St. John’s Episcopal Church in the town of Tappahannock (Essex County) is located in the heart of historic Tidewater Virginia. Situated on the south side of the Rappahannock River, and visited by Captain John Smith in 1608—just one year after his landing in Jamestown—Tappahannock was founded in 1680. Tappahannock serves as a gateway to the “Northern Neck,” a peninsula lying between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers that is the birthplace of three presidents and many illustrious founders of our nation.
St. John’s is one of two churches established to replace the colonial buildings of South Farnham Parish that were lost during a lengthy period of confusion, impoverishment, legal entanglements and neglect that followed the Revolutionary War. First, in 1820, came the Town Chapel (a.k.a. Tappahannock Chapel), deeded to the Episcopal Church, and used by four local denominations. It has survived as the present site of Modern Cleaners. Next, in 1838, under the dynamic aegis of the Reverend John Peyton McGuire, a young Episcopal priest who was known as the “Apostle to the Rappahannock,” the cornerstone was laid for St Paul’s Church in the neighboring town of Miller’s Tavern. In 1849, St. John’s vestry decided to erect a new building to replace the Town Chapel. That October, land was acquired, and a year later, in 1850, the present St. John’s Church was completed and occupied. The Reverend McGuire, St. John’s first rector, is buried in St. John’s churchyard and memorialized by a Tiffany window above the pulpit.
In 1853, the first of several musical instruments at St. John’s—a small reed organ known as a “melodian”—was installed in the church balcony. Numerous other improvements and modifications ensued. The parish hall at St. John’s was built during the 1930s. In 1972, the church was enlarged by extending the nave and adding transepts. A building project is currently underway to make St. John’s fully accessible to the handicapped and to all who are limited in their mobility.
Originally, one priest served both St. John’s and St. Paul’s parishes. However, in 1972 the congregations of St. John’s and St. Paul’s were officially separated into two self-sustaining parishes, and St. John’s acquired the rectory that had been jointly owned while one priest served both parishes.
Historical continuity is maintained in the old parish name, South Farnham, and in the membership rolls which include long-affiliated families, among them descendants of the Reverend Lewis Latané, Rector of South Farnham Parish from 1701-1733. Our present church has been welcoming worshipers continuously since it was built in 1850.
We are proud of our beautiful church. It is one of the very few Episcopal churches in Virginia that is built in the “Carpenter Gothic” style. The vertically aligned wooden siding and tall steeple crowned by a cross remind us of a traditional spiritual orientation toward God in heaven above. Inside our church, in addition to the Tiffany window with cross commemorating Reverend McGuire, are five lovely old stained glass windows that represent Biblical scenes and personages. Our newest stained glass window, depicting St. Margaret, recalls our close affiliation through many years with St. Margaret’s Episcopal Boarding School for girls in Tappahannock. St. John's is part of the Historic Walking Tour of Tappahannock that includes 13 buildings dated between 1680 and 1850, all located in downtown Tappahannock.
Come visit with us. We would be proud to share with you our voyage of faith in our beautiful historic church.
Click here for additional history of St. John's and colonial churches in Tidewater Virginia.