Virginia’s Oldest Church Open to People of All Faiths

Photo contributed by St. Luke’s Historic Church & Museum

By Amie Knowles
October 3, 2020

Smithfield site stands as testament to religious freedom

SMITHFIELD – More than 300 years later, the doors are still open at St. Luke’s. Members of any faith can hold services at Virginia’s oldest church, now known as St. Luke’s Historic Church & Museum. The church no longer hosts its own services – and hasn’t since 1832. However, local congregations sometimes use the building as a venue for their own programs. The goal is to offer a bit of a history lesson and represent religious freedom for all faiths.

“I have a lot of people who ask, ‘Don’t you still have services? I would love to come out one Sunday.’ And we have to tell them, ‘Well, yes and no,’” said Todd Ballance, St. Luke’s executive director. “They’re not ours, they’re somebody else’s; you may agree with their faith tradition, you may not.”

However, the church doors are open to everyone – from every country, every religious background and every walk of life.

“Today, people come here for a myriad of different reasons. They can either be a very casual tourist, not knowing how they are going to be bombarded by the history lesson when they get here, or people who are devotees of American symbols and institutions that help to preserve our American democratic republic. And we want to be advocates for that,” Ballance said. “They say that sometimes museums and other historic sites are like milquetoast and they’re ambivalent and they really don’t take positions. St. Luke’s does take a position and St. Luke’s is an advocate for religious freedom and separation of church and state as it was originally intended in the American Constitution.”

St. Luke’s is Not Alone

They say it was built in 1632. That’s how local legends go. Historians and archaeologists take a different turn, putting the original building’s construction between 1685 and 1687. Either way, the church still counts as the oldest in Virginia. Currently, there are only a handful of other religious structures in North America still standing from that period.

“One is in New Mexico, which was a Spanish Mission church, rebuilt in the 1680s. You have another one, the Old Ship Church, which was a dissenters church in Massachusetts and it’s a wooden clapboard structure from the 1680s. And then you have St Luke’s,” Ballance said. “Now, you had a rebuilt church in Maryland because only one wall survived and then you’ve got the church tower at Jamestown, but a church tower a church building does not make.”

The church in Smithfield has the highest percentage of original fabric, even after two restoration efforts. The first took place in the 1890s and the second in the 1950s. It was during that 1950’s effort that the church’s current organization came together. In 1953, a nonprofit organization, Historic St. Luke’s Restoration, formed – doing business today as St. Luke’s Historic Church & Museum. It’s been the steward of the 43-acre national historic landmark ever since.

Ballance noted that the most modern restoration effort came during a post-war period.

“This is a part of a post-World War II effort, nationally, within the field of historic preservation to begin restoring, rebuilding, American structures and icons of America’s earliest foundings in America’s history,” Ballance said. “It’s not unlike what happened during the first centennial, in the 1870s. And it’s not unlike what had happened as far back as the 1830s, when the republic was fairly new.”

Protecting the past

That post World War II period brought a desire to preserve and protect symbols of the country’s past. St. Luke’s was one of several reconstructed during that time.

“You had an awful lot of structures that were reborn, restored,”Ballance said. “A part of that process was in October 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower designating St. Luke’s as a national patriotic shrine.”

As a national patriotic shrine, the church upholds a broad sense of civic religion. It no longer solely exists as an Anglican gathering place. Fort McHenry in Baltimore is an example of a patriotic shrine. George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon is another.

“National patriotic shrines are supposed to be unifiers of what makes us uniquely American under our Constitutional republic,” Ballance said. “And so as a national symbol of religious freedom and separation of church and state as viewed in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, St. Luke’s represents not personal or collectives of religious freedom, but it is a symbol of religious freedom.”

Photo contributed by St. Luke’s Historic Church & Museum

A different time

Ironically, Ballance noted that historically speaking, the site is a symbol of religious oppression.

“Under the Church of England – which it was, it was an Anglican church – it actually repressed what were called ‘dissenters’ of other faith traditions,” Ballance said. “There is a tolerance scale, if you will, of what was considered allowable under the Church of England versus intolerated altogether. An example would be the Presbyterians were considered the most tolerable under the Anglican church and the most intolerant would be Puritans and Quakers.”

The church’s roots give historians an understanding of the time period. It also lends toward likely reasons why the Founding Fathers framed the Constitution in certain ways.

“It was from their family and multi-generational experiences under a repressive church of the state,” Ballance said.

The country’s founding documents rebuked the establishment of any state religion, placing distinctions between church and state.

“So when we say that St. Luke’s is today a symbol of religious freedom, it is from all of that hardship, all of that abuse, all of that intolerance that was born our unique Constitutional republic and the freedoms that we now enjoy today,” Ballance said.

Mostly accurate

The most recent renovations reflect a 63-year-old idea of historical revelations available at the time.

“It is restored as it was in 1957, based on 1957 research of what it should have looked like in the 1680s,” Ballance said.

Based off of more recent research, the team in the 1950s got about 60% to 70% of the project period-correct. There are a few things that definitely stick out, though.

“The pews should be a lot higher than they are. We should not have boxes up on either side of the altar in the chancel area,” Ballance said. “We are missing a few elements up on the walls of the eastern wall of the chancel, which should have a copy of the 10 Commandments and either the doxology or the Nicene Creed on the other side of the stained glass windows and then a three-dimensional, wooden carved polychrome with gold leaf seal of King Charles II on the balcony facing the chancel, so as parishioners would leave and they are going out the door, they would promptly see the royal seal, as having the King of England as the head of the Church of England.”

Church holds a history of folklore

With a history spanning over three centuries, tales about lost treasures and people lent to imagination. In 2016, the nonprofit created an archeology-based field trip. Beyond Artifacts: Exploring Colonial Virginia highlights different relics found on the site – and also reveals some that weren’t.

“This is embarrassing, but it’s tongue and cheek. They thought the Scottish Crown Jewels were buried in the basement of the church building. They [also] thought the survivors of the Lost Colony built the church building. So there’s those types of things,” Ballance said. “There were some wild attempts at trying to dig up the basement of the church building to try to find the Crown Jewels and of course that never happened.”

There certainly are things buried beneath the floorboards of the church, though. And it’s not quite what one might expect.

“Finding the people who were buried in the floor of the church building – their location and what era they might’ve come from – has been a very interesting exercise,” Ballance said.

Ground-penetrating radar suggests the presence of human remains buried beneath the floorboards of the church, consistent with area stories.

“What we did is we put together the folklore and the ground penetrating radar to identify both locations and who those people more than likely are. And so now we have a better understanding of who they were, what time period they were buried,” Ballance said. “We cannot answer, however, the ‘why’ they were buried where they were buried.”

Coming to conclusions

He noted that many people often wonder if the bodies belonged to important people. He cautioned against immediately jumping to that conclusion.

“For example, we believe there’s a woman who was buried in the mid-1700s inside of the church building,” Ballance said.

Given that women could not own land in the 1700s, there were a few reasons that could’ve merited the plot.

“If she was a woman of means and had property by her husband or if she was a ward of someone, then she’d be buried on the family’s property. And if she’s a pauper, she wouldn’t have been buried in the church building, she would’ve been buried in the grounds outside,” Ballance said. “The only thing that I’m supposing in her particular case is that she must’ve been a woman previously of means, but because law would prevent women from owning property themselves, she could’ve been in limbo and so the vestry and the rector of the church building at that time afforded her not to be out there with the paupers and the middling sort, but to be buried inside the church building because she didn’t have personal property that she could be buried on.”

However, no one knows for sure.

“That is my conclusion for that, which again is all complicated because of the laws at the time, the sense of social order at the time, who could and could not own personal property at the time, all those types of things,” Ballance said. “Very complicated.”

A communal gathering

At the end of the day, a trip to the oldest church building in the commonwealth often brings people together.

“Regardless of anybody’s faith tradition, I would love nothing more than to have a really bad bar joke and have a Buddhist monk and a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister all in on the tour at the same time as we’re going through the church tour here at St. Luke’s,” Ballance said. “It would be a wonderful experience to find out that they share something, and that what they share is the freedom in America to pursue your conscience and your faith tradition – and that should be something that unifies all of us.”

The church is located at 14477 Benn’s Church Road in Smithfield and is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for top-of-the-hour guided tours. For more about the church or museum, you can visit their website here. St. Luke’s limits excursions to six guests per group. The church follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for COVID-19, asking that guests and staff wear masks and practice social distancing.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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