The Old Presbyterian Meeting House is a place of history and worship

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The Old Presbyterian Meeting House is a place of history and worship
The OPMH in the late 1920s, after the Meeting House restoration of 1925-28. (Frances Benjamin Johns/Library of Congress)
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By Kimberly Jackson | [email protected]

Driving through Old Town, tourists might miss one of the oldest places in the city, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Tracing the history of the church, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, is a lesson in American history, from the first settlers to the American Revolution to the Civil War, through the abolition of slavery and all the way to issues of today.

The Old Presbyterian Meeting House, located at 323 S. Fairfax St., is tucked away in the heart of Old Town, neighboring residential homes in a preserved community. It was a place of refuge and strength in colonial days. Now, as the church has reached a significant anniversary, parishioners want the public to know how significant the OPMH was and remains.

View of the sanctuary from the balcony of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. (Photo/Kimberly Jackson)

Early days

In the late 18th century, prior to the colonies existing as the United States, presbyterian believers organized the Meeting House before it was allowed to even be called a church. Early on, most members were Scottish merchants, who came to Alexandria pursuing religious freedom and financial independence.

“We were dissenters,” Don Dahmann, longtime OPMH member and chair of the history and archives committee, said. “… You could not be a church because the church is the Church, the Church of England, and everything else is something else, a meeting house.”

Though early settlers and enslaved people met and worshipped together years before, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House became a formal congregation in 1772, when it received its first official minister, Rev. William Thom.

Meeting House members were also part of the American Revolution, Dahmann said.

“There are scores of members who are fighting in the militia units. The merchants are serving as commissary officers supplying George [Washington] and all of the armies with wheat and these desperate letters, you know, ‘We have to have more food!’” Dahmann said.

Once the war ended, the meeting house became incorporated in 1786, but a few years before that, the first meeting house building was constructed in 1775. Like many churches, it held memorial services for George Washington, the first president of the United States, upon his death in 1799. The church’s bell tolled four days before his burial.

“It was the only bell in town, so it tolled [to mark special events],” Dahmann said. “We know it tolled on certain times like the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, all kinds of those things, because bell ringing was a public signal. I’m sure it was for fire, too. Because it was the only bell in all of town.”

Anna and Sandy Davis, OPMH members and church leaders. (Photo/Kimberly Jackson)

Continued relevance

Although the church is celebrating its 250th anniversary, the building that currently sits on the site is not the same one that was built in 1775. A lightning strike caused a fire that destroyed the original building in 1835, and the church rebuilt an exact replica a few years later. That building stands unchanged today except for a bell tower that was constructed in 1843 and a set of granite stairs at the entrance that were built in 1853. The bell that now tolls was recast with metal from the original bell that was destroyed in the fire, according to church historians.

“To me it is not just that this started a long time ago, it is that this continues today. That part to me is amazing given how much religion has evolved in the United States in general and Alexandria in particular,” Daniel Lee, a historian in the Office of Historic Alexandria, said.

According to Lee, some of the most important parts of the church’s history are the roles that members played during the Revolutionary War. The efforts of church members, many of whom were Scottish settlers, continue to impact the city’s international relations to this day, Lee said.

“The thing I would like to emphasize [is] we continue to have a relationship with Scotland today. Dundee, Scotland is one of our sister cities, and the Old Presbyterian Meeting House is a reflection of that long-held relationship,” Lee said.

The Old Presbyterian Meeting House is not just a historic monument – church members still gather on Sunday mornings. The sanctuary of today still has the pews from the 1830s with doors, which allowed families to seal in the heat. Unlike in the 19th century when families paid to reserve certain seats in the church, today, churchgoers can sit on any pew they choose.

“They never took up an offering in church. Instead, families paid rent for the pews. There were free pews,” Dahmann said.

According to Dahmann, there was never a slave gallery, even though he says there were enslaved people who attended church. Dahmann said issues of race have always been complicated for the church.

The interior of the OPMH from the pulpit with a view of the church organ in the balcony, where the choir also sings. Also pictured, Dr. Don Dahmann, church historian. (Photo/Kimberly Jackson)

“This congregation has been part of that. Slave owners, house servants, people owned slaves, clergy here owned slaves,” Dahmann said.

But he said while some churches owned enslaved people and hired them out for money, the Meeting House did not.

“We had African Americans as full community members in the 18th century and 19th century. We are members of abolition societies, twice,” Dahmann said.

Church records also show the first African American preached at the meeting house in 1811. Dahmann said the first woman preached at the meeting house in 1827, but today, the church has two associate ministers who are women, Katherine Stanford and Ann Herlin, who work alongside Pastor Robert Laha.

While some things have changed at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, others have not. On Sundays, the choir still sits in the balcony, where the organ is located. When other churches became more modernized and moved the choir to the front of the church, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House stuck to the original tradition.

The church also kept the old clock that survived the fire at the original meeting house. Today it hangs in the sanctuary, and it remains set at 10:20 p.m. “It is set to 10:20 because that is the time that George Washington died,” Dahmann said. “Two of the three doctors attending him were members of the congregation. One was James Craig, [who is] buried here. And they stopped the clock in his bedroom at 10:20.”

A repository of history

The meeting house maintains the burial ground where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the American Revolution is located, along with other graves that date back to the 1770s, including many infants, who died unnamed before they could be baptized.

There are also fireproof cabinets that hold the names of enslaved people and thousands of members as well as thousands of sermons, 50 of them published from the colonial period.

There is a lot to see and learn at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Some tourists have stopped by the historic church on local ghost tours, which have listed the church as an attraction. Sometimes the site’s relevance as a tourist attraction and its purpose as a church come into conflict, according to Anna Davis, co-chair of the church’s anniversary celebration committee.

“We had to stop a ghost tour from coming into the church in the middle of the service. It was like, ‘no’ because we don’t usually have things on Thursday evenings, so we get tour groups and that is fine. But we need to be known for more than just being on the ghost tour,” Davis, a 30-year church member, said.

Dr. Don Dahmann, historian and archivist, in front of the OPMH. (Photo/Kimberly Jackson)

The OPMH has already hosted a two-part lecture series about the history of the church, with recordings available on the church website at www. opmh.org for those who missed it. The church also held a concert on May 15 and a reunion weekend, which will include an art shot, is upcoming in June. The organizers are asking current and former members to submit photos from weddings, baptisms or other events for display and for a lasting commemorative album. They will also host a tour of the Presbyterian Cemetery.

The hope is to share the history of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House and its more than 250 years of history, service and worship.

“I think we are too insular. I don’t think we tout what we’ve [done] … our important role in history, nearly enough. I don’t think we really try to share our story outside, and I don’t think it is deliberate. I think it just sort of happened that way,” Davis said.

Over the course of two centuries, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House has become filled with stories and memories, and the story continues today.

Bonnie Leigh and her husband, Art, joined the church in 2004 as they were looking for a historic church in which to hold their wedding.

“We did get married here, and then I started doing the Easter flowers, the Christmas flowers. We started to usher. I became a deacon. He is on the finance committee,” Leigh said.

In 2020, Leigh’s daughter got married at the church as well.

The Davis and Leigh families are just two that have found a sense of community in the Old Meeting Presbyterian House. Though they both realize the historical relevance of the church, they said it is the people in the building that make the difference for them.

Nearly 20 years after her wedding in the historic church, Leigh said she has found a place where her and her husband belong.

“Everybody is welcome. It is fun. We made a lot of really good friends here,” Leigh said. “If anything were to happen to me, I could call, I can’t tell you how many people. And they would come help.”

Find a full list of events for the 250th celebration as well as written church history at www.opmh.org. 

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