On the side of a rural road in Mechanicsville, Virginia stands a structure that’s difficult to describe. It’s not quite a building, and not quite a monument. Historic Polegreen, known by locals as “the ghost church,” is a collection of white beams giving shape to a simple, open-air chapel, nestled in a patch of woods.
So striking is Polegreen in photographs that couples choose to marry there. In the summer, Polegreen hosts live music events and barbecues. Every Easter, a congregation of Presbyterians, some standing, some seated in lawn chairs, huddle together and worship within the structure. And tourists mosey through it, turning their heads this way and that, taking in its curious form.
“It calls you to look up,” says Chris Peace, executive director of the Historic Polegreen Foundation. “When you are in the structure itself, you want to see what these points of the roofline are. You don’t look horizontally. You look vertically.”
In this way, the design of Polegreen, which marks the foundations of an original colonial meetinghouse, helps tell the story of religious freedom and civil liberties in America. The people who built that early meetinghouse must have felt a calling, too, says Peace, when they began challenging the establishment by worshiping “according to the dictates of their own conscience.” Calling themselves the Hanover dissenters, they recruited a Presbyterian minister named Samuel Davies, who became the first non-Anglican minister in Virginia. With his help, the dissenters formed the Hanover Presbytery at Polegreen in 1755 at a time when deviating from the state-sanctioned Anglican church could result in severe penalties, including jail time and conscription.
“You know, taking a major risk of imprisonment, of fines, of social ostracization, they had to have been called to something higher,” says Peace, of the Hanover dissenters. “There was a higher purpose, whether it was based on their own faith experience or just simply a desire for greater civil liberty and freedom.”
Peace says the structure symbolizes that successful struggle.
Over the years, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has awarded several grants to support the work of the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation. These grants have included public lectures by leading scholars—historians and others: explorations of the ideal of religious freedom and of the history that is embedded in the site itself.
“Our support for Historic Polegreen is, in turn, part of a commitment on the part of VFH, one that reaches back to the beginning of our work in Virginia forty years ago,” says David Bearinger, director of VFH Grants and Community Programs. “We seek to promote a greater, deeper understanding of how religious freedom emerged as one of the pillars of our democratic republic, and how its meaning continues to be defined and redefined, even today.”
The Historic Polegreen Church site is open from sunrise to sunset, year-round.
- Historic Polegreen Church Foundation
- Is James Madison Still Speaking to Us About Religious Freedom?
- Wall of Separation – BackStory
- Samuel Davies – Encyclopedia Virginia