John Harper, preacher to eight presidents, dies at 78

September 25, 2002

The Rev. John C. Harper, who as rector of St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, preached to eight presidents, died in Washington, DC on September 13 at the age of 78.

Harper was credited with moving the congregation from what was perceived as a 'society church,' with pew rentals and a membership of the most socially prominent, to one that played a much more active role in the community, with organized programs to feed and house the homeless and offer counseling on drug and alcohol addiction.

The changes were gradually implemented since Harper arrived in 1963 until his retirement in 1993. He abolished pew rentals, which had been a major source of income for the church and a status symbol among the city's elite. He challenged his congregation to address the needs of the city's most vulnerable with what he described as a goal of drawing the church into the mainstream of city life.

Every president since James Madison has attended the church. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson went to St. John's for prayer. Abraham Lincoln also used the church for prayer during the Civil War. Kennedy himself had called it 'the little yellow church across the square,' underscoring its historic role in the life of the nation.

During the Vietnam War, when many businesses and churches in the city were closed, Harper opened the church to protesters as a place of refuge, observing from his office the rallies and tear-gassing of demonstrators, as well as encampments of poor and homeless in the park.

'Demonstrations in front of the White House on Lafayette Square, danger in the streets and in the square itself at night, vandalism and robbery are very real threats to St. John's. Yet in another sense, they are part and parcel of our religious or theological concern,' Harper wrote in his 1974 book, 'Sunday, a Minister's Story.'

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