The Legend Grows

    George Washington would mention David Griffith at least fourteen times in his diaries, including at least nine overnight stays at Mount Vernon. One such visit was the occasion of the candlelight wedding of Martha Washington's niece, Frances "Fanny" Bassett who married George's Washington's nephew, George Augustine Washington, in October of 1785. During another visit to Mount Vernon in August of 1784, Griffith reminisced with Washington and their esteemed military comrade, the Marquis de Lafayette—a visit which Lafayette fondly referred to in later correspondence. When Griffith purchased multiple lots in the busy port of Alexandria and sought a loan for funds to build upon those lots, Washington provided him with a glowing recommendation for a loan via a letter that attested to Griffith's worthy character and their years of friendship.[1]

    Though David's status as a physician, ordained minister, and military man with a notable network of friends such as Washington and Lafayette created enough of a reason to assign him a degree of respectability—he  was also making history by leading the charge to unite and strengthen his faith organization, the former Church of England, now American Episcopalian Church. 

    According to doctrine, three American bishops, properly ordained in England, were required in order to ordain any future bishops in the United States. Unfortunately, this meant the new nation went without any bishops while poverty and disagreements destroyed the order of the faith, until Hannah’s fiery husband took up the mission of resuscitating the Church beginning in 1783. He urged ministers and the laymen serving as vestrymen to unite and meet for a convention that would lay foundations of the newly incorporated Protestant Episcopal Church. David finally succeeded in organizing a convention held in 1785 for Virginia’s Church clergy and vestrymen. After the success of that convention, the first General Convention was held in Philadelphia on September 27, 1785 and a constitution for the U.S. Church was drafted. But it was not that simple. Though David Griffith would be chosen as the first bishop-elect for Virginia,[2] the cost of traveling to England for ordainment prohibited him from achieving full bishop status[3].  However, his efforts resulted in the church surviving and thriving autonomously in the United States.  He and his fellow clergymen were later immortalized in a stained-glass depiction of that first General Convention in Philadelphia. 

    Not long after arriving in Philadelphia for more contentious Church business, David Griffith died in his sleep in the home of his friend, Bishop White, on August 3, 1789.  The cause of death remains uncertain, but may have been a heart condition related to rheumatic fever.[4] The large gathering of Church officials already assembled for the Convention planned for that day, swiftly organized a respectful funeral for their colleague and laid him to rest the very next day, in a vault of Philadelphia’s Christ Church.[5] One can only imagine Hannah’s shock and anguish when the mother of eight received the news that her robust, forty-eight-year-old husband, her partner of nearly twenty-three years was dead and already buried. At nineteen, her eldest child, named for the father he would never see again, would probably have reached to console his mother.


[2] Rev. Philip Slaughter, The History of Truro Parish in Virginia, (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1907), 100.

[3] Sydnor, “The Breaking of a Church Leader,” 129.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Ibid., 130.

Created by Kristy Huettne, 2020.