Early American Anglican Architecture and Thomas Jefferson’s Blind Spot

William J. Scheick
University of Texas at Austin

“The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land,” Thomas Jefferson lamented in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). There was, he maintained, no excuse for this striking deficit in his beloved, recently emancipated state. “Buildings are often erected, by individuals, of considerable expence. To give these symmetry and taste would not increase their cost,” he insisted. “It would only change the arrangement of the materials, the form and combination of the members. This would often cost less than the burthen of barbarous ornaments with which these buildings are sometimes charged.” All of this should be obvious, Jefferson further observed, “but the first principles of [architectural] art are unknown, and there exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them.”[1]

Jefferson’s use of the word “art” was a deliberate choice. As he wrote to John Rutledge in 1788, architecture is “among the most important arts: and it is desireable to introduce taste into an art which shews so much.”[2] What might have especially elevated architecture in Jefferson’s Age-of-Reason estimation is its double attraction as (in his words) an “elegant and useful art” (Notes, 153). In other words, Jefferson valued architecture because it could be at once beautiful and functional. At its best, it fulfilled a typical Enlightenment preference for combining the aesthetic and the utilitarian.

Even the four public buildings Jefferson considered “worth mention[ing]” in Notes are subject to considerable complaint. The state Capitol, for instance, might be “the most pleasing piece of architecture we have,” he wrote, but in his estimation it is only a barely tolerable hodgepodge of inappropriate and disproportionate effects. Except for four inept Virginian structures, Jefferson asserted, “there are no other public buildings but churches and courthouses in which no attempts are made at elegance” (153). A reader likely lingers momentarily over this blanket claim because Jefferson’s sentence appears, on first encounter, to be somewhat compromised by a possible double negative. Initially, the observation can seem to be incoherent, as if it says, “there are no other public buildings . . . in which no attempts are made at elegance.”

Such a slight and finally resolvable syntactic instability could reasonably be attributed to the intensity of Jefferson’s feelings about his sense of the low level of architectural achievement in Virginia. After all, architecture was not only a fine art in Jefferson’s opinion. As “an art which shews so much,” it was for him also specifically an index to and a reinforcement of a particular society’s cultural refinement and values.[3] It must have been uncomfortable, to say the least, for Jefferson to admit that Virginia lacked any sign of architectural finesse, when such a failure could be interpreted as symptomatic of the very colonial American deficiencies that Notes was designed to deny.

It was easy to have doubts about the four-year-old confederation of emancipated states now struggling to form a federal union. Post-independence chaos was highlighted in the serial installments of The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night (1787). Appearing in the same year as Jefferson’s Notes, this collaborative Federalist satire depicted social disorder, such as the Daniel Shays Rebellion, as a threat to the new nation’s Constitutional struggle for architectural integrity. The satire expressly cautioned against undirected democratic populism and extreme liberalism. Its Federalist authors would target Jefferson specifically, but he already had plenty of personal anxiety about mobs and anarchy.

Possibly, then, unconscious concern about an underlying connection between architectural deficiencies and chaotic current events might have smudged Jefferson’s sentence about Virginian buildings. But, on second consideration, the nonsensical reading is easily discarded so that his comment is understood to mean that the only other public buildings are churches and courthouses, and that these other buildings exhibit “no attempts . . . at elegance.” If now the sentence is syntactically coherent, however, its claim remains peculiarly murky because it is factually untenable. Jefferson’s complete dismissal of Virginian church architecture seems less an accidental oversight than the result of a self-induced blind spot.

Consider, for instance, the Newport Parish Church, a striking mid- to late-seventeenth-century Gothic building thought by some today to be the oldest standing church in the United States. How could Jefferson miss this or any of the other noteworthy Anglican churches extant in eighteenth-century Virginia, including the majestic cruciform, silver-belled Bruton Parish? This edifice, located near the heart of early Virginia’s provincial capital, was said to be “adorned as the best churches in London.”[4]

Even the Wren Chapel (with jambs, arches, and a large wheel window) at the College of William and Mary held no charm for Jefferson. He resided in the Wren building for two years while attending the College, and at the request of Virginia’s royal governor John Murray, Jefferson had drawn plans for campus improvements, including an expanded chapel. But in Notes, the entire building is dismissed as “rude, mis-shapen piles, which, but they have roofs, would be taken for brick-kilns” (153).

The reference to “brick-kilns” is indicative. It is well known that Jefferson despised brick as a building medium, apparently even the rubbed brick of the Wren Chapel. As his home at Monticello would show, Jefferson also preferred Roman classical forms to Gothic designs of the kind represented by the Newport Parish Church. And, as an advocate of the separation between church and state, Jefferson was highly skeptical about any leadership role for established religions in civil government. While all three of these factors probably contributed to Jefferson’s blind spot about church architecture in Virginia, the last reason should not be underestimated. Jefferson knew well that his Anglican contemporaries embraced a close relationship between church and state.

Read together with Louis P. Nelson’s impressively comprehensive The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (North Carolina, 2008), Jefferson’s Notes inadvertently gives the impression that in the fine art of architecture Virginia lagged far behind a younger seaboard state. Such an impression would be mistaken. In South Carolina, Nelson explains, “a stable plantation economy and a planter class appeared latest,” and so this state was among “the last to see monumental masonry churches” (259). In contrast, Nelson notes further, Virginian Anglicans had an enormous head start in building elaborate churches. In effect, Nelson’s research reveals Jefferson’s blind spot.

Although Jefferson did not “see” them, there were new mid-century churches which reflected eighteenth-century Anglicans’ increasing assimilation of Enlightenment values. This is especially apparent in Nelson’s assessment of the impact of Enlightenment ideas about order and beauty on church structures. The Georgian elements of mid- and late-century churches, he reports, featured “neat and plain wall surfaces, bilateral symmetry, an embrace of geometry and mathematical proportions, and the employ of architectural classicism” (110). Most of these features were styled after cherished English models, though variations occurred due to local circumstances, including matters of church-funding, weather-proofing, and available building materials. The meaning of some other deviations, such as colonial Anglican disregard for the homeland practice of symbolically positioning baptismal fonts at church entrances, remains more elusive.

Shifts were also occurring in popular Anglican beliefs and practices. Although early American Anglicans were always less invested in ecclesiastical material culture than were their Roman Catholic peers, they (like many other Reformed denominations) benefited from an Augustinian appreciation of the inherent goodness of the divinely created world. For them, then, the material and the divine realms were not completely disparate. Steeple clocks, for instance, symbolized a multivalent vigilance in both linear and sacred time. Other material signs—the sound of ringing church bells and the smell of unpainted cedar furnishings—offered parishioners a sense of divine imminence. Old Lord’s-Supper chalices, used well after changes in silver fashion, also suggest that material and spiritual valuation merged in the eighteenth-century Anglican imagination.

So, Nelson argues, it should not be surprising, nor considered contradictory, that “the same Anglicans who prepared themselves spiritually for participation in [the sacrament of] Communion are also those Anglicans who purchased pews to reinforce social, economic, and racial hierarchies” (368). Early American Anglicans, in contrast to a Congregationist understanding of their meetinghouses, combined an older spirituality and newer Enlightenment ideas about order and beauty to fashion unique ecclesiastical spaces where the temporal and the divine intersected. “By the second half of the eighteenth century,” Nelson finds, “a new form of Anglicanism had emerged, an Anglicanism that favored reason over mystery, natural evidence over supernatural activity, and the (visibly consumed) beauty of holiness over the densely metaphoric world of shapes, symbols, sounds, and smells of early Anglicanism” (174). Banished, for instance, were the iconic cherubs with extended wings—angelic talismans apparently guarding earlier churches against malign supernatural powers (160).

Nelson makes a convincing case for “reading” material culture as “a document of place”: “Whereas sermons, tracts, and colorful firsthand accounts offer extensive commentary on hotly debated issues and practices in other centuries, among the best evidence of eighteenth-century religious life are the surviving material cultures” (4), such as grave markers, communion silver, and churches. And similar to so many of the silently edited and collaborative texts of that century—Jonathan Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption, for instance—usually “no single person” can be credited with the “authorship of the design” of Anglican churches (53). This is so even after mid-century, when freemasons became highly influential in ecclesiastical construction.

Even if Jefferson could not appreciate the churches celebrated in The Beauty of Holiness, he would surely have applauded the documentary thoroughness of Nelson’s research and his impressive interdisciplinary range. It is likely, too, that Jefferson would have valued the well-illustrated and glossy-paged book itself as a handsome example of material culture. And maybe, after reading it, he just might have glimpsed some ineffable affinity between his Anglican contemporaries’ desire to architecturally express the beauty of holiness and his own abundant delight and passion for the “beautiful art” of architecture.[5]


[1]   Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia [1787], ed. William Peden (New York, 1954), 153.

[2]   The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 13: March to 7 October 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd, et al (Princeton, 1956), 269.

[3]   See William Howard Adams, The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson (New Haven, 2000), 89.

[4]   Hugh Jones, The Present State of Virginia (New York, 1865), 30.

[5]   The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 8: 25 February to 31 October 1785, ed. Boyd, et al (Princeton, 1953), 535.