The oldest congregations in America, not surprisingly, dot the Atlantic Seaboard and date back as far as the 17th century, the time the first European settlers arrived.
These six active congregations form a cross-section of the religious denominations found across the country. They are also included on the National Register of Historic Places. These churches offer a glimpse into our national cultural heritage in addition to the general historical significance of religion over time.
1. St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hampton, Virginia
Founded in 1610, this Episcopal church based in Hampton, Virginia has a long and rich history. Incredibly, the church building standing today dates back to 1728.
According to historians, St. John’s Episcopal Church is the oldest practicing, English-speaking parish in America. It also has the oldest communion silver still in use today. Made in London, the chalice, and patens used by the parishioner’s, date back to 1618.
2. Johns Island Presbyterian Church located on Johns Island, Charleston County, South Carolina
Founded by British dissenters and French Huguenots, the Johns Island Presbyterian Church dates to 1719.
Interestingly, the original bricks used in the church’s foundation came from England as ships ballast. The parishioners extended the tiny first church, originally only 38ft long by 35ft wide, in the early 19th century to allow slaves to attend services with their masters. The church also supported the first Presbyterian mission to Africa in 1833.
An iconic church in the Lowcountry, it continues to operate under the founding principles of religious freedom and tolerance. For centuries, it has occupied an important place in the Charleston community.
3. St. Philips Church of Charleston, South Carolina
Built in 1670 shortly after the formation of the Carolina colony, it took 53 years before the Church held its first Easter Sunday service after a series of hurricanes kept delaying the construction efforts. St. Phillips, an Evangelical parish, belongs to the worldwide Anglican Communion fellowship.
For centuries, the church has fulfilled the religious needs of people from all over the Carolina region. The focal points of the church support community issues like elections, education, social services, and disaster relief.
The gorgeous burial grounds serve as the final resting place for political leaders, community organizers, and even a few pirates, which is a testimony to the diversity of the church’s heritage and influence on the Charleston community.
Explore the rich history of the St. Philip’s Church, one of the first churches in the South Carolina colony. You’ll gain deep insights into the early religious conflicts of the region and learn more about the patrons who have been drawn to this house of worship for centuries.
4. Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island
Built by Sephardic Jews in the 1700s, this famous synagogue in Newport Rhode Island has become the subject of a fierce ownership debate among the Jewish people. A century after its construction, the Sephardic community declined in population, and newly arrived Eastern European Jews took up residence.
Today, heirs of the Sephardic community have sued the current parishioners to return the temple to Sephardic control. The legal battle reflects 400 years of American Jewish history. Though the case is ongoing, recent court judgments indicate that the plaintiffs might win.
The building has a rich historical legacy in the form of official papers, letters, and court documents. George Washington sent the congregation a letter in 1790, guaranteeing that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
5. Old Trinity Church, Church Creek, Maryland
Our fifth entry represents one of the oldest physical church buildings in America still in operation today. Constructed around 1675, the small but architecturally significant building houses a congregation of Episcopal worshippers, with a special service that welcomes visitors to join on Sundays.
Since Church Creek town records don’t date back past the 18th century, no one is certain on the exact year it was founded. However, the church, restored around 1950, has records of continuous religious activity dating back over three hundred years, and experts believe the original building dates to around 1675.
6. The Cleveland Heights Congregations in Cleveland Heights, Ohio
This last entry deviates slightly from the other churches on our list. It covers an association of churches in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where dozens of religious denominations have erected houses of worship since the 19th century.
Although certainly not the oldest congregations in America, the long tradition of these diverse centers of worship have deep historical significance in Ohio.
The congregations represent many different interpretations of faith, ranging from Presbyterian, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Judaism, and an array of non-denominational and community churches.
Real estate developers and established churches encouraged many of these congregations to build houses of worship in this area. The congregations have significantly impacted the growth of Cleveland Heights over the past 150 years, making a compelling story of the influence of faith and worship on a community.
Across America, faith-based institutions provide religious guidance, fellowship, and community building. From Catholic cathedrals to evangelical churches, our country offers many splendid houses of worship that continue to make an impact on communities today.