The History of Christ Church,
St. John’s Parish
The First 300 Years
by George L. Hanssen
Christ Episcopal Church is the oldest structure in the Accokeek area and still is in active use.
The first formal church structure was built a few years after the commencement of prayer meetings (1698) on the present site of the Church. No accurate description of the first building is included in records except to note that the structure was of frame construction typical of the period. Prince George’s County Court Proceedings for 1730-32 mention Accokeek Village, three miles from the Potomac River, “wherein a house is designated a place of worship.” The Rector of Broad Creek held services there three times a month. In 1745, the frame church structure was torn down and rebuilt with brick. The builder was Stephen Chandler. An early note indicated that the bricks may have been brought from England, but most historians agree that they were made locally, if not on what is now the church grounds.
Close inspection of the bricks show that many are fused into glass on the end, a condition caused by their being too close to the fire in the old white oak fired kilns. The walls are solid brick set in Flemish bond pattern, twenty-four inches thick, and rest on clay subsoil. There are no footings or foundations under the walls as are used in modern construction. Although some alterations were made through the years, the original brick structure still serves as a parish church.
Christ Church was built and remained on private land until December 14, 1843, when William Henry Lyles and his wife Eliza C. Lyles deeded the southern section of their farm, "Cherry Mount," on which the church stood, to the Vestry in consideration of the sum of seventy-five dollars. William Henry Lyles (1778-1850), whose home at that time was near the church, was slain by servants in search of money. A flat stone marking his grave is located on the north side of the Church.
The congregation received recognition as a separate congregation in 1823, and in 1869 separated from Broad Creek Parish to form St. John’s Parish. In 1745, at the time of the building of the present brick structure, liturgical theologies were quite different from what they are today. The dictates permitted no music during Holy services, nor stained glass or colored windows of any description. The pews were of the typical colonial box type, and the pulpit was located on what is now the gospel, or north side of the Church, between the second and third windows. The main entrance was at what is now the second window on the Epistle or south wall, of the Church. The original floor was brick, and the walls were plastered as they are today. The interior of the church is beautiful in its simplicity and symmetry.
Christ Church has seen many turbulent years. The conditions in which it was started continued for many years. When revolutionary fever became strong in the 1770s, the clergy often found themselves in considerable conflict with their congregations. One clergyman wrote:
“ ....and for more than six months I preached, and when I did preach, with a pair of loaded pistols lying on the cushion.”
It was not until after the Revolution that the churches in the colonies were formally separated from the Church of England. Clergymen were no longer bound, by conscience and administration, to loyalty to the Throne of England. As a unit of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, Christ Church survived the presence of British troops during the war of 1812 and later, during the Civil War, occupation by the Union Army.
Of special interest are the 250-year-old silver chalice and paten (plate) used during special services. The pieces were gifts of John Edgar who was warden of the Church, which was then a Chapel, from 1733-35. They were made by London goldsmith John Barthelot in 1752 or 1753, and carry Barthelot’s stamp “r.”
On Christmas Eve 1856, the church burned. After the fire, only the thick brick walls were left intact. The congregation responded immediately, and in 1857 the church was rebuilt. The old walls were used, with a few courses of brick added toward the roof. At the time of rebuilding, however, radical alterations in design were introduced, resulting in the present structure. The Tractarian or Oxford movement originating in England had greatly altered the theological atmosphere in this country. Consequently, liturgical theologies had changed from the old puritan-oriented expression to a more ornate expression of the Holy Service. The church entrance was changed to the present location. When viewing the south wall from the outside, outlines of the old entrance are evident near the second window from the current entrance. The old walkway to the original entrance is still visible as a slight mounding of the earth. At this time, the present chancel was added at the east end of the building. Stained glass windows were introduced at both the east and west ends of the church in ensuing years. The Rose Window on the west end of the building was a memorial to the memory of a former Rector, Rev. Charles Curtis, and his wife, Margaret. It was installed in 1925. Much of the money needed to purchase the window was raised by Rosalie Underwood Smith and Mrs. Emma Gallahan, who traveled by horse and buggy to solicit funds from local families. Conventional pews, all facing east, were installed, replacing the colonial pew boxes. A bell tower was added, and by this time music had become an intricate part of the liturgy. The old pump organ, currently located on the ground floor of the Church, is more than 100 years old.
With the exception of routine maintenance and minor preservation efforts, the only alterations from the 1857 reconstruction period to 1967 were the installation of a central heating system and new organs. An extensive preservation effort was initiated in 1968. Funds for the work were donated by the Robert and Karl Smith families, longtime residents of Accokeek and members of the church. At that time, it was decided not to restore the church to its colonial appearance, but essentially to the style established during the 1857 reconstruction. During the 1967 preservation work, new pews were installed, a wide center isle added, pipes/wiring hidden, the existing wood floor removed and a hexagonal brick floor laid down, balcony stairs replaced with a circular stairway, the belfry replaced, as well as many lesser improvements. Although records indicate that the original floor in 1745 was brick, no evidence of that floor was found beneath the deteriorating wood floor during the 1967 restoration.
The first Rectory, a frame building, was built about 1845, and was destroyed by fire on November 29, 1929. It was rebuilt in 1933 at the approximate site of the first structure, and continues to serve as the Rector’s home.
The historic burial grounds surrounding Christ Church have been in use since the Revolutionary War. The oldest known burials are William R. Webster (1775), John Webster (1783) and Joanna Cox (1797). Their stones are located immediately to the right of the present entrance, although they are thought to have been buried elsewhere on the grounds and moved to their present location for security reasons. John Webster signed the Oath of Fidelity as a Revolutionary War Patriot, and is recognized by the DAR. Many other notable local residents and past Rectors are interred here, including Patrick Henry Bealle (1889-1966) who was the great, great grandson of Patrick Henry of Virginia. Charles Baldwin (1839-1911), a Civil War hero, is buried near the east wall of the church. The naval ship USS Baldwin (DD624), was named in his honor. Naval archives record:
“While serving as a coal heaver in the side wheel gunboat Wyalusing stationed at the western end of North Carolina's Albemarle Sound near the mouth of the Roanoke River, Baldwin joined four other enlisted men in devising a plan to sink the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle. Their superiors approved the project and, in the afternoon of 26 May 1864, the five sailors rowed up the Middle River with two 100 pound torpedoes (mines) and carried them by stretcher across the swampland separating the Middle and Roanoke Rivers to a point just above and opposite Albemarle's mooring place on the Roanoke at Plymouth. Baldwin and another sailor, John Lloyd, then swam across the river with a towline attached to the explosive devices and hauled them across.”
They then connected the torpedoes by a bridle; and Baldwin reentered the water to guide them downstream toward the ram, hoping to place the bridle across her prow torpedo making contact with each side of her hull. He was then to swim clear before another man-stationed across the river-detonated the torpedoes electrically. The Confederates, however, caught sight of both swimmer and torpedoes when they were just a few yards short of their goal. A hail of musketry from the shore followed soon after a sentry's alarm. Lloyd quickly cut the guideline while Baldwin swam back across the river and hid in the swamp. Three of the five Union sailors returned to Wyalusing on the evening of 28 May. Baldwin and the remaining man spent two hungry days and nights evading Southern forces before being rescued on the 28th by Commodore Hull. For his part in the mission, Baldwin was promoted to acting master's mate and later received the Medal of Honor...Following the war, he lived and worked at various places in several states before finally settling in Accokeek, a small hamlet in Maryland south of Washington, D.C.”
Records of those buried in the older sections of the cemetery were lost when the first Rectory burned.
A comment was made by Robert W. Straus concerning racial integration of the church in the 1950s:
We became communicants in the local Episcopal church. The Clagetts and a few others had maintained that church and the community for two hundred years without interference from newcomers. We new parishioners pushed for integration of the church. There was a strong reaction, to the point where the Reverend Jones, who supported us, did not get paid because he gave communion to all of us.
The Reverend Jones, who is now retired, took exception to the comment:
The reference about not being paid because of giving communion to Blacks is completely incorrect. The parish has had Afro-Americans for many generations going back to the early eighteen hundreds. I believe it was the habit of my mother's family, the Mannings, and others to take their slaves to Christ Church, and many of those former slave families continued to be parish members after the Civil War.
When I became the parish Rector in 1958, Afro-Americans were required to sit in a back pew and receive communion after all the white members. About two months after becoming Rector, I quietly informed the Afro-Americans to sit in any pew in the Church during services and also informed the parish Vestry and others of my action. There were no objections and no attempt to hold back my salary. Later I participated in the March on Washington and there were no objections from parish members. There was some discrimination directed at "poor whites" but that is another story.
The only problem I had with my salary occurred in 1958 when the Diocese of Washington made the decision that all clergy must be paid the great sum of $3,600 per year. One or two individuals at Christ Church objected, claiming that no Rector should be paid more than $1,200 per year. The next year, 1959, the Vestry raised my salary to $4,200 and that was the end of that discussion.
In thinking back to the years when I was parish Rector, the major controversy in the parish was the plan to preserve the view from Mt.Vernon. You may remember we had the leaders of both groups in the parish, and the situation became very tense but had a sensible resolution.
Mr. Henry Williams (1862-1937), an early Accokeek resident wrote some prophetic words about Christ Church in 1931:
In regard to that dear old church, where I have spent many happy moments under the shade of those spreading oaks at convocations and picnics,... there is a feeling of love and attachment coming over me that is almost indescribable after being associated with the church for so many years, and for which I cherish the fondest recollections. Now in regard to Accokeek and surroundings, I think it has quite a bright future before it,...good roads, good schools, and a dear old church.