The St. Paul’s congregation grew out of Monumental Protestant Episcopal Church on Broad Street (est. 1814). With the substantial transfer of that earlier church’s clergy, vestry, and over 200 members, the new church debuted as the Diocese’s largest parish.

The founding generation was comprised of prominent Virginia leaders in business, industry, and government. Extensive research confirms that nearly all were also enslavers who owned Black men, women, and children to labor in their city homes, their factories, coal mines, and in the fields of their country estates. While the record does not identify commercial slave traders on membership rosters, parishioners independently bought, sold, and sometimes rented African Americans at will. In the antebellum years, there were no more than six Black communicants listed as official communicants. After 1861, there would be no African American members in the segregated church for another century. Black individuals who did attend services were relegated to separate pews in the west gallery.

During the Civil War, the people of St. Paul’s were fully aligned with the Confederate cause. Because of the proximity of St. Paul’s to the Capitol building, notable Confederate government and military leaders were communicants, including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Embracing this history, as well as mourning a sizeable number of wartime casualties, the church maintained its Confederate identity in the post-war decades. It perpetuated Lost Cause sentiment through memorial windows, plaques, and related services well into the 20th century.

During the Progressive Era, 1910s-1930s, two young rectors—Walter Russell Bowie and his successor, Beverley D. Tucker Jr.—guided the church’s focus to the issues and needs of Black Richmonders. As the Commonwealth and city enacted strict Jim Crow laws, St. Paul’s hosted regular integrated gatherings of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Both Bowie and Tucker publicly denounced the Ku Klux Klan from the church pulpit. At mid-century, when clergy and parishioners disengaged from race relations, some members became vocal advocates for ongoing segregation and the state’s “Massive Resistance” campaign against integration. This changed in the late 1960s when the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia established policies supporting civil rights and urged outreach to Black communities. The new rectorship of John Shelby Spong (later Bishop of Newark), aided by dedicated parishioners, helped realign St. Paul’s mission. From the 1970s until the present day, St. Paul’s has positioned itself as an inclusive, socially active congregation.

In 2015, following the murder of nine Black members of Mother Emanual Church in Charleston, S.C., St. Paul’s began a multi-year program of self-study and prayerful conversations called the History and Reconciliation Initiative. Its mission was to recover, examine, and acknowledge its racial history in order to repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God, one another, and the broader community. The initiative sponsored workshops, lectures, films, and travel to significant Black history sites in the city, as well as a pilgrimage to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. At regular intervals, parishioners learned about and discussed the findings of new research regarding the church’s complicity in systemic racism, from its founding to the present day. This history was shared during the 2018 forum, “Bending Toward the Truth,” with the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, as a participant. The recovered history is detailed in a book by parishioner and historian, Christopher A. Graham.

By resolution of its vestry, St. Paul’s removed and stored all plaques and kneelers bearing Confederate battle flag motifs (2016) and additional plaques associated with the Confederacy and Lost Cause sentiment (2020). In a service of reconciliation (2020), the church also rededicated two pairs of windows originally honoring Confederate leaders—now dedicated to the glory of God. In 2022, St. Paul’s commissioned 14 hand-cut silhouettes by artist Janelle Washington illustrating the church’s racial history. Modeled after the Stations of the Cross, the “Stations of St. Paul’s” are displayed in the sanctuary during Lent and other special occasions.

Rectors and years of tenure

  • William Norwood 1845-1849
  • Alexander Jones 1849-1854
  • Charles F. Minnigerode 1856-1889
  • Hartley Carmichael 1889-1899
  • Robert Strange 1900-1904 (later Bishop, Diocese of East Carolina)
  • Robert Wright Forsyth 1904-1911
  • Walter Russell Bowie 1911-1923
  • Beverley Dandridge Tucker Jr. 1923-1938 (later Bishop, Diocese of Ohio)
  • Vincent C. Franks 1939-1947
  • Robert Raymond Brown 1947-1955 (later Bishop, Diocese of Arizona)
  • Joseph Thomas Heistand 1955-1968 (later Bishop, Diocese of Arizona)
  • John Shelby Spong 1969-1976 (later Bishop, Diocese of Newark)
  • Craig Biddle III 1977-1982
  • Robert Gunn Hetherington 1984-2006
  • Wallace Adams-Riley 2008-2017
  • Charles T. Dupree 2019-present