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Church Where Patriot Spoke Celebrates 250th Anniversary

March 18, 1991

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ In 250 years, many words of praise and promise have been heard and forgotten at St. John’s Episcopal church. But one phrase has endured: ″Give me liberty or give me death 3/8″

St. John’s, the crowning landmark of this city’s Church Hill neighborhood, may in fact owe its very existence to that call to arms by the Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775.

With the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other American patriots gathered in the church to debate whether war with England was inevitable, Henry rose and made his historic pronouncement:

″I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death 3/8″ he shouted. A month later the 13 colonies were at war with the mother country.

The rest of what Henry had to say on that day has been pretty much forgotten. But, said Neill Goff, head of the church’s lay staff, ″If we hadn’t had Patrick Henry’s speech, the church probably would have disappeared.″

Many Episcopal churches dissolved after the war. As the successor to the official British church, they had little following.

But St. John’s survived not only that era but also the burning of Richmond during the Civil War.

Now it is the oldest church in the city and one of the oldest in the United States. It was founded in 1611, four years after the first English colonists landed at Jamestown. Its present building was erected 250 years ago.

Soaring stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers added in the 19th century now dwarf the original, humble sanctuary situated in a neighborhood where tenement houses sit next to elaborate, restored 19th-century mansions.

An estimated 30,000 tourists visit the church each year. Many are surprised it is still an active Episcopal church, said the Rev. Thomas H. Markley, its pastor.

″They think it’s a museum,″ he said.

A paid staff also leads daily tours through the church, pointing out the approximate spot where Henry stood.

This year a series of historical lectures and re-enactments is being held to mark the building’s 250th anniversary. And each year on a March Sunday a costumed and wigged actor argues Henry’s case.

Henry and the other delegates to the Second Virginia Convention chose the church as their meeting place because it was the largest building in town in 1775.

After four days of debate, Henry rose and made his historic remarks during a long speech. His words drew less than an overwhelming response at the time.

″Henry was always viewed a something of a radical. Suggesting war is radical, but he was also going beyond what most people would have been willing to say,″ said Norman Stevens, a historian at Virginia Military Institute.

The speech did eventually make Henry a hero in his lifetime, Stevens said. He went on to serve as governor of Virginia toward the end of the Revolutionary War and again several years later. He died in 1799.

The speech also made St. John’s a favored campaign stop for politicians, until church officials put a halt to the practice. ″We have some resistance to the church being used and manipulated like that,″ said Markley.

While politicians are now banned from speaking inside the church, that doesn’t stop them from showing up outside. Gary Hart held a news conference there during his campaign for president in 1988.

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