St. Paul's has provided spiritual nourishment to thousands of people since it was founded over 150 years ago. The church itself is also one of Richmond's premier historic sites, listed in both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The parish came into being as an outgrowth of Monumental Church, the Robert Mills-designed structure erected 1812-14 as a memorial to 72 prominent Richmonders who perished in a theater fire on that site in 1811. By 1843, Monumental's congregation began to outgrow its building. Its assistant rector, the Rev. William Norwood, led an effort to found a new Episcopal church to accommodate the expanding membership. Norwood's project was an act of faith, since only 67 members of Monumental Church raised bonds to purchase land and construct a building to seat 1000 people. The site selected was strategically located on the corner of Grace and Ninth Streets, across from Capitol Square.
Since no church this large had ever been built in Virginia, a committee was formed to visit northern cities and view recently constructed large urban churches. While touring Philadelphia, the committee became enamored by the spacious St. Luke's Church (now The Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany) and determined it should be the model for what would become St. Paul's Church. The committee commissioned Thomas S. Stewart, St. Luke's architect, to design a near replica for Richmond The resulting building, consecrated in 1845, is a masterpiece of the Greek Revival style, and a stately complement to Thomas Jefferson's temple-form capitol across the street.
The new parish quickly built up a membership that included leading Richmond citizens and State officials. Contrary to the conventions of the day, baptisms, marriages, and funerals were performed at St. Paul's for both free and enslaved blacks. The church also became a setting for important events: in 1859, St. Paul's was the venue for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, its first meeting held in the South; and in October 1860, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) attended Sunday service at St. Paul's.
With the selection of Richmond as the capital of the Confederacy in 1861, St. Paul's would become forever identified with the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee and his wife were lent a pew and attended services at St. Paul's whenever possible throughout the war. In 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was confirmed as a member of the parish. Many male parishioners gave their lives in battle. The church undercroft was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. While attending service on Sunday, April 2, 1865, President Davis was delivered a message from General Lee stating that Lee had to withdraw from Petersburg, and thus could no longer defend Richmond. Davis quietly left the church, and evacuated the Confederate government and army from the city that afternoon. Fires broke out that evening, destroying the downtown and spreading dangerously close to St. Paul's. General Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox the following Sunday.
St. Paul's is privileged to have had many distinguished rectors. Among them was the Rev. Dr. Walter Russell Bowie, who was baptized at St. Paul's in 1883 and served as rector from 1911-1923. A noted theologian, Dr. Bowie is also remembered as author of well-known hymns including "Lord Christ, When First Thou Cam'st to Men;" and "O Holy City, Seen of John." Dr. Bowie was succeeded by the Rev. Dr. Beverley Dandridge Tucker, later to become Bishop Coadjutor of Ohio. Robert Raymond Brown, later Bishop of Arkansas, served as St. Paul's rector from 1947-1955. Joseph Thomas Heistand, rector of St. Paul's from 1955-1968, became the Bishop of Arizona. From 1969 until 1976, when he was elected Bishop of Newark, St. Paul's was served by the Rev. John Shelby Spong, who has since achieved world renown as a Biblical scholar and advocate of church reform.
Although identified with the Confederacy, St. Paul's made history on January 13, 1990 when it was the scene of the pre-inaugural prayer service for L. Douglas Wilder, America's first elected African-American State governor. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung at the end of the service.
St. Paul's well-known Lenten services had their origins in 1897 as a service held for businessmen in a downtown store. The services were soon moved to the church, and starting in 1921 they were supplemented with lunches prepared by church members. Now more than 7,000 lunches are prepared and served each Lenten season with the assistance of volunteers from other area churches. The Lenten program attracts notable preachers from various denominations, and the lunches offer the opportunity for fellowship.
Recognizing its special role as a church in the heart of the city, St. Paul's, throughout its history, has initiated and participated in numerous outreach programs addressing the needs of the underprivileged. Since 1989 St. Paul's has drawn off a percentage of its Endowment Fund annually to help support its Outreach Ministry. Annually, more than 20% of all church revenue goes to support outreach programs.