Three churches in northern Virginia are usually associated with George Washington: Pohick Church near Lorton, Christ Church in Alexandria, and the Falls Church in the city that was named for it. All remain active churches today and their exteriors have been restored to a colonial appearance. Pohick is only 7 miles from Washington’s home, Mount Vernon and only 3 miles from Washington’s grist mill and whiskey distillery.
Although I’ve been to Mount Vernon many times and to the grist mill, I’d never been to Pohick Church. I finally managed to visit on a cold winter day. Surrounded by a cemetery, the church sits along busy Route 1 south of Washington, D.C. Its landscape of tall trees manages to shield it from much of the bustle around it and its appearance offers a unique look at a country church of colonial Virginia. It’s not that difficult to imagine George Washington sitting in the family box, pondering a sermon given from the pulpit.
Pohick was the first permanent church in the Virginia colony north of the Occoquan River, established sometime prior to 1725 (some sources say as far back as 1695). Pohick became the parish church of Truro Parish in 1732. The present structure was completed in 1774, the congregation’s third church building. The Washington connection began when George Washington’s father Augustine became a member of the church’s vestry (governing board).
By 1767 George Washington was a farmer at nearby Mount Vernon and had followed in his father’s footsteps as a member of Pohick’s vestry. The vestry, which included neighbor George Mason of Gunston Hall, supervised construction of a new, grander church. Washington had only a year to worship in the new building, completed in 1774. The following year he was appointed commander of the Continental Army which sent him north.
The interior features the typical box pews of many colonial churches. The Washingtons and Masons and other wealthier members purchased family boxes to provide additional income to the church. Those boxes are marked.
Pohick church managed to survive the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1785 when many Anglican (now Episcopalian) churches fell into disrepair. Though Washington died in 1799, the church’s rich connections to American history continued. Oral tradition says British soldiers raided the church during the War of 1812 because of its association with Washington. By 1837 the structure was in major disrepair, but a man named Reverend W. P. C. Johnson led the charge to raise funds to repair the building. Contributors to the cause included Presidents Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams, and statesmen Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key. By 1840 the building had been restored.
Of course, another war was on the horizon and the Union armies occupied the building using it as a stable during the Civil War. Soldiers encamped around the building and supposedly their graffiti is visible today carved on doorposts. I must look for this during my next visit! The church yard became a Union observation post with balloon ascents by aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe. According to the church’s website, a Pvt. Robert Sneden recorded in his diary, “Balloons are now used frequently at Pohick Church . . . A gas wagon is attached to the balloon with which the balloon is only one half or one third inflated, then it rises 1,000 feet or more, and is held on the ground by two or three long ropes by a lot of soldiers who are detailed for the purpose” (Feb 1). On March 5, 1862, Professor Lowe himself wrote a dispatch from Pohick to General Heintzelman, stating, “Have just made two ascensions with the balloon. It is fully inflated, and will take up two persons with all the ropes. If to-morrow is a fine day it would be a good time for the general to go up. I can see camp-fires on the Occoquan. T. S. C. LOWE, Chief Aeronaut, U. S. Army.” Having studied Thaddeus Lowe for a work project, I was thrilled to learn of this connection.
Despite its dilapidated state, the Washington connections secured continuing interest in the welfare of the building. Services began again within nine years after the war and yet another restoration was completed, back to its colonial appearance, by 1917.
Any visit to Mount Vernon or Gunston Hall should include a quick stop at this colonial country church.