History by Donna Strange
Pen and ink drawings by Glenn Lehew
St. John’s Episcopal Church of Antrim Parish may have been constructed in 1844, but its origins began several centuries earlier. In May 1752, the King of England and the Governor of the Colony of Virginia established “Antrim Parish,” an area that included Halifax, Pittsylvania, Patrick, Henry and Franklin counties. This area was named after Antrim Parish in Northern Ireland, one of few areas in that country where the Church of England (or Anglican Church) prevailed. At this time in America, the Church of England had a dominant presence in the middle colonies, especially in Virginia’s newly settled areas. How the Episcopal Church—in the eighteenth century often called the Protestant Episcopal Church or the Methodist Episcopal Church—developed in Antrim Parrish and in particular Halifax County, was due largely to a dedicated group of vestrymen determined to bring the Word of The Lord to a vastly unsettled part of the Commonwealth.
The Early Parish
The Book of Common Prayer, first printed in 1549, provided a framework for worship services that families could use in their homes, especially helpful when there were no churches or churches were too far away to travel for Sunday services. The Book of Common Prayer, still used today, serves as a complement to the Bible and is called “common prayer” because it invites all people to pray together.
In the early 1700s, the area we now call Halifax County was sparely populated and had only a few established coach roads. There were no towns or churches. Those who could read became lay readers, reading from the Book of Common Prayer to family members and neighbors who gathered in homes. By the time of the American Revolution, several small churches or chapels had been built and references to them can be found in the Antrim Parish Vestry Book now housed in the Halifax County Courthouse.
Antrim Parish vestrymen, who were well respected in their villages, measured land boundaries and collected taxes to provide for the poor and support a rector or minister. William Chisholm, a candidate for orders, was in Antrim Parish in 1752, but boarded a ship for England to be consecrated by the Bishop of London and nothing more was heard of him. The two first recorded rectors were Rev. William Proctor, who was paid 2,000 pounds of tobacco for his services in 1753, and Rev. James Foulis. Rev. Foulis was in the parish until 1759. In 1762, Thomas Thompson, then an old man, served a few months until Rev. Alexander Gordon was inducted. Rev. Gordon, a Scotsman, served the area until 1775, but became disillusioned as colonists prepared to break away from English rule, and retired to Petersburg for the remainder of his life.
By the mid-1700s, there were several parish churches. One was St. Patrick’s, built in 1764 adjacent to Boyd’s Ferry on the south side of the Dan River. (By 1811, St. Patrick’s Church was no longer mentioned in local records.) St. George’s Church at Peytonsburg, erected on vestryman Joseph Terry’s land, was completed around 1765. There was also a church built not far from the courthouse in the Love Shop area. Parish records list Rev. Alexander Hay as the rector from 1790 until 1818, followed by Rev. John Stark Ravenscroft, who moved to North Carolina after several years and was elected the first Bishop of North Carolina in 1823.
Mount Laurel Church was built circa 1820 with funds solicited from other denominations and became a “free church” to be used by all religious groups. A church had also been erected at Meadsville and Reverend Charles Dresser, rector of the Love Shop area church from 1828 until 1838, gave his last sermon there before leaving the area. These churches, like the other early churches are no longer standing.
Rev. Dresser, before leaving to become President of Jubilee College in Peoria, Illinois, requested vestrymen to raise money for a “Protestant Episcopal Church” to be constructed in Halifax. (Dresser is also known as the Episcopal minister who married Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in Illinois.) Among the vestrymen at the time were James Bruce, John Wimbish, William Bailey, and William Clark. A local resident, Samuel Williams, was paid $5.00 for land on which St. Mark’s Episcopal Church was built in 1828. Episcopalians worshiping at St. Marks included the Bruces, Chalmers, Edmondson, Toot, Howerton, Cabaniss, Barksdale, Craddock, Green and Wimbish families.
The Protestant Episcopal Church congregation outgrew the modest-sized St. Mark’s in a less than three decades. Reverend John Grammar, who served as rector from 1839 to 1858, asked vestryman Dabney Cosby, Jr., to build a larger church and land was purchased nearby from Robert and Martha Gilliland and John and Pamela Wilson for $600.00. In 1844 St. John’s Episcopal Church was completed.
St. John’s Episcopal Church is a classic example of Greek Revival architecture. The pedimented gable front of the Grecian temple-like building, features four flat pilasters supporting a massive Ionic entablature that extends around the sides of the building. Centered between the front pilasters is a tall recessed entranceway with two handsomely paneled doors that open into the narthex. On each side of the church are tall stained glass windows topped with plain stone lintels. (Church windows had triple sashes with clear panes until the latter part of the 1890s.)
The church walls are solid brick, over two feet in depth, with the exterior covered in stucco and scored to simulate blocks of granite. This treatment is called roughcasting, and was introduced in the area by Dabney Cosby’s father, Dabney Cosby, Sr., who helped the younger builder during the church construction. Cosby, Sr., a brick mason who had worked with Thomas Jefferson on the construction of the University of Virginia. He and his son had recently completed construction on the county courthouse and built several large brick homes in the county.
In the narthex identical winding stairways are located on either side of the entrance leading to a balcony at the back of the nave (sanctuary). Originally the balcony was horseshoe shaped and extended along the sides of the nave atop the upper third of each window. The area was reserved for slaves who attended church with their respective families. Under one of the balcony stairways is a winding stair that leads to an undercroft that features a choir robbing room and a large room supported by eight round columns of stuccoed brick.
In the narthex, two doors, each aligned with the aisles, lead into the nave. Inside, the church retains its original painted wooden pews and a chancel arch that features reeded pilasters supporting an entablature embellished with laurel wreathes and a heavy molded cornice. In the center of the nave is an exceptionally large plastered ceiling medallion with egg and dart trim, rosettes, and a raised Star of David design in the center.
Those serving on the Vestry when St. John’s was consecrated included William Bailey, Thomas G. Coleman, James Coles Bruce, William Holt, Phillip Howerton, Charles H. Cabaniss, Elisha Barksdale, Jr., Judge William Leigh, Thomas J. Green, John Sims and David Chalmers. In 1852, there were 82 communicants, 65 white and 17 colored. There had been three marriages, one white and three colored, and seven funerals, three white and four colored. By 1856, the congregation had grown to 111 communicants and in 1860, an increase of four new members were noted in the diocesan report.
St. John’s Rectory, also built by Dabney Cosby, Jr., was completed in 1845. It is built of brick laid in Flemish bond, but unlike the church was not covered with a stucco or roughcast finish. Built in the classic, symmetrical Greek Revival style, the two-story, three-bay, central passage dwelling sits on a high English basement with porticos covering the front and back entrances. The front and back entrance doors have transoms, and windows on all floors are capped with stone lintels. The house has a hipped roof, two interior chimneys, and a wide central hallway. Flanking the hallway are two rooms on each side downstairs and upstairs. The large basement once served as the church’s parish house and occasionally, when St. John’s furnace did not function properly, the basement was used for church services.
The Rectory also served as a home for young boarders who attended the Halifax Episcopal Male Academy from September 1895 to 1900. J. G. Shackleford, who was St. John’s rector at the time, was a faculty member and served as President of the Academy’s executive committee.
Extensive alterations took place in 1890s, when Rev. Shackleford served as rector. Balconies along the sides of the church were removed and the center portion of the chancel arch was extended to include an enlarged chancel or altar area, with a semi-circular apse and three stained glass windows. A sacristy was built on the west side of the apse and on the east side, a rector’s vesting room. In the early 1900s, the triple sash multi-pane windows were replaced with stained-glass windows including the three pictorial windows in the apse area.
Various renovations have been made from time to time to update the facilities, fixtures and furnishings. St. John's rectory was sold in the fall of 2017.
St. John’s Parish House, built in 1962 provided much needed space for Christian Education classrooms and an office for the Rector. In 2013, the parish house received a major renovation. The nursery was refurbished and classrooms updated for children on the lower floor. On the first floor, on one side of the hall, the Rector’s office was redesigned to have a sitting area/office and boardroom with small kitchen, and the other side of the hall was reconfigured to include two spacious offices and a chapel with stained glass windows.
Some of the most noticeable changes included the installation of a handicapped ramp at the entrance and the much needed landscape renovation and tree removals in St. John’s churchyard. Gravestones and memorials were cleaned and repositioned and shrubbery pruned. Today, the graves of many members are easily accessable and the pleasant surroundings encourage family members to keep graves clear of debris. Many notable Southside Virginians are buried at St. John’s, including John Ragland, an early vestryman and Revolutionary War patriot. Ragland was born in 1751 was a member of Antrim Parish for fifty years. Others buried at St. John’s include members of the Dabney Cosby family, builders and brickmasons who built St. John’s Episcopal Church and rectory and many homes and public buildings of note in the area. Jefferson Davis VanBenthuysen, nephew and namesake of the President of the Confederacy is buried at St. John’s as are many ancestors of current members.
St. John’s has a long line of faithful communicants and many nineteenth century families such as the Holts, Easleys, Edmunds, Owens, Colemans and Faulkners join those early parishioners and vestrymen listed previously who have all provided leadership, monetary support and spiritual guidance. Men who were childhood members of the church and later became priests include four Kinsolving sons (two of whom became bishops). Charles Clifton Penick became a missionary bishop to Liberia and George Purnell Gunn became Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Two Ribble sons became ministers and Robert Soper was also ordained a priest.