St. John’s Episcopal Church is a historic church built in the early years of Washington, DC. It was the first building erected on what was later named Lafayette Square. Located across the street from the White House, it is known as “the Church of the Presidents,” and has been part of the national political culture since its founding. Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed the church in the shape of a Greek Cross and served as its organist.
Beginning with James Madison, who was President when the church was completed in 1816, every Chief Executive has attended at least one regular or special service here. The first rector of the church designated a President’s Pew and offered it as a matter of policy to every Chief Executive regardless of their religious affiliation. Over the years, some Presidents attended services regularly here and sat in the President’s Pew located in the center section of the main floor. The location of the pew changed several times during building expansions, but today the President’s Pew, number 54, is marked with a brass plaque and is still reserved for that purpose.
Lincoln’s Pew, located in the back of the church, is where President Abraham Lincoln sought quiet contemplation in the midst of the Civil War. It is also marked with sign and plaque. First Lady Dolley Madison, who lived across the street at the Cutts-Madison House in her final years, was baptized and had her funeral here.
Stained glass windows honor several U.S. Presidents. And President Chester A. Arthur, a regular attendee, donated a window in memory of his wife, Ellen, who sang in the church choir and died the year before Arthur became president.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt began the tradition of having a pre-inauguration worship service, which he had here on March 4, 1933. As the nation struggled through the Great Depression, Roosevelt requested to begin his presidency in prayer. It has been a tradition ever since, and many pre-inaugural services have been held at St. John’s, including those for Presidents Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.
Check the website for church service times and events. The church is open to the public for guided and self-guided tours.