Introduction: The early Lewinsville Congregation (pre-1819 through 1861)

Note: This site reports on the results of research in progress by Catherine E. “Cathy” Saunders, a faculty member at George Mason University and a member of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church. You can read more about her and the project on the about page.

As explained on that page, the format of the pages here was designed to coordinate with an on-site cemetery tour that took place on 10/16/22. The short introductions you’ll see at the top of many pages on this site were posted on signs in the cemetery, with QR codes leading to the full text posted here.

We couldn’t leave the signs up because they would interfere with mowing the cemetery, but the cemetery plan is now available on this site, and I’m working to make it more usable for self-guided tours. I’m also happy to walk through the cemetery with anyone who is interested at a mutually convenient time; see the about page for contact information.


When the congregation of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church gathered in the 1850s, it included members of three groups:

  • People of European descent born in Virginia, in many cases on the Northern Neck, who had been meeting at least periodically as a house church congregation since the eighteen-teens. This group included older members of the Ball and Jones families.
  • People of at least partly African descent enslaved by the first group, who were segregated in a gallery at the back of the sanctuary.  Their lives and experiences are a major focus of the ongoing research project described on this site.

Lewinsville Presbyterian Church was formally founded, and its first sanctuary built, in 1846 (the anniversary the congregation is celebrating in 2021-22).  However, some of the people who would eventually become the first members of the formally-organized church began gathering for worship much earlier, in the second decade of the 19th century, at Salona, the home of Rev. William Maffitt in nearby Langley, Virginia. 

Maffitt, born in Cecil County, Maryland, was a schoolteacher as well as a Presbyterian minister.  He lived and worked for some time in Alexandria before moving to Chantilly and then to Langley, Virginia.  He married in succession two widows with children, Harriotte (or Henrietta) Turberville, nee Lee (who died in 1805), and Ann Beale Carter (nee Carter), with whom he lived at Salona.  Both marriages produced children, resulting in a large blended family. 

Members of the Maffitt household probably made up the nucleus of the congregation that met at Salona.  That congregation also included other relatives and neighbors.  We know from an 1819 letter written by Harriotte Maffitt (William’s daughter by his first wife) that those who gathered at Salona heard preaching not only by Maffitt, but also by Rev. Dr. Muir, pastor of the Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, and a Mr. Harrison, also of Alexandria.  The same letter records the presence at Salona on the preceding Sunday of Elizabeth Lee Jones, a cousin of Rev. Maffitt’s Turberville stepchildren. 

Other possible (but not documented) participants in the early house congregation include members of the Ball family, including Martha Corbin Turberville Ball, another member of the extended Turberville family (and Elizabeth Jones’ aunt) and Elizabeth’s siblings, including Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who was often away serving in the Navy, but probably attended while visiting Elizabeth.  Family ties among this already-interrelated group were further strengthened in 1823 when Rev. Maffitt performed the marriage of Thomas ap Catesby Jones to Ann Beale Carter Maffitt’s daughter, Mary Walker Carter, at Salona. 

There was clearly interest among members of the house church congregation in formally founding a Presbyterian church.  When Elizabeth Lee Jones wrote her will shortly before her 1822 death, she noted that she had had surveyed four acres of the property on which she lived, part of a 1724 grant by Lord Fairfax of lands historically occupied by the Manahoac and Piscataway peoples to her Turberville ancestors. 

In the will, Elizabeth left the surveyed plot “as a site for a church and church yard,” “to be improved and dedicated to the uses and purposes of divine worship in such manner. . .as. . .may . . .be prescribed by the Rev[eren]d William Maffitt” or another Presbyterian pastor from a list she supplied.  However, her bequest became embroiled in a multigenerational legal dispute over Turberville family wills and was never carried out. 

William Maffitt died in 1828.  Ann Maffitt sold Salona in 1835, though she may have remained there as late as 1842.  It is not clear whether or where members of the house church congregation gathered  after Maffitt’s death, or who would have preached to such gatherings.  One possibility is another member of the extended Maffitt/Jones family:  Rev. Thomas Bloomer Balch, son of Rev. Stephen Bloomer Balch of Georgetown, who married Maffitt’s stepdaughter (and Mary Walker Carter Jones’ sister), Susan Carter, in 1822, and who served as a missionary to Fairfax County between 1829 and 1836.

The plan to donate land for a church was finally revived c. 1842 by Martha Corbin Turberville Ball, her adult children Spencer, William W., and Lucy, and Spencer and William’s wives Mary and Dorothy, after the death of Martha’s husband, Mottrom.  While the land donation took a while to be formalized (the deed is dated April 1849), members of the nascent formal congregation proceeded with plans to prepare the land (a different plot from the one described in Elizabeth Jones’ will, though still apparently part of the Turberville grant) for its intended use as a cemetery and church site.  

Mason Shipman, a neighbor, ploughed the land for the cemetery, to which Rev. Maffitt’s body, originally buried at Salona, was eventually moved, strengthening the sense of connection between the early house church and the formal congregation.   The church was formally founded, and its first pastor, Levi H. Christian, installed, on October 17, 1846.  The first sanctuary was built around the same time and was dedicated on January 3, 1847. 

Because the early church records were lost in 1923, we don’t know the exact membership of the first congregation.  We do, however, have the memories of Ida P. Beall, Thomas and Mary Jones’ granddaughter, who in a 1924 letter provided a list of founding members that included “Commodore and Mrs. Thomas Jones, Mrs. Martha Corbin Turberville Ball, Miss Lucy Ball, Mr. Amzi Coe, Mr. Archibald Sherwood, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert, Mr. and Mrs. Osbourn, Mr. and Mrs. Ives, and Mr. Beard.”  “Mr. Gilbert” was probably Benajah Gilbert, who with Amzi Coe served as the first elders.  The 1849 deed gives us the names of the first trustees (and adds a few names to the list of early members): Thomas ap Catesby Jones, Wells Hatch, Amzi Coe, Archibald Sherwood, Benajah Gilbert, and John Gilbert. 

Other invaluable sources of information about the makeup and activities of the Lewinsville congregation in the 1850s include a friendship quilt completed in May 1852 to commemorate the installation of Rev. B.F. Bittinger as pastor, which includes approximately 108 names (most likely including participants in the Sunday School and others who were not formally members), and a diary kept by Rev. C.B. McKee, the fourth pastor to serve the formal congregation, in 1857. 

The surviving members of the early house church congregation, including members of the Jones and Ball families, were mostly born on the Northern Neck of Virginia and moved to lands left to them by their Turberville ancestors in the early 19th century. In at least one case (Mottrom and Mary Ball), they were fleeing British incursions during the War of 1812.  They and others may also have been seeking land on which to settle as their extended families outgrew the space available on the Northern Neck. 

These members of the early Lewinsville congregation, like members of the extended Maffitt family and their mutual Carter and Lee relatives, were accustomed to living on, and being supported by the proceeds of, plantations that relied on enslaved labor.  Censuses, wills, and other property records show that they continued those practices in Fairfax County. 

Perhaps as a result, most members of the Jones and Ball families supported secession and, eventually, the Confederacy.  A notable exception was Meriwether Patterson Jones, son of Thomas and Mary, who did not participate in the secession vote, but continued his service in the US Navy during the war.   His father had died before the war, and his aging mother (who could not vote) seems to have been torn, mostly wishing for peace. After fleeing south during the first year of the war, she returned home to Northern Virginia in 1862 and did what she could to support the troops camped on and around her land. 

The architecture of the first Lewinsville sanctuary reflected the world view of the Maffitt, Ball, and Jones families (and probably some good intentions on their part): it included a gallery for enslaved people to occupy during services.  We don’t know exactly who occupied that gallery, or how often, but Rev. McKee, after one of his first visits to Lewinsville on June 14, 1857, noted in his diary that he had “preached in the morning in the church from John 1:29 to 70 souls, black and white, 11 were black.”

We have no direct evidence that enslaved people participated in the early gatherings at Salona, but it seems likely that some of the people enslaved by the Maffitts would at least have overheard those services as they went about their household work.  Since one of the justifications often cited for enslaving people of African descent was to make them Christians, it would not be surprising if the Maffitts invited or required those they enslaved to attend (or, as some enslavers did, held separate services for them). 

At the time of Lewinsville’s formal founding, possible enslaved participants in worship include Griffin Dobson, manservant to Thomas ap Catesby Jones, his wife Cynthia, and perhaps their children.  The Dobsons would, however, have been gone by the time Rev. McKee noted the presence of 11 “black” “souls” in his congregation; Griffin Dobson bought his own freedom from Commodore Jones in 1848, and that of his wife and children in 1852, and settled with them in California. 

We know from an 1867 inquiry into her whereabouts and welfare by her son William that Rachel Dotson, who was enslaved by the Jones family, was instrumental in raising the three younger Jones children, Mary, Mark, and Martha, but we don’t know whether she attended services, with or without them.  Earlier histories of Lewinsville have suggested that Belinda Brown, who worked as a nurse in the Ball family and is buried in the Lewinsville cemetery, may have been present in the gallery; that, too, seems plausible, but we have no confirmation.

In short, we know that the first Lewinsville sanctuary was built with the assumptions that people enslaved by the White members (and possibly free African Americans as well) would attend services, and that they would sit separately from White members of the congregation.  We know that Lewinsville had some African American congregants in 1857, when McKee was pastor. Beyond the segregated seating arrangements, we don’t know how or to what degree African Americans attendees were able to participate in worship; for instance, we don’t know whether they were invited to the table when communion was celebrated, or whether African Americans were baptized in the Lewinsville sanctuary.  

Most important, we don’t know what the experience of African American congregants seated in the gallery was like: did they come to services voluntarily, or only because the people who enslaved them insisted?  Did they find comfort or enlightenment in Lewinsville’s services, or did they, like many of their contemporaries, come away wondering how people could claim to follow Christ while enslaving other human beings also made in the image of God?  Did some of them find other ways to gather for worship, either openly or in secret, and did those gatherings better feed their faith and support them in their life journeys?

Some of these questions are probably answered by the founding of African American churches in the area immediately after the war.  Once they were free to do so, African Americans overwhelmingly preferred to participate in Black-led congregations (and to choose their own denominational affiliations).  Their prewar experiences in White-led congregations, including Lewinsville, undoubtedly played a role in that preference. 

We also know that the labor of enslaved people played a central role in the economic and logistical life of the congregation.  The wealth which allowed members of the Ball and Jones families to donate land, money, and time to the church was built through the labor of enslaved people.  Several of Lewinsville’s early pastors, beginning with Rev. Maffitt, were able to study, preach, and visit in part because people enslaved by them or their parishioners performed household and/or agricultural labor in their stead. 

We don’t know who physically built the first sanctuary and other church buildings, including a school,  parsonage, and stable completed in the 1850s, but do know that there were enslaved as well as free people in the area, some claimed as property by Lewinsville’s founding families, with the needed skills.  We also know from Rev. McKee’s diary that Thomas ap Catesby Jones periodically sent people he enslaved to help complete work at the parsonage. 

The third group of participants in the Lewinsville congregation during the 1840s and 1850s were people who moved from New York to Fairfax County during that period.  Census records reveal that many of the earliest members and leaders of the church, including Amzi Coe, Archibald Sherwood, John Gilbert, and Wells Hatch, fall in this category.  By the time the friendship quilt was completed in 1852, they were joined by members of the extended Crocker/Woodworth/Carpenter family, substantially swelling the number of participants in the congregation and Sunday School. 

Census and other records suggest that most Lewinsville members born in New York worked their own land (perhaps with periodic assistance from hired laborers, enslaved or free, who would not show up on the census).  I have not found entries for members of the Crocker, Woodworth, or Carpenter families on the slave schedules in the 1860 federal census.

The exceptions to this pattern were families with one spouse born in New York and the other born in Virginia.  For example, John Gilbert and his wife Sarah were Lewinsville members and close neighbors; they lived in the farmhouse that is now in the middle of Lewinsville Park.  He was born in New York, and she, a member of the Ball family, was born in Virginia.  According to the slave schedules of the 1850 census, their household included one enslaved person.  The same census shows four enslaved children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 7 to 17, in the household of founding members Archibald Sherwood, born in New York, and his wife Lucinda, born in Virginia. 

As the Civil War approached, most Lewinsville members born in New York and their descendants remained loyal to the Union. Members of the Crocker family were especially active, serving the US Army in both formal and informal roles.  Archibald Sherwood appears to be an exception to this pattern; the records of the secession vote at Lewinsville show that “A Sherwood” voted for secession (while other men with the Sherwood surname voted against). Amzi Coe, who had lived in Virginia longer than most northern-born Lewinsville members, is another; he also voted for secession (at the polling place at Lydecker’s Store in Vienna).

One thing that most of the adults who gathered at Lewinsville in the 1840s and 1850s had in common is that they had moved, voluntarily or not, from the places where they were born, leaving family, friends, and familiar places behind.  They were in the process of building connection and community in a place that was new to them.  At least for the White congregants, joining the Lewinsville congregation for worship and other activities was part of that process. 

They were also participants in a religious tradition that emphasizes engagement with the world, building a new congregation during a particularly turbulent time for their country, in a place where those tensions were particularly evident.  Residents of Northern Virginia, including those who gathered at Lewinsville, did not agree on whether the practice of legally enslaving other human beings should persist, expand, or be abolished. 

As the conflict escalated, they did not agree on whether Virginia should remain part of the Union or secede.  Once tensions over these issues escalated into civil war, members of the congregation, and in some cases members of families within the congregation, were divided in their loyalties (though all experienced the very real devastation that war inevitably entails).  After the war ended, members of the Lewinsville community, and probably Lewinsville members, took differing positions on whether and how African Americans should exercise full citizenship rights. 

Somehow, despite these tensions, the congregation persevered and even grew in the 1850s, and regathered and began to rebuild soon after the war.  We don’t know (and will probably never know) the full history of how they navigated congregational life at a time when individual members, like Presbyterians before and since, held passionate but very different opinions about the nation’s civic life. 

At the same time, we know that the choices they made in the mid-19th century helped shape the church, community, and nation in which we live today.  I hope that learning more about their lives and their relationships, and the role that faith played in those choices, can help us navigate our own turbulent times in the light of our faith. 

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