Unlike the other colonies, Pennsylvania’s founding charter included the right to freedom of religion. The proprietor, William Penn, was a Quaker, but allowed all faiths to practice in the colony. By the mid 1700’s, Pennsylvania was home to a huge variety of congregations, including: Lutheran (142), German Reformed (126), Presbyterian (112), Quaker (64), Mennonite (64), Baptist (24), Anglican Episcopalian (24), Moravian (13), Roman Catholic (11), Methodist (7), and Jewish (2), many of which had congregations and churches in Philadelphia. Many of these early congregations are still active, but only a few of their colonial church buildings remain. These three still show their Colonial/Georgian character:
Christ Church (Church of England – now Episcopalian)
The oldest, most ornate, and most famous is Christ Church, located in the heart of Old City. This church, built in 1744 (the congregation dates from 1695), was attended by many of the founding fathers, including Washington, Adams, Franklin and 13 other signers of the Declaration. Its steeple made it the tallest building in North America until 1810.
It also houses the font in which William Penn was baptized (sent over from England, where he was originally baptized before becoming a Quaker), and the chandelier hung in 1744 still hangs in the aisle. Although the interior has had some remodeling over the years, it has been restored to its original layout (and the Victorian-era stained glass removed, unlike at St. Peter’s).
The adjacent church yard is the resting spot of Bishop William White and 2 signers of the Declaration. The church’s burial ground, located a few blocks away, is the resting spot of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin (Getting Lucky at Ben Franklin’s Grave (Christ Church Cemetery)), William Rush and 4 other signers of the Declaration.
After the revolution, congregants of Christ Church were a leading force behind the establishment of the Episcopal Church, and its rector, William White, became the first bishop of the Episcopal Church. His home is owned by the park service and open occasionally for tours (https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/bishopwhitehouse.htm). https://www.christchurchphila.org
St. Peter’s (Church of England – now Episcopalian)
Although less famous and much less visited, the unique layout and lack of renovations make St. Peter’s one of Philly’s most interesting colonial churches. Built in 1761, St. Peter’s was an off-shoot of Christ Church. If you ignore the Victorian stained glass, this is one of the most intact and least renovated churches of the period, with its beautiful, original pew boxes (with sides to keep worshipers warmer in winter – they would bring small fireboxes with them). As Philadelphia grew, this area became home to wealthy congregants who didn’t want to make the .6 mile trek to Christ Church in Old City. George and Martha Washington often attended services here in the company of their friends Samuel and Eliza Powel, whose house still stands near-by. The church was built on land donated by William Penn’s descendants (who had by then given up the simplicity of the Quaker religion for the more prestigious Church of England).
One unique feature of the church is that the pulpit is at the opposite end of the aisle from the altar, separating the preaching from communion – yes, even today congregants have to rise and switch to the opposite side of the pew during the middle of services. This is why the original pew boxes were never removed and replaced with more space efficient bench seating as they have been in many other early churches.
The beautiful churchyard is home to the graves of painter Charles Wilson Peale (Putting Faces to the Revolution: The Portrait Gallery at Independence Park) and founding mother Eliza Pinckney (who was visiting Philadelphia from her home state of South Carolina to get treatment for breast cancer).
There is also a row of Osage Orange trees dating from 1806, grown from seeds sent to Thomas Jefferson from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
St. George (Methodist)
The building dates to 1763, when it was constructed for a German Reformed Congregation, who went bankrupt and eventually sold the building to the Methodist congregation in 1769 – making this the oldest Methodist Church in continuous use in the United States. Construction of the interior wasn’t completed until 1792 (British troops occupied the building and used it as a calvary school during their occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78). Today, the church is nick-named “the church that moved the bridge,” because a 1920’s court case resulted in the relocation of the Ben Franklin bridge rather than the original plan of tearing down the church. The church was saved, but is now right up against the bridge.
Other historic churches in Old City:
St. Joseph’s (Catholic)
This, the oldest catholic church in Philadelphia, started out as a house-chapel attached to a the residence of a Jesuit missionary, and was enlarged into an actual church in 1757. The Marquis de Lafayette and other members of the French Army celebrated mass here after the Battle of Yorktown. Although public mass was legal in Philadelphia, there was still a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment, leading to the unique placement of the church – entered through a small courtyard accessed by a gated arch off a small side street (there is a story that this was Ben Franklin’s idea). The present church building dates to 1839.
St. Mary’s (Catholic)
This is the second oldest Catholic church in Philadelphia – and first cathedral (the building dates from 1763 but was completely renovated in the 1960’s). Yup, George Washington occasionally attended services here, along with other members of the Continental Congress in a gesture of respect for their (Catholic) allies, France and Spain. Its colonial graveyard includes several revolution-era burials, Commodore John Barry (father of the US Navy), as well as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s great-great grandfather, who immigrated to Philadelphia from France.
Old Pine Street (Presbyterian)
Although the Old Pine Street Church (originally built in 1768) has been completely renovated, its graveyard retains its colonial atmosphere and was used in scenes from National Treasure:
The Arch Street Meeting House & The Free Quaker Meeting House (Quaker)
Although both these churches were built a bit after the revolution (1804 for Arch Street and 1783 for the Free Quaker), a discussion of Old City churches isn’t complete without mentioning them. William Penn deeded land that the Arch Street Meeting House is built on to the Society of Friends in 1701 to be used as a burial ground (although burials had been taking place on this lot as early as 1683, making it the oldest burial ground in Philadelphia). There are over 20,000 burials here, although until the late 1800’s, Quakers discouraged headstones, so the church yard is simpler than most cemeteries of the period. The interior of the meetinghouse also looks very different. Since Quaker worship consists of silent contemplation, the space is filled with plain wooden benches with no altar, pulpit, or other religious symbols.
The Free Quaker Meeting House was built by a group who broke off from the mainstream Quaker church as a result of the Revolutionary War. One tenet of the Quaker faith is pacifism, and as such members were prohibited from taking up arms, paying war taxes, or taking an oath of allegiance in support of the revolution. A group calling themselves “Free” Quakers (also known as the “fighting Quakers”) supported the the Revolution and came together to established their own place of worship. This church is the only one on the list that no longer has an active congregation and is run by the park service.
Honors for the oldest church in Philadelphia (actually the oldest church in Pennsylvania) goes to Gloria Dei (Old Swedes Church). It’s outside of Old City Philadelphia and will be the subject of an upcoming post.