It is the 27th of February, 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1773.
Today we travel back to colonial Virginia to remember the founding of a Church and to note some peculiarities of colonial Christianity on the eve of the American Revolution.
On the 27th of February in 1773, Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, a church in the Anglican communion, was completed. The story of the church and its worshippers reveals a fair bit about colonial religion and the shape of the American Christian church up to the present.
The first thing you would likely hear about this particular church is George Washington's church. He helped finance the building of the church, and he bought a reserved pew box for his family. Also, he only occasionally worshipped there because while he thought Christianity was useful, he did not believe it necessarily true. We will come back to it, not to malign the first president but rather to erase some prevalent myths.
While Washington's monetary contribution was helpful, the church was built mostly by the taxing of local tobacco. In Virginia, the people agreed to a temporary tax on a popular item to raise funds. The funding of colonial and early American churches might seem bizarre to modern American Christians. A state tax was paid for the church, and as I mentioned earlier, private pews were available for sale. Think of box seats at your local sports arena. The "licensing fees" the monthly or yearly fees… it's a cash cow. And if you can tie it to spirituality…
Secondly, the state collected a general tax for the church and the salary of the parish pastors. Virginia was incorporated as an Anglican state, and thus state taxes went to the church. Yes, the constitution said that the federal government wouldn't establish a national religion, but a few states held on to their state churches for a bit after the revolution.
Soon after being completed in 1773, the church experienced a drop in membership. Christ Church, Alexandria became a hot spot for Whigs and their political philosophy. Torys, or pro-British colonists, claimed the church had turned into a political club.
During the revolution, the church suspended its tax. Even non-Anglicans had to pay the church tax and so suspending that church tax was a show of goodwill towards the non-Anglican Revolutionaries in Virginia.
It was one of the only churches in the region to be spared during the Civil War. The church had a reputation in the North as the church of George Washington, while the South knew it as the church of Robert E. Lee. So it was spared.
Fun fact, a furor arose in 2017 when the church removed plaques of Washington and Lee. However, the worship of civic figures in ecclesiastical spaces is weird. So, whatever…
The church also did not have a baptismal font until after the Civil War. This deserves a special note.
The role of the Sacraments in the colonial church was ambiguous at best. The early colonists ranged from anti-sacramental to sacramental-lite. The lack of trained and regular clergy from the earliest years led the colonies to rely on what they believed they could rightfully celebrate. Some didn't care about the sacraments, and others cared so much that they would not celebrate them without an ordained minister.
To attend communion at most churches (if it was being celebrated) and at Christ Church Alexandria, you would need a communion token. Having been examined by the pastor, you would be permitted to stay in the church once the service ended. You would then be admitted to communion. Please note again Washington refusal ever to attend communion, he believed the practice was superstitious. It is also said that he refused to kneel during prayer as that was a sign of subservience.
Under the leadership of Dr. David Griffith, the church became a member of the new "Episcopal" church in America as an autonomous member of the Anglican communion after the revolution. Of course, calling a church Anglican or "English" was a problem. "Episcopal" means "we have bishops!" which was still hierarchical but not tied to the old country.
A church of contradictions, of secular heroes, and revolutionary fervor. Since 1970 it has been recognized as a National Landmark. Today we remember the church on its 248th birthday, as it was completed on this, the 27th of February in 1773.
The Reading for today comes from an early church monastic hymn translated by John Mason Neale. This is from "Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation"
Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord and precious,
binding all the church in one;
holy Zion's help forever,
and her confidence alone.
All that dedicated city,
dearly loved of God on high,
in exultant jubilation
pours perpetual melody;
God the One in Three adoring
in glad hymns eternally.
To this temple, where we call thee,
come, O Lord of hosts, today:
with thy wonted loving-kindness
hear thy people as they pray;
and thy fullest benediction
shed within its walls alway.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who also doesn't kneel in Church for prayer… but it's not because he is irreligious, but rather just a Lutheran. He is Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.