Our History

emmanuelphotoThe present building of Emmanuel Church is the third Anglican house of worship on this site. While it is not known when the first edifice was erected, vestry minutes refer to a wooden chapel being razed in 1720 to make way for a larger brick one. That second building was replaced in 1767 by a third one, which comprises the nave of the present church. Its impressive dimensions are 66 feet by 40 feet by two stories.

It can be assumed there was an Anglican church in Chestertown soon after 1706, when the Provincial Council of Maryland designated the town the port of entry for Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties.

The first Anglican church in Kent County was St. Peter’s, New Yarmouth, a settlement at the mouth of the Chester River, which was the center of commercial life in the county in the latter half of the 17th century. St. Peter’s was replaced by St. Paul’s, Kent Parish, near the village of Fairlee. Chestertown’s 1720 chapel was a chapel-of-ease of St. Paul’s,
Kent Parish.

In 1766, the Provincial Council of Maryland created Chester Parish out of land ceded to it by Kent County’s two original parishes: St. Paul’s, Kent and Shrewsbury. At the time of its chartering Chester Parish covered eighty-five square miles, extending north from the Chester River. The freeholders of the new parish met at the crossroads known as I.U., near the present village of Worton, and elected a vestry that made plans to build a new church on that site and to enlarge the chapel in Chestertown. Within a year, however, the vestry decided to build a new chapel on the Chestertown site, using the proceeds from the sale of fifty thousand pounds of tobacco that was collected as a tax levied on the freeholders of the parish for the support of the church.

Between the years 1766 and 1775, three rectors served the church and chapel in Chester Parish, supported by a tax of five pounds of tobacco levied on each inhabitant and collected by the sheriff. By 1776, however, the Declaration of Independence and the constitution of the newly-established State of Maryland had deprived Anglican churches of their tax support. As the legislators in Annapolis joined in the rebellion against Britain, they required clergy to take an oath of loyalty to the cause of independence. Many Anglican priests refused, because they had sworn a previous oath of loyalty to the King of England at the time of their ordination. Persecuted clergy emigrated to England or Canada, and by 1780, there were only six priests of the Church of England remaining in Maryland. One was The Reverend Samuel Keene, who assumed his duties as Rector of Chester Parish in 1779 and served one year. He left when parishioners failed to honor their promise to pay his salary of eight hundred bushels of wheat per year.
The Reverend William Smith, D.D., filled the vacancy left by Mr. Keene. Dr. Smith had written the first curriculum for King’s College (now Columbia University), served as first Provost of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and would found Washington College, Chestertown, and St. John’s College, Annapolis. In 1780, Dr. Smith arrived in Chestertown to organize a school. The vestry offered him six hundred bushels of wheat to take on the additional duties of Rector of Chester Parish. His first sermon in Chestertown, delivered on 4 July 1780, was a Thanksgiving for the Establishment of Peace and Independence in America. By 1782, Dr. Smith’s school had enrolled one hundred forty students, so he petitioned the Maryland General Assembly for a charter. George Washington graciously allowed the new college to bear his name.


Dr. Smith understood that other Anglican parishes shared Chester Parish’s difficulties in meeting their financial obligations. Well-connected among the clergy of his day, he corresponded with church leaders throughout the colonies. In November 1780, in Chestertown Chapel, he convened a meeting of Anglican clergy and members of vestries from parishes in Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties. The purpose of the meeting was to draft a letter to the Maryland General Assembly petitioning it to acknowledge the burdens that independence had imposed on the Anglican church and to provide in some way for the public support of religion. At this meeting, The Reverend James Jones, Rector of Shrewsbury Parish, moved that the Church of England as heretofore so known in the province, be now called the Protestant Episcopal Church. Dr. Smith and the others agreed to the name, which other regional conventions subsequently adopted. In 1789, the united Anglican Church in the former colonies adopted this name for the American branch of the Anglican Church.

In 1789, after the Pennsylvania legislature restored the charter of the College of Philadelphia, Dr. Smith returned to that city. The rectors who succeeded him served short tenures, and little is known about them until 1809, when, under The Reverend William H. Wilmer, the Chestertown Chapel became the parish church of Chester Parish, while the church at I.U. Crossroads was allowed to fall into ruin. (It was not until 1860 that the present Christ Church I.U. was erected.) Meanwhile, Mr. Wilmer left Chestertown to serve St. Paul’s Church, Alexandria, from which he helped to found the Virginia Theological Seminary.
Beginning in 1832, rectors serving long tenures expanded the church’s ministry to the community and undertook to make improvements to the church building. It was not until the church was renovated in 1882 that it was consecrated and given the name Emmanuel Church. (Heretofore, it had been called Chester Parish Church.) The Right Reverend Henry C. Lay, First Bishop of Easton, referred in his consecration sermon to this church as one of the most ancient in Maryland.

The Building

Worshipers entered the colonial church of 1767 through a door located in the middle of the south wall. The pulpit was sited across the church from the door, the Holy Table abutted the east wall where the chancel arch is now and there were two tiers of clear-glass windows separated by a second-story gallery around three sides.
In 1757, Thomas Hand placed a marble plaque in memory of his wife Sarah in the north wall of the church that preceded the present one. The only artifact from either previous church found is the present one, it was carved in England.
When, in 1880, the vestry authorized the reconstruction of the church, they removed the gallery and upper tier of windows and raised the height of the lower tier and arched them over, lowered the existing roof intact twelve feet, replaced the clear windows with patterned stained glass windows (the last remaining of which is in the southeast corner), added a recessed apse to the east end of the building, relocated the main door to its present site and replaced the pulpit and pews.
In 1905, the parish added a bell tower and a parish hall. In 1961, the parish partially razed this latter structure to make room for the present parish hall.

The Windows & Furnishings

There are several notable stained-glass windows. Over the altar there is a triptych depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. Colonial custom dictated that the Decalogue, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed be displayed on tablets in the front of churches. Emmanuel Church would have had such tablets, which were removed when the apse was added. This window is a Victorian adaptation of the colonial custom.
In place of the original door in the south wall there is a window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This window was designed and executed by the Tiffany Studio in New York.
Contemporary additions to the church include needlepoint kneelers, chancel chairs and prie-dieux, and hand-made chandeliers. In 1993 a two-manual mechanical action instrument of 23-stops, 29-ranks, built by Harrison & Harrison of Durham, England, was installed in the north wall recess. During that year a number of special services and concerts celebrated the installation of the organ. We continue to celebrate our wonderful instrument with a concert series.

We have a rich history from which to draw, thanks to Art Leiby. For the complete Dumschott history “Emmanuel Episcopal Church 1772-1972,” by historian Fred Dumschott, click here. For Dr. Guy Goodfellow’s address on the 200th Anniversary of the Convention of 1780, courtesy of the Kent County Historical Society, click here.