Mountain Road Walking Tour
St. John's Episcopal Church

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St. John's Episcopal Church was built in 1844. The first of the younger Cosby's buildings was St. John's Church. While the facade is relatively plain, Cosby's keen sense of scale and proportion places St. John's as one of the handsomest examples of Greek Revival ecclesiastical architecture in Southside Virginia.

A Look Back Through Two Centuries

Prepared in 1972 for St. John's Episcopal Church, author unknown.

Halifax County and Antrim Parish were created from the western portions of Lunenburg County and Cumberland Parish on May 17, 1752. The beginnings of the Anglican Church's ministry in this area were in the homes with readers substituting for ministers. However, by the time of the Revolution, a number of churches had been built, and references to early parish churches include that of "Difficult Church" at Difficult Creek. St. George's Church was located at Peytonsburg and St. Patrick's Church at Boyd's Ferry. Around 1820 Mount Laurel Church was built by the Episcopalians; but in the early decades of the century, moves were also being made to establish a church nearer the present Halifax, and a small church was built about 3.0 miles from Halifax near Love's Shop. There Mr. Alexander Hay preached in 1819.

In 1828 Charles Dresser, rector, paid $5.00 to Samuel Williams for land on Mountain Road, Halifax, where the present St. Mark's Church (now the Halifax Methodist Church) was erected in 1829. In 1838 Mr. Dresser left to become rector of St. Paul's Episcopal church in Springfield, Illinois - joining other members of his family who had already settled there. That included his youngest brother, Nathan, who was already well acquainted with Abraham Lincoln by that time. Rev. Dresser conducted the wedding service of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd on November 4, 1842, at the home of her sister in Springfield. In 1844, Rev. Dresser sold his family home to the Lincolns, who later added a second story to the home; that home is still open to the public as the Lincoln residence. (More)

Dr. John Grammer was rector here when on June 23, 1841, land for St. John's Church and churchyard was purchased from John and Pamela Wilson and Robert and Martha Gilliland for a total sum of $600.00.

In this churchyard is the grave of a Revolutionary War patriot by the name of John Ragland. This devout Episcopalian was born in 1751 and was for fifty years a member of Antrim Parish. It is said that he served as a vestryman and at one time was the only parish communicant.

The builder of St. John's, Dabney Cosby, also was a vestryman. In his builder's handbook there is reference to a total cost of $6,524.00 which was settled in full on the seventh of July, 1849. (In this same handbook under date of June 3, 1840, there is mention of the construction of rectory with "original. contract for kitchen and dwelling, $1,370.00." He also refers to underpinning for a smokehouse and dairy, bringing the total price to $1,870.00.)

From available information it appears that the St. John's church building, as originally constructed, was rectangular in shape with balconies extending along either side of the nave. St. John's is a good example of the Greek Revival style. The American Revolution brought a cultural as well as a political liberation. The Greek Revival style was the embodiment of that cultural freedom from English Colonial domination. Its inspiration was the true source of democracy - the ancient Classic World of Greece.

The manner in which the forms of ancient Greece were interpreted by the cultural leaders of this country resulted in a distinctive style which prevailed in the south until the War Between the States. The new aesthetic sensitiveness produced the first native architecture in the United States. Although obviously highly derivative, the Greek Revival with its simplicity, restraint and vigor was very much in the spirit of its time.

It can be predicted that future evaluations of the importance of St. John's Church building will be much greater than even the high esteem with which it is now regarded. Although changes and alterations have been made in the past, a great deal of the original fabric remains and is being carefully preserved.

The first alteration of the original structure, and the most extensive, is believed to have taken place in the late 1890's during the period in which Mr. Shackleford served as rector. It is reported that at that time there was disagreement among members of the congregation over proposed changes, but in spite of opposition, the balconies were removed and the entire portion beyond the present chancel arch was added. This addition now serves as chancel area, sacristy and rector's vesting room. Mr. Shackleford had stressed his need for a robing room. To visually emphasize this, he erected black screens around the present choir area and further astounded the congregation that Sunday morning by donning his vestments there prior to the service. More controversy ensued over the fact that the addition would cover three graves. The tombstones were moved, but it is believed that the graves remained untouched beneath the church.

There have been from time to time changes of lesser significance, including a rearrangement of the undercroft in which kitchen and bathroom facilities were added, and there have been many additions in fixtures and furnishings. However, it is known that a few articles of furniture remain and that the present church pews and central ceiling medallion are original.

As St. John's membership continued to increase, it became apparent that there was a definite need for additional space and teaching facilities, and in 1962 the Parish House was constructed adjacent to the church. Its harmonizing architecture has added to the beauty of St. John's as well as to the development of its growing congregation.

Through the years many dedicated Episcopalians have worshipped at St. John's, and active early parishioners included the families of Chalmers, Edmondson, Toot, Howerton, Cabaniss, Barksdale, Craddock, Green and Wimbish. Also familiar names among later communicants are those of Holt, Easley, Edmunds, Owen, Coleman and Faulkner.

Post Civil War rectors of St. John's were Henry A. Wise (1864-1866), Albert Walker (1869) and Dr. A.0. Kinsolving (1870- 1894). Since Kinsolving's time in 1892, St. John's has belonged to the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Succeeding rectors were J. A. Shackleford (1895-1900), Flournoy Bouldin (1901-1912), G. Wallace Ribble (1913-1920), Sterling Gunn (1920), E. A. Mellichampe (1923-1928), Myron B. Marshall (1929-1937) and William Francis Burke (1939-1941). During the early World War II years the pulpit was filled by Henry H. Edmunds and visiting ministers until the arrival of the English rector, Dr. C. Stanley Long, in 1943. Dr. Long was followed by A. Campbell Tucker (1945- 1946), Lauton Pettit (1947-1954), Joseph W. Pinder (1954-1959) and Henry Havens (1959-1965). The present rector, Alfred C. Martin, has served St. John's since October 1, 1965.

St. John's can be proud of its long line of faithful communicants and ministers. Men who were childhood members of St. John's and later became priests include four Kinsolving sons (two of them became bishops), Charles Clifton Penick became missionary bishop to Liberia, and George Purnell Gunn became Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Two Ribble sons became ministers, and more recently Robert Soper was ordained to the priesthood.

St. John's has known greatness in its inspiring past and, with God's help, looks forward to a progressive future in fulfilling its ministry in this, the Diocese of Southern Virginia.
In the graveyard behind the church, are graves of notable southside Virginians from the 18th century through today. Casualties of all wars are represented there.

Jefferson Davis VanBenthuysen, nephew and namesake of the President, was with his uncle when he was captured in Georgia after the fall of the government in 1865. He is buried there. The graveyard also contains the family plot of Dabney Cosby.

In addition to the church, Cosby was responsible for three late Federal and Greek Revival residences on Mountain Road. They are Magnolia Hill, Grand Oaks and the Rectory of St. John's Church. All dating to the mid-1840s, the dwellings are uniformly of brick, and like the Halifax County Courthouse, they display Cosby's fine craftsmanship.

As noted in Martin's "Gazetteer" of earlier Halifax residences, Cosby's houses were built "in a scattering manner" all removed at some distance from the main road. The open expanse of land provided land for the planting of trees, from which two of Cosby's houses derived their names--Magnolia Hill and Grand Oaks.

In October 1854, Rev. Dresser accepted the position of chaplain and professor of Belles-lettres at that college, leaving Springfield for a time. He resigned in 1859, shortly after the death of his daughter, 10 year-old Louisa Withers Dresser, and soon thereafter returned to Springfield, where he died in 1865.

Coincidentally - Rev. Dresser confirmed John Rankin Lee into his congregation in 1838, prior to leaving for Illinois. In 1840, John Lee's only son was born, named Charles Dresser Lee. In 1844, John Rankin Lee became a deacon in the church, and founded "Church of the Epiphany" at Leaksville, North Carolina that same year. In 1847, Rev. John Rankin Lee performed the marriage ceremony of Stephen A. Douglas and his first wife, Martha Martin. This is the same Stephen A. Douglas who had courted Mary Todd, and ran for office against Abraham Lincoln. Of course, Douglas won their congressional race, but lost the presidential election.

The next stop - 230 Mountain Road, Grand Oaks

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