Before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he attended the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond a year earlier. Alongside George Washington, Richard Henry Lee and other important figures in the American Revolution, Jefferson listened as Patrick Henry gave his now-famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech.
The speech ignited the American Revolution, making St. John’s a must-see 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 British rule.
Visitors 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 (signer of the Declaration of Independence), and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, mother of Edgar Allan Poe.
Located in Richmond’s oldest standing neighborhood, Church Hill, the c. 1741 church also features a permanent exhibit that delve into the area’s history, including events leading to the war. There’s perhaps no better place to get a taste of the revolutionary spirit that forever altered the course of the nation.
History of St. John’s Church
St. John’s Church was the first church built in the city of Richmond. It was completed in 1741 as part of the Henrico Parish. The parish was established in 1611. William Byrd II, founder of the city of Richmond, donated the land and timber to build the church. The graveyard is the site of the first public cemetery in Richmond. Many persons who made contributions to the history of Richmond and Virginia are buried here, such as: George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and teacher of law to Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Henry Clay; John Page and James Wood, Governors of Virginia; Elizabeth Arnold Poe, mother of Edgar Allan Poe; and Dr. James McClurg, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In 1961, the National Park Service designated St. John’s Church a National Historic Landmark.
St. John’s Church became famous when over 100 Virginia colonial leaders, including Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Peyton Randolph met here in March of 1775 for the Second Virginia Convention. They met in the Richmond to avoid the wrath of Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in Williamsburg St. John’s Church was the only building in Richmond big enought to hold the delegates. Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech was delivered on 23 March 1775 inside the church. Henry’s timely resolutions passed by a narrow margin and the American Revolution began the following month when shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.
The brick schoolhouse in the southwest corner of the churchyard, home to our Visitor Center, was built in 1835. Vestry records contain references to its use as a Sunday school for African-American children in 1856. In the 1880s, the Good Shepherd Mission School for African-American children was relocated to the brick schoolhouse where it remained until it outgrew the building. This mission school served an important need in the community of Church Hill by providing one of the first schools for African-American children in Richmond.
Significance of St. John’s Church
Liberty is the founding ideal of our nation. And nowhere is the struggle to retain the individual rights and liberties granted to the colonists more vivid than at St. John’s Church. St. John’s Church symbolizes the birth of American liberty and the foundations of our republic. Here, Patrick Henry’s masterful argument summoned Americans toward independence with the immortal words, “Give me liberty or give me death.” His phrase remains as recognizable today as “I have a dream” or “Four score and seven years ago.” In 1989, Chinese students displayed Henry’s words on a bed sheet in Tiananmen Square. St. John’s Church has been declared a National Historic Landmark, the highest possible distinction that belongs only to an elite few of the nation’s historic sites that possess “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”