St. Luke's Church (Smithfield, Virginia)

St. Luke's Church (Smithfield, Virginia)

Infobox nrhp
name =Saint Luke's Church (Smithfield)
nrhp_type = nhl

caption =
location = Isle of Wight County, Virginia
nearest_city = Smithfield, Virginia
lat_degrees = 36
lat_minutes = 56
lat_seconds = 16.8
lat_direction = N
long_degrees = 76
long_minutes = 35
long_seconds = 9.6
long_direction = W
area =
built = 1632 (estimated)
architect = Unknown
architecture = Gothic
designated= October 09, 1960cite web|url=
title=Saint Luke's Church (Smithfield)|accessdate=2008-06-27|work=National Historic Landmark summary listing|publisher=National Park Service
added = October 15, 1966
visitation_num =
visitation_year =
refnum = 66000838 [cite web|url=|title=National Register Information System|date=2007-07-27|work=National Register of Historic Places|publisher=National Park Service]
mpsub =
governing_body =Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc.

St. Luke's Church, also known as Benns Church, Old Brick Church, or Newport Parish Church is an historic church located in the unincorporated community of Benns Church, near Smithfield in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, and has been known variously as the Old Brick Church or the Newport Parish Church long before it was given its present name in 1820. It is the oldest existing church of English foundation in America and the nation's only surviving Gothic building. St. Luke's Church is estimated to date to 1632. On October 15, 1966, St. Luke's was designated a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historic and architectural distinction.


The English Gothic, as opposed to Gothic Revival, architecture of the church is seen in the prominent square tower, lancet-arched windows, wall buttresses, and tracery end window. Basically, Saint Luke's is a simple nave plan (29'4 and 3/4" X 65'7 3/4") with a twenty foot square tower at the west end. Its two-foot-thick walls are laid in a rough Flemish bond, including crude tracery in brick, forming pointed lancet-arch windows. The large lancet-arched east wall is a striking exercise in brick tracery. Deep wall buttresses project prominently from three bays of the north and south walls. They have sloping set-offs. At both the east and west end of the church are crow-stepped gables, while unadorned turrets, corbeiled slightly at their bases, decorate the corners of the building.

The interior appointments of Saint Luke's were not added until a number of years after completion of the fabric of the building, and after 1657 Colonel Joseph Bridger commissioned Charles and Thomas Driver to complete the work and add the third story to the tower. The roof has been rebuilt a number of times and doubtless originally had a steeper, more Gothic, pitch. The tie-beam timber-truss, closed above the collar beam, has also been rebuilt but is based upon the original scheme as verified by research.

Originally, a gallery, or balcony, existed at the west end of the nave, supported by a massive hewn oak beam, and this has been rebuilt, as has been the rood screen in the chancel, or apse, and the square brick tiles in the floor of the church. The original stained-glass windows were replaced in the nineteenth century and those Victorian windows remain in place today.

Architectural Details

Parish Affiliation

Newport Parish dates from the formation of Warrosquyoake plantation. The details of parish and political entities are as follows:
*1629 Warrosquyoake Parish formed
*1634 Included in the list of original shires
*1637 Isle of Wight County formed
*1643 Divided into upper (Warrosquyoake) and lower parish (Newport)
*1733 Brunswick Country formed from Isle of Wight County
*1743 Lower sections of Warrosquyoake and Newport Parishes combined as Newport Parish and upper sections into Nottoway Parish (later Nottoway Parish became Southampton Parish).
*1749 Southampton County formed from Isle of Wight County [Rawlings 31]


The architecture of Newport Parish Church is a combination of the seventeenth century room church [The Church architecture article in Wikipedia mentions the room church and the auditory church.See also the artitle in Wikipedia on Rood screen] embellished with Gothic features. Unlike the English Gothic church characterized by separate wings containing the font-nave, celestory choirs, and chancel, the room church reduces these divided spaces into a single rectangular space. [Upton 58: a relatively deep rectangular (in Wren’s churches) or shallower rectangular room in rural English and Virginia churches.] All Virginia vernacular churches employ this room structure. In the case of Newport Parish, a simplified form of a rood screen, as in several extant English room churches, separates the nave from the chancel. [Upton 56-57] In fact, in this edifice, the oldest Anglican church in the state, the essential features of the room church are all in place. They are:

*Rectangular building
*General ratio of 2:1 length to width
*Oriented east-west
*Main entrance via west door
*Southeast vestry door
*Single story sidewall elevation
*East window. [Upton 59]

Gothic features are principally in embellishments to the structure rather than major structural details:

*steeply pitched A-roof with crow-stepped or curvilinear gables
*Y-tracery windows with brick modillions
*semi-circular arches at doorways with “embryonic pediments”
*beamed ceilings with plaster
*plain cornices
*porches, buttresses, or towers. [Rawlings 3-4]


The church itself is 60 ½' east-west and 24 ¼' north-south in the clear. [Rawlings 31: in the clear refers to measurements made inside the walls; church contracts often specified this measurement.] The church is laid in Flemish bond in water tables, walls, and tower. The tower is an integral part of the structure unlike that of the Jamestown Church tower whose unfinished mortar joints on its east wall indicate that it was erected after the main church building and the clearly documented, added tower at St. Peter’s Church, New Kent County. Unlike any other standing Virginia colonial church, there are two water tables each nine bricks high. The transitions from the water tables are accomplished using beveled bricks. There are no glazed headers in the walls that are 36” wide at the foundations, 26” thick in the walls, and 30” thick in the tower.Rawlings 32] Three buttresses with three ramps each support the north and south sides of the church, separating the walls into three bays and a chancel, each of which contains a Y-tracery window. The bevels of the buttresses follow the water table in height, each being nine bricks tall. The church is singular among standing churches in having buttresses: the only other documented buttresses are at the Jamestown Church of 1639 to 1647 and the second Bruton Parish Church of 1680. [Upton 60: Upton asserts that this church was actually constructed after 1676.]

The walls continue for thirty-eight courses above the water tables. Obvious repairs are present throughout the building due to a storm that collapsed the walls in 1887 and include:

*the entire upper east wall
*the crow steps and towers on the gables
*windows on the south and north walls
*east side of the tower along the gables
*the two elliptical windows on the north and south sides of the porch
*the sills of some of the principal windows.

Two-thousand bricks from the Jamestown Church of 1639- 1647 were included in repairs during the 1890s.


The present roof, restored in the 1950s [Upton 42] is constructed internally of massive tie-beams and a plastered ceiling, though the original was most likely was a principal rafter roof similar to that of the third Bruton Parish Church. [Upton 242: see pp. 44 for diagrams of church roof structures in Virginia: If Upton is correct, the current footings of the beams and other roof underpinnings are not accurate representations.] The roof beams are decorated with chamfer and lamb’s tongue moldings. The present slate shingles are, of course, not the original roofing material which most likely was cedar shingles or clapboards painted or covered with tar. [Upton 103]

The ends of the east gable consist of a corbelled turret on the outside corners with eight crow steps rising to the middle. The crow steps on the west wall are truncated by the presence of the tower and so have only 1½ steps. Other colonial structures with gables are few and include Bacon’s Castle( 1665) the second Bruton Parish Church, (1680s), [See Upton p 39 for the image of this church] and St. Peter’s Church, New Kent County (1701) all of which are characterized by Flemish curved gables instead of crow step gables. All of the cornices are modern replacements. [Upton 61-62]


The tower, the only one known to be an original feature of a colonial church in Virginia [Upton 61] , stands to the west of the main church building and is 18’ east-west and 20’ north-south at the outside ground level. It is 60’ tall and consists of three stories. The corners of the first two stories of the three story tower are embellished by rusticated brick quoins of a row of two horizontally raised bricks divided by a projecting row of thin bricks with a vertical V in the center. The third story, presumably added some time after the rest of the tower [Rawlings 32-3] , is surmounted by a slate shingled, hipped roof with a modern weather vane at the crest. The southern and northern faces of the tower bear a single window on each story. From bottom to top they are: 1) an open oval ellipse three feet horizontally and two feet vertically; 2) a Y-tracery window matching the principal windows; and 3) a compass widow with a brick arch and louvers. The west façade is identical except that the lower story contains a round bricked arch with a simple, whitewashed tympanum above it. [Rawlings 34: Inthe 15th Century English Reformation, previously decorated features of churches such as rood screens were whitewashed as were eloborate tympanums: see the Wikipedia article on Rood screen.] The bottom of the tower is open and serves as a porch. [Rawlings 32-3]


The windows of Newport Parish Church are unique among colonial windows and the major element that gives the edifice a gothic character. The east window is a “great lancet consisting of two tiers of four circular-headed windows.” The two bottom courses consist of rows of four round-headed windows above which are a row of gothic arched windows, three diamond-shaped windows, and a pair of elongated, horizontal triangles as spandrels.Rawlings 33] Each of the east windows as well as the Y-tracery windows in the rest of the church are separated by modillions of molded, rubbed brick consisting of an ovolo (convex) and fillet (flat) shapes and an ovolo sill. There is a small, elliptical window above the great window. The presence of a great window is indicated in a few other, early churches in Virginia, namely St. Peter’s, New Kent County (1701) and Upper and Lower Middlesex Country churches(1714 & 1717). [Rawlings Table of Contents] Later churches without exception had chancel windows matching the principal windows on the north and south walls.There are eight lancet windows on the north and south edifices and three on the tower (second story south, west, and north faces) similar in general construction to the great window. They each consist of a pair of steeply arched windows with a single, smaller spandrel window completing the arch and separated with rubbed brick in the form of ovolo and fillet moldings. The sills are also of identical ovolo molded bricks.The present Tiffany-style, stained glass windows, despite local tradition to the contrary [Meade 300] , do not replicate the original material that was diamond-paned, leaded glass. No Virginia colonial church had stained glass windows.


This church displays the first recorded instance of the use of a main west entrance and a south entry placed in the extreme southeast corner of the church. Both doors are recent replacements, and the exact form of the western door is unknown. The principal entrance is through the tower archway by way of a large, semi-circular arch that is decorated by rubbed brick and am impost three bricks high at the lower end of the arch. The arch itself consists of voussoirs with plastered over, white bricks forming the interior of the arch. Above the arch is a primitive, triangular tympanum the lower line of which extends beyond the raked borders. It is embellished by a fascia on the outer course with a fillet and ovolo on the inner course. It was alternately decorated with white cement, a marble tablet, and now a wash of mortar.Rawlings 34]

The western inner entrance is now a wicket door patterned after that of Yeocomico Church although presently it is unpainted. Previously, there were two central opening, compass-headed doors at the outer entrance of the porch arch.Library of Congress Materials on St. Luke’s.] The southern entrance is presently a square-headed, battened door with decorative, molded bricks in the shape of an ovolo surrounding it. The images from the Library of Congress site are worth study, for they show in the late 1950s a compass headed door at this entrance that is evidenced by brick repairs above the doorway.


The only written record of the interior is from 1746 in which the wives of justices and vestrymen were assigned a box pew in the northern corner of the chancel and young women of the parish was assigned their former pews. There is one original baluster (the second from the left end on the altar rail). [Upton 242: He asserts that the baluster and the reproductions are placed upside down throughout the building.] The rood screen is based on footings discovered in the 1950s while the sounding board, that is seventeenth century in origin, was found in 1894 in a barn at Macclesfield, a nearby plantation. The single baluster and sounding board are the only original interior appointments.Rawlings 34-5]

The original interior appointments were long ago destroyed and the present is a restoration. It consists of a square pew of each side of the altar, two box pews west of the chancel screen, and seventeen slip pews in the nave.Rawlings 35]

The pulpit is a reconstruction three-decker of twentieth century origin; Rawlings postulates that a two-decker pulpit originally was built due to the lack of space for a clerk’s desk.

The main aisle is T-shaped and paved with square bricks whose pattern is derived from the original floor. Under the pews are wooden, reproduction floors. At the west end of the church is a gallery that originally had oak balusters and was restored during the 1950s The interior of the tower shows a portion of original plaster under a piece of glass, and it is covered with “mortar wash on the walls and exposed beams”. Portions of the wooden interior sills of the second story tower windows may be original.Much of the interior such as the rood screen, the kneeling rail, and a medieval-style bench east of the rood screen, are suppositions based the error prone 1950s restoration. [Also see Upton 242 note 13]

In the interior is a collection of objects such as a reproduction, wooden baptismal font, various items of furniture, and various ecclesiastical furnishings of dubious origin if the church is truly from the 1680s. [Rawlings 35-6]


All in all, this church is a fascinating Georgian (classical) structure with gothic embellishments. It is the oldest colonial church in Virginia and demonstrates the progression from the crude, wooden churches of the early seventeenth century to more permanent brick structures leading to the simple room churches characteristic of the Virginia vernacular church in its full development such as in Ware Church (1710-1715), [Rawlings 58] a rectangular church with an unadorned exterior and elaborate triangular and semi-circular pediments. Like Yeocomico Church, such features as the bell tower, enclosed west porch, elaborate quoins, and Y-tracery windows belong to a formative period of church building whose features were soon to pass. The present restoration, according to architectural historians, leaves much to be desired in its fanciful and poorly documented elements:
*” . . . the restorers let the assumed date of St. Luke’s shape their assessment of the physical evidence.” [Upton 242]
*“Although so much has been done for the church by so many – and a great deal of it admirable in both intention and execution – it must reluctantly be acknowledged that several false steps have been taken ...“ [Rawlings 37]

Dating Controversy

The dating of this church with Gothic elements is a matter of disagreement between local traditions and academic researchers. Local sources insist that the church can be dated to 1632.

The basic argument for 1632 is:

*The vestry records were concealed by burial during the Revolutionary War by Colonel Josiah Parker and read by his daughter, a Mrs. Cowper and other reliable witnesses who assert a brick church was built in 1632. Upon reading, the records were used as wadding for muskets during the war of 1812 [Meade I p.299.)] or crumpled into dust [Mason p.193.] [Rawlings p.8.]
*Local tradition links the name of a militia Colonel Joseph Bridger who is interred in the chancel of the church to the construction of the churchRawlings p.8.]
*A set of dating bricks, discovered in a roof collapse in 1887, or 1886, [Meade p.193.] bears the date 1632.
*Architectural elements such as buttresses, crow step gables, and the principal rafter roof were characteristic of early 17th century churches.Upton p.60.]

Other evidence calls into doubt the verisimilitude of these assertions:
*It was common for several churches to be built on the same site generations apart. The presence of a brick church on this site does not mean that it was this brick church
*Joseph Bridger was born in 1628 and was four years old in 1632. Some sources cite clumsy efforts to link Bridger’s father with the site, but his name was Samuel, and he can not be documented as having come to America [Meade p.206ff.] [Mason p.194f.]
*The bricks have indeterminate numerals that can be read as 1632 or 1682, and the style of numerals does not match colonial scripts. The bricks also have a mortar coating indicating that they may have been re-used as interior bricks in later repairs, alterations, or new construction. The best case scenario is the bricks were part of an earlier church at the same site and were used as interior bricks in the 1680 church. According to Upton, the bricks are clearly forgeries.
*Two other local figures, Charles and Thomas Driver, are also associated with the church, but they, like Colonel Bridger, are associated with records in the later 17th century when they were adults. There are two bricks in the third story of the tower bearing the initials CD and TD usually associated with these two men
*The architectural features of the building can all be documented in English churches of the later 17th century or much later time periods. [Upton pp.63–65.]

General historical data militate against the establishment of such an elaborate edifice in 1632 and generally agree with a date in the 1680s:

*The other Virginia buildings with gothic features were all constructed in the late 17th century or after:
**Bacon’s Castle 1665;
**Jamestown Church circa 1676 not 1639-1647; [Upton p.62]
**2nd Bruton Parish Church 1681-3;
**St. Peter’s Parish Church 1701;
**Yeocomico 1706. [Dates from Rawlings Table of Contents; Upton pp.61–62.]

It is unlikely that one of these stylistically related buildings predates the others so significantly.

*The association of Joseph Bridger with the church agrees with a date in the 1680s as do the local links to the Driver brothers (Rawlings 8; Upton 60).
*Funding for the Jamestown Church of 1639 was such a problem that it took until 1647 to complete the church. Could a more eleborate church been constructed in sparsely populated Isle of Wight in 1632?
*A compromise theory that the church was begun in the 1630s and then modified fifty years later, resulting in the current edifice is also posited.

Mason, Rawlings, and Upton all agree that 1632 is far too early a date for this edifice:
*Mason states, “Since . . . [All evidence] . . . point [s] to a later date than the traditional one, . . . it seems probable that the Old Brick Church was completed by Charles and Thomas Driver, as master workmen, under the direction of Colonel Joseph Bridger, about 1682, and that it succeeded an earlier brick church built on the same site, about 1632 . . . “. [Mason p.196.]
*Rawlings says, “Suffice it to say here that is seems hazardous to claim any date before 1665 and wiser to accept 1682 as the most likely year for its erection, as probably a second church on the same site.” [Rawlings p.31.]
*And Upton asserts, “St Luke’s similarities to [the previously cited buildings] . . . suggests [sic] a date in the fourth quarter of the seventeenth century for the Isle of Wight county building. . . . [in ] the years around 1680 . . . when a rectangular building based on the room churches, developed in rural England early in the same century, became the characteristic form of the Virginia vernacular church.” [Upton pp.64–65.]

Current use

Historic St. Luke's is controlled by Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc. The Bishop of Southern Virginia, the Rt. Rev. David C. Bane, Jr., was chairman of the board and the Rev. Gary J.M. Barker, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Smithfield, is the vicar. Christ Church is St. Luke's successor as the Parish Church of Newport Parish.

Current condition

As of 2002, the National Park Service (NPS) has declared St. Luke's condition to be threatened because of a townhouse development then being built on the southern boundary of the property. Because there are graves within a few feet of the property line, Historic St. Luke's has no practical means of buffering itself from the new development, short of asking for governmental condemnation of the townhouse project. Another threat listed by the NPS is from the lowering ground water level due to various environmental factors. This had already led to some "small vertical cracking" in the church walls. [ [ National Landmark page for St. Luke's] ]

ee also

* List of National Historic Landmarks in Virginia
* List of Registered Historic Places in Virginia, Counties H-M
* Oldest buildings in America




External links

* [ Historic St. Luke's website]
* [ National Historic Landmarks page on St. Luke's]
* [ National Register listing for St. Lukes]
* [ Library of Congress materials on St. Luke's]
* [ Archiplanet page on St. Luke's]
* [ St. Luke's churchyard tombstone inscriptions 19th & 20th centuries]
* [ Old Brick Church - proof of 1632 construction]
* [ Christ Episcopal Church, Smithfield]

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