History of st. peter's

Located in the center of “The First Town in The First State," St. Peter’s Church has served the spiritual needs of this community since 1681.



When the first English settlers arrived in lower Delaware, they brought with them their Christian religion. A few were Quakers, some Presbyterians, but mostly Churchmen, members of the Church of England. By 1681, the Churchmen of what is today Lewes had knit together a congregation and received a grant of four acres in the center of town, which they fenced for a burial ground, and eventually a church building site. In 1689, a portion of this land was used to build a Court House on the west side of the churchyard. Before the arrival of the first clergy-man, religious services were sometimes led by laymen in the Court House.


The early worshipers petitioned the Bishop of London to send clergy to serve them and the other congregations in Sussex County. The first missionary to arrive was the Reverend William Black in July of 1708. In June of 1709, French privateers plundered the town, and Black fled to Virginia, never to return to Lewes. The lack of a missionary did not deter the Churchmen of Sussex County, and they proceeded to build three churches: Saint Matthew's Church Cedar Creek (now gone); Saint George's Chapel in Indian River Hundred; and Saint Peter's Church, Lewes.


The Sussex Mission owes its permanence to the Reverend William Becket, A.M., who came to Lewes in September 1721 and remained until his death in 1743. He is buried in St. Peter’s churchyard. Under his leadership, not only St. Peter’s, but three other churches flourished in Sussex county. Becket served all three churches and added a fourth, Saint John the Baptist "in about the center of the county in the forest of Sussex." This church survives today in Milton. Under Becket's leadership the Church of England became firmly established in Sussex County. It is interesting to note that although he allowed the Rev. George Whitefield to preach at St. Peter's Church in 1739, Becket later wrote several damning letters to the Venerable Society (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) in London concerning Whitefield and the emerging Methodist movement.


It is not known exactly when the first St. Peter’s Church was built, although it was sufficiently finished to hold services when Becket arrived in 1721. The first Saint Peter's church was built forward of the present building in the north-east corner of the churchyard. It was built on an east to west axis with the sanctuary at the east end, a custom at the time. This accounts for the odd arrangement of the grave stones with the headstones at the east end of the graves in parts of the cemetery. In a letter of October 1728 to the Bishop of London, Becket describes St. Peter’s Church as follows: [it is] 40 feet in length 24 broad, the wall between the plate and the sill is 15 feet. The frame...Wood. the Roof...covered with Cypress Shingles and the wall with Boards of the same wood,..the walls wainscoted with Cypress plank as high as the tops of the pews. The Pulpit, reading desk, Communion Table and Rail are handsomely built of Black Walnut - the pews...of pine plank...the number of people frequenting this church I reckon...about 150.


The original communion table is still in use as the altar in the present church. The church also has the original Book of Common Prayer used by the first congregation. In 1773 the church was presented a silver communion service made by John David, Silversmith of Philadelphia. It consists of four pieces, a flagon with domed cover for wine 10” high, chalice with removable cover 12” high, and a paten 10” in diameter. Each piece is inscribed “The Gift of the Honorable John Penn Esq. To St. Peter’s Church in Lewis Town June 10, 1773.” The service is still used for communion on special occasions. John Marshall Phillips, Curator at Yale University, wrote that the Chippendale Period communion service was “outstanding” and “the finest silver in Delaware.” The silver has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Christie’s in London, and in other museum exhibits.



Clergy for the Sussex Mission were supplied by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel from London until the Revolution. St. Peter’s survived the split with The Church of England, and in 1785 became a part of The Protestant Episcopal Church in The United States, independent from The Church of England.


It is almost impossible to make any generalization with regard to the activities of the Church of England clergy or laity in the Lower Counties during the Revolutionary period because no two men seem to have reacted to events in exactly the same way. The clergy of the Church of England found themselves in difficulties very early because of the oaths of allegiance to the King of England which were required at their ordinations, and the income they received from the Venerable Society in England. A number of the vestry at Saint Peter's Church were Loyalists. The Reverend Samuel Tingley, a native of New York, came to Lewes in 1773 and stayed until 1783 when he accepted a parish in Maryland. He took upon himself the task of revising the prayers after the Declaration of Independence in order to keep his churches open, believing that if they were ever closed it would be difficult to get them open again. Instead of "O Lord save the King," he wrote, "O Lord, save those, whom thou hast made it our especial duty to pray for." There is no doubt that the Church of England suffered losses as a result of the Revolution and also from the rise of the Methodist Church in Delaware, but three of the churches in Sussex County survive today. In 1785, delegates from each of the states met and organized The Protestant Episcopal Church in The United States, independent from The Church of England.


The vestry minutes record the building of the second church in 1808 as follows: The Wardens, Vestry, Trustees, and other Members of the Congregation of St. Peter’s at Lewes agreed to build a New Church of the same size of the Old one, and to set it about 30 or 40 feet to the South and West of the old Church, which was so much decayed it would not bear repairing. The new church was raised in June, and on 15 September 1808 the Rev. James Wiltbank preached a sermon to the congregation in the completed building, which sat on the site of the present building.


History to present

Church History [Continued]

In 1848 it was decided to build a new building to replace the second church “which was much decayed and badly constructed for a house of worship.” In 1853 the old church was moved to the southwest corner of the churchyard on Third Street. Plans were purchased from a Philadelphia architect and on 27 May 1854, The Right Reverend Alfred Lee, Bishop of Delaware laid the cornerstone of the present building. The vestry asked Bishop Lee to consecrate the church in 1858, but the church was probably finished long before this, for Episcopal churches can only be consecrated when all debts have been paid.


The steeple was added in 1870. The interior of the church was refurbished in a Victorian gothic style in 1889, but has since been restored to a modified colonial style. A sacristy and other rooms were added to the rear of the church in 1903. After the completion of this addition, the old church was sold for $200 and moved to a farm on Route 1 near Midway where it was used as a barn. It fell down in the 1950s. In 2020 the church underwent an expansion which added bathrooms, and additional pew space on the main level, a new conference room, and an additional chapel on the lower level, and the installation of a broadcasting system which allows us to offer virtual worship to those who cannot be physically present with us. The portico over the front door was completed in 2022, almost 100 years after the first architectural renderings for it were drawn.


Over the years, the church has acquired all of the property bounded by Second and Third Streets, and Market and Mulberry Streets. The parish house was built in 1924 on a lot given to the church by Dr. C.H.B. Turner, a former rector of the church. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1994. Today it is used for many church activities and is shared with a variety of community groups. The house on the corner of Second and Mulberry Streets, commonly called the Ryves Holt House, believed to be the oldest standing building in Delaware, was sold by the church to the Lewes Historical Society, although the church retains ownership of the land. In 2023 the church offices and Children’s Ministry program will move to the Hart House, located on the corner of Third and Mulberry Streets.


The church also owns a “new” cemetery located near the end of Pilottown Road on the site of the fort built by the original settlers in 1631 and the Ancient Burial Ground. It was established in 1955 after it was determined there were no longer any burial sites available in the church yard.


Today, more than three hundred years after its founding, St. Peter’s Church is an active faith community welcoming all to share in our fellowship.