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Historic St. John's was the
center of Portsmouth society

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

The three Episcopal churches, of 1638, 1732 and 1808 - Richard Gibson, Arthur Brown, John C. Ogden, Joseph Willard, Charles Burroughs, William A. Hitchcock, rectors.

IN the attic of the blacksmith's shop on Bow street, next in front of St. John's church, is the upper half of an arched window, which was prepared for a square frame. The glass is eight by ten, four panes wide. Through this window is thrown some light on the subject of the present ramble.

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The First Church

The first edifice erected for public worship in Portsmouth was an Episcopal church. It was erected prior to the year 1638, on the south-east corner of the twelve acres of glebe land, near where the late Charles Robinson's house now stands. The parsonage house stood near the site of the late John K.

Pickering's house. The Rev. Richard Gibson was the first minister, and continued in the office until the year 1642, when he was summoned to Boston to answer to the charge of marrying and baptizing at the Isles of Shoals. The laws of Massachusetts colony forbade the practice of clerical duties by ministers of the Church of England. For these offences, on presenting himself at Boston, he was taken in custody, in which he continued for several days, till at length he made a full acknowledgement of all he was charged with, and submitted himself to the favor of the court. Whereupon, as he was a stranger, and was to depart the country in a few days, he was discharged without any fine or other punishment.

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Queen's Chapel

In 1732, a new church was erected nearly on the ground where St. John's church is now standing. It was called Queen's chapel, in honor of Queen Caroline, consort of George II., who gave the books for the altar and pulpit, the plate, and two elegant mahogany chairs, which are still in use every Sabbath, in the chancel, by the rector. The names of many respectable individuals are to be seen among the benefactors of the church. Doctor Benjamin Franklin was one of them, and a proprietor.

The Rev. Arthur Brown was rector of the church until the day of his death, in June, 1773. He was buried under the western entrance of the church. From this time to 1780, only occasional services were had, when the Rev. John Cosens Ogden became their pastor, and continued to the year 1793. The parish was incorporated Feb. 15, 1791, by the name of St. John's church. The Rev. Joseph Willard was ordained by Bishop Provost, in New York, in 1795, as rector of St. John's church. At Easter, 1806, he resigned, and removed to Newark, in New Jersey.

Among many candidates for the vacancy in this church after the present handsome edifice had been erected in 1808, was Rev. Charles Burroughs, who was invited by the unanimous vote of the parish to be their minister. He was admitted to the order of Deacons by the Rt. Rev. Bishop White, Dec. 10, 1810. On Wednesday, May 20, 1812, he was admitted to the order of Priests by the Rt. Rev. A. V. Griswold, Bishop of the Eastern Diocese. The next day Rev. Mr. Burroughs was inducted rector of St. John's church. This office Rev. Dr. Burroughs filled with much ability until March, 1857, when, after forty-seven years of constant service, he tendered his resignation, which he would not reconsider, although invited by the unanimous vote of the church. The present rector (1859) is Rev. William A. Hitchcock. He was ordained in April, 1858.

The old church, built in 1732, was on the present site. It was of wood, a little smaller than the present church, with a steeple like that on the old South. The belfry was on the western end, with a bell of about six hundred pounds, which was brought from Louisburg at the time of its capture in 1745, and was in that year presented by the officers of the New Hampshire regiment to this church. There were two entrances, the one on the west, the other on the south. The vestry room was under the stairs on the west side. There were two rows of high arched windows, the window frames being square. One of them may now be seen in the front of the attic of the blacksmith's shop on Bow street, above referred to, the only remains of the old edifice within our knowledge. The centre of the wall pews on the north side was raised above the rest, a heavy wooden canopy built over it bore the royal arms, and red plush curtains were festooned around it. A good representation of the canopy may be seen in the portico over the front door of the residence of the late Dr. Dwight, on Pleasant Street. Previous to the Revolution this pew was called the Governor's Pew. Two chairs were in it, presented by the Queen for the Governor and his Secretary. After the Revolution these trappings of royalty were taken down, and in the place of the Lion and the Unicorn, a sign in gold letters, in 1790, designated it as the "Wardens' Pew." In 1796, Col. Thompson, who then owned the Dwight house, bought the Wardens' pew, and took down the canopy and trimmings. That canopy was probably used in the erection of the portico of that house.

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Washington Visits

President Washington, on his visit here in 1789, with his Secretary, Tobias Lear, occupied this pew, and those chairs furnished by the Queen of England for her royal Governors, were filled by men who were ready to place royalty beneath them. Gen. Washington's appearance at church was said by those present to have been truly elegant. He was dressed in a complete suit of black silk velvet -- coat, vest and small clothes -- with black silk stockings and brilliant shoe buckles, etc., and being an Episcopalian, he joined in all the church services.

The font of St. John's church was taken by Col. John Tufton Mason at the capture of Senegal (in Africa) from the French in 1758, and in 1761 was presented by his daughters, Sarah Catherine and Anna Elizabeth Mason, to St. John's church. It is of Porphyritic marble, of a brownish yellow color, veined, and undoubtedly African. The height from the ground is three feet three inches, the base being twenty inches in length, eleven in width, and five in thickness. The pedestal with mouldings, which support the bowl, is twenty-three inches high. The whole is an oval; the bowl sufficiently large for the immersion of an infant, being thirty-eight and a half inches in length, thirty inches in breadth, and about twelve inches deep. At present, the interior is coated with a white cement, a portion of which divides it in the middle into two parts. On this barrier of cement is fastened a flat brazen cover, which opens from either end to the centre. This cover bears in a Latin inscription the donor's names, etc. A silver christening basin, presented A. D. 1732, by Queen Caroline, consort of George II., is used for holy baptism, being placed upon the font.

When the church was burnt, on the morning of Dec. 24, 1806, this font, with the communion tables, bible and prayer books, were among the few articles saved, (through the personal effort of the late Alexander Ladd, and another gentleman, who entered the body of the church when on fire,) and are in the present church, which has been elegantly remodeled internally within a few years, and the font has been placed within the chancel rail, in a conspicuous position.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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