Saturday, July 22, 2017  


White Marsh Church: A piece of History Reborn


by Judy Ripley

Nestled among the corn and soybean fields of Lancaster County, Virginia, along Route 3, three miles east of Lancaster Courthouse stands a precious bit of history. The puritanical brick structure, surrounding graveyard, and towering trees attests to its roots.

Historical sites in this area are unique in that there are little in the way of billboards or signage. Here history is often seen out your back window or quietly dwelling in the woodlands. This historical dignity is passed along generation to generation, born heres to come heres with little fanfare. So this quiet brick building, so often passed by local traffic, is seen but not heard.

White Marsh Church was formed as a congregation September 17th, 1792. Considered the “Mother Church of Methodism of the Northern Neck,” it celebrated its 220TH anniversary in 2012. Initially, White Marsh Campground was the location of meetings. These meetings were also held in homes, barns and under trees before the church was built. Services were led by two Methodist preachers, Lewis Ross and Joseph Everett starting in 1785.

In 1789, William Partridge was appointed Circuit Rider to the Lancaster Circuit, which included all of the Northern Neck. White Marsh Church was officially organized September 17, 1792 under his leadership. George Brent Young, Jr. and his wife, Sarah, donated the land for the sum of five shillings, providing that the ministers taught no other doctrine than that of John Wesley. A governing board of trustees was established.

The original structure or meeting house was made of logs in 1792 and served the congregation for 56 years. The bishop referred to it as the “Lancaster Meeting House”. This was replaced with the present brick structure in 1848. The name White Marsh was believed to refer to the white flowers. Hibiscus or marsh mallow grew in the marsh behind the church.

The bricks used to construct the building in the Flemish bond pattern were handmade. At present, clear glass windows are lit with simple electric candles. The pews, which are constructed of pine, are from a time when old growth was available and are of “rare width and unblemished grain.” White pillars support two galleries which run front to back along the sides of the interior. Original kerosene lamps on cast iron brackets hang from the pillars and are now electrified. These were lit during evening services.

The gallery rails are of an “ornamented but chaste” cast-iron fronting. In 1848, the door was at the back of the church and the chancel had a high pulpit. Later the doorway was reversed and the pulpit changed to its present form. The annex to the rear of the church (away from the road) was added in 1966 using bricks laid in the same Flemish bond pattern.

In the center of the church, a large hook is located in the ceiling. From this place, a counter weighted chandelier was hung that could be lowered with a pull bar, the lamps lit, and then returned to eight feet above the floor. This fixture sadly was lost over the years and has never been relocated.

A Victorian sofa flanked by matching chairs sits behind the altar. Plaques honoring members of the congregation adorn the walls.

The interior of the church tells only part of the story. The surrounding graveyard holds a wealth of history. Shaded by towering hickory trees, a “u” shaped cemetery shows even more of the history of this place. It is believed that there are nine Civil War veterans in this graveyard. Notable family names such as McKenney, Hughlett, Beauchamp, Doggett, Partridge, Ross, Everett and Cockrell appear on the gravestones and in stories told through the years. Large mounds of earth covered with age-softened bricks tell of many others. George L. Brown who served as minister sometime after 1843 is buried there and is believed to have one of the oldest tombstones at this site. The inscription on his tombstone reads “The Rev. Gorge L. Brown, Itinerant minister of the Methodist E. Church and a member of the Baltimore annual conference. He died on Lancaster circuit VA. Sept 24, 1842, aged 33 years. He preached his last sermon in White Marsh and though dead the years speaks in the language of His memorable text, who is on the Lords side (Exodus 32nd chapter 26th verse). “ The custom of naming children after a beloved minister caused many of their names to echo through the ages.

The Honorable T.R.B.Wright, Circuit Court Judge from 1892-1924, proposed the plan to hang portraits of men prominent in the history of the nearby counties in the Lancaster Courthouse. On July 4th 1899, at an Independence Day celebration, which included a reunion of Confederate Veterans, a number of the portraits were unveiled. An old fashioned camp meeting dinner was served to the crowd following. The pictures of both Bishop George and Bishop Doggett who served White Marsh Church are prominently displayed there as well.

A Homecoming service was held annually in late August or early September and continues to this day. The first sunrise service in the county at Easter was held at White Marsh. Over the years, members of the congregation started additional Methodist churches thus diminishing the size of the White Marsh congregation.

White Marsh Church closed in 2002 for what was said to be a lack of membership. The church lay idle with no heat or air conditioning for seven years. Following the pleas of Pastor Jim Solmon, the next to last of the pastors, the Methodist Conference turned the building and then the cemetery over to the newly formed corporation under the name of Historic White Marsh Church, Inc. Starting in 2011, restoration began.

Windows were built to protect the church street side sign from the weather. The furnace room door was repaired and the front doors scraped and painted. Freshly painted storm doors were re-hung. The bathroom water system was restored and window sills, those that did not need replacing, were painted. Volunteers assisted with the painting. New seat cushions and altar kneelers that were installed in 1998 were lovingly cared for. Special services are conducted by volunteers on Memorial Day and Easter. Small crosses and flags are sold for a nominal fee to help defray the cost of the utilities. American flags are faithfully placed on all known veterans in the cemetery on appropriate holidays.

The need to preserve this history-filled place is evident. It is crying out to be restored and saved as a beacon from the past for the future of our time. Take some time and explore this gem and contribute to its future as a piece of history that will be reborn.

The current board which is made up of approximately seven local residents is working diligently to tackle the job with the goal of “returning Historic White Marsh Church as near to its original condition as we can, which will take a lot of money and a lot of work.” The church is open to the public for special occasions with announcements posted on their newly renovated sign. This sign includes contact information for private use for “funerals, weddings and birthday celebrations, as well as religious services.”
Chairman of the Board of Directors is
Bobby Allison, 11040 Mary Ball Road,
P.O. Box 24, Lancaster, VA. 22503.
Phone number: 1-804-462-5414.