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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


How "Historic" Are Truro Church and The Falls Church?

How "Historic" Are Truro Church and The Falls Church?

By Joan R. Gundersen,1 Ph.D.

December 22, 2006

In the last few weeks, we have heard a lot about the two "historic" churches in Virginia whose congregations are among those that have recently decided to withdraw from The Episcopal Church. Both Truro Church and The Falls Church have been characterized as being older than The Episcopal Church. The Falls Church web site suggests that George Washington was once a vestry member of the church. The history on the Truro web site makes the same claim for Truro Church.2 Somehow, these historical assertions are supposed to make us feel that the decision to leave The Episcopal Church is especially poignant and important.

Let me be clear: I believe that any decision to leave The Episcopal Church, by an individual or a group, is a sad occasion. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation being distributed concerning the actual history of these parishes, however. Neither is the direct descendant of a colonial parish. Neither can claim George Washington as a past member of its vestry or its congregation. Both are "new" church plants from the 1830s and 1840s. In most places in the United States, founding dates in the antebellum period would be quite old enough to justify a claim of being "historic," but these two parishes have sought the additional aura associated with George Washington and our colonial past. How "historic," are they?

When I was growing up, my family lived first in a two-story house on the north side of town, and then in a 1960s ranch on the south side. We moved from the second home in 1965. Were I to become famous, the families now living in either of these two homes might decide to call their house the "Rezner Homestead" or something similar. This would not, however, turn their family into my family. The "colonial" ties of The Falls Church and Truro Church are much like the "Rezner" ties in my story. The two parishes are in the position of families who later occupied one of our houses or moved into my hometown.

The colonial church in Virginia was an arm of the colonial government. The House of Burgesses divided the colony into parishes, and every square inch of Virginia was officially part of some parish. In order to make services accessible to the scattered, rural population of a parish, Virginia vestries usually constructed more than one place of worship in the parish. There might be a main church and several chapels of ease, or, sometimes, two more substantial buildings. The minister rotated services among the buildings, and lay clerks read Morning Prayer on the Sundays that the parson was at one of the other buildings. 3

The Falls Church is in possession of a restored colonial building that was once part of the colonial parish called Fairfax Parish. The site was originally in what was known as Truro Parish, but the building was constructed after the Virginia House of Burgesses divided Truro into two parishes in 1765. 4 Together, the colonial parishes of Fairfax and Truro covered the territory of Fairfax County.

There were no dioceses in the American colonies before the war. Afterwards, people who had been members of the Church of England began organizing as conventions, with lay and clergy participating. Eventually, these conventions became dioceses. Simultaneously, groups from the various states began organizing a national church, The Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Virginia retained its historic parish boundaries but allowed individual congregations within a parish to organize separately. Thus, in contemporary Virginia, there may be several parishes (i.e., distinct and independent "churches") within the bounds of what was once a single colonial parish. More than one congregation within a parish may even own a colonial building.

When the colonial Fairfax Parish was created, its new vestry built two churches, one at Falls Church, and one in Alexandria. Truro Parish did the same, building Pohick Church and Payne's Chapel. 5 When the War for Independence and the disestablishment of the churnh in the 1780s occurred, the Fairfax Parish vestry abandoned Falls Church and operated as the vestry of Christ Church, Alexandria. In fact, over the next 30 years, the Diocese of Virginia almost faded away. Finally, under the leadership of Bishop Richard Moore, the diocese began growing again in 1814 and started to reclaim old church sites. 6

There is no record of any visit by a bishop, or any other activity of Episcopalians, at Falls Church at any time from 1784 to 1836. In 1836, a small group of Episcopalians decided to form a new congregation at Falls Church. 7 The group petitioned for admission to the diocese, was accepted, and began raising money to fix up the derelict church building in their community. The present Falls Church congregation, therefore, dates from no earlier than 1836, though a hiatus in its operation occurred during the Civil War. The congregation has been continuous since about 1875. 8 The building of The Falls Church is thus older than the congregation. Like the second or third owners of one of my family's houses, members of The Falls Church congregation have a building with history, but their history in that place begins when they moved in.

The Truro situation is more like a new family that has moved into town and is so proud of the town's history that it names its house for the town's most famous former resident. Truro Parish did not participate at all in the organizational process or other diocesan business after the War for Independence. It did have a minister, Lee Massey, until he died in 1801. Massey had grown deaf, however, and it is not clear how much parish work he actually did in his later years. 9 There are a few traces of other ministers conducting services at Pohick Church, and, once Virginia Theological Seminary was established in Alexandria in the 1820s, seminarians occasionally conducted services there. In 1836, Pohick Church also began its revival as a parish. Although the vestry has a discontinuous history, Pohick Church is the closest thing to a direct descendant of the colonial Truro Parish, and it retains its colonial building. In 1843, members of The Falls Church helped start a mission congregation at Fairfax Courthouse. This is the origin of the modern Truro Church. They built a building that was consecrated in 1845. The mission was called Zion Church. 10 Zion had its own vestry and was separate from the Pohick Church congregation, and thus has no claim to being the descendant of the colonial parish other than its being physically within the bounds of the old parish. After the Civil War, Zion Church was one of several Fairfax County parishes that shared a clergy person and sent one representative, under the umbrella label of Truro Parish, to the diocese's annual meeting. For parts of this period, The Falls Church and Zion Church shared a minister. By the 1890s, congregational representation for several parishes inside the bounds of the colonial Truro Parish had returned. These included both Pohick Church and Zion Church. 11

In 1935, Zion Church, then one of four separate congregations with distinct vestries operating within the bounds of the colonial Truro Parish, completed building a reproduction of Payne's Chapel. 12 Some congregations copy gothic churches when they build. Zion copied a destroyed colonial church from their community. At that time, the parish changed its name to Truro Church. Thus, Truro, too, has no direct colonial origins. 13

George Washington did have a lot to do with the colonial parishes we know as Fairfax and Truro. He served on the vestry of the colonial Truro Parish. The parish boundary line between Truro and Fairfax cut through his land. In 1765, he ran for the Truro vestry after the old Truro Parish was divided, and he was the third-highest vote getter. He occupied one of the 12 positions on that vestry until he resigned in 1784. Washington bought pews at three of the parish buildings in Fairfax County, Pohick, Payne's, and Christ Church. His diary records attendance at all three of these buildings. However, neither the modern Truro Church nor The Falls Church can claim his regular attendance. 14

A final note is in order. In the 1830s when the Falls Church applied for admission as a parish, the constitution of the diocese included this provision as its Article XI:

Every parish within this Diocese shall be entitled to the entire benefit of this Convention, as soon as it shall have signified its ratification thereof, either in writing or by sending a Lay Delegate to the Convention; and such parish shall thereafter be benefitted and bound, equally with the other parishes in this Diocese, by every rule and canon which shall be framed, by any Convention acting under this Constitution for the government of this Church in ecclesiastical concerns. 15

Parishes were thus bound by every rule and canon passed by any Convention of this Church. After 170 years these Virginia parishes are reneging on their promise.


1 Joan R. Gundersen has a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Notre Dame. She has published extensively on the history of the church in Virginia, and is currently collaborating with Edward Bond on a new history of the Diocese of Virginia to be published by the Diocese of Virginia and the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

2 "Our History," The Falls Church web site, http://www.thefallschurch.org/templates/custhefalls/details.asp? id=29455&PID=203829, accessed December 5, 2006. "History of Truro," Truro Church web site, http://www.trurochurch.org/content.asp? contentid=507, accessed November 17, 2006.

3 Joan R. Gundersen, The Anglican Ministry in Virginia, 1723-1766, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989, pp. 1-32.

4 Dell Upton, Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia, New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1986.

5 The Fairfax vestry frugally used the same plans for both buildings. Truro allowed Edward Payne to build a chapel of ease in addition to the church it was building at Pohick. Upton, Holy Things, pp. 32-34, 92.

6 "Our History," Christ Church, Alexandria, web site, http://www.historicchristchurch.org/History/hx_summary.htm, accessed November 13, 2006. See also the forthcoming history of the Diocese of Virginia written by Joan R. Gundersen and Edward Bond. Chapter 2 covers the years 1750-1840.

7 Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention, 1836, pp. 6-7. I have examined the list of lay and clergy deputies, lists of parishes, bishop's reports, financial reports, and parochial reports as included in all extant copies of the Journal of the diocesan conventions from 1784-1836 to determine that The Falls Church was abandoned.

8 The annual Journal of the diocesan Council (i.e., convention) also includes annual parochial reports. The 1877 Journal has the first postwar report for The Falls Church. The congregation had reported 10 communicants in 1876, and was now up to 14. The church also had made good progress on repairing the building and was about to organize a Sunday school. Virginia Theological Seminary students were providing services. In other words, the congregation was struggling to come back to life. Journal of the Council, 1877, p. 154.

9 George MacLaren Brydon, "A List of Clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church Ordained After the American Revolution, Who Served in Virginia Between 1785 and 1814, and A List of Virginia Parishes and Their Rectors for the Same Period," William and Mary Quarterly, 2nd ser., 19 (October 1939), p. 427.

10 Journal of the Convention, 1838, pp. 34. "History of Truro."

11 Journal of the Council, 1877, pp. 154-155; 1878, pp. 177-178; 1879, p. 165; 1893, pp. 138-140. The Rev. John McGill was listed as rector of The Falls Church in Fairfax Parish, and of Zion and Christ Churches, and St. Timothy's Mission, all in Truro Parish in 1878. He had just added The Falls Church to his charge. Deacon Frank Page served The Falls Church of Fairfax Parish and Zion and Christ Churches of Truro Parish in 1879.

12 The separate congregations of the old Truro Parish in 1935 were Pohick Church in Lorton, Olivet Church in Franconia, Truro Church at Fairfax Courthouse, and Good Shepherd Church in Burke. Actually, there were more than four congregations, since the diocese had created an Upper Truro Parish in the late 19th century. The Upper Truro Parish congregations also were inside the bounds of the colonial Truro Parish. These include St. Timothy's in Herndon, Christ Church in Chantilly, and St. John's Church in Centreville. In addition, Fairfax County had been divided to create Arlington County, and there were several parishes in that county.

13 Journal of the Convention, 1935, pp. 152-157, 164-171.

14 Vestry Election Results, Fairfax and Truro Parishes, 1765, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General Correspondence, 1697-1799; Letter to Daniel McCarty, February 22, 1784, Ibid., Series 2, Letterbooks; The Diaries of George Washington, Donald Jackson, ed., Dorothy Twohig, assoc. ed., Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978, Vol. 1, p. 231; Vol. 2, pp. 28, 52, 93, 253-254; Vol. 3, pp. 153, 198-197, 233- 235; Vol. 6, pp. 229, 261-264.

15 Journal of the Convention, 1836, p. 41.

© 2006 by Joan R. Gundersen


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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