tv St. Johns Church Church of the Presidents CSPAN January 8, 2017 10:00pm-10:39pm EST
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>> located across lafayette square from the white house is st. john's church, known as the church of the presidents. built in 1816 and designed by u.s. capitol architect, every president since james madison has attended at least one service there. historian and church member richard grimmett gave american history tv a tour. >> this church was founded as a place for people to worship who had been forced to attend services on capitol hill near the navy yard. and when they decided they had the means available, they came forward, put together a committee to form the church, and ultimately had the building built. the cornerstone was laid in september 1815, at the time that was done, it was done by the grand lodge of the masons of
washington, d.c., the cornerstone was set with an elaborate ceremony, a parade took place downtown all the way to this space, led by the u.s. marine corps band. it was quite an event. and subsequently the church opened for business after it was erected in october of 1816, and it was consecrated on december 27, 1816, st. john's day, the saint for whom the church is named. the architect of the church had been an architect for the capitol and had been called back to washington to help restore the federal buildings that had been destroyed by the british during the war of 1812. he built the church as a greek cross form. if you look at the ceiling here, you can see the four corners,
the pillars, and the dome of the original latrobe church. this was a clean, classical design. he was noted for those kinds of innovations as an architect. he also became the first organist of this church and even wrote a consecration hymn. but this was his building. subsequently after latrobe finished his church, because of the need for additional space, the church was expanded between 1820 and 1822 by pushing the knave back to the wall and adding more pews and more space. the bell tower and the colonade as you see it today on the west front of the church was completed at that time. so basically from 1822 forward, what you see outside in terms of the footprint of the church is
the church as it has existed since 1822. latrobe, when he built his church, did a wonderful sketch, which shows the white house in the distance across lafayette square, still in ruins from the british burning the capitol in the summer of 1814. and you can see the wall of the white house crumbled down. and at the side you have this nice, beautiful, finished building. the picture dates roughly from about the summer of 1816. church is still not completely finished inside, but you can see the location of the church and the white house and the association with presidents begins from the moment of its inception. now, when the church was expanded, we're very fortunate that in 1822, the wife of the french minister of the united states was occupying the decater house, which is on another
corner of lafayette square. and she was a very talented sketch artist and from the top floor of the house she sketched st. john's church, and you can see at that point the extension that we have today, the one that was finished in 1822. a modern photograph which can be used as an indication of all the buildings associated with downtown washington and washington as a city, the photograph i took from the top of the cfio building, shows the steeple of st. john's with the weather vein facing lafayette square with the white house in the background and the washington monument in the distance. that steeple and weather vein have been there since 1822. once the church was finished, the last thing that went into it was a bell, which was ordered from the revere works in boston, that's paul revere's son,
joseph, who was the one responsible for providing that bell to the church. it weighs almost 1,000 pounds. it was installed in the bell tower in november of 1822, and it's been in continuous use ever since. that bell probably is one of maybe 500 left in the entire country, many of whom were not church bells, but nonetheless, that's one of the pride and joys of this church. and it's difficult for anybody to see it on a tour because of the narrowness of the access route to the bell tower itself, but we have pictures of it, and it says on the bell, revere boston, 1822. one of the artifacts of st. john's which we're very proud of. i like to tell you something about the pews, because there's a connection between the pews and the presidency itself.
and from the time the church was built until the present, there's always been a pew set aside for the president of the united states whenever he might choose to attend a service at st. john's. in 1816 when the church was built, we had the box pews, the large box pews with the doors, and when the church fathers went over to meet with president james madison, he was offered a pew free of charge, no rent, for any time he would choose to attend services. and madison being a person who believed in the separation of church and state was not going to pick a pew. he said you pick one for me, and so they set it aside with a clear understanding that any president in the future who chose to attend would be able to use that pew free of charge. now, in 1816, that pew was located at the back of the original church of latrobe, the one shaped like a greek cross . and its number then was pew
number 28. but in 1843, again, to try to find more space and more room, the church leaders found that the box pews just weren't efficient in terms of providing enough space for people, and so what they did was agreed to redesign the church pew structure and build in what today are the pews we have, the slip pews, with wrought iron armrests on the end and the wooden structure you see today. this is the original church pews that have been here since 1843. now at that time they had to renumber the pews, obviously, because they had more of them, so what was the president's pew, number 28, now became pew number 54, which we know is the president's pew, and this is the pew that the president of the united states sits in when he attends services at st. john's on most regular church occasions.
and it's marked with a brass plaque so everybody knows this is the president's pew. anyone can sit in the pew. it's only reserved for the president when he chooses to attend a service. now, not always does a president sit in this particular pew. when you have a special occasion where protocol dictates, a special service of some kind or a funeral or a memorial service of some kind, the president will sit in the front pew on the left of the center section, pew 62. when president obama was inaugurated in 2009, he sat in the very front of the church in pew 62, not in the regular president's pew, because of the nature of the occasion. but if you're talking about a regular church service, the president would come in through h street entrance most of the time and be part of the worship
service with the rest of the church. one of the treasures of st. john's is this book of common published inwas and as you'll notice has 1856. embossed upon it president's pew st. john's church. this book of common prayer was used by presidents probably from president buchanan forward until it was taken out of service when a new edition was published in the 1880's. in 1961, when a commemorative service was planned at st. john's to recognize the first attendants of abraham lincoln, in february of 1861, the organist of st. john's found this in the archives and discussed it with church leaders at the time. and they thought it would be a good idea to have every president still living sign it and for every president that would follow them to sign it as well. and so what we have inside this historic book are the signatures
of herbert hoover, franklin roosevelt, which was signed by his wife, eleanor roosevelt, harry truman, dwight eisenhower, lyndon johnson, ford, carter, ronald reagan, george bush, and so on, and, of course, more recently, george w. bush and barack obama. so the tradition has been maintained. at some point when a new president's elected, st. john's makes an effort to contact them and have them sign this very historic book, which is a very dear item to the church. it clearly does not sit in the president's pew anymore, but it's one of those great pieces of history that has been long associated with this church from 1856 to the present. abraham lincoln has an association with st. john's as well.
when he was elected in 1860, his first church service that he attended after he arrived in washington in february of 1861, was at st. john's. he came to st. john's on the 24th of february, on a sunday, for the 11:00 service with senator william seward of new york. he was going to be his secretary of state. they sat in the front of the church, but hardly anybody recognized him, including the rector, who was giving the sermon at the time and didn't even know he was speaking to the president-elect of the united states until after the service when senator seward introduced him. now, abraham lincoln didn't belong to any specific church during his life, but because his wife had a tendency towards presbyterianism, they attended on most sundays they did go to church as a family, the new york avenue presbyterian church.
however, lincoln did from time to time sit in the president's pew, number 54, with his secretaries. but most of the time he did not formally attend st. john's. however, during the civil war, he would, from time to time during the evening services of st. john's that were instituted, he would come in the very back door of the church on the south side and sit in the very last pew in the back of the church where he could have a quiet moment of contemplation and reflection without becoming the center of attention, which he would have been had he sat in the president's pew in the front and center of the church, so this pew back here is the lincoln pew at st. john's, pew number 89, and you can see it's right at the back door.
someone could easily come in, slip in, and join the service and leave without being the center of attention. as you can see just the visuals from this, if you sit here and you look at the front of the church, it's a very private place. there really could be no better place for a person who wanted some privacy to deal with all the burdens of being president during a civil war and the issues he had to contend with, to sit back here, quietly contemplate whatever thoughts he might have on the issues of the day, look to the front of the church, and basically the only people who could see him would be the ministers who were conducting the service, because everybody would be facing forward. and it was president lincoln's habit after he had come to one of these services to leave before the service ended and quietly slip out this back door from this pew and walk across lafayette square back to the white house. another small little tidbit
about abraham lincoln is when he was inaugurated as president, he had left the family bible in the luggage and was not available for him to take the oath of office. so the clerk of the supreme court, who was also a member of st. john's, william carroll, lent him his bible, so you may recall that the library of congress lent that original carroll bible to barack obama for purposes of his swearing in. well, the carroll family was a long-standing family at st. john's, and here is a stained glass window that was prepared when these windows were installed in the church in honor of william carroll and his family. the library congress, of course, has that bible today, but st. john's has memorialized william carroll in this stained glass window. i've been mentioning some of the
stained glass windows of st. john's. when the building was first built, there were not stained glass windows. they were clear windows, and some with shades to block out the sunlight when it was very, very bright. in the mid-1880's, a decision was made to introduce true stained glass windows, which were made by the famous lorinne glass form in france. decisions were made that the windows would have a certain amount of uniformity to them, that they would reflect scenes from the life of jesus or of st. john's, for whom the church was named. one of these windows that was installed was the montgomery blair, who was postmaster general during president lincoln's administration. prior to that time, he'd been mayor of st. louis, and he also was the counsel for dread scott during
that supreme court decision. this montgomery blair window shows you the incredible beauty of the art work that the lorinne firm was noted for, the blues, the reds, the details. it's amazingly beautiful to see these on sundays when the sun is up and you can see the intricacy and the carving and the color scheme is just a wonder to behold. if you'll come and look at the main altar, you'll notice a particularly unique window in the center. this is a rendition of the last supper, but you'll notice it's nothing like you've seen if you have ever seen the pictures of leonardo da vinci's last supper.
the table is sideways from left to right. jesus and john are in the middle. in this particular view jesus is , at the far end of the table and you're looking at one end to the other. this is a particularly beautiful window. there's none like it to our knowledge any place in the world. there's no church that has a specific window quite like that. this window was installed during the renovations of st. john's in 1883 to 1885, in which the choir and altar were pushed back about 30 or 40 feet to the property line so there would be more space available. and you can see the window is signed by madam lorinne, and if you look at the far bottom right corner of it, you can see her
name etched into the glass with a notation that she was from chartres, france, and that was the label you'll find on a lot of these windows. they designed the windows in france, cut the glass into the various components, shipped it to new york where james renwick, who was the architect responsible for the expansion of the church at the time, had them assembled and sent to st. john's for installation. the family of admiral charles wilkes, a member of st. john's for a number of years, his family wanted to have an anchor made as part of his window. but to do that, there was concern they'd have to come up with some kind of a matching design or something to offset it on the other side of this three-part window above the altar, so there was a lot of correspondence back and forth
about how they were going to do this. but the end result was that the wilkes family got their anchor, and if you'll take a look at the label at the very bottom of the side light on the right where it says erected to the glory of god and in memory of rear admiral charles wilkes, u.s. navy, died february 8, 1877. and then the next line you'll see a little anchor. so he got his anchor. the family was happy, and we have a beautiful side light to accompany the large last supper window. charles wilkes was actually a very, very noted explorer. when he was a lieutenant in the navy, he led an exploring expedition that circumnavigated the globe. and there's an entire section of antarctica that's named after him, it's called wilkes land, because he's deemed to have discovered that section when he was on this trip.
so in a strange sort of way, admiral wilkes has got one of those colorful personal histories that most people don't know about today. but in this small little corner of st. john's, he's remembered and his family got their anchor. we're going to go up now to the gallery, the upper level of st. john's. as i mentioned before, the bell installed in was november of 1822. and this rope was the rope that was used to ring that bell, and over time, you know, the rope was changed and there was many times when the bell was rung on famous occasions, you know, like the end of the second world war or after kennedy's assassination to the point the rope would break. with modern technology today, the church has an electronic system to ring the bell without
having to use the old method of having somebody ring it by hand, but we've kept the rope in place as sort of a momento of times past. [bellringing] i wanted you to see two particular windows up here. this window here, especially the one on the top, many times in the past was made into a postcard by the church. the two parts of the window were both collectively a memorial for senator william seward, and as the legend says at the bottom, erected by his friends who worshipped in this church for 20 years while senator from new york and while secretary of state. and these are two particularly
beautiful segments of lorin stained glass windows. but the sword at the top half was particularly beautiful, the detailing, and as i said, it was made into a postcard 30, 40 years ago. and, of course, the other half of the window at the bottom is the presentation of jesus in the temple. the vestry also dedicated an 1885 window to a couple of the presidents who had attended st. john's, and this is the window here starting to show some wear, but basically it says it was erected in 1885 by the vestry in memory of james madison, james monroe, and martin van buren,
who worshipped in this church while in office. so i would just mention here is an example of, again, stained glass window beauty, but also the historical connection. martin van buren was not an episcopalian, monroe and madison were, but presidents who attended st. john's did not have to be adherents to the episcopalian faith, they could be anything. john quincy adams was one of the most noted religious presidents. of all the presidents, he probably attended church services more than anybody. he was essentially a unitarian for most of his life, but he would attend afternoon services at st. john's when he was president and afterwards. presidents came to attend this church because, yes, it was convenient, it was just a small trip across the square to the church.
you can see even here from the gallery looking down, this was part of the expansion of the church from latrobe's original building. it's very intimate. if you look above the chandelier into the coopala, you can see stained glass windows there. those were put in in 1895 in memory of peter hagner, one of the original founders of this church, by his family. it's kind of hard to see those from the ground floor. that used to be nothing but clear glass. but from here, you get a bit of an idea of how this church has been adorned over time in various ways. another window up here i wanted to have you see was installed in memory of lieutenant general winfield scott, who was a vestry member of st. john's, he was also the commanding general of the united
states army at the outbreak of the civil war. this window was dedicated in his behalf by hamilton fish, who was secretary of state during president grant's administration and was also a member of st. john's. again, another example of the beautiful lorin glasswork and the detailing, which we hope to maintain and preserve for as long as this building exists. throughout the history of this church, people can talk about famous people who have been here. most of the people who were members of st. john's were not famous. they were ordinary people who wished to go to a church service somewhere near there neighborhood. yourwashington experienced effect event of the british burning the capital in 1814, almost one year to the day after that summer, the cornerstone was
laid. at that time, the editor of the newspaper wrote an editorial which sort of summed up what the feeling was at the time and what st. john's in its own way symbolized to the people at large. i'm going to quote that statement. in reflecting on that same day that ismonths ago -- referring to august of 1814 when the capital was burned -- the ruins of the presidents house and executive office still enveloped the area with smoke on which the solemn ceremony was performed, the laying of the cornerstone. that heart must of been tell us that did not feel more sensibly than on any other occasion the warmest gratitude to that being whose providence is opened to the whole nation and the inhabitants of this district the
mustering prospects of the future, prospects that impart additional satisfaction and derive superior brightness from the recollection of our past and almost hopeless humiliations. the church of st. john's is situated on a beautiful rich exactly north of the presidents house on the square, a situation surpassed by few of the many exquisite spots in which the side of washington' abound. the architect has endeavored to distinguish it by style of simplicity and caricature of architecture adapted to the singular beauty of its position. simplicity andinterview of the f washington at that time, the building of this church represented a new beginning for the city of washington. subsequent to that time, st. john's had any number of special services, funerals, weddings,
and the like. one of the most famous was that of dolley madison. first,madison was the first lady to attend st. john's. and soon after the event i just described. in 1836,husband died she decided to move back to washington. she moved back to the house which is on one corner of lafayette square, very close to st. john's, and she lived there until her death in 1849. when she came back to washington, she was baptized in st. john's and confirmed by the bishop of maryland in this church. when she died, her funeral was conducted in this church and it was attended by everyone. the entire cabinet, the president, all the city fathers. at that service, one of the pallbearers was a man whose name has been lost to history.
he was original member of st. john's church. he was a clerk in the state department in 1814. washington hadof yet to take place, james monroe, who was his boss, secretary of state, was scouting to see the disposition of british military forces. he concluded there was a strong probability washington would be attacked and possibly burned. back to theder state department who contacted him and said i think you should secure all the important documents of the united states. s, he secured, bag all the major records of the united states at that time in possession of the state department, including the declaration of independence and the constitution of the united states.
other records of the senate that have not been released, treaties , washington's commission, washington's resignation document. obviously, most important, the declaration of independence. he took these wagons across the river. after thinking about it, he concluded because there was a foundry close at hand the british might think would be useful in providing munitions, he continued on a journey retook the wagons all the way to leesburg, virginia, and had them there.in a secure place and he went to bed exhausted. the citizens of leesburg, virginia, saw all of washington in flames and told him about it when he woke up the next morning. he recalled an exchange he had had as he was taking the documents out of the state department for safekeeping. he ran into the secretary of war
at the time who saw what he was doing and said, why are you doing this? i think you are being extremely alarmist. there is no point. washington is not going to be invaded by the british. he said i think it is a point of prudence to do it. i work for the secretary of state and i'm going to do it, and he carried on. if he had not secured those documents, today you could not go to the national archives and see the declaration of independence. you could not see the constitution of the united states in its original form and all the other precious documents of american history that were kept at the state department during that time. dolley madison died. her funeral was conducted from st. john's. many of the major figures of washington society and government were pallbearers at that funeral. but there was one person most people would not normally recognize when they looked at that list. people forgot about him and what
he did. in 1849, everyone knew what role he had played in saving the precious national documents of the united states. people did know also that dolley madison had saved a portrait of george washington that was in the white house as she was fleeing the building. clearly for the people of washington at that time, they saw the connection and made sure he had the honored place as a pallbearer. that funeral service left st. john's and went all the way to toh street southeast congressional cemetery where dolley madison was entered -- interred in a vault until her remains could be buried with her husband. but everybody knew she represented a major time in american history, he did as well. are oneof them together of those elements of american
history and st. john's church that are worth remembering. one of the little-known facts about presidential inaugurations is that it's been a custom in modern times to have a church service, a worship service of some kind, before the president takes the oath of office. now, a lot of people feel that's something of long-standing tradition, and it's not. it actually began with franklin roosevelt on march 4, 1933, when he wished to have a worship service take place before he took the oath of office in the depths of the great depression, so he contacted the church, and he organized a special service with his former headmaster at school, who participated with the church in coming up with a special service. they had that service at st.
john's that morning, and he felt that that was the way to start. he wrote letters later on saying that he thought that he got his administration off to the right footing by having that service at st. john's in march of 1933. now, what that did was it planted in the minds of people that this was a good thing to do. so when roosevelt died, harry truman became president. when harry truman was inaugurated in 1949, after his election in 1948, he came to st. john's and had a pre-inaugurational worship service here before he was sworn in for his full term as president. subsequent to that time, other presidents have had pre-inaugural services in churches or else where, not not necessarily in st. john's
but the tradition began here, , and it began with franklin roosevelt, and that's one more example of the association of st. john's with presidents and part of the heritage of this building. it's always been available as a place and an intimate place for services that people might wish to have. for example, when president kennedy was assassinated, november 22, 1963, reverend john harper, the rector of st. john's john's at the time, was contacted by president lyndon johnson and asked if the following day, the saturday, on november 23rd around noon if st. john's would have a brief memorial service on behalf of president kennedy. and, of course, the church was quite happy to comply, and on that day, president johnson, his wife ladybird, and some of the staff, came over, they had a private memorial service here, and there is an iconic picture of president johnson coming out
of the church with his wife and the rector of st. john's and the look on johnson's face says it all. if ever was a pained expression that captured the mood of the moment, that was the picture that did it. st. john's is a church. i've been giving you a lot of examples of historic artifacts in this building, it's not a museum, although people may feel that that's why they note it for, the fact it's been here so long, the fact it's been associated with presidents, but one thing that is absolutely the case is that this church has been an integral part of washington from its very beginning as a worship place. when st. john's held its 100th
anniversary service, the centennial service was held in 1917, in january, the keynote speaker was henry cabot lodge of massachusetts. and on that occasion he summed up what was true then and is still true today about the nature of this place and its role in washington history. he said, to describe all that has happened within sight of this spot, all that this church has seen looking across the square would be to tell, in large part, the history of the united states. that was a true statement then, and it's a true statement today. st. john's is still an integral part of washington, d.c. it continues to serve the needs of its congregation and visitors alike and is a welcoming place for anyone who wishes to join us for a worship service. grimmett is the author of the history of st. john's church.