Thursday, January 23, 2014

George Mason and Pohick Church

By Rev. Tom Costa
GHHIS and Pohick Church Docent

Sometimes referred to as "the Mother Church of Northern Virginia," Pohick was the first permanent church in the colony to be established north of the Occoquan River, sometime prior to 1724, near the site now occupied by Cranford Methodist Church on Old Colchester Road. It was named "Pohick Church" because of its proximity to Pohick Creek (“Pohick” comes from a Dogue Indian word meaning "hickory").

In 1732, the Virginia General Assembly established Truro Parish, defining it as all the lands in the colony above the Occoquan River, extending to the western frontier. As the only church within these boundaries, Pohick became the head parish church of the newly formed district. The large church parishes in colonial times served as local government districts before the establishment of counties.

George Mason was a life-long Anglican who attended services regularly, and was first elected as a vestryman for Truro Parish in 1748. Members of the vestry oversaw a great number of tasks, both religious and governmental. In addition to collecting tithes or church taxes; building and maintaining churches and chapels in the parish boundaries as needed; and providing for ministers, clerks, and sextons; there was the responsibility to care for the poor—allowances and care for the sick and destitute, the maintaining of neglected children and widows, and the care and apprenticing of orphans.

By 1765 the old wood-frame church was beginning to show signs of decay, and the question of rebuilding came before the vestry. It was said that George Washington, who had joined the vestry in 1763, favored building a new church on a more central site two miles north of the old church. George Mason opposed such a move, pleading that their ancestors had worshipped at the old church and many of them were buried in the adjoining churchyard. The question was left unsettled, and another vestry meeting was appointed for a final vote by all 12 members of the vestry. In the meantime, Washington surveyed the neighborhood and marked the houses and distances on a well-drawn map. Armed with his survey map, Washington was said to have presented his case for the new site as being more centrally located to the greatest number of plantations and parishioners. When the vestry voted on November 20, 1767, the resolution to build a new Pohick Church at the new site was carried by a majority of seven to five.

Even though the old site had been nearer to Gunston Hall and the new one was closer to Mount Vernon, the debate and its ultimate outcome did not cause any grievances between the two old friends or end their ability to work together for the good of the parish. When the Vestry further decided to build the new Pohick Church on a grander scale, constructing it out of more durable stone and brick, George Mason, along with his fellow vestrymen George Washington and George William Fairfax, was part of the church building committee that approved the building designs and construction work.

When Daniel French the undertaker (the colonial word for what we would call a building contractor) for the new church construction died suddenly in late 1771, it was George Mason, as executor of his estate, who stepped in as undertaker and completed the building of the current Pohick Church in 1774. An interesting connection between Gunston Hall and Pohick Church also dates to this time: in 1772 Mason approved the hiring of master carver William Bernard Sears to handle all the interior wood carving and decorative gilding in the church until its completion. Sears, by then a well-established craftsman in the Alexandria area, had first come to Virginia as Mason’s indentured servant and had carved all the impressive woodwork at Gunston Hall several years before.

Mason continued to serve as a vestryman all during the difficult years of the Revolutionary War. By the time the Virginia General Assembly disestablished the Protestant Episcopal (formerly Anglican) Church in 1785, eliminating local tax support for the parish churches and disbanding their vestries, George Mason had guided and supported Pohick Church and the poor and needy of the area for a period of 35 years.

Journal Of Early Southern Decorative Arts, November, 1982, Volume VIII, Number 2. Winston-Salem, NC: The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
Lillback, Peter A., George Washington's Sacred Fire. Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press, 2006.
Minutes of the Vestry, Truro Parish, Virginia, 1732-1785. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc., 1995.
Slaughter, Philip, The History of Truro Parish in Virginia. Philadelphia, PA: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1907.

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