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A Visit to Aquia Church — 6/28/2006
By Virginia Johnson, CRRL Staff
Travelers who take a turn off of busy Route 1 near Aquia Harbor find themselves viewing a living monument to colonial Virginia’s past. Protected from the surrounding sprawl by its location, nestled on a hilltop surrounded by trees, this beautiful church dates to the decades before the Revolutionary War. Its long and sometimes difficult history–preserved in bricks, stone, and written memories, includes tales of preachers, firebrands, soldiers, and star-crossed lovers.
Visitors may view the outside and the grounds of Aquia Episcopal Church at any time during daylight hours. However, those who wish to see the church’s interior need to contact the church office to arrange a tour.
On the day of my visit, Dennise LaBarre, the Parish Secretary, kindly guided me through the doors of the lovely, old church. Its interior is striking for what isn’t there: no stained glass, no ornate carving. Light streams through the tall windows, adding a grace note to the rather plain yet handsome pews and a remarkable three-tiered pulpit.
Although the church is not exactly as it was in the colonial period, very little has changed. In a way, the hard times that Stafford County suffered both before and after the Civil War worked to preserve the church in its older style. This simple elegance reflected the style of preaching of the 1750s which mistrusted more opulent ways.
As to the exterior, Aquia Church was built in the shape of a Greek Cross, using brick laid in the Flemish bond pattern. The famed Aquia Creek sandstone (also called “Freestone”) was used in the doorways, window keystones, quoins (cornerstones) and possibly in the original flooring. The Freestone has also been used in other significant buildings, including the Federal Capitol, the White House, Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall, and the Town Hall in Fredericksburg.
The Parish’s Beginnings
In the days before separation of church and state, Aquia was part of Overwharton Parish, which also included Old Potomac Church, once very large and long since deserted. This parish served the northern portion of Stafford County. The southern portion was served by St. Paul’s Parish. The parish’s first rector was Reverend Morgan Godwyn (1667 – 1670).
Overwharton Parish was named for the home of its second minister, “Parson” John Waugh. This fiery individual frequently performed marriages for runaway couples in Stafford’s early days. He served as rector from 1670 to 1700, at last retiring to his plantation when his license was revoked. “Parson” Waugh was also known for his “tumult” of 1688-89 when he preached of a supposed plot against the Protestants by Catholic members of his community. His fomentations caught the attention of the populace, and soon the colonial government:
1689 (VIRGINIA) Parson [John] WAUGH’S Tumult
…”But in Stafford there was another story. There the people abandoned their plantations and arrayed themselves in arms…The Maryland authorities apparently interpreted this activity as preparations for an invasion of their territory…The BRENTS who lived in Stafford for many years were Catholics. They had been discreet in their relations with their protestant neighbours, and had never been Molested…But Burr HARRISON’S news from Maryland offered an opportunity for fanatical agitation and the incumbent of Overwharton Parish took full advantage of it. This Parson John WAUGH had already been in trouble with the authorities for his lack of respect for the law. He was apparently a natural agitator, what was called at the time “of enthusiastic principles” and courted popularity. Egged on by his son-in-law, the second George MASON, WAUGH’S sermons now stirred the community to frenzy…Over these troubled waters Parson WAUGH rode the whirlwind. Beginning as a colonial Titus Oates, under the inspiration of his fellow enthusiast, John COODE, the whilom parson of Maryland who was about to lead a successful revolution in that province, WAUGH gradually developed into what appeared for a moment to be a menace to the Virginia government. From genereal thunder against the Catholics, he evolved the more dangerous thesis that there “being no King in England, there was no Government here,” and that the people should remain in arms in their own defence. This advice, smacking significantly of the doctrine which Lord Baltimore charged FENDALL with preaching in Stafford in 1681, was followed, the alarm spread to the Rappahannock settlements, and serious consequences were averted only by renewed vigorous action on the part of Messrs. SPENCER, ALLERTON and LEE. Assuming the authority of the entire council for the emergency, they�arrested the ring leaders, WAUGH, HARRISON, and WEST, forbade the parson to preach, and suspended George MASON from the command of the Stafford militia…Parson WAUGH was eventually brought before the General Court at Jamestown and there “made a publick & humble acknowledgement…with a hearty penitence for his former faults and a promised obedience for the future…”
Virginia Historical Magazine, volume 30, pp. 31-37