#1252. Rockbridge Churches, Part I

By Lad Sessions | Travel Photography

Dec 20

In two previous posts (“A Tale of Two Cemeteries” [#1199] and “Living in Lexington” [#1215]), I tried to convey a sense of where I live. But it helps to have a wider context. Lexington is the county seat of mostly rural Rockbridge County, which stretches over some 600 square miles in the middle of Virginia’s verdant Shenandoah Valley. The name “Rockbridge” derives from the famous Natural Bridge, a state park and a National Historical Landmark.


One way of conveying a better sense of this place would be a tour of local farms—farmhouses, barns, fields, livestock—and I may do this someday. But another way is to look at the many churches scattered throughout the county, as well as in the city. And so I undertook this project. But it proved more complicated than I anticipated, and so I enlisted the help of my long-time friend Ed Craun. Ed knows geography, architecture and local history, and so he expertly guided me down winding lanes to discover various rural churches of interest. And when it came to knitting the images together, I prevailed upon Ed to draft a narrative, which follows (with a few edits by me); so the images are mine but the story is basically Ed’s, and he would share the byline if Dear Susan’s website permitted. There are inevitably many omissions, as local churches are plentiful and our space here is limited; but these fragments do faithfully illustrate the whole. Still, we have too much material for just one post, so there are two parts:

The first focuses on the numerous Presbyterian churches, the second on other denominations.


The Blue Ridge Mountains blocked the extension of British settlement in Virginia until the 1730s, when waves of settlers, largely Scotch-Irish from Ulster, moved down the Native American path, renamed the Great Wagon Road, into the Shenandoah Valley. Coming southwest from the long-settled Middle Atlantic colonies, these new immigrants were staunchly Presbyterian. (Even today a third of the county churches are Presbyterian.) Only a few generations away from Scotland, they defined themselves against the Church of England in Eastern and Central Virginia. In the 1730s they first entered the hilly country toward the narrow southern end of the Valley that became Rockbridge County.

The first church that still stands, Timber Ridge, was built in 1756 along the Great Wagon Road in the north of the area. To replace their first building of wooden pales, the farmers and their wives hauled “river jacks,” large chunks of limestone, several miles uphill by wagon from the South River. They built a simple preaching box, the center of the present building, with side windows of clear glass and a shallow recessed porch with three arches. In the nineteenth century, the local farmers lengthened the sanctuary and added meeting rooms, using similar stones and generally hewing to the style of the original, but enlarging the windows and ornamenting them with latticework. In the late twentieth century, congregants added a porch, with similar materials.

Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church
Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church

Brickmaking began in Rockbridge County late in the eighteenth century, and prosperous farmers and townspeople began to build houses of brick, often in a Georgian style, akin to those in colonial eastern and central Virginia. Several decades later some of the oldest rural congregations, whose first buildings of the 1760s and 1770s had been of hewn timber, decided to clad in brick their existing simple limestone buildings with just the simplest ornamentation in brickwork. These churches, Oxford and New Monmouth, stand prominently on hills amidst farms, far from any hamlet, let alone a town. The congregations built simple brick educational wings in the twentieth century.

Oxford Presbyerian Church
New Monmouth Presbyterian Church

One new congregation, Ben Salem, begun in a boatshed in 1832 for watermen along a river and canal, clung to the old building material, constructing this simple box of smallish local stone

Ben Salem Presbyterian Church

In the decades before the Civil War (1861-65), growing congregations turned to Greek Revival for their new and larger buildings. In the county seat of Lexington, the congregants, who began worshipping in a tent in the 1790s, added Greek wings to their square brick building in 1859, a building prominently situated where the Great Valley Road crossed the main east-west street.

The brick was then clad in stucco and the whole was painted so that the church seemed to be built of large granite blocks, looking even more substantial than it was. Now it is a sober gray with cream trim. A row of six sturdy Doric columns creates a porch, supporting an entablature, which runs around the building, and a simple pediment. Small pediments decorate some side windows. A lightening arrester tops the steeple above the clock tower, although some locals people insist that it is a still.

Lexington Presbyterian

Perhaps the finest unspoiled Greek Revival church in the county, New Providence, was built on the site of an earlier wood and stone church just before the Civil War. Below the pediment and entablature sits a feature of several mid-century Greek churches: two sturdy columns within a deep porch (“in antro”). In the porch lie two doors, one for women to enter and one for men.


Another good, but simpler, example of the “in antro” porch sits across a lane from the stone church at Timber Ridge. It was built by schismatics, Associate Reformed Presbyterians, who clung to the old Scottish practice of chanting psalms, eschewing newfangled hymns.

imber Ridge ARP Church

Lexington Presbyterian church built this small wooden Gothic chapel, Beechenbrook, in 1874 to serve as a place of worship for the boatmen and workers in small industries at the point in the North River (now the Maury) where the canal from Richmond ended. The chapel, with its steeply pitched roof ornamented with a carved running board, stands on a hill above the point.

Beechenbrook Chapel, Lexington

By the midcentury, Gothic architecture, previously tarred by association with Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, became acceptable to growing, more prosperous congregations. Falling Spring Presbyterian Church, which sits in a grove of oak trees with splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, features pointed Gothic windows and a crenellated tower.

Falling Spring Presbyterian Church

Before the advent of automobiles, small local chapels of wood were built of wood by farmers to serve their scattered farms. McElwee Chapel is built like a small house, with churchy features, like a belfry and a diminutive porch, attached.

McElwee Chapel

Some Presbyterian churches were added to several times over the last two centuries so that the original building is largely obscured. Bethesda stands on a cliff over the Maury River in the hamlet of Rockbridge Baths.

Bethesda Presbyterian Church

Ebenezer ARP church adopted a style unusual in rural churches: a simplified Romanesque, a style common for city or town brick or stone churches. It has two flanking, but unequal, towers, a rounded front, rounded windows and doors.

Ebenezer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Rockbridge Baths

The only Presbyterian church built after 1900, Grace, is among the strictly utilitarian large conservative churches that lie on the outskirts of the county seat.

Grace Presbyterian Church

Because the earliest Presbyterian churches were the centers of scattered farms, land was laid aside for adjacent cemeteries, often on striking hillsides or hilltops.

New Monmouth Presbyterian
New Providence Presbyterian
Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church
Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church
Collierstown Preesbyterian Church

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  • jean pierre guaron says:

    Fascinating glimpse of the history of Virginia – more specifically, this part of the state. Great idea – partner an excellent photographer with a local expert on the history of the district.

    The idea of separate doors for male and female worshippers is rather weird. Was this necessary, to keep their behaviour under control during the communion service? Bit like like Jewish Synagogue services – men at the front, women in a separate section at the back.

    Strange how things intertwine. There’s a stone arch like that on one of the roads leading north from Italy into Switzerland, not far from St Moritz.

    Then there was one of my maternal grandmother’s ancestors, who I can only presume was in the English Army, who died in Virginia in 1641 – though almost certainly not in this part of the state.

    And the idea of churches springing up on farmlands – and cemeteries too! – reminds me of my father’s ancestors here, who had a fight with the local priest or parson – whatever – and built their own church, on their own farm – staffed with their own parson – in short succession they fought with him and several others they brought in over the following few years, till one day the church burned down during a bushfire on the property, and they gave up – still used the cemetery to bury their dead, but no further involvement with the church.

    These buildings were built with a passion, and built to a standard. Lovely to see them, still being properly maintained, a century or two later. Looking forward to seeing Part 2, Lad

  • I have really enjoyed your historical narrative and the pictures, Lad. Maybe even more so since I grew up about 100 miles west of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia’s historic Powell Valley at the foot of Cumberland Mountain. It is all beautiful country.

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Cliff, Thanks for this. It is indeed all beautiful, and I feel very lucky to have landed here, after growing up in rather flat eastern South Dakota! Next year I hope to work on a long-standing project on “Appalachian Spring.” Any suggestions?

      • Lad, Appalachian Spring could cover an area from Maine to Georgia with all types of topography, social groups, plant life, rivers, farms, industries, etc etc. My favorite was always the Smoky Mountain NP and I used to go there every spring for the wildflowers and running mountain streams. But that is only one little dot on a subject that could take encyclopedic volumes. And I don’t think I would choose that location now. I would want to get off the beaten path more.

        • Lad Sessions says:


          You’re right, of course. It would be foolish to think I could capture the whole Appalachians. I’m foolish, but not that foolish! My plan (such as it is) is to focus on this one small “dot” in Rockbridge County, thinking that it might be of interest on its own, as well as typifying (something of) the whole. Further, I’ll concentrate on the intimate landscapes of the forests, and not (so much) the grander vistas (admittedly gorgeous). There are many ways to “beat” a path! Surely not encyclopedic; more a miniature.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Pete, Thanks as always for your insights and anecdotes.

    Male/female segregation was prevalent (not universal) in conservative 19th-century congregations, though I doubt they can be found today. Sexual segregation re-enforces male patriarchy as racial segregation re-enforces white supremacy. Many people are truly afraid of equality, alas.

    Re. farmland churches: I almost included an image of one church whose cemetery abuts a cattle feedlot–the farm silo is taller than the church steeple!

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Hi Lad,

    It is wonderful to see how in a civilised society – regardless of past – historical buildings are respected and treasured. I am not sure whether it is the exception or the rule but it is a delight to see them so well maintained.

    It saddens me to live in a country where infrastructure and historical treasures are neglected or simply destroyed for no other reason than they are a legacy of the past, instead of looking after what exists and perhaps simply repurposing them.

    Thank you for sharing and contributing.

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Thanks Ian. These churches are all still used as churches, though whether they will continue to be such is an open question in a society that is fleeing organized religion. Our second post will have some examples of re-purposed churches—and abandoned ones.

      This area has strong Historical Societies that are bent on preserving antique structures. Usually their causes are worthy ones, but sometimes I almost feel like I’m living in a museum. The motto of Washington and Lee is Non Incautus Futuri, “not unmindful of the future,” which strikes the prevailing tone among many: of course we are mindful of the past, and the future sometimes seems like an afterthought.

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Lad, I always appreciate your contributions. You remind the rest of us of the importance of immersing ourselves in our places, of thoroughly recording them and learning them. By doing so, I suppose the hope is,–at least for me–that we may better know ourselves. After all, how can we know ourselves if we don’t even know where we are–or how we are when we are there? Your work reminds us that we have to know history to know ourselves–it inspires in that way. Perhaps for some of us,–though I may be talking about myself again–we make images because we are trying to reach that most elusive destination-goal–a peaceful self in a peaceful place.


    • Lad Sessions says:

      Claude, Thanks so much for this thoughtful paragraph, which expresses beautifully my own sentiments. I view my entire life as a learning venture–learning about the world (from my vantage in place and time) and thereby learning about myself. That venture IS, for me at least, the “destination goal.” Photography is one aspect of this venture, and a consuming one in my retirement, just as philosophy consumed my work years (and remains with me still). I will stop when I can no longer pick up a camera or pound a keyboard. Best wishes to you in your own life-venture!

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