Our History

At St. Paul’s, we recognize that our history matters. It matters because it has built the world that we live in and struggle with—both good and bad. It also shapes the place where we look to build a future.

At St. Paul’s, we value truth telling. Our history humbles us. Our members enslaved our fellow Christians, and told the story of Proslavery Gospel that led us into a bloody war in the 1860’s. A generation later, we conflated Confederate leaders with Biblical prophets and memorials that honored them. During that time period, parishioners wrote the laws that set up Jim Crow Virginia. Complacency and comfort characterized us in the face of challenges to segregation in the middle of the 20th Century.

At the same time, we also look fondly on those parts of our history that inspire our most hopeful aspirations. St. Paul’s parishioners like Nancy Macfarland led Richmond in coping with the trauma of loss during the Civil War. Our rector Walter Russell Bowie (1911-1923), transformed St. Paul’s into what he called a “dynamo of power for all the church’s missionary service everywhere.” Bowie’s aunt, Mary Cooke Munford, charged into nearly every one of Richmond’s problems from poverty to poor education to attempt solutions. Rector Beverly Tucker (1923-1938) harangued the city council in the 1920s over its efforts to codify residential segregation into law while parishioner Richard Carrington led Richmond and Virginia’s Commission on Interracial Cooperation in the 1930s. Carrington’s successors, the Scotts (Buford and Susie) and Russell Palmore joined rector Jack Spong (1969-1977) in a bold statement supporting the Protestant Episcopal Church’s the late 1960s racial justice initiative. Rector Craig Biddle (1977-1982), the Rev. Ben Campbell, along with vestry member Ruby Martin, all worked to make real the Church’s vision of justice in the streets of Richmond.

We see our history all around us as we move through the physical building of St. Paul’s. The classical columns of our building, erected in 1845, speak to the aspirations for genteel order. The gallery in our sanctuary creaked under the weight of enslaved and free Black women like Nancy Scott before emancipation. The names of grandparents and great grandparents adorn the tablets that line the walls of our sanctuary and parish house. In the 1940s, precocious young girls like Trudy Bryan tossed Life Savers onto the fancy hats of the women below. The parking deck, built in 1961, provided the revenue that fueled great outreach initiatives—like Isaiah in the 1970s and 1980s, the Prison Ministry, and Micah at the turn of the 20th Century. St Paul’s nurtured a dozen start-ups that minister to public health, education, and fair housing campaigns in its parish house.

In 1896, Rector Hartley Carmichael (1889-1899) resisted the call to move the congregation to more fashionable districts to the west. He and the vestry considered St. Paul’s a kind of museum, a shrine because of its Confederate connections. They reveled in it, and they stayed. This is sense of importance that kept St. Paul’s rooted in downtown Richmond in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when so many other white institutions fled to the suburbs. We continue to be committed to our place in Richmond, as we “proclaim Christ in the heart of the City.”

Just as history placed us where we are, history made us as we are. St. Paul’s has woven the worst and the best into the fabric of Richmond. Knowing this makes us humble and also grounded and confident as we look to the future. We do this partially through the work of our History and Reconciliation Initiative, and through numerous outreach programs addressing the needs of its neighbors. Since 1989, St. Paul’s has drawn off a percentage of its endowment fund annually to help support its Outreach Ministry. More than 20% of all church revenue goes to support outreach programs. Learn more about our outreach ministries here.