A year before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he attended the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond. Alongside George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, and other important figures in the American Revolution, Jefferson listened as Patrick Henry gave his passionate and now-famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech.
The speech ignited the American Revolution, making St. John’s Church a must-visit landmark for anyone interested in the universal struggle for human rights. Henry’s works not only articulated the concept of liberty as an essential right – a philosophy drawn from the writings of Enlightenment scholars – but also inspired support during a critical turning point in uniting the colonies against the tyranny of British rule.
Located in Church Hill, Richmond’s oldest standing neighborhood, St. John’s Church was built circa 1741 and features a permanent exhibit that delves into the area’s history, including events leading to the war. Visitors to historic St. John’s Church can relive the excitement of Henry’s speech at this national historic landmark via live reenactments. They can also explore the city’s first public cemetery, the final resting place of many important figures in American history, including George Wythe, who not only signed the Declaration of Independence but also taught the law to Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Henry Clay. Elizabeth Arnold Poe, mother of Edgar Allan Poe, is also buried in the St. John’s Church cemetery.
At historic St. John’s Church, the mission is to engage students and adults by placing them in the very setting where our forefathers debated the issues that ultimately led to the founding of the United States. More than 40,000 students and adults from across the country and around the world travel to St. John’s Church annually. Programs include guided tours, reenactments, classroom lessons aligned to Virginia Standards of Learning, free programs for Title I schools, historical exhibitions, and several lectures every year. The gift shop is another highlight for visitors.
In 1938, St. John’s Church Foundation (SJCF) was founded. SJCF has worked with the community to preserve this historic property. “History is alive at St. John’s Church,” says Executive Director Sarah Whiting. “History in books can be uninspiring and feel out of touch, especially for children. Countless adults and children from all over the world have been motivated by the reenactment of this pivotal moment in the story of our country. I’m not sure you can put a value on what that connection means for a young mind.”
According to Whiting, SJCF’s Legacy of Liberty Preservation project was launched to safeguard the historic building and its grounds for generations to come. A structural report in 2007 revealed that the building’s foundation was under stress, and engineers determined that underpinnings were necessary on the northeast corner of the building. All materials will be replaced in-kind when possible; meaning that hand-made bricks, an historic mortar mix, and White Oak beams will be used for historic accuracy. Any financial gifts designated for preservation will go towards this essential part of the maintenance and restoration of the church.
“With donations from private foundations and individuals, we are undertaking roof replacement, carpentry repairs, and re-painting of the church and Parish Hall,” says Whiting. “We anticipate that the project will take most of the summer, but will be open during construction for church services, tours, reenactments, and special events.”