The yard surrounding St. John’s church became Richmond’s first official burial ground when the church was constructed here in 1741. Richmond’s founder, William Byrd II, had donated the two highest lots in the city for its location “on the Hill called Indian Town” (now Church Hill). As a part of the colony’s Anglican establishment, St. John’s was initially known as the Henrico parish church until renamed in the early nineteenth century.
Some members were buried underneath the church itself, while others found desirable spots close to the church walls. The earliest surviving marker in the yard — a chest tomb imported from England — dates to 1751. After Richmond became the state capitol in 1780, the yard began to fill at a quicker pace, though some white residents chose to be buried in family graveyards nearby. But St. John’s remained the burial ground of note, especially after the yard’s expansion in 1799, when the city consolidated this block by adding the lots fronting Broad Street and enclosed the whole with a brick wall. The churchyard saw an increasing array of markers, including stone obelisks, table tombs, ledger stones, pedestal markers, and headstones.In 1820, only twenty-one years after the churchyard’s expansion, the rector and vestry reported that the grounds were full, and the city made plans to open Shockoe Hill Cemetery to the north. By the mid-nineteenth century, after over a thousand total interments, burials at St. Johns slowed to nearly a stop.
When attention turned elsewhere, the church vestry appealed to the city council “for the protection and preservation of the burying ground attached to our Church” as it began to suffer from neglect. Likewise, the Richmond Dispatch urged action to “reclaim the consecrated spot from the ruin and desolation which now seem marking it for their prey.” Since the city owned half the block’s graveyard, the council agreed to provide a small salary for a sexton, or groundskeeper.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the church had become an important tourist destination as the site of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech delivered in 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention, which had met to debate the colony’s engagement with the Revolutionary War. The church’s sextons struggled to accommodate dozens of visitors each day. With the resulting strain on the congregation and grounds, area clergymen and business leaders responded by establishing a nonprofit organization, the St. John’s Church Foundation, in 1938 to preserve the site with private donations. The site was further bolstered in 1957 when the Richmond city council established the St. John’s Historic District in the blocks surrounding it, with protective zoning ordinances and other aids.
Today the grounds are in good shape, although many of the more than four hundred surviving grave markers are in need of repair and stabilization. The church still houses an active Episcopal congregation, while the St. John’s Church Foundation runs its tours and oversees its preservation.
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For more information, see:
“A Walk Through St. John’s Churchyard, Richmond” video, 2014
Vestry books from Henrico Parish, 1730-1900 digitized at the Library of Virginia
J. Staunton Moore, ed., Annals of Henrico Parish (1904)
Judith Bowen-Sherman, The Burying Ground at Old St. John’s Church: A Concise History with Fifty Family Profiles and a Parish Burial Register (Richmond: St. John’s Episcopal Church, 2011)
“The Churchyard,” in Death and Rebirth in a Southern City
Dell Upton, Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia (Boston: MIT Press, 1986)
National Register of Historic Places nomination form for St. John’s Church, 1966, Virginia Department of Historic Resources