A Brief History of St. Peter’s Church
The first service at St. Peter’s Church was held on September 4, 1761, and the church has been in continuous use ever since. St. Peter’s was founded in 1758 by members of Christ Church living in newly-settled Society Hill. Rising on land donated by William Penn’s sons, Thomas and Richard, it was designed and built by Scottish architect/builder Robert Smith, who also designed Carpenter’s Hall and the tower of Christ Church. (The Penn family coat of arms can be seen above the wine-glass pulpit and sounding board.) St. Peter’s and Christ Church were united until 1832. William White, Rector of both churches from 1779 until his death in 1836, was chaplain to the U.S. Congress during the Revolution, founder of the Episcopal Church in 1784, its first presiding bishop and first bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
Most of the church remains as it was in the eighteenth century. Smith designed it in the mid-Georgian auditory style, with the classical lines and clear glass windows of the Age of Reason. The pulpit and lectern are set at the opposite end of the aisle from the altar, projecting into the congregation, in order to focus attention on the Word of God, a reflection of the religious thought of the day. The original high-backed box pews, including Mayor Samuel Powel’s box which George and Martha Washington often frequented, were designed to retain heat in winter. With the advent of central heating, many churches removed their box pews, but since St. Peter’s services are conducted at both ends of the church, the original arrangement has been kept. The tower and steeple, designed by renowned Philadelphia architect William Strickland, was added in 1842 to house a chime of eight bells donated by Benjamin Chew Wilcocks and cast at the Whitechapel Foundry in London where the Liberty Bell came from. Slaves and servants of members sat on hard benches at the west end of the gallery. One of these slaves, Absalom Jones, became a highly-respected leader of the original African-American community of Philadelphia, founded the first African-American Episcopal Church, the African Church of St. Thomas, in 1794 and was the first black Episcopal priest.
The church’s ministry of music from the outset is evident from the magnificent Rococo organ case (1764), the fine Skinner organ (1931) and the Choir of Men and Boys (1868), one of the nation’s oldest, all of which continue to enhance worship to this day – as does a Girl’s Choir, too.
Many notable Philadelphians are buried in the tranquil churchyard:
- Col. John Nixon, who gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776
- Revolutionary War hero Commodore John Hazelwood (1726–1800)
- Painter Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), who painted the first portrait of George Washington
- Vice-President George Mifflin Dallas (1792–1864), for whom Dallas, Texas, was named
- Commodore Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), hero of the Battle of Tripoli
- Seven Indian chiefs who died of smallpox on a visit to Philadelphia in 1793
St. Peter’s has ministered to its changing community through nearly 250 years, through the American Revolution, the arrival of many groups of immigrants, urban decline and rebirth, and is committed to continuing into the future its original mission of service and sanctuary for all in need.
St. Peter’s church building and grounds are usually open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The churchyard is often open until 7 p.m. in the summer months.
There are free audio tours available of both the church interior and the churchyard. The audio tours are accessible by phone at 215-554-6161. The tours are free, except for any charges from your cell phone company.
Tour guides are occasionally in the church to talk with visitors on weekends. If you are planning a visit to St. Peter’s Church, you can call the parish office at 215-925-5968 to inquire about whether the church will be open or whether a tour guide will be available.
Learn more about the history of St. Peter’s Church by visiting www.stpetershistory.org, a website created as part of the church’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2011. A book of church history titled “St. Peter’s Church: Faith in Action for 250 Years” is also available for sale here. Published by Temple University Press, the book’s authors include Cordelia Frances Biddle, Elizabeth S. Brown, Alan J. Heavens and Charles P. Peitz.