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Mysterious Prayer Book Returns to St. Paul's


Another prayer pleads, "bless thy servant the President of the United States" — again, crossed out and corrected. Is this the work of a solitary secessionist? Or were these the words read aloud at St. Paul's Episcopal Church during the Civil War, to a congregation that included Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee?

E. Lee Shepard, assistant director for manuscripts and archives at the society, hopes to find out if the dictionary-sized prayer book is in fact the same one used for services at the old Richmond church in the 1860s.

If it is, it's been missing for nearly 150 years.

A week after Easter, a lawyer brought the book and a letter from an anonymous donor to the Rev. Robert G. Hetherington, the rector at St. Paul's. "Where it's been, nobody seems to know," Hetherington says, adding, "I don't think anyone knew it existed."

Now, he's wondering if a long-ago parishioner rescued the prayer book from St. Paul's on April 2, 1865. On that date, Jefferson Davis was attending a service at St. Paul's when he received word that Lee's lines had broken at Petersburg and the Northern Army was approaching. Someone may have grabbed the book to protect it from the Yankees or the flames devouring Richmond.

No publication date is printed, but "it certainly appears to be the appropriate time period," Shepard says. Details such as names of the typesetter and the bishop suggest it was printed between 1844 and 1862, Shepard says.

Also, several pages have come loose and are stained with dark finger smudges, Shepard observes, which suggests the book was used frequently in a church, not by a single family. "It looks like it could be what it purports to be," Shepard says cautiously. But he'll have to investigate much more thoroughly to verify the story.

In the meantime, he says, the book will remain secluded at the society, as it's too fragile to be paged through by curious researchers.


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