As a settlement of English-speakers it was founded on July 9, 1610, making it the United States’s oldest (continuous) English-speaking community. (I could have told you that when I was five years old.) Its current borders give it a landmass of 51.5 square miles on which live some 135,000 people.
To photograph the churches, Winter the Bear and I bicycled to all corners of the city–but we resisted the temptation to include churches over the line in Newport News, York County, or Poquoson. Having some time to plan, we chose every church for a reason: geographical, denominational, architectural, or historical. So more than our other alphabets, this series presents a curated religious history of a city, but in alphabetical, not chronological order.
This alphabet has it all:
- 5 centuries of churches.
- 4 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places
- 4 types of Methodists
- 11 Christian traditions
- 13 founding denominations
The City of Hampton is part of a large metropolitan area named Hampton Roads for the maritime harbor at it center. (Roads is short for “roadstead,” “a place less enclosed than a harbor where ships may ride at anchor”). The only boundary between Hampton and Newport News is a line on the map. Thus, it might have made sense to ignore municipal boundaries, but we didn’t. All the sites are with in the 51.5 square miles of land in the City of Hampton, Virginia.
More time (bike rides on 3 days) and greater familiarity (a half-century of residence or visiting) has enabled me to be more deliberate in choosing sites.
The photos were taken on 3 different bike rides in early June 2022. In most of these photos, Winter the Bear does not hog the camera. You may have to look carefully to find her. Sometimes she’s resting on a bench or sitting on a bush. Sometimes she’s doing her own thing. You are looking for this small black bear. She’s either wearing a blue scarf (as here) or a green one.
Ready? Let’s go!
A is for African: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
The first Africans arrived in Hampton at Old Point Comfort in 1619. Two hundred years later, the US Army began to create Fort Monroe there. The army held it throughout the Civil War. This made the area a destination for African Americans fleeing slavery. Among these freedpeople, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1864. In the twenty-first century, Bethel moved out of downtown to this new building near Langley Air Force Base, which it dedicated on November 15, 2021.
Beginning in the second-half of the eighteenth-century, Methodism grew strong in all the communities along the Chesapeake Bay with its simple message of “Accept Christ.” (Featured on the sign above.) This alphabet will feature four Methodist churches, Each was founded by a different Methodist denomination!
Today African Americans make up 50% of Hampton’s population up from 39% in 1990. That is another good reason to start with a twenty-first century African American church building like Bethel AME.
B is for Baptist, Buckroe (& Beach): Buckroe Baptist Church (at Buckroe Beach)
After the Methodists, came the Baptists. By the turn of the nineteenth-century Baptists overtook Methodists as the most numerous Protestant group in the region. Buckroe Baptist Church is the first of five Baptist churches in this series. Like Methodists, Baptists in Virginia are a product of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening, but unlike Methodists they insist on believer’s baptism and prize congregational autonomy.
Buckroe Baptist Church’s steepled building was erected in 1936 and its larger sanctuary later in the twentieth century. Chasers of churches will recognize that its vintage sign features the logo adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978. They will conclude that at that time it was a White church, and they will be right.
This church brings another important dimension of Hampton’s history into our story: tourism. The name Buckroe (not “Buckaroo,” as an out-of-town family member calls it) dates to 1619. But in the late nineteenth-century street-car lines connected Buckroe to the railroad and Buckroe Beach was born. Since Virginia was segregated, soon Buckroe Beach was joined by community for African Americans called Bayshore.
My grandfather, who was working at Newport News Shipbuilding in the 1920s, sent postcards of Buckroe Beach to Mary McCreedy back home in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, as part of effort to convince her to marry him. She did in December 1929, and they enjoyed some happy times a Buckroe Beach.
C is for Centurion & Chapel: Chapel of the Centurion
Continuing our journey back through the centuries, Winter marched on to Fort Monroe, the former U.S. Army post where this Richard Upjohn carpenter Gothic chapel was erected for Protestant worship in 1858. Until the post was decommissioned in 2011, it was the oldest wooden building used by the army for worship. It is surely the only antebellum nineteenth-century church in Hampton from prior to the Civil War. Everything else was burned by Confederate residents in 1861 to save it from becoming a Union asset.
For the first half of the twentieth century, this was the regimental chapel of United States Army Coast Artillery Corps and therefore painted in the regimental colors: red and green! Since decommissioning, the chapel has continued its long-standing schedule as an army chapel: an Episcopal service at 8:30 a.m., a non-denominational Protestant service at 10.
You can understand why this is the first of our sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
D is for Dei: Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
Before there were Methodists, Baptists, or Episcopalians, there were Lutherans. But Lutherans did not come to Hampton until the mid-twentieth-century. Emmanuel and St. Paul’s came first and then Gloria Dei was organized in 1965. It established itself in the emerging Willow Oaks neighborhood emerging between downtown and Fox Hill. This was a popular neighborhood for workers at NASA’s Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base.
The steep rooflines of this large 1988 church suggest Lutherans’ Northern European origins while these big windows open both sides of the chancel to the outdoors tempting little bears to look in and keeping the congregation aware of the world outside.
E is for England: Little England Chapel
“England?” asked Winter. “I thought we left England in April!”
“Yes,” I acknowledged. (Winter spent January to April 2020 in London.) “But Hamptonians love England. Just look at the flag, or city seal issued by the College of Arms in London on December 20, 1960.
“Oh,” said Winny, “but that isn’t why this little wooden church is on the National Register of Historic Places!”
“Smart bear!” I said. “Time to be serious, because this is serious stuff.”
Little England Chapel was erected in 1879 by students from Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) who rowed across the Hampton River to the neck of land known as Little England to teach the freed African Americans who lived there and guide them in worship. The community around it became known as Newtown. The building has housed various congregations over the years.
F is for First: First Presbyterian Church
Bling! First Presbyterian‘s 1961 building may not have the most original design, but it is easily Hampton’s grandest church (though “M” in this alphabet is a competitor). The congregation was organized in 1879 as Hampton emerged from Reconstruction as not just a sleepy Tidewater county seat but a center of the seafood industry: Crabtown! In my day, (the 1980s) the high school cheer was “You can’t crush a crab!” But from the 1870s to the 1950s the local economy depended on doing just that—or at least steaming them and picking them, which seems like the same thing.
This letter, “F” is dedicated to George L. Oehler, long-time pastor of this church whose daughter, Emily, was in my high school class.
G is for Grace: Grace Baptist Church
Grace Baptist is near the northern end of Big Bethel Road very near the city’s border with York County. The area isn’t as rural as it was 50 years ago, but there were horses grazing on the property right next to the church when I took the photo. The windows suggest this church has a history that is older than this building. The device in the middle of the one Winter is looking at features an open bible surmounted by a cross. The church’s statement of faith makes very clear where they stand on many things. For example, “we stand irrevocably opposed” to the “present Tongue Movement.” it states.
H is for Hampton: Hampton Baptist Church
Hampton Baptist Church was founded in 1791 and its current building erected in 1883, Winter thinks it has beautiful doors, so she posed in front of them. The church is downtown on King Street directly across from the historic courthouse.
Its pastor Rev. Andrew Garnett, is a graduate of Samford University, where I teach.
I is for Immaculate: Immaculate Conception Catholic Church
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church is a classic late twentieth-century Roman Catholic building. As with many such churches the real story is on the inside. Martha and I have been to mass there several times. It is directly next to my junior high school and they also have lovely gardens as featured above.
J is for John: St. John’s Episcopal Church
Elizabeth City Parish was created in 1610 making it the oldest Anglican parish in America. It erected church buildings on a succession of three other sites before building this church, in 1728. It was consecrated as St. John’s in 1830. The walls of the building survive from 1728, but the rest of it was rebuilt after the 1861 fire that destroyed the town so it would not be used by union forces. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
David has been to several memorable Christmas Eve services inside these walls. Winter is waiting to enter the south door.
K is for Kecoughtan: Third Church at Kecoughtan (site)
To include the seventeenth century, Winter visited the site of the previous church of Elizabeth City Parish on Pembroke Avenue. It is remembered as “the Third Church at Kecoughtan.” The Kecoughtan were the Native American group that English settlers destroyed on July 9, 1610. This is date marked as Hampton’s founding, but what was good news for English-speakers was horrific news for the Algonquin-speaking natives. The English referred to the area along the Hampton River as “Kecoughtan” for the next century.
Once you enter the gate into the church yard, there is no wall at the Third Church site to keep the bear out. Thus, this is the one “inside” photo in this series! Some gravestones remain, including this one for John Nevill who died on board the Cambridge at age 53. You can clearly see the year of his death: 1697.
L is for Langley: Langley Christian Church
The 1960s and 1970s bequeathed the world a fair number of round churches and Hampton was no exception. They were popular both among liturgical reformers in high church traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican, etc.) and among the low church, particularly the Restoration tradition as we see here at Langley Christian Church on Fox Hill Road.
M is for Memorial: Memorial Church at Hampton University
The Memorial Church on the campus of Hampton University was designed by New York architect J.Cleaveland Caby and completed in 1886. With its broad central lantern and tall clock tower it is an icon of the Romanesque Revival of the 1880s. Of course it is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is even a National Historic Landmark.
One grand thing about the church is that it has its original light fixture in its center. Practically all center-plan Romanesque churches like this had them. But in many places, like Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston lost them long ago. Here is a photo David took in 2003.