FAITH IN ACTION FOR 250 YEARS

ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES

The altar as it appears from the reading desk.

The sounding board above the pulpit.

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Samuel Powel's box pew and a view of gallery pews for members' slaves to the right and left of the pulpit.


Scottish master builder and architect Robert Smith arrived in America in 1748 clearly well-versed in the latest London mid-Georgian style. When he was chosen by the Christ Church vestry to build the new Anglican church at Third and Pine Streets, he had recently completed the bell tower of Christ Church, the tallest spire in America, and other important commissions in the colonies. He had been made a member of the Carpenters’ Company and, just before the American Revolution, would be chosen to design their guild house on Chestnut Street.

Born in Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, and baptized in the Church of St. Nicholas in 1722, Smith became a Quaker, presumably when he married Esther Jones in about 1749. Whether it was his newfound Quaker sensibilities or the fact that many of the members of Christ Church who wanted a new church were former Quakers, he designed a church that was indeed “a House decently neat and elegantly plain.” Whatever the reason or reasons, former Quakers were made to feel at home.

St. Peter’s is red brick with white wood and marble trim, 60 by 90 feet, with a large Palladian window on the east end and two entrance doors on each of the north and south sides.  The ground-floor windows have clear glass; the arched gallery windows are opaque to reduce the glare of the sun. Originally, the building had Smith’s trademark cupola with two bells, said to be from the first Christ Church building in Philadelphia. Architectural historian George Thomas believes that the design takes a familiar British model and creates a new American style based largely on the Quaker vernacular. The colonists were ever more distant from Britain and wanted something uniquely their own, reflecting their time and their place, he notes. The exterior design of St. Peter’s is remarkably similar to that of James Horne’s 1741 Christ Church inSouthwark, London, as noted by Frederick L. Richards in his study of St. Peter’s.  But unlike Horne’s London church, with its single hierarchical door, Smith designed the four democratic and welcoming 12-foot-high ones, which give a Quaker feel to the building.

Smith’s design for the interior of St. Peter’s speaks to the evangelical fervor of the Great Awakening that was sweeping through the American colonies at the time. He used theLondon style of auditory (or preaching) church, as can be seen by the cove ceiling and the broad, open space. But instead of having columns support the roof, he strengthened the roof

trusses with iron bands that he designed, as far as can be determined, especially for St. Peter’s. The church has a wide center aisle, two side aisles and galleries on the north and south walls. It seats 900 people, and its acoustics are excellent for both preaching and music. Smith used this prototype for many other church commissions in the following years, thus establishing a uniquely American form for houses of worship.
Smith made the pulpit the most important feature of the church, centering it and the reading desk below at the west end of the church. By not relegating them to either side of the altar, as was traditionally done in Catholic churches, he stressed the primary position of the preaching and the Gospel-reading, as was the focus in all post-Reformation churches. (Soon after St. Peter’s was built, the new Christ Church pulpit was placed in front of the altar. Thus, pulpit location was an important issue for the Christ Church vestrymen on the building committee for the new church.)
In projecting the pulpit out from the wall of the original interior tower, Smith was bringing the Word into the midst of the congregation. He also raised the pulpit so that the preacher is midway between the galleries and the main floor, and can be seen and heard by almost everyone.

Above the chalice-shaped pulpit hangs an elaborate sounding board called a “Glory,” with a large gilt sunburst on the underside. Rising up from it is a representation of the pillar of cloud topped by a flame, which represent the Old Testament presence of God. William Smith also said in his opening sermon:  

“So the Great Jehovah, in conversing with the Israelites, did it [face to face] by his divine Schechinah or the presence of his Glory, abiding under the form of a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire.”

As an ensemble, the pulpit wall presents a design-book picture of mid-Georgian style, which Smith would have known from his copy of Batty Langley’s Treasury of Designs. It is notable for its restrained classicism, except for the exuberant Glory, created by master wood-carver Martin Jugiez (The pulpit wasn’t in place until three years after the church opened for services. Thus, the church was much plainer for the opening service than it is now.) At the top of the west wall’s Georgian ensemble can be seen a cartouche, also made by Jugiez, that has at its center the coat of arms of the Penn family, in recognition of the gift by the “Proprietaries” of  the land for the church. The raised reading desk at the base of the pulpit completes the ensemble, and was in place for the opening.

In the beginning

The 18th Century

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

The People of St. Peter's

The Choir

Mission and Outreach

Did You Know?

The Next 250

The Hero of Tripoli

The Book