751, Alexandria; built by residents of Alexandria, serviced by Dr. Green) and Payne’s Church (1766, in present-day Fairfax Station at the site of Jerusalem Baptist Church; destroyed in 1863).
Finally in 1767, the Vestry decided to rebuild their own parish church on a grander scale, constructing it out of elegant and more durable colonial brick. The present Pohick Church represents the fruit of their labors. Vestrymen George Washington, George Mason and George William Fairfax supervised the construction, which was completed in 1774, just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Armed with survey maps, Washington was said to have argued for the new site, two miles north of the old church, as being more centrally located. It was also situated on the highest spot in the area, recalling the biblical image of a "city set on a hill" (Matt 5:14). In order to finance the project, all parishioner families paid larger than usual "tithes" or mandatory annual contributions. In addition, the wealthy plantation owners of the parish—including Washington, Mason and Fairfax—each purchased family pews inside their new house of worship.
Both before and after the war, Washington was a faithful attendant at Pohick. The Reverend Lee Massey, Pohick's second Rector and a close friend of the Washingtons, once wrote: “I never knew so constant an attendant at Church as [Washington]. And his behavior in the house of God was ever so deeply reverential that it produced the happiest effect on my congregation, and greatly assisted me in my pulpit labors. No company ever withheld him from Church. I have been at Mount Vernon on Sabbath morning when his breakfast table was filled with guests; but to him they furnished no pretext for neglecting his God and losing the satisfaction of setting a good example. For instead of staying at home, out of false complaisance to them, he used constantly to invite them to accompany him.” Washington's steadfast faith in God's divine providence undoubtedly sustained him during the long fight for independence from England.
After the Revolutionary War, with the Religious Freedom Act of 1785, Virginia formally disestablished the Church of England as the official church of the Commonwealth. Episcopal churches (as they came to be called) underwent difficult times. Deprived of their clergy, their church lands often seized, many congregations totally disbanded. Still, services continued at Pohick, with Parson Mason Locke Weems, Washington's first biographer (and first raconteur of the famous Cherry Tree story), taking services on occasion from the turn of the nineteenth century until as late as 1817.
One worshiper at the time, John Davis, describes the persevering vitality of parish life at Pohick in 1801: “About eight miles from Occoquan Mills is a place of worship called Powhick Church. Thither I rode on Sunday and joined the congregation of Parson Weems, a Minister of the Episcopal persuasion, who was cheerful in his mein that he might win men to religion. A Virginia Churchyard on Sunday resembles rather a race-course than a sepulchral ground . . . . [thus] I was confounded on first entering the Churchyard to hear Steed threaten Steed with high and boastful neigh.' Nor was I less stunned with the rattling of carriage-wheels, the cracking of whips and the vociferations of the gentlemen . . . . But the discourse of Parson Weems calmed every perturbation, for he preached the great doctrines of Salvation as one who had experienced their power.” Of the congregation, Davis records that "one half was composed of white people, and the other of negroes." Undoubtedly those in the second group included many former slaves freed by Martha Washington on January 1st of that same year.
During the War of 1812, oral tradition recounts that the British raided Pohick Church because of its association with George Washington. A patriotic parishioner named Mr. Bowie had carved a wooden dove, painted it with gold leaf, and placed the figure as a memorial on Washington's pew. One of the soldiers decapitated the dove, cut off its wings, and threw it into the courtyard where it was later recovered and returned to its creator. Alternately, the dove may originally have been crafted to crown the canopy over the pulpit. Whatever the case, it was passed down through the family for several generations before being donated to Pohick by Mrs. Peter J. Troy in 1988. It has since been on display in the Parish House foyer.
After Parson Weems' departure, Pohick was periodically abandoned in the early 19th century. Students from Virginia Theological Seminary led services there sporadically, while Methodists used it for worship on alternating Sundays. During this period, the famous American artist John Gadsby Chapman painted the earliest known picture of Pohick Church. It depicts a dilapidated building surrounded by overgrown vegetation and overturned tombstones. The painting is currently on loan to Mt. Vernon.
In the summer of 1837, Bishop William Meade visited Pohick Church and was clearly shocked at its condition. At the church convention the next year, he issued the following plea to the gathered clergy: "My next visit was to Pohick Church, in the vicinity of Mt. Vernon, the seat of General Washington. It was still raining when I approached the house, and found no one there. The wide open doors invited me to enter, as they do invite, day and night through the year, not only the passing traveller, but every beast of the field and fowl of the air . . . How could I, while for at least an hour traversing those long aisles, ascending the lofty pulpit, entering the sacred chancel, forbear to ask, 'And is this the House of God which was built by the Washingtons, the Mc.Cartys, the Lewises, the Fairfaxes?the house in which they used to worship the God of our fathers according to the venerable forms of the Episcopal Church, and some of whose names are still to be seen on the doors of those now deserted pews? Is this also destined to moulder piecemeal away, or, when some signal is given, to become the prey of spoilers, and to be carried hither and thither and applied to every purpose under heaven?' Surely patriotism, or reverence for the greatest of patriots, if not religion, might be effectually appealed to in behalf of this one temple of God."
Bishop Meade's call was answered by the Reverend W. P. C. Johnson, who became Pohick's first post-colonial Rector and undertook the ambitious task of raising money for the church's repair. Within two years, he had collected over $1,500a significant sum for that era. Among the contributors to this renovation were President Martin Van Buren, former President John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key, whose signatures can be found in a pledge book circulated by the Rev. Mr. Johnson for the reconstruction of "General Washington's Church." The pledge book remains in the church's possession to this day.
Unfortunately, the Rev. Johnson left Pohick shortly after the project was completed in 1840. Without a resident clergyman, the Episcopal congregation gathered for worship in the church only sporatically, again led by students from the Virginia Theological Seminary. They continued to welcome neighboring Methodists to use the building on a regular basis.
The famous illustrator and historian Benson J. Lossing worshiped at one such service on December 10, 1848, as he recorded in his widely read Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution: "at early twilight [I] reached the venerated Pohick or Powheek Church where Washington worshiped, and Weems, his first biographer, preached. It is about seven miles southwest of Mount Vernon, upon an elevation on the borders of a forest, and surrounded by ancient oaks, chestnuts, and pines. The twilight lingered long enough with sufficient intensity to allow me to make the annexed sketch from my wagon in the road . . . [the next morning I returned] to Pohick Church, on the road to Alexandria, where I understood a Methodist meeting was to be held that day . . . When they were all assembled, men and women, white and black, the whole congregation, including the writer, amounted to only twenty-one persons. What a contrast with former days, when some of the noblest of the Virginia aristocracy filled those now deserted and dilapidated pews, while Massey or Weems performed the solemn and impressive ritual of the Church of England! . . . Yet the glorious hymn, beginning 'Come, holy Spirit, heavenly Dove!' was sung with fervor; and, standing behind the ancient communion-table, a young preacher in homely garb, with the eloquence of true piety, proclaimed the pure Gospel of love, and warmed the hearts of all present with emotions of Christian charity, the burden of his discourse. I sat in the pew, near the pulpit, wherein Washington and his family were seated, Sabbath after Sabbath, for many years."
Tragically, a mere twenty-one years after Rev. Johnson's reconstruction, the Civil War brought new devastation when occupying Union forces stripped the buildings interior for souvenirs of "Washington's Church" and used its worship space as a stable. Soldiers scrawled their names on the inside walls, carved graffiti onto the doorposts, and pockmarked the exterior with bullet holes. The interior damage can be seen from an 1862 Mathew Brady photo, while the outside markings can still be viewed today.
The 2nd Michigan Volunteers, under the command of Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman, conducted the first raid on November 12, 1861. One of those present, Lieutenant Charles B. Haydon, expressed his outrage over the devastation wrought upon the Church: "At 8 ½ A.M. we reached the church 12 miles out. Pohick Church is a brick building built in 1773. Gen. Washington contributed to building it & was a frequent attendant. It has a very ancient look & one would suppose that it might be sacred enough to be secure. I have long known that the Mich 2nd had no fear or reverence as a general thing for God or the places where he is worshiped but I had hoped that the memory of Gen. Washington might protect almost anything with which it was associated. I believe our soldiers would have torn the church down in 2 days. They were all over it in less than 10 minutes tearing off the ornaments, splitting the woodwork and pews, knocking the brick to pieces & everything else they could get at. They wanted pieces to carry away . . . A more absolute set of vandals than our men can not be found on the face of the earth. As true as I am living I believe they would steal Washington's coffin if they could get to it."
Two months later, on January 25, 1862, Private Robert Sneden visited Pohick and painted a water-color of the Union encampments around the church. In his journal, he wrote: "We reached Pohick Church about 4 pm in a snow storm . . . It was a substantial two story brick structure with white marble, quoins and trimmings and old colonial gambrel roof . . . Here Washington attended service, with all the old first families of the time . . . He drove from Mount Vernon to church in his coach with four horses, tandem fashion as did the others. Now the church was in ruinous condition. Windows were all broken out, doors gone, pews nearly gone, being used for firewood by our pickets. The ceilings broken by the rain coming through the roof, walls discolored black by smoke, etc. The mahogany pulpit was half cut away and carried off for relics, while the cornerstones had been unearthed and the contents carried off. Washington had lain this stone in 1765 [sic] and the soldiers who got it out must have found valuable relics. There was not much left for the relic hunters now even the sconces and door knobs and hinges were gone."
By then, Pohick had became a Union observation post, with the famous "aeronaut," Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, looking down at Confederate movements from his balloon, which soared 1,000-2,000 feet above the church courtyard. As Pvt. Sneden recorded in his diary, "Balloons are now used frequently at Pohick Church . . . A gas wagon is attached to the balloon with which the balloon is only one half or one third inflated, then it rises 1,000 feet or more, and is held on the ground by two or three long ropes by a lot of soldiers who are detailed for the purpose" (Feb 1). On March 5, 1862, Professor Lowe himself wrote a dispatch from Pohick to General Heintzelman, stating, "Have just made two ascensions with the balloon. It is fully inflated, and will take up two persons with all the ropes. If to-morrow is a fine day it would be a good time for the general to go up. I can see camp-fires on the Occoquan. T. S. C. LOWE, Chief Aeronaut, U. S. Army."
Civil War Trails Plaque Dedication at Pohick Church, April 26, 2014
Following the Civil war, services resumed in 1874, and a major restoration of its colonial interior began in 1890, thanks to the generous contributions of its congregation, the Mt. Vernon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, among others. While the renovation was largely completed in 1917 (the approximate date of the above photo), smaller restoration and conservation projects continue to this day under the auspices of the Historic Pohick Church Foundation. Presently, this organization is raising funds for renovation of the exterior stairs and rails.
Over the years, Pohick's unique history has drawn our nation's leaders to visit the church for special services and commemorations. President Warren Harding paid one such visit on May 29,1921 for the dedication of a memorial plaque honoring six local soldiers who died in combat during World War I.
With its history spanning four centuries, Pohick continues to inspire visitors from around the world. We invite you to come and explore the rich spiritual heritage that so many have experienced over the years.
The church is open to visitors Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 4:30 pm, and Sundays from 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm, following the morning services. Guided tours for groups are available through advance arrangement with the church secretary. Entry is free of charge, though donations are cheerfully accepted.
The Historic Pohick Church Foundation is formally known as the Pohick Church Endowment Fund Inc. and is a nonprofit charitable corporation that was established in 1983 for the purpose of maintaining and restoring the historic Pohick Church building. The goal of the Endowment Fund is to provide a source of funds to ensure the continued viability of Pohick Church without unduly burdening the operating funds of the parish.
On a number of occasions throughout history, the Vestry of Pohick Church has undertaken major repair and restoration projects with the goal of preserving this hallowed structure for future generations. Ensuring that these projects are faithful to the original architecture has become increasingly expensive.
Since its inception, the Endowment Fund has paid for the installation of air conditioning, the repair and replacement of the windows, and repair of the exterior stone work and doors. Major projects being considered for future years are replacement of the roof and chandeliers and restoration of the floor.
The Fund is administered in accordance with the terms of a written trust agreement and the Articles of Incorporation by a Board of Trustees. Members of the Board include the Junior Warden and eight others who are appointed to five-year terms by the Vestry. The Vestry has no control over the Fund's budget, investments, etc. However, the Vestry must approve any projects undertaken by the Board of Trustees. In fact, the Vestry often suggests needed projects that cannot be funded within the Church operating budget. The Trustees then consider these suggestions for potential Endowment funding.
Gifts by individuals to the Endowment Fund provide the primary means to carry out this important mission. Such gifts can take a variety of forms, as described here:
Gifts to the Historic Pohick Church Foundation
The Generosity of Individuals Sustains the Fund
A traditional and very appropriate method of leaving money or something of value to an organization such as this is through a will. Certainly, that's one good way to insure a sort of perpetual gift to Pohick Church. But there are other methods to provide endowment funds to Pohick while, at the same time, providing substantial tax benefits to the contributor. Examples of the kinds of gifts that can be given include the following:
- Appreciated stocks or bonds
- Life insurance policies
Gifts to the Endowment Fund qualify for the maximum allowable Federal and State charitable deduction. In addition, gifts to the Fund are fully deductible for Federal estate and gift tax purposes.
Life insurance policies make excellent gifts because the death benefit is substantially greater than the premiums paid in. In addition, the donor receives tax benefits for the premiums. One method is to give an existing policy to the Endowment Fund, making the Fund the beneficiary and owner. An immediate tax deduction is received for the policy's cash value. If future premiums are due, tax deductions on those are received in the year they are made. A second method is to purchase a new life insurance policy, making the Endowment Fund the owner and beneficiary. Again, a tax deduction is received each year for the premium payments.
One of the most popular ways to honor someone living or deceased is to make a gift in his or her honor or memory. The families of parishioners who die often request that, in lieu of flowers, gifts be made to the Endowment Fund.
There are numerous creative ways to contribute to and benefit from a gift to the Pohick Church Endowment Fund. The best place to start is with the Rector or one of the Endowment Trustees. He or she can talk to you about your goals and what the Church's needs are, now and in the future. Based on that, you may want to follow up with your attorney, CPA, or insurance agent to determine the type of donation that best fits your particular financial situation.