St. John’s Church traces its roots back to the founding of Henrico Parish in 1611, an outgrowth of the original church in the Jamestown settlement. Over the years the parish expanded westward from Jamestown, up the James River. As Richmond became a riverfront trading center, the Vestry of Henrico Parish began to consider building a church in the burgeoning town. The actual St. John’s Church as we know it today dates almost to the beginning of the City of Richmond itself.
William Byrd II, credited with the establishment of Richmond, entered in his diary on September 19, 1733, that Richmond’s city foundations had been laid.
In 1740, the Vestry of Henrico Parish approved a new church to be built on land donated by Byrd, and the structure was completed on the present site on June 10, 1741.
The church was known through the next few decades as the New Church, Town Church, Upper Church, and Richmond Hill Church. The earliest known reference to “St. John’s” appeared in 1829. Through the years, St. John’s served the community not only spiritually, but also as a meeting place, just as churches had traditionally served in England.
As tensions between Virginia and England grew in the 1770s, the assembly of the Second Virginia Convention was moved from the capital of Williamsburg to Richmond. St. John’s, the largest available public building in the City, was the site of the March 1775 meeting attended by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and other prominent Virginians who heard Patrick Henry’s stirring words, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
More than two centuries later, the fame Henry’s oratory brought to the church brings approximately 40,000 visitors annually to St. John’s, which is now a National Historic Landmark. Visitors come to tour the buildings and grounds, to attend reenactments of the famous speech, and occasionally to attend services.
The American Revolution brought freedom of religious expression, but it also ended financial support of the Anglican Church. Thus began an era that would bring ups and downs to most Anglican churches. There was a lull before 1820, but St. John’s remained a vital parish and was the church home of many respected clergy and civic leaders. By 1820 there was a full-time rector, and by mid-century, the parish was flourishing again. From post Civil War to World War II, St. John’s played a vital role in the civic life of the entire City and had a large congregation of between five and six hundred members.
After World War II, many people moved from urban environments to the suburbs. The population base of St. John’s declined as more and more members lived at a distance from the Church. The neighborhood, long known as “Church Hill” because of the presence of St. John’s, also began to decline. The neighborhood experienced more urban flight in the 1960s. The religious life at St. John’s survived, however, because of loyal members who still returned to their home church for services in spite of the distances they had to travel.
Because of its historical importance, principally as the site of Henry’s famous speech, the church building inspired the designation of the St. John’s Church Old and Historic District, created by an act of Richmond City Council. The neighborhood began to stabilize, and new residents were attracted to the area and to St. John’s. Many of the beautiful old homes of Church Hill have been restored. The neighborhood has an active civic association that meets monthly in the St. John’s Parish Hall.