In November 1769 the Governor, Council, and Burgesses of the Colony of Virginia approved an act that created the Beckford Parish of the Episcopal, then Anglican Church. As defined, Beckford covered what is now Shenandoah County Virginia. Since the Anglican denomination was the official church of the colony, this entity was responsible for several legal functions including caring for the poor and maintaining vital records.
The first church in this parish was formed in 1770 in Woodstock. Since the majority of the population was of German descent, the parish vestry decided to employ a minister who could speak both English and German. This minister would also be expected to preach both the authorized Anglican service and the more popular Lutheran service since the majority of the population were members of the Lutheran denomination.
Eventually a young minister named John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was selected to fill this position. The parish paid for him to travel to London and be ordained, in accordance with state law, by the Anglican Church. He made this journey in 1772 and then arrived in Woodstock to serve the congregation.
Two years later the congregation built their first church on land donated by the Brubaker family in the center of Woodstock. That same year Muhlenberg became a member of the county’s Committee of Safety and a member of the House of Burgesses. As such, he became a leader in the independence movement. In 1775 he delivered a sermon in Woodstock calling on congregation members to join the Continental Army. This sermon, based on the Third Chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes, inspired over 300 men from the county to join. Muhlenberg and these men marched off to serve in the Revolutionary War. He would never return to Woodstock, instead choosing to live in Pennsylvania after the war.
Muhlenberg’s departure left the Anglican Church, and the Lutherans, Reformed, etc., without a minister. While the other denominations recovered after the war, and had new ministers by the 1790s, the Episcopalians, as the Anglican Church became known, did not. The loss of their official status meant most of their financial support disappeared and their support for the crown meant their popular support dissipated.
Shenandoah County’s Episcopalians would almost vanish from that time until 1876. That year, Reverend John K. Mason was appointed to take charge of the Parish and St. Thomas’ Church in Middletown. He sparked a revival in the church’s fortunes. The year he arrived he helped organize St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Jackson. Woodstock Episcopalians continued to worship, but since there was no church they met in the Historic Courthouse.
However, plans had been made to build a new church. Two lots on the corner of Main and E. Court Street were sold to finance construction. These lots had been the home of the original church and graveyard. Today, commercial structures have been built here, most likely on top of the graves of early residents.
The new Episcopal Church was completed on September 17, 1882. It would be called Emmanuel Episcopal Church. At the time there were 13 members of the congregation.
Those individuals would face a daunting challenge when the church, and a large part of downtown Woodstock, burned on August 14, 1900. Only the walls of the building remained. These were strengthened and a new church was built using them.
Church growth would continue to be extremely slow during the 20th century. The bulk of local families had strong ties with other congregations that excluded Episcopalian growth. When the minister Francis Brown retired in 1947 he expressed concerns that the congregation may end with his service.
However the church did count 66 members in 1955 and a regular Sunday School with 30 members. These individuals, with the financial support of the Episcopal Diocese built a Parish House, complete with class rooms, kitchen, and social hall in 1957. Their minister provided support to them, visiting cadets from the Massanutten Military Academy, and, until 1958, visitors at the Shrine Mont Conference Center in Orkney Springs.
Social events were held regularly at Emmanuel during the 1960s and 1970s. The “House of Young Churchmen” was a group that combined the youth of Shenandoah County’s two Episcopal Congregations. They hosted bi-monthly dances in the church’s social hall throughout this period to provide recreational opportunities for the area’s youth. Today the dances have ended, but the social aspects of the church remain.