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This 400-year-old church is older than almost any institution in America

By: Julie Zauzmer The Washington Post
May 20, 2018 Updated: May 20, 2018 at 6:57 am
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Churchgoers mingle after the service at Martin's Brandon Episcopal Church's 400th anniversary celebration on Sunday. This building dates to 1856. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post.

DISPUTANTA, Va. - Long before American independence, before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth Rock, there was Martin's Brandon Church.

And now, the Rev. Eve Butler-Gee looks at her flock at the same Martin's Brandon Episcopal Church in amazement.

"They're faithful. Every single one of them is engaged and active," she said. But it's no wonder. "They've been doing this for 400 years, and they're not about to stop now."

The church, one of the older in the U.S. that still operates, celebrates its 400th birthday this year. And for many families in the rural congregation, the pink house of worship near the James River has been part of their family stories for much of that time.

"We've been coming here for seven generations. At least. We don't have any records before the Civil War," said Alecia Redfearn, 31, as the sixth-generation Martin's Brandon mom juggled Caroline, 3, and Bennett, 4 weeks - the seventh generation.

Redfearn spent her childhood here and never left, and she soaked up more than the light streaming in through the stained-glass window that is etched with the name of a Titanic survivor. "We live in the history here. That's why I like history so much," she said. "We take the ferry over to Williamsburg. You go by Jamestown. You think, 'This is where America started.'"

Today, shaped by that upbringing, she teaches history to students in grades six through 11.

Churchgoers chatting at the after-services lunch - as they consumed fried and barbecued chicken, green beans and mac 'n' cheese, lemonade and sweet tea, and plate after plate of desserts - reeled off the names of grandfathers and great-grandmothers, spinning a web of relationships that soon seemed to entwine almost everyone in the room.

Butler-Gee didn't know that she had a family connection to Martin's Brandon when she learned that her first assignment upon being ordained as an Episcopal priest, as a second career in 2012, would be at the oldest Episcopal church in the country. Her remarkable rediscovered family history was the subject of celebration May 6, the church's most recent event commemorating its quadricentennial anniversary this year.

The parish of Martin's Brandon decided to celebrate four centuries of history with four events, one for every hundred years. So the community first reviewed the 17th century, starting with John Martin, one of the original settlers on the first boat from Britain to Jamestown, Virginia's first permanent colony.

Martin arrived in 1607 and endured the first brutal winters that nearly destroyed the infant settlement. The colony had 490 residents in October 1609 and only 60 still living six months later. According to a church history, those remaining colonists voted on whether to stay. The sole resident who voted against abandoning the New World was Martin.

Martin and the others stayed, and he acquired land, which he named "Brandon" in honor of his wife's family name. Sometime between 1613 and 1618 - the church is choosing to celebrate 400 years in this year - a congregation started worshiping on his land, at Martin's Brandon. Historical documents indicate that by 1618, the church had a log building and a minister.

In his will, a wealthy parishioner who died in 1658 left 2,000 pounds of tobacco to pay for repairs or rebuilding the church, and another 1,000 pounds of tobacco to pay for a silver communion set. That's the set Butler-Gee used Sunday during the communion service.

The community also has reviewed the 18th century, when the congregation grew large enough for a new building in 1723, and when a parishioner donated a silver baptismal bowl in 1731 that's been used for every baptism at Martin's Brandon since.

This week, the discussion turned to the 19th century - when post-Revolutionary backlash against the Anglican church, with its close ties to the king of England, left the Martin's Brandon congregation so reduced in size that it worshiped outdoors, under a long, wooden arbor roofed with pine boughs. The minister who helped revive the congregation, and brought it to the point in 1856 that it could build a proud, pink Tuscan-style building with a soaring bell tower, the building used today, was the Rev. Charles Minnigerode.

Minnigerode's life story was the subject of a presentation during the church service at Martin's Brandon this week. And in a twist of fate that shocked the new minister in the 21st century, it turned out that Minnigerode is Butler-Gee's great-great-grandfather.

Robert Doares figured out Butler-Gee's ancestry. Minnigerode has been Doares' singular focus ever since he was assigned to play the German-born minister in a Colonial Williamsburg Christmas pageant years ago. Doares, then a researcher on staff at Williamsburg, started learning about his role and kept going, and going, and going.

Sunday, Doares told the story at Martin's Brandon that he hopes to eventually put in a book: How the young Minnigerode, caught smuggling pamphlets calling on the German peasantry to rise up against the ruling class, was thrown in prison but then allowed to immigrate to America. How he landed in Philadelphia, then came to the College of William and Mary to teach the classics, at a time when the faculty had just five professors. How the young professor, homesick for Germany at holiday time, introduced the first Christmas tree documented in Virginia - an instant hit.

Later, Doares said, Minnigerode led a church in Richmond during the Civil War and became a close confidant of Jefferson Davis and a supporter of the Confederacy. But when Minnigerode became a full-time minister in the Episcopal church in 1847, his first assignment was Martin's Brandon, just as his great-great-granddaughter's would be, 165 years later.

"What are the chances in a million years?" Doares marvels now. For Doares, Minnigerode is no longer just an academic interest. Since he came to Martin's Brandon to research, he has stayed to worship. He's a regular now at the small parish, with at least 30 other people.

"This is the friendliest darn Episcopal church you could ever walk in anywhere," he said. "A lot of the families have been here since the 17th century. There's just a natural sense of belonging here, for the members of the congregation. With their being so grounded, those of us who don't have ancestors going back centuries, we get that feeling by osmosis."

The historian looked around at the families chatting over a church supper much like the ones their ancestors would have enjoyed in the very same place, for four centuries strong. "It's just too marvelous for words," he said. "All of it. Really."

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