William Penn received a charter from King Charles II in 1681 to establish what Penn would call Pennsylvania. By September of that year, Penn had made a deal with a group of Welsh Quakers who wanted to purchase 40,000 acres of Penn’s new colony to form an exclusive tract for Welsh settlers, subject to their own laws and regulations to be conducted in their own Welsh language. This purchase, which was to extend from what is now King of Prussia west to Downingtown, came to be referred to as the Welsh Tract or Welsh Barony. The first Welsh Tract purchasers received quantities of land in Merion, Haverford, Radnor, and Goshen, and Welsh settlers came to claim the land. But much of the land in what was Tredyffrin and Whiteland, then known as the “Dark Valley” because of its heavy forest growth, remained sparsely settled until nearly 1700, long after the rest of the Welsh Tract was occupied.
Today’s word Tredyffrin is literally translated from the Welsh as Tre (town) and Duffryn (a wide cultivated valley), and hence was originally called Valley-town in old English manuscripts. Interestingly, not until 1740 did Lewis Evans record upon his map the term Y–Dyffryn–Mawr or (the Great Valley) to represent the region between the two ranges of hills now known as the Great Chester Valley.
The Welsh Quakers were never able to constitute a majority of the inhabitants of Easttown and Tredyffrin; that majority being comprised of Welsh Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Baptists, as well as English speakers. And the Welsh Tract as a political entity was not to be. By June of 1689 it became clear that the Welsh inhabitants would be subject to the political and legal jurisdiction of Chester County rather than from within their own Barony. The Welsh settlers gracefully submitted to the governing authorities of Chester County, but continued to build their lives in this sparsely inhabited land relying upon their own common language and customs.
Those who ventured into the western end of the Welsh Tract near the end of the 1600s, referred to as a howling wilderness in one document, found no roads and few trails. Indeed, they lived at the very edges of civilization. To the west and north was only primeval forests, untamed wilderness, and the tribes of the Delaware Nation. To the south and southeast, until one came to the Delaware River, were only occasional settlements of Swedes and English. Twenty miles to the east lay Penn’s fledgling city of Philadelphia. Transportation between “civilization” and these tiny frontier settlements required such rigor that for years to come the Welsh Tract remained a physical as well as emotional realm unto itself. Self-sufficiency, by necessity and by choice, became the rule.
Travel through the Great Valley in those earliest days was dependent on a labyrinth of narrow over-grown paths used by the Indians. The first thoroughfare through the Great Valley was called the Swedes Ford road, connecting the old crossing at Swedes’ Ford on the Schuylkill River near what is now Bridgeport with the Conestoga road in what is now East Whiteland Township. Though roughly established by 1718, it was not formally laid out until 1724. Travel, even for short distances, was slow, unpredictable and often dangerous.
It was into this wilderness in the year 1704, as a direct response to the virtually un-churched condition of a large part of the British Colonial territory, that a missionary parish of the Church of England was established. Under the auspices of the Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Christ Church in Philadelphia assigned “an indefatigable, clear-minded Welshman” by the name of the Rev. Evan Evans to lead this arduous mission. From this new outreach to primarily Welsh-speaking Anglicans, he would later evolve three churches: the Church of Saint Peter’s in the Great Valley, St. David’s Church in Radnor, and later St. James Church–Perkiomen to the north and across the Schuylkill River in Collegeville. Atop the South Mountain in Easttown Township, located south of the present town of Berwyn near the intersection of the present Waterloo and Sugartown Roads, a log chapel was built. When that original log chapel was destroyed by fire around 1710, plans were made to replace it with a new stone church building. That new church, completed in 1715, was built several miles to the east of the original log chapel and called St. David’s Church-Radnor.
However, by 1700, in the “upper” or north-western corner of Tredyffrin Township, a loose community called Montgomery had been established. To serve the Welsh Anglican families of this community, a log church was built between 1705-1710 in the proximate area of the present church of St. Peter’s near an already existing burying ground at the crest of the highest hill within the Great Valley. The earliest recorded grave in this burying ground, long since disappeared, bore the date 1703. As it was common to build a sanctuary near ground already used as a burial place, the Anglican faithful were drawn. To the north was the lofty barrier ridge shutting off the Valley from the Schuylkill River, its steep hills divided where Valley Stream breaks through at Valley Forge. Two miles south of this sanctuary, another high wooded ridge provided the opposing perimeter of the Valley. From the elevated vantage point of the churchyard, “one could see rolling country east and west for many miles to either horizon”.
The foundation for a permanent stone church building was laid in 1728. Construction was sporadic. What interrupted the work was most likely the “remarkable exodus of the Welsh settlers of Radnor and adjacent territory into what is now Lancaster County.” But the building of the new church building continued under the care of Richard Richison, Methiah Davis, John Cuthbert, and Morris Griffith, and was completed in 1744. Named the Church of Saint Peter in the Great Valley, it was architecturally similar to St. David’s in Radnor, though somewhat larger. This 1744 structure forms the earliest part of today’s church building. Pews were added in 1749, with an altar, reading desk, and pulpit in the following year.
From the original deed, granted by the landowner Methusaleh Davis to the parish in 1745, the purpose of the parish is for use of members of the Church of England to perform Divine Services in and a place to bury their dead. During the period 1714 and 1734, the congregations of St. Peter’s and St. David’s would jointly be served by a succession of rectors: The Rev. John Clubb (1714—1715), The Rev. Evan Evans, D.D. (1716—1718), The Rev. Robert Weyman (1719—1730), and The Rev. Griffith Hughes (1732—1734). Then for three years the parish had no permanent pastor until the arrival in 1737 of the 29-year old Rev. William Currie. The active ministry of this Scotsman as rector of St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley and St. David’s Church lasted until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War; after that, almost until the appointment of his successor in 1788, his pastoral care and concern for the welfare of his parishioners had an appreciable influence, to say the least, on the corporate life of the St. Peter’s congregation.
As revolutionary fervor against Great Britain increased by 1776, the dilemma of Anglican parishes in general, and St. Peter’s Church in particular, became acute. This quandary was exacerbated by the refusal of The Rev. Currie to renounce his vow of loyalty to the King, taken as a young priest years before. Considered a Tory by many throughout the parish, the confrontation between parishioners and priest became so hostile that The Rev. Currie no longer had the consent of his flock to lead and thus resigned from active service in May 16, 1776. St. Peter’s Church, now leaderless and politically torn asunder, officially closed its doors as a place of worship. The church’s records indicate no formal election of wardens and vestrymen from April 18, 1775 to May 23, 1781.
The War became “close and personal” in September 1777 when the 15,000-man British Army, after a major victory over the Continental Army at Brandywine, marched the eleven miles north and briefly occupied the Great Valley. A Continental attempt to stem this British threat on the western flank of Philadelphia once again ended in tragedy and yet another defeat in what became known by the Americans as the Paoli Massacre. During the night of September 20-21, 1777 the British overwhelmed, in a particularly brutal manner, a Continental division under Gen. Anthony Wayne. Total American casualties exceeded 250 men. British losses were minimal.
Details of the battle’s aftermath, in what was at best a most confused combat, have always been sketchy. Tradition has long held that immediately after the Paoli battle, the British, viewing St. Peter’s as a Church of England property, supervised the burial of a British officer, at least two other British enlisted soldiers, and at least five Continental troops killed in the Paoli battle. They lie buried side by side along the old west wall of the churchyard. Each grave is marked by a single fieldstone, with no inscription or epitaph of any kind, to indicate the British or American occupant, this perhaps to camouflage the British graves and thereby avoid the desecration that would have most probably occurred by Colonial zealots once the British Army had departed the Valley.
An obscure map, published in London in July 1778, depicts the battle lines of the Paoli battle which had occurred the previous September. This engraving, drawn by a British officer present at the engagement, notes St. Peter’s Church as the most conspicuous landmark in the Great Valley even though the church’s physical location was quite obscure and isolated. Historian Thomas J. McGuire, in his excellent book Battle of Paoli (Stackpole Books, 2000), believes that the church was given this prominence by the cartographer primarily for the benefit of those back in England for whom the map was intended; specifically to mark the grave of Captain William Wolfe, the commander of the Light Company of the British 40th Regiment of Foot, killed leading the assault on Wayne’s Division.
Three months later, after the British Army had once again defeated the Continental Army at Germantown and occupied Philadelphia for the winter of 1777-78, the Continental Army under General Washington survived and regrouped within the encampment at Valley Forge. There is circumstantial evidence that the then-abandoned St. Peter’s sanctuary, situated less than three miles west of the encampment, may have served as a crude hospital for Continental soldiers during the terrible typhus epidemic of January-March 1778 (though no documentation supports this).
Minutes from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel describe Mr. Currie’s, and the parish’s, condition during the Revolutionary War period: “Having found it expedient to decline officiating in public ever since 1776, Mr. Currie has no account to give the Society, but that he continues in the performance of every other part of his function. He is hoping bills will be paid; if not his position is deplorable, as war has reduced him to very low circumstances. He has lost not only most of his substance, but likewise his wife, with whom he lived in his old age. They all died of camp fever and left him in the midst of the camp with one of the American Generals and his suite quartered in his house. He is left with three orphaned grandchildren, oldest seven, when parents died. He blesses God and he will die as he has lived, a true son of the Church of England even though he should have the misfortune to survive it.”
Over the ensuing years St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, one of the original parishes in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, was commonly referred to as “the Mother of Episcopal Churches in Chester County” because of its profound missionary work in establishing numerous congregations throughout the area. This church seeding took a toll on the ‘mother church’, however, causing dissipation of parishioners and funds. By April 1895, after great difficulty in keeping up with the maintenance of the church, especially in the years following the Civil War, the parish regrettably had to “dismiss” Parson Henry Allen, and dedicate all available resources to address the church’s excessive decay. For the next four years, the parish was unable to sustain a clergy person, and was, in effect, “closed for repairs.”
By 1901, however, The Rev. Edgar Cope led a parish resurgence, and the present parish hall was erected to accommodate a once-again growing congregation. Over its 300 year history, St. Peter’s has been led by 39 missionaries and priests. After a series of architectural modernizations (many later referred to as vandalisms) in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the church was exquisitely restored in 1944 to somewhat approximate the original simplicity and beauty of the original 1744 building. The original church building, and the adjacent burial ground, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.