St. Peter’s opened for services in 1761 and was united with Christ Church until 1832. William White, rector of both churches from 1779 until his death in 1836, was chaplain to the U.S. Congress during the American Revolution, founder of the Episcopal Church in 1784, early presiding bishop and first bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
Most of the church remains as it was in the eighteenth century. Scottish architect/builder William Smith designed it in the mid-Georgian auditory style, with the classical lines and clear glass windows of the Age of Enlightenment. The raised 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, most 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 Willcocks and cast at the Whitechapel Foundry in London, where the Liberty Bell was made.
Many members of St. Peter’s were slave-owners. One of these slaves, Absalom Jones, became a highly respected leader of the original African American community of Philadelphia, founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (the first African-American church) in 1794, and was the first black Episcopal priest in the United States. Click here to read about how St. Peter’s Church is confronting racism in our past, in ourselves, and in our world.
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 – now as an intergenerational choir. 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 probably 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 its original mission of service and sanctuary for all in need.
St. Peter’s church building and churchyard are usually open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The churchyard is often open until 7 p.m. in the summer months.
Tour guides are usually available between 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturdays and 1-3 p.m. Sundays to talk with visitors and answer questions. No advance reservations are necessary.
Occasionally the church and tour guide schedule varies; please call the parish office at 215-925-5968 in advance of your visit to confirm that the church will be open and a tour guide will be available.
In addition to the guides, audio tours of both the church interior and the churchyard are accessible by phone at 215-554-6161. The tours are free, except for any charges from your cell phone company.
- 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 about the history of the church, “St. Peter’s Church: Faith in Action for 250 Years,” is available for sale; contact the parish administrator at 215-925-5968.
- Visit our YouTube channel to watch a presentation about the history of St. Peter’s Churchyard, presented by historian and parishioner Libby Browne in 2020.