When its 196 foot steeple was completed in 1755, Christ Church, on Second Street below Market in Old City, was the tallest manmade structure in North America. In fact, the Georgian icon, designed by carpenters and builders John Kearsley, John Harrison, and Robert Smith, holds the record for being the highest habitable structure in the US for the longest amount of time. (Depending on the source, the number of years ranges from about 75 to 102.) As such, the steeple of Christ Church held this distinction longer than any other structure on the continent. Only the Twin Towers in New York City came close, at about 30 years.
With the tower partially under construction in 1752, Benjamin Franklin sought to use it for an experiment to draw an electric charge from the clouds of a thunderstorm. But the slow pace of construction forced the impatient Franklin to revise his experiment using a kite and key (possibly done on June 16, 1752).
As the steeple towered over the early skyline, as an icon the church’s tower came to represent the city (much as Liberty Place did 230 some years later). In early drawings and maps, it featured prominently. In 1776, John Adams climbed the tower’s steep ladders to get himself a panoramic view of the new nation.
William Penn having allowed for religious freedom in his city charter, Anglicans of the Church of England had founded Christ Church in 1695 (and subsequently built their congregation by attracting lapsed Quakers) and by the following year had built a small wooden church on Second Street. The large, sumptuous church would follow, in 1727 when construction began. The resulting composition is well-regarded as one of the nation’s most beautiful surviving 18th century structures, a paean to colonial craftsmanship and ambition.
The steeple contains a chime of bells cast in London in the middle of the 1700s, one of three rings-of-bells installed in America prior to the Revolution. The bells were cast by the same foundry at Whitechapel that in 1752 first cast what became the Liberty Bell. Christ Church’s bells were certainly rung on July 8, 1776, to announce the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. A few months later, the State House (Liberty) Bell, the bells of Christ Church, and other local bells were removed and hidden in Old Zion Reformed Church in Allentown for safekeeping (lest they be melted down for ammunition) during the British occupation of Philadelphia. The bells were returned and re-hung in August, 1778.
Among Christ Church’s congregation were 15 signers of the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War figures like George Washington, Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and Betsy Ross (after she had been read out of the Quaker meetinghouse to which she belonged for marrying John Ross, son of an assistant rector at Christ Church). At the convening of the First Continental Congress in September, 1774, rector Jacob Duché was summoned to Carpenters’ Hall to lead the opening prayers. During and after the war, Reverend William White (1748-1836), the new rector, served as Chaplain to both the Continental Congress and to the United States Senate.
Post-revolution, no longer willing to remain part of the Church of England, clerical and lay deputies from several states met at the church to organize a church general convention and White was chosen president. At the convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1786, he was elected its first bishop and sailed for England to seek consecration. A special enabling act was passed by Parliament to enable White’s consecration by the archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1787. Two years later, the first meeting of the House of Bishops was held at Christ Church under White’s direction. This was the first General Convention of the American Episcopal Church. White was also largely responsible for the liturgy and offices of the first American Book of Common Prayer.
As a result of all this, Christ Church is the birthplace of the Episcopal Church in the US, as well as the first Protestant Episcopal church in the nation.
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011) and Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2000 titles new and old.