Cemetery of the Week #140: Christ Church churchyard

Souvenir postcard with a photo by Fred Miller, circa 1987

Souvenir postcard with a photo by Fred Miller, circa 1987

Christ Church
aka Christ Episcopal Church
20 North American Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106
Telephone: (215) 922-1695
Founded: 1695
Size: Only a small patch of churchyard remains. There may be bodies under the green lawn next door, but they no longer have monuments.
Number of interments: 500?
Open: Monday through Saturday from 9 AM to 5 PM and Sunday afternoons from 1 PM to 5 PM.
Admission: Visiting the Church is free, but a donation of $3 for adults and $2 for students will help to maintain the Church.

Anglicans, who looked to the King of England as their spiritual leader, organized Christ Church congregation in 1695. Their worship derived from Henry VIII’s split with Pope Leo X over his ability to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn in 1533. At its beginning, the Anglican liturgy varied little from its Catholic forebear, other than denying the authority of the pope and performing the mass in English. Both were radical ideas in their time.

Construction of this beautiful Georgian church began on this site in 1727. The current building was completed in 1754. The exterior of sober brick was crowned with a bright white steeple. When I visited, the interior was bright and people-scaled, cozy enough to absorb a tour group of 50 high school kids without swallowing them up. There was a steady stream of tour groups through the gift shop.

On July 4, 1776, the Vestrymen of Christ Church were holding a meeting when they heard that the Declaration of Independence had been signed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, three blocks away. They quickly decided that all the passages in their prayer book that prayed for the King of England were “inconsistent” with the new Declaration — and edited them out. In 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S. was organized here.

Christ Church became “the fashionable house of worship in Philadelphia,” according to Freedom of Worship: Meeting Houses, Churches, and Synagogues of Early Philadelphia. The Vestrymen set aside a pew for the use of George Washington, who had been elected president of the fledgling nation (whose capital was Philadelphia until just before the War of 1812). Benjamin Franklin was a pew-holder in the Church, meaning (I think) that he tithed enough money to maintain use of it. Betsy Ross became a member of the congregation after the Quakers rejected her for marrying her husband.

Detail of the postcard above, showing the churchyard

Detail of the postcard above, showing the churchyard

Buried in the churchyard outside was Robert Morris, one of the richest men in America at the time of the Revolution who became known as the Financier of the Revolution. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation, and the United States Constitution, and served for one term as a Senator.

James Wilson also lies in the yard around Christ Church. He signed the Declaration of Independence and is one of the authors of the Constitution. He argued that citizens should be able to elect their government directly, rather than going through the Electoral College. Washington appointed him to the first Supreme Court. He died in North Carolina and was buried at the Hayes Plantation near Edenton. In 1906, his remains were exhumed and moved to the Christ Churchyard.

Other famous autographers at Christ Church include Jacob Broom, signer of the United States Constitution from Delaware; Pierce Butler, signer of the Constitution from South Carolina; and Judge George Ross, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Andrew Hamilton, an attorney in Colonial America, is remembered for his legal victory on behalf of printer John Peter Zenger. Hamilton’s defense concluded with the assertion that the press has the duty of “both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth.”

Several Revolutionary War commanders are buried at Christ Church, including Major General Charles Lee and Continental Army Officer Samuel John Atlee, who later served as a delegate to the Continental Congress.

General John Forbes (1710–1759), British commander during the French and Indian War, has a memorial inside the church, as does John Penn, the last colonial governor of Pennsylvania.

The churchyard served as the congregation’s burying ground until 1719, when it was nearly full and Christ Church Burial Ground was opened two blocks away at 4th and Arch Streets.

Useful links:

Visiting Christ Church

Notables buried in the churchyard

Architectural information about Christ Church

Christ Church’s mystery in history

Other Revolutionary War heroes on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #18: King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts

Cemetery of the Week #33: Old Dutch Burying Ground, Tarrytown, New York

Cemetery of the Week #41:  Trinity Churchyard, New York City, New York

Cemetery of the Week #61: Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts

Cemetery of the Week #73: St. Paul’s Chapel churchyard, New York City, New York

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