A Witness to American History
Established in the aftermath of the War of 1812, St. John’s Church stands as an enduring symbol of faith and hope in the heart of the United States’ capital. As part of its unique mission, St. John’s seeks to preserve and communicate the many stories it has witnessed through two centuries of often turbulent American history.
1816: St. John’s Church across from the damaged White House
St. John’s Church dates to 1809. Its construction was delayed by the War of 1812, when British invaders entered Washington and set fire to parts of the city, including the White House. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the important early American architect, volunteered his services to design a fitting church to be located just across the meadow from the President’s residence. The cornerstone for St. John’s was laid September 4, 1815, while Latrobe was overseeing repairs at the White House. St. John’s Church was completed in 1816.
1817–45: Rev. William Hawley marries and baptizes free and enslaved Black Americans
Rev. William Hawley, the 2nd Rector of St. John’s Church, baptized and married Black Americans of all legal statuses when he led the Church from 1817 to 1845. Many of these marriages took place in the Rector’s own home, adjacent to the Church, with his wife and family as witnesses. Read more at whitehousehistory.org
1841: The First US State Funeral (William Henry Harrison)
St. John’s Rector, Rev. William Hawley, presided over the first two state funerals in our country’s history, both held at the White House: William Henry Harrison in 1841 and Zachary Taylor in 1850.
August 9, 1842: Signing of the Webster-Asburton Treaty
1845: Dolley Madison baptized at St. John’s Church
Listed in St. John’s Parish Register, vol. 1, p. 113.
1865: William Seward attacked in Lincoln assassination plot
On Good Friday, 1865, the night of President Lincoln’s assassination, Secretary of State William Seward was also attacked in his house on Lafayette Square as part of the plot to bring down the United States government. Seward, a St. John’s parishioner who brought Lincoln to the church when he arrived in DC, was stabbed multiple times in the neck and chest. He ultimately recovered from his wounds, as did others in the household who were injured in the attack.
1963: March on Washington
On August 28, 1963, more than a quarter million people participated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, passing by St. John’s Church on their way to gather near the Lincoln Memorial. It was at this event where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his exalted “I Have a Dream” speech.