From the founding of the Virginia Colony in 1607 until the American Revolution 170 years later, there was only one officially recognized religion in the colony. The Anglican Church was the established church. The Colonial Government built the churches, paid the clergy and taxed the citizens accordingly. All other religious groups were discouraged, suppressed, and harassed.
In the late 1730's a powerful religious movement, which became known as the “Great Awakening,” took hold in the middle colonies of America. It was initially energized by the preaching of George Whitefield, the itinerating British Methodist evangelist, and soon followed by a noticeable number of Presbyterian clergy. In 1739 Whitefield preached in Williamsburg. His sermon was published and widely read throughout Virginia.
Shortly thereafter a Hanover County brick mason named Samuel Morris began gathering family and some neighbors into his home regularly on Sunday afternoons to read the Bible and religious tracts, including Whitefield's sermons. This marked the beginning of the dissenter movement in Virginia. By 1743 the Governor's Council in Williamsburg licensed four dissenter “reading houses,” three in Hanover County and one in Henrico. They were all named “Morris Reading Houses.” The reading house built on Samuel Morris' land was named after George Polegreen, a land grant recipient of the previous century.
At the request of the Hanover dissenters, a newly ordained 23-year-old Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania arrived in 1747 to be pastor of the four congregations which had been licensed by the Colonial government in 1743. He was the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia. Davies remained in Virginia until 1759 and made a remarkable contribution to the religious and political climate of the colony. Among his achievements was his pioneering effort in the education of black slaves.
The classic Negro slave spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,” originated at Polegreen. Musicologists credit Davies with being the first American-born hymn writer. His poetry was published in Williamsburg in 1752. He had no peer as a pulpit orator in Virginia — or perhaps in all the colonies.
As a young man, Patrick Henry worshipped with his mother, a Hanover dissenter, at Polegreen during the twelve years Davies was in Virginia. Before Henry's death he credited Davies with “teaching me what an orator should be.” During the French and Indian War, Davies distinguished himself as an American patriot prompting Governor Dinwiddie to say, “Davies is the best recruiter in the Colony.”
For more than a century the Polegreen Church stood as a monument to the Hanover Dissenters and Samuel Davies in their struggle for religious liberty in pre-revolutionary America. In 1864, during America's agonizing Civil War, General Grant, trying to take Richmond, attempted to break through General Lee's lines along Totopotomoy Creek. Polegreen Church rested squarely in the center as the two armies faced each other. During an attack the Union forces overran the Confederate outer positions and occupied the church. In an effort to dislodge Union sharpshooters, Confederate artillery fired on the church. According to the diary of William S. White, a gunner with the Richmond Howitzers, his gun fired the shot that set the church ablaze. Ironically, his diary notes that his own father had been baptized in Polegreen Church.
In war-ravaged Hanover County the congregation which had worshipped at Polegreen could not afford to rebuild the destroyed church. Over the years since 1864 all signs of the great center of the struggle for religious liberty vanished.
The sketches adjacent are the only surviving documentation of what the original church structure looked liked. They were drawn by Lieutenant Thomas M. Farrell, a Union soldier with the 15th New York Volunteer Engineers, who was on a reconnaissance mission for General George McClellan when he stopped by the church. The sketches are dated May 29, 1862, almost exactly two years before the church was shelled.
(Fortunately, many years later, Farrell's great-grandson, Norman T. Albright, Jr., discovered the sketches while cleaning out the basement of his home!)