Providence Presbyterian Church, a unique historic site within the Presbytery of the James, PC(USA) has also been one of its best kept secrets. Very few know that this building has the distinction of being the oldest Presbyterian Church in continual use in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Indeed, it is the oldest one south or west of Pennsylvania. It is also the only remaining example of the seven “Meeting Houses” built by dissenters of Hanover and Louisa when the Church of England was the established church. In the early 1740’s, Samuel Morris invited a group of people to read the Bible and worship in his home. As this group grew, he began to build “Meeting Houses,” for Bible study. Upon being called to Williamsburg to defend his actions before Governor Gooch, Morris and other dissenters declared themselves “Presbyterians”. Governor Gooch granted them permission to worship in this denomination under the “Act of Toleration”.
Samuel Davies, Apostle to Virginia, arrived in 1747 to minister to this group of Christians in the seven Meeting Houses. Although he was a weak and sickly man, he had a profound impact on the move for religious freedom in Virginia. Patrick Henry was greatly influenced by Davies’ skill as an orator. During his tenure in Virginia, Davies taught slaves to read and sent missionaries to the Indians. Davies only preached at Providence until 1752, when the Presbytery sent John Todd to take over some of his preaching points. Davies remained inHanover until 1759, when he was asked to take over the Presidency of the College of New Jersey, which would eventually becomePrinceton University.
John Todd became Providence Church’s first pastor in 1752 and he remained in this position for 41 years, serving until his death in 1793. He became a resident of Louisa County and established one of the first classical schools in the area. This school was a forerunner ofHampden-Sydney College of which Mr. Todd was one of the original trustees. Rev. John Todd was a supporter of the American Revolution and served as the chaplain of the Louisa Militia. It was also during Mr. Todd’s ministry to Providence that the famous evangelist, George Whitefield, preached from the Church’s pulpit.
Rev. Todd’s ministry marked the beginning of the long — and often difficult — history of Providence as a Presbyterian church. It is recorded that the congregation was nearly decimated by the Civil War, but was kept alive by one or two men and a few women. Over the years the size of the congregation varied little, usually hovering around forty members. Being a rural church, it was dependent upon the few residents of the area for its support. In 1947, the “Old Providence Rural Parish” was formed linking four churches under a resident pastor with Union Seminary and West Hanover Presbytery. This plan served the needs of the churches and provided valuable experience for seminary students and students of Presbyterian School of Christian Education. The plan worked so well that it was expanded to include other churches before a shift in Presbytery bounds caused it to be phased out of existence. The first seminary student to serve Providence under the parish plan was privileged to return as the church’s minister forty-six years later!
Another item of interest in the history of Providence is the set of silver communion vessels, which were willed to the church in 1769. John Williamson, an elder in the church, left the communion cups to this congregation upon his death. Providence continues to use these cups for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper monthly. Along with these silver vessels, he also bequeathed a sum of five pounds annually for the church to maintain a pastor as well as an equal amount to be used in the education of ministers.
With the construction of 1-64, the area around Gum Spring began to attract families who wished to live in a rural setting and commute to work in Richmond. Consequently, Providence has begun to grow and respond to new opportunities for ministry. In 1986, an educational building was erected, and it is presently being enlarged and upgraded. The happy sounds of many children are bringing new life to the old walls. Vacation Bible School enrolls about sixty children each year. Providence Presbyterian Preschool operates five days each week, and has been recently expanded to provide additional classes and space. We believe Samuel Davies and John Todd would like what they could see if they were to visit their old church today!
Providence Presbyterian Church stands today as a tribute to the dissenters who struggled for the religious freedom we enjoy today. Unchanged except for necessary upkeep, the simple structure stands amid oak and pine, much as it did 250 years ago when Indians roamed the Virginia forests and a few simple people met to read and study the Bible in their own fashion. Currently in it’s 260th year,Providence looks back at a remarkable history with gratitude and celebrates God’s blessings on this structure and its people.