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