History of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House
The Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, dates from the early eighteenth century. Scottish Presbyterians were among the early European settlers of Northern Virginia and were involved in establishing Alexandria as a port in 1749. The Society of Presbyterians worshiped publicly in the city from the 1760s, and the congregation’s first installed minister arrived in 1772. The history of the congregation is summarized in the Chronology and History sections of this Web site, and the Meeting House itself and other facilities belonging to the congregation are discussed in the Facilities section. Among other services that George Washington attended here was one conducted by the Rev. Dr. James Muir for the National Day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer in 1798. Alexandria’s memorial services for George Washington in 1799 were held in this sanctuary, and the church bell tolled in mourning during the four days between his death and burial. The Tomb of an Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is located in the burying ground adjoining the Meeting House.
Chronology of Events
Alexandria’s Presbyterians begin worshiping congregationally in the Assembly Hall located on the town’s Market Square with clergy supplied from Pennsylvania. Earlier, worship services were conducted in private homes, known as “reading houses.”
The local Society of Presbyterians organizes as a formal congregation when it calls the Reverend William Thom (1750-1773) as its first pastor. He is struck down by yellow fever the following year.
The original meeting house is erected on the same site as the current one. Its hipped roof design incorporates a cupola with Alexandria’s only bell. [See more at entry for 1835.]
The Reverend Isaac Stockton Keith, D.D. (1755-1813) is called as our second pastor. He serves as the founding president of the Alexandria Academy, an early experiment in providing schooling without regard to gender, race, or ability to pay. Four Presbyterian ministers succeed him as president or headmaster, and its scholars (students) are publicly examined at the Meeting House. He serves here until 1788 when he is called to serve a congregation in Charleston, South Carolina.
Reverend Keith, General Daniel Roberdeau and other members of the congregation sign the Memorial and Remonstrance opposing Virginia’s pending religious assessment bill. With passage of the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), Alexandria’s Presbyterians petition the General Assembly “praying that the Society of which they are members may be constituted a Body corporate and politic and vested with such civil prerogatives and privileges as are usually granted to other incorporated Churches saving to them the free and full exercise of every spiritual power which essentially belongs to them in the Capacity of a Christian Church.”
Flounder House is erected as a parsonage by Robert Brockett in the classic flounder style. It still stands and now houses offices and meeting rooms. [See section labeled Churchyard.]
The Reverend James Muir, D.D. (1757-1820) is called as the congregation’s third pastor. Born in Scotland, he serves the congregation for thirty-one years, and assists in establishing the Alexandria Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, Alexandria Library Company, Alexandria Relief Society, Onesimus Society, Washington Society of Alexandria, Board of Guardians of the Free Schools, and the Bible Society of the District of Columbia. He founds and edits The Monthly Visitant, and negotiates with the British to save Alexandria during the War of 1812.
[A memorial to the Rev. Dr. Muir is located on the north interior wall of the Meeting House.]
When George Washington dies at Mount Vernon in December 1799, four community memorial services are conducted at the Meeting House. They are led by the Rev. William Maffit, headmaster of Alexandria Academy, the Rev. Thomas Davis, Jr., of Christ Church, the Rev. James Muir of the Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. James Tolleson of the Methodist Church. The Meeting House church bell tolls from the time of Washington’s death until his interment.
The Alexandria Presbyterian Cemetery is established.
1816 A Sabbath-Day School is established at the Meeting House. Classes, initially led by eight teachers and elders, utilize the catechisms of both Isaac Watts and the Presbyterian Church.
Differences among members over style of worship lead to the formation of a second Presbyterian congregation. The congregation continuing at the Meeting House is renamed First Presbyterian Church. The new congregation becomes Second Presbyterian Church.
The church’s first pipe organ, built by Jacob Hilbus and Henry Howison of Washington, D.C., is installed during the year.
The Reverend Elias Harrison, D.D. (1790-1863) is called as our fourth pastor. He serves the congregation for forty-three years through the tumultuous period that culminates in the Civil War. He heads the Alexandria Academy; presides over the Board of Guardians of the Free Schools; is a founder of Alexandria’s Lyceum, its Orphan Asylum, and Female Free School; directs the Alexandria Library Company; and is a national director of the American Colonization Society.
[A memorial to the Rev. Dr. Harrison is located on south interior wall of the Meeting House.]
Lightning strikes the Meeting House in July and the ensuing fire destroys most of it. The rebuilt structure, completed in 1837, again utilizes a Georgian style, but the roof assumes a straight roofline. A bell tower, with re-cast bell, is added in 1843, and the entrance porch and steps are re-done in granite in 1853.
With remarkably few subsequent alterations, the rebuilt Meeting House remains an outstanding expression of Reformed Protestant plain style (meeting house) architecture to the present day.
The Presbytery of the District of Columbia, which had convened for its founding at the Meeting House in 1823, returns to Alexandria to discuss issues that will divide the Presbyterian Church into Old School and New School denominations the following year.
The church’s second pipe organ, built by Henry Erben of New York City, is installed. It includes 9 stops and remains in use today. [This organ located in the apse.]
When the Commonwealth of Virginia joins the Confederate States of America, Alexandria is immediately occupied by the U.S. Army forces. The town becomes a major staging ground and hospital center for the Union Army for the duration of the war. The Meeting House congregation includes many strong Unionists and worship services continue to be conducted throughout these difficult times.
The Meeting House remains with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Second Presbyterian Church, which had joined the United Synod Presbyterian denomination in 1857 to insure that clergy and members could own slaves “from principle and as a matter of choice,” joins the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. after the war.
Following the Civil War, a series of pastors serve the congregation, each for a few years only — Reverend George M. McCampbell (1841-1918), our fifth pastor, serves from 1866 until he is called to Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City; Reverend William A. McAtee, D.D. (1838-1902), our sixth pastor, serves from 1870 until he is called to the Presbyterian Church in Hagerstown, Maryland; Reverend James M. Nourse (1840-1922), our seventh pastor, serves from 1885 until he is called to Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
During 1874-80, large portions of Alexandria’s two Presbyterian congregations unite to form the Union Presbyterian Church, an experiment “looking for a union of the whole Presbyterian family North and South.” They worship at the Meeting House and are led by the Reverend J. J. Bullock, D.D. (1812-1892), who also serves as chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
During the 1880s, a Congregational minister, the Reverend Eliphalet Whittlesey (1821-1909), frequently leads the congregation in worship while also serving Howard University and the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners.
On entering the 1890s, the congregation numbers seventy communicant members. Prior to the Civil War, the congregation averaged about two hundred communicant members. Efforts to call a pastor from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to serve the congregation during the decade are not successful and the congregation dissolves.
The Meeting House property is conveyed to Second Presbyterian Church and is retained by that congregation until 1949. The Meeting House is used for worship services and Sunday School classes by numerous groups, including Bethany Methodist, Lee Street Chapel, Bethel Presbyterian Mission, St. Paul’s Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, Salvation Army, ship-builders and torpedo-builders during World War I, and Second Presbyterian Church.
Flounder House provides shelter for the indigent and serves as a rental property.
Second Presbyterian Church organizes a restoration of the Meeting House that includes the cleaning and repairing of walls and pews, and the installation of a slate roof. The restored structure is rededicated on June 8, 1928 and is regularly open to the public for visitation.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is erected by the National Society of the Children of the American Revolution.
[This memorial located at the north side of the burial ground.]
The city of Alexandria concludes its George Washington Birth Bicentennial Celebration on the 133rd anniversary of Washington’s death with a program at the Meeting House.
A memorial service held on the 140th anniversary of a service led by the Rev. Dr. James Muir on May 9, 1798, a National Day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer that was attended by George Washington, reflects on the current and earlier period’s “hazardous and afflictive situation”. [A plaque memorializing this event is at the Fairfax Street entrance.]
Sponsored by Second Presbyterian Church, an independent congregation is once again created at the Meeting House. Its first worship service is led by the Rev. Dr. A. Donald Upton on the nineteenth of June 1949.
The Reverend Dr. Kenneth G. Phifer (1915-1985) is called as our eighth pastor. Among his many efforts to lead the newly established congregation, he organizes a joint meeting of the presbyteries of Potomac (“Southern” denomination of Presbyterians) and Washington City (“Northern” denomination of Presbyterians) at the Meeting House in 1952, the first formal meeting of local Presbyterians since the Civil War. The Education Building, dedicated in 1957, is the congregation’s first new structure in over 120 years. In 1959, Rev. Phifer serves on the city’s Committee for Public Schools. Later that same year, he is called to the Louisville Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Reverend Dr. William Randolph Sengel is called as the congregation’s ninth pastor. He leads efforts to advance social and racial justice within the church and the local community; to re-unite the northern and southern denominations of the Presbyterian Church; and to promote ecumenism. He serves our congregation until 1986 when he becomes pastor emeritus.
Sherrard and Jean Elliot convey their residence to the congregation. It is located next to the Meeting House on Fairfax Street and dates from the 1840s. Restored and extended in 2005, it now accommodates church offices. [See section labeled Churchyard.]
The Reverend Dr. Thomas K. Farmer is called as our tenth pastor. Rev. Farmer serves until he is called to the Presbyterian Church in Danville, Kentucky.
The Reverend Dr. Edna Jacobs Banes is called as our third associate pastor. She is the first woman to serve as a minister of the Word and Sacrament at the Meeting House, and serves here until she is called to Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia in 2001.
The Reverend Dr. Gary W. Charles is called as our eleventh pastor. Under his leadership, the congregation joins the Covenant Network of Presbyterians in welcoming “all whom God calls into community and leadership in God’s church.” In 2004, he is called to serve Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
The church’s fourth pipe organ is installed. Built by Lively-Fulcher as Opus 4, it replaces a Reuter organ that had served since 1965. It includes 35 ranks and 2,026 pipes.
[This organ is located in the east gallery.]
The Reverend Dr. Robert R. Laha, Jr. was called as the twelfth installed pastor in 2006. Serving with him are the Reverend Ann Herlin, associate pastor; the Reverend Katherine Stanford, associate pastor; Noelle Castin, director of Christian education; Steven Seigart, music director and organist; and Mary Pratt Perry, youth director.
We are an inclusive congregation, seeking to grow in faith, to serve the Lord, and to be a truly gracious community. We hope you will join us for worship, service, and fellowship.
The History and Archives Committee
- Interest in the history of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, and in conveying its story to others, dates from at least 1794. In that year, the Rev. Dr. James Muir prepared a two-page written account entitled, “History of the Presbyterian Church at Alexandria” for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. In 1940, William Buckner McGroarty (1858—1950) published the first book-length treatment of the congregation’s history, The Old Presbyterian Meeting House at Alexandria, 1774-1874. Long a member of Second Presbyterian Church, he actively promoted the recognition of the heritage of the Meeting House, and he survived to see the Meeting House reopen in 1949 with a congregation of its own, which he joined.
With the renewed congregation at the Meeting House came a renewed appreciation for the heritage of Presbyterians in Alexandria. One of the earliest committees formed by the new congregation was the “Memorials and Gifts Committee,” which not only took responsibility for receiving contributions to assist in resuscitating the Meeting House congregation, but also for ensuring that the congregation’s heritage was brought back to life and respected. The congregation organized numerous activities over the years, peaking during the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of Independence in 1976. Preparations for these national bicentennial celebrations included the Rev. Dr. William R. Sengel’s writing of the remarkable book, Can These Bones Live? Pastoral Reflections on the Old Presbyterian Meeting house of Alexandria, Virginia Through its First Two Hundred Years (1973).
By the late 1980s, the “Memorials and Gifts Committee” had become known as the “Archives, Memorials, and Historic Preservation Committee.” The Committee as it exists today emerged in 1995, when the existing “Archives, Memorials and Historic Preservation Committee” divided to create a separate “History and Archives Committee” and a “Memorials Committee.” A significant advance occurred in 2006, when the Committee was able to establish a dedicated space for the Meeting House Archive (described more fully in the companion article about the Archive).
In 2009, the History and Archives Committee spearheaded the construction of a museum-quality display case in the Nancy Vance Sennewald Library in Elliot House. It has since housed numerous exhibits. Most have focused on historical aspects of the Meeting House, although the display case is available for use by all of the congregation’s Ministries. The image shows a display installed by the Service & Justice Ministry in July 2015. Other projects the Committee has undertaken over the past several years include: starting an oral history program (2009), installing a plaque in the churchyard burial ground in memory of all those interred there (2009), acquiring the records of Second Presbyterian Church after it closed (2009), arranging for the appraisal (2010) and subsequent conservation (2012) of the portrait of Dr. Muir, helping to arrange for an Historic Organ Citation for the Erben Organ (2012), conducting a thorough inventory of the fine arts holdings of the Meeting House (2012), presenting an Adult Ed series on Meeting House history (2012), and assisting in preparations for events commemorating the roles of Alexandrians in the War of 1812 (2015).
The History and Archives Committee meets regularly in the Archives Room in Flounder House on the first Monday of every month, except during the summer. Its continuing mission is to:
- Preserve, archive, and catalogue important papers and artifacts of the Meeting House;
- Conduct research to expand our knowledge and understanding of the Meeting House and its role in the Alexandria and Presbyterian communities;
- Maintain a comprehensive and accurate historical record of the Meeting House that includes its congregation, clergy, and facilities;
- Prepare materials for, and assist in organizing, events and special projects that relate to the history of the Meeting House; and
- Assist in making the historical papers and artifacts of the Meeting House accessible to researchers.
Any member of the congregation who is interested in the history of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House is welcome to join the History and Archives Committee. Please contact the committee chair—currently Don Dahmann, firstname.lastname@example.org —for additional information.