The first service was held in St John's Church on New Year's Day 1838. It had taken eighteen years of uncertainty, disappointment and delay to achieve this. In1820 Sir Rufane Donkin, then governor of the Cape, had allotted a site for an Anglican Church to serve the spiritual needs of the incoming settlers and the energetic and enthusiastic colonial chaplain William Boardman held a service there in a marquee on Sunday 1 st October that year. Two years later, however, many of the settlers left Bathurst when the magistracy of the Eastern Cape frontier was moved from Bathurst to Grahamstown and plans to build a church in Bathurst were shelved. Boardman died in 1825, a bitterly disappointed man.
Slowly Bathurst revived and in 1828, led by Walter Currie, 128 villagers signed a memorandum to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel asking for financial aid towards the building of an Anglican Church or chapel. With neither church nor clergyman in the village, he feared a wholesale disaffection to the Methodists! On 20th October 1830 General Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, the Governor of the Cape, visited Bathurst and granted a new site for the building of a church - the original site had become a military post complete with a powder magazine which is still standing. Realising by then that the cost of building the church would exceed their limited resources, even when combined with Government and SPCK grants, the settlers decided to raise further funds by issuing shares. The money they obtained together with donations brought the figure up to the £1,300 needed. It is heartening that in those days of extreme religious and political divisions, Anglicans, Jews, Methodists, English and Afrikaners all contributed to the building of the church.
Major Charles Michell RE had been a member of that visiting party in October 1830; in October the following year his design for the church in Bathurst was accepted. Instead of the ornate gothic architecture then fashionable, he designed a simple but dignified Romanesque style church with neo- classical details - a church appropriate for the hardworking, unpretentious settlers. Five months later, In March 1832, the enterprising and energetic builder, Samuel Bradshaw, turned the first sod of earth and on the 1st May the foundation stone was laid.
By the end of 1834 the walls and tower were complete but on 21st December thousands of Xhosa Warriors crossed the Fish River and the 6th Frontier War began. Six hundred women and children from Bathurst and the outlying farms sought shelter in the unfinished church, while the men tried to defend the position with what weapons they had. On Christmas Day Elizabeth Hiles, aged eighteen, gave birth to a daughter in the church. Sadly, her husband was killed in an ambush two days later when returning from a trading trip. When the refugees were then evacuated to Grahamstown, Bathurst was left deserted apart from military patrols who bivouacked in the church at night.
Building was resumed once the fighting ceased and the church was completed by the end of 1837. Bathurst became a parish of the new diocese of Cape Town the following year and the church was consecrated that October. The Reverend James Barrow, who had already been working in Bathurst for four years as colonial chaplain, was then licensed as Rector.
War flared up again and from April 1846 until January 1847 three hundred people were once more forced to camp in the church. But even with the building full of refugees living in conditions so appalling that two children died, the indomitable Reverend Barrow continued to hold weekly services. In December 1848 £60 was allocated for the construction of a parsonage and on January 11th 1849 James Barrow finally married Emerentia Truter, a full seventeen years after their first meeting.
Again in 1851, during the eighth frontier war, the church became a refuge. Gunpowder and ordnance were stocked in the church tower up until April 1854. Three years later the war ended in a way that no one could have foreseen; the Xhosa had destroyed their crops and killed their cattle as instructed by their young prophetess, Nonquause, and now, defeated and demoralised, were faced with starvation. The long years of conflict gave way at last to an era of settled peace.
In 1853 the parish was transferred to the diocese of Grahamstown to which it has belonged ever since. James Barrow finally retired in 1868, having ministered diligently to the people of Bathurst for thirty five years. He was succeeded by the Reverend William Wallis.
The church was unnamed until March 1869 when, right at the end of a vestry meeting, it was decided to dedicate it to St John the Evangelist.
In contrast with its early years, the church's more recent history has been steady and peaceful. In 1964 St John's parish was united with St Paul's in Port Alfred. Reverend Walter Hook, rector at that time, was deeply interested in the history of St John's and worked with the Settler historian, Mr E Morse Jones, to ensure its National Monument designation in 1966.
On Sunday 12th May 2013 the Bishop of Grahamstown led a special celebratory service in St John's to mark its 175th anniversary.
Hanging inside the church are the simple and uncompromising Stations of the Cross painted by lay minister, Bill Chalmers, shortly before his death in 2010. On the north wall is a plaque carved by Robert Thompson with his signature mouse and on the south wall is a marble shelf salvaged from St Paul's Cathedral after the 1940 bombing. A piece of the carpet laid in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Elizabeth II hangs in the porch. Stone from the house of Mr. George Bager, a warden during the 1851 siege, was used to build the wall of the non-denominational garden of remembrance, consecrated in 1986.
Throughout the church's long and eventful life there have been two constants: fluctuating congregation levels, which at times have dipped worryingly low, and the need for money - first to build the church and then to maintain it. The present congregation is confronted by this daunting task. Donations are needed to preserve this precious testament in stone.