Alexandria, VA – The Old Presbyterian Meeting House is a church that outlasted all of the growing pains of the young Republic, the changes wrought by population growth, by modernization in whatever form it took through centuries, and by great divisions in how Americans see themselves and others.
“Celebrating our 250 years is an opportunity to thank those that had the faith, belief and desire to start the Meeting House in 1772,” says David Heiby, Superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery, in whose care are many OPMH founding and past members.
“It gives us time and opportunity to learn how they worshipped, how they lived, and how they continued as a community of faith, often during the most difficult times. Using them as our guide and foundation gives us the courage and strength to start the next 250 years of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House.”
In 1772, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House was founded as a formal congregation when the Local Society of Presbyterians called the Reverend William Thom as its first pastor. He was struck down by yellow fever within a year.
The founding members built a simple Meeting House in 1775, initially known as the First Presbyterian Church, on the 300 block of South Fairfax Street. In 1835, the Meeting House was struck by lightning; most of it was destroyed in the ensuing fire.
By 1837, the (current) meeting house was rebuilt on the same foundation. The simple design was enhanced with split front steps, a pulpit centered on the west wall, and a bell tower—the only bell tower in Alexandria at the time. With few subsequent alterations, the rebuilt Meeting House remains an outstanding example of Reformed Protestant plain style (meeting house) architecture today.
The Meeting House has been the site of many important events. When George Washington died in December 1799, four memorial services took place here. All Alexandria church bells tolled from the time of his death until interment.
Ten days later, the Alexandria Gazette noted that: “The walking being bad to the Episcopal (Christ) Church, the funeral service for George Washington will be preached at the Presbyterian Meeting House….”*
Entering the Civil War era, the Meeting House congregation split over belief in or opposition to slavery, forming two Presbyterian churches in Alexandria. When the Commonwealth seceded from the Union, Alexandria was immediately occupied by Union forces.
The Meeting House remained with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Services continued throughout these difficult times, but pro-slavery members departed to the Second Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, formed in 1857 “to insure that clergy and members could own slaves ‘from principle and as a matter of choice.’ Second Presbyterian Church joins the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. after the war.”*
By 1890, a congregation that once numbered over 200 had dwindled to 70 and was without a pastor, and the Meeting House shut down. The structure survived without significant damage through multiple uses and ownership for the next half century.
It was revived in 1949 and today it has evolved as a place of welcome and worship for all 1,100 members, without regard to political alignment, moral beliefs, or heritage. Its message is spread through the sermons of the Reverend Dr. Robert R. Laha, Jr.
Pastor Laha joined the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in 2006. Born in Kentucky, raised in Tennessee, Pastor Laha has walked in the Presbyterian belief for his entire life, from Richmond to Shreveport and in between. When it came time to slow that stride, he settled in Alexandria.
“As I was getting to the age of retirement, I decided that if I’m going to make a move, I’d like it to be something vastly different than what I was used to,” Dr. Laha says. “The last church I served in had a sanctuary for 1,200 people with ample parking and a big screen; [the Old Presbyterian Meeting House] was appealing because it had none of that and yet it worked.
“It exudes the history of the city. Folks are here from all over, with wide ranging backgrounds. To be able to work with those folks, influence those folks, and get them to think through what they’re doing theologically so they can then influence the world in their positions, that would be a great place to be.”
The Presbyterian doctrine teaches the sovereignty of God, the authority of the scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ. You will hear this when you listen to Pastor Laha’s sermons, but you will also hear a sense of questioning: How can we live our lives better? How can we make our community better? How can we make this church better?
For all Meeting House members—and through the decades there have been many—a sense of community has been the overriding reason why they joined the church, and why they have exchanged wedding vows, raised families, and baptized their children here.
Anna and Sandy Davis are members for whom this church has become family, the congregation their friends. The Davis’s daughter was baptized here 31 years ago, they have been church elders, and they have gone through life events both good in bad.
“When we think about our network of friends,” says Anna, “our church is really our core social community. It is an incredibly supportive network of people with a broad sense of community. When you have events in your life, good and bad, folks are there, you just don’t replicate that in any other part of your life.”
Anna recalls a grim moment on Memorial Weekend in 1985. “I had a pulmonary embolism,” she says, “I was working in law school career services and it was the busiest time of the year. My mother lived in D.C. and came to stay with us and help with the children. When she was pushing them on the swings, she twisted and broke her ankle, so it was just a crazy time. The church called and said ‘Can we bring meals?’ For 10 days, every night someone would show up with enough food for three to four people and it could not have come at a better time. We had not been members that long and we did not ask for it, and for this transient urban environment, I think that is unusual, but it’s what we do here. That was such a wonderful blessing for us when we really, really needed it.”
The Old Presbyterian Meeting House community’s programs are expansive. Members are involved in the choir, the music program, the youth program, and should they choose to be more closely connected with the church, they can run for deacon and elder positions.
Even if you aren’t a member, if you have yet to join or are still looking for that perfect church fit, you will enjoy their traditional yet toned down Sunday service.
With traditional hymns, relatable sermons, a balcony choir, and a children’s story, Sunday services at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House harken back to the sense of welcome and community that has permeated its congregation for 250 years. The Old Presbyterian Meeting House also has offerings outside of the sanctuary, such as their Thursday morning open tables, which feed the homeless.
- Visit Elliot house, next door to the Meeting House. Elliot house was built in 1842 by the Unruh family. Sherrard and Jean Elliot bought it in 1960 and conveyed it to the church, retaining a life-time residency. The Elliots bequeathed the house to the church to ensure that it would remain in caring hands after their death. The house contains many Elliot artifacts, such as portraits, books, and furniture, but a portion of it has been significantly renovated as church offices. An endowment ensures the protection and enhancement of the Elliot House, the Meeting House, and its grounds.
- Church records indicate that at least 300 persons were buried in the small churchyard behind the Meeting House during the half century it served as the congregation’s cemetery. (The seven-acre Presbyterian Cemetery on Hamilton Lane was established in 1809, when burial within the [then] city boundaries was outlawed.) Among those buried here are members of the families that founded the town of Alexandria—Alexanders, Carlyles, Ramsays, and others; the Rev. William Thom, the congregation’s first minister the Rev and Mary Thom, his mother; members of the family of the Rev. Dr. James Muir, the congregation’s third minister; and numerous veterans of the French and Indian War and of the Revolutionary War. The Tomb of an Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is also located in this burial ground. Several memorial services are held throughout the year at this site.
- Tour the Presbyterian cemetery on Hamilton Lane. On the 90 minute tour, David Heiby, Superintendent of Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, guides you through six of the 13 cemeteries in Alexandria, including the National Cemetery, St. Paul’s Cemetery where the Female Stranger is laid to rest, an unmarked field in which 700 souls are buried (including that of the lynched Joseph McCoy), and of course the Presbyterian cemetery, where a half-dozen mayors of Alexandria, numerous members of the City’s governing council, and at least one member of the U.S. House of Representatives, are buried.
- Also part of the church campus are the children’s center for preschool classes, and the archives building that houses old church records, documents, tape recordings and portraits, and blue prints that detail what the Meeting House was 250 years ago.
Pastor Laha likes to note that “this church has always been a leader on whatever issue arises at the time; always at the forefront. It has always said, ‘let’s stay engaged, let’s challenge ourselves.’
“The 250th anniversary motto is about celebrating our past and embracing our future. That encapsulates what we are all about. We revere our past because they took stances, most folks get that and want to be a part of that. But we are not locked in our past. The best way we honor our forebearers is not to repeat everything, but to blaze new trails.”
* Our thanks to the OPMH historical records for certain facts included in this account. To read extensive accounts of the church history, visit www.opmh.org/history/.
Old Presbyterian Meeting House 250th Anniversary Reunion Weekend Activities
If you want to be regaled with stories of history, religion, and evolution, join the Meeting House congregation in June for its 250th anniversary weekend.
The entire reunion weekend has been years in the making—planning began pre-pandemic—and now, the congregation can finally celebrate all that the church and its members have stood for, experienced, endured, and emulated for over two centuries.
June 24 – 26, 2022
Thursday, June 23
Book Talk with Dave Smith and Ellen Hamilton; 7:00 pm at Mount Vernon Library
OPMH Member Dave Smith will join Ellen Hamilton to each talk about their books on Scottish immigration to America prior to and just after the American Revolution. Kevin Butterfield, executive director of the Washington Library will moderate the discussion.
Friday, June 24
Art Show; 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm
Exhibits will be displayed throughout the buildings and grounds of the Meeting House, featuring artwork celebrating the church, neighborhood and community, as well as photos celebrating church events from over the years – weddings, baptisms, retreats, mission trips, and historical events. There will be a reception during the event.
Saturday, June 25
Presbyterian Cemetery Tour; 600 Hamilton Lane; Alex, VA; 9:30 am to 11:00 am
Dave Heiby, Superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery will share his vast wealth of knowledge about the historic cemetery and its important place in the history of our city and church. A light breakfast will be offered.
Gala Reception and Dinner; Virginia Theological Seminary; 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Join current and former members, friends and special guests for a fun-filled evening of great food and company. The dinner will feature a tribute to many of the most memorable people and events that have contributed to the rich history of the Meeting House. Black tie optional.
Sunday, June 26
Farewell Picnic; Ft. Hunt Park; 12:30 to 2:30 pm
Family picnic featuring fried chicken lunch, anniversary cake, hymn sing-a-long, and games. Come as you are following the 11:00 am service.
All events are free, except for Gala Dinner. For details and registration: opmh.org/250th