Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600­1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part First. The English Church in the Colonies

Chapter XI. The Commissaries: Virginia

William and Mary College; opposition to the College; the College and the Church; decline of discipline; attempt at reform; devoted men in the Church; growing spirit of Americanism; the "Parsons' Cause"; Patrick Henry; the results.

During all the time that Dr. Bray was the Bishop of London's representative for Maryland, Dr. Blair held the same office in Virginia. His was by far the largest and most important service of all the Commissaries. Beginning the duties of his office in 1685, he continued in it fifty-three years. He was a Scotchman, in Scotch orders, and with a Scotch temper; shrewd, far-sighted, cautious, and masterful. His Orders and his policy were more than once called in question, but they were both more than vindicated in the issue. When he first surveyed his field he found a population loyal to the Church and Crown. Virginia boasted herself as the "ever-faithful colony." Her people were pleased to say that "Charles II was King in Virginia before he was in England." The Puritan revolution which broke over the Church both at home and in the colonies left this one practically untouched. Her people lived on serenely, preserving their old fashions of life and worship, without much thought of the saints or their Commonwealth. They still called themselves the servants of the King, and when the Stuart line ended they transferred their loyalty to William and Mary. Neither nonjuror nor dissenter gained influence among them. Dr. Blair, upon his arrival, found the most unmixed Episcopal community that has ever existed on this Continent. He found a considerable number of clergy still surviving whose standard of life and work was modelled upon that of the saintly Hunt and the apostolic Whittaker. But he found a still larger number who had fallen away from the heroic type of the early days, and had conformed themselves to the lower manner of life which had then fairly set in. The lack of education, among clergy and people both, struck the Commissary with a special horror. To correct this, he set about a plan which had been intermittently wrought upon almost from the first settlement of the colony. That was to establish and endow an institution of learning, which should be, first of all, a seminary for educating a ministry, and, in addition, a college, a school for the youth of the colonists, and a place where the children of the native Indians could be educated in civilization and Christianity. "To furnish a seminary of Ministers of the Gospel, educate youth in good manners, and propagate truth among the Indians in these parts," was the way the charter stated it. The establishment of William and Mary College is due chiefly to the tireless, patient, arduous labor of Dr. Blair, its first president. His expectation that the Church people would forward his plans with enthusiasm for so desirable a purpose was bitterly disappointed. He found them for the most part apathetic, and often hostile. Nowhere in the colonies were social distinctions so sharply drawn and so long-lived as in Virginia. The rich and cultured had already begun to form a caste, and to draw away from the common people. The sympathies of the clergy were largely with the former. In some cases they were their friends and relatives; in still more, their humble retainers. The rich planters would have none of the new college. They did not need it for themselves, and did not want it for others. They sent their own sons home to be trained, like Madam Esmond's boys, at English schools and universities, and to learn the manners suited to their rank in life. If the sons of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker should get a smattering of polite learning, in a cheap way, out in the backwoods, the effect would only be to induce them to forget their place, and the proper distinctions among persons would be lost sight of. The general sentiment of the clergy corresponded. They were not conscious of special defect in themselves in point of learning, and could not see why the present condition of things should not continue. Quieta non movere!

The official opinion in England was the same. It looked upon the colony as a "plantation," not as the beginning of a State. When the Attorney General was asked to draw up a charter for the projected college, he declined to have anything to do with such a piece of folly. When the Commissary pressed the duty upon him, and urged that the colonists also had souls which demanded care, he broke out with, "Damn their souls! let them grow tobacco!" Dr. Blair persisted, however, in spite of clerical apathy, lay hostility, and official reluctance. He opened the subscription with one hundred and fifty pounds from his own meagre salary. He secured twenty-five hundred pounds from the merchants of London,--the class of Englishmen who were always best informed concerning American affairs. Through the influence of Governor Nicholson a grant of twenty thousand acres of land was secured for an endowment. But when Sir Edmund Andros came into authority, every conceivable obstacle was placed in the Commissary's way. Not only was he personally slighted, but the power of his principal called in question. "Such of the clergy as are most refractory against [the Bishop of London's] authority are upon that account received into favor. It is a common maxim among [the Governor's] friends that we have nothing to do with the Bishop of London, nor no Church power." [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Va. p. 4.] The Governor gave nothing himself, and dissuaded his friends, not only from subscribing, but from paying what they had already subscribed [Ib. p. 18.] Squatters were allowed to sit down upon the College grant, and the rightful owners were powerless either to have them put off or to have the land surveyed. [Ib. p. 20.]

The idea was diligently promoted that the setting up of the college meant the setting up of a new tax rate for its maintenance. Many of the clergy were of the sort who were both unable and unwilling to further the really noble ends which the Commissary had in view; nor were his manners or methods always the best fitted to commend them. "Your clergy in these parts," writes an intelligent visitor to the Bishop of Lichfield, the King's almoner, "are of a very ill example. No discipline or canons of the Church are observed. They are for the most part Scotchmen, people indeed so basely educated, and so little acquainted with the excellency of their charge and duty, that their lives and conversations are more fitted to make heathens than Christians." [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Va. p. 30.] He adds that what the people need above all things is a bishop; that if a right reverend father, of the stamp of Governor Nicholson of Maryland, should come, it "would make hell tremble" that the people are much affronted because the Bishop of London has sent one Dr. Blair, a Scotchman, to represent him, whereas there might surely have been found an English clergyman to fill that office; and that Dr. Blair and the Governor were at loggerheads about the matter of the new college. But Dr. Blair persisted, and in 1700 building was begun at Williamsburg, from plans contributed by Sir Christopher Wren. Once the college was really in existence, and was found to be an institution in which the people might take pride, they turned toward it with much affection. It became at once, and continued for some time to be, a centre of influence for the Church. It was influential in raising the tone of both the clergy and the laity. It secured a better educated ministry. For a while it had some success in its plans for training the Indian youth. Seventy are reported as having been at one time under its teaching.

But the elevation of the ministerial profession, effected largely through the Commissary's educational and disciplinary measures, brought out here, as the same causes did in Maryland, the latent conflict between the English Church and the American people. The clergy represented a foreign authority, of which the still loyal Virginians had already begun to feel jealous. As the jealousy deepened, the people and clergy began to grow apart. When Dr. Blair died the people declared they would never receive his successor. Discipline declined, and the clergy became at the same time looser in their living, and more strenuous in insisting upon the right of support which was theirs by virtue of the Establishment. For many years the dreary story drags on,--the vestries trying to reduce parish tax rates by refusing to induct ministers into their livings, the clergy growing sharper in seizing their legal perquisites, and the honest priests and godly people grieving more and more at the deplorable state into which things had fallen. This last class never ceased their efforts to bring about better things. They addressed the Governor, represented the facts to the Bishop of London, petitioned the Assembly, but to little purpose. One of their best digested plans for improvement gives a strange picture of the Church life of the time. It is a "Proposition" submitted to the Assembly in 1724. It [Perry: Historical Collections, Virginia, p. 334.] sets forth "the bad constitution of this country," especially in the following particulars:-

(1) Many parishes are so small that they cannot defray the minister's maintenance.

(2) Those parishes that are able are tempted to keep no minister, for, being without him, they keep so much of the parish levy in their own pockets.

(3) The livings of this country, "by reason of their meanness, encourage only the lowest sized divines to adventure among us, and by their equality of salary leave the diligent to fare equally with the negligent and blockish."

(4) The precarious tenure by which they hold their living, being liable to be ejected by the vestry without any cause assigned, either keeps the better sort of ministers away, or compels them soon to leave.

(5) The want of plantations and mansion houses, and the extreme difficulty of finding boarding places, specially for married clergy.

(6) The abuses put upon them by the sheriff and tax collectors, who either pay their salaries in bad tobacco, or delay paying it till there is no market or freight for it.

(7) The want of some effective mode of discipline, which will be able to deal with the scandalous ministers. To cure these evils, it proposes:

To consolidate two or three small livings into one decent one; that whenever a new settlement of a hundred tithables springs up within seven miles of a church, the vestry must build a chapel in it, to which chapel the incumbent must give a portion of his time; that the vestry be compelled to pay the amount of the minister's salary into the church fund, whether they "induct" him or not; to change the amount of salary from a fixed sum of sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco, to forty pounds per poll, so that the salary will vary with the population, and, consequently, with the importance of the parish; that the glebe shall always contain "enough land to employ five or six hands, have on it a house with a brick chimney and glass windows, a shingled roof, have at least one clear story ten foot pitch with two rooms and a closet and kitchen; "that the glebe be stocked by the parish with four or five negroes under an overseer, and seven or eight mulch cows; that the incumbent shall have the right to appoint the tax collector; that every minister who brings a license to the colony shall be examined by the Commissary and "certain of the learnedest ministers;" shall in their presence "display his talents by a set discourse against Popery, Quakerism, or any other prevailing heresy; "that any minister who shall be found guilty of fornication, adultery, blasphemy, ridiculing the Holy Scriptures, or practising against the Thirty-nine Articles, shall be suspended for three years; that for cursing, swearing, drunkenness, or fighting (except in self-defence), he shall be suspended for one year; that because drunkenness is one of the most common crimes, and, at the same time, one of the hardest to be proved, the following shall be taken as sufficient proof of the offence; "sitting any hour or longer in a company where they are a-drinking of healths, and taking his cups as they come round; striking, challenging, threatening to fight, or laying aside his garments for that purpose; staggering, reeling, vomiting, impertinent or obscene talking,--the proof of these to proceed until the judges are satisfied that the minister's behavior was unbecoming or failing of the gravity of a minister; provided, that inasmuch as many of the signs be fallible as proofs of drunkenness (for vomiting may happen to a sober person from weakness of stomach, and reeling from a sudden disease causing giddiness of the head), two or three credible witnesses who were in the company (and not drunk themselves) shall declare upon oath that in their opinion drunkenness was the cause of these signs;" that to each several article of this proposition "the lawyers shall contrive such good binding clauses and penalties that the law will execute itself."

The heroic remedies proposed show how deep-seated and diffused the malady was. But it must not be supposed that the Church was dead or its clergy all scandalous. Godly and well-learned men were serving her altars, and from time to time new churches were being organized by the noble laymen of which Virginia was fruitful even during this period. "King Carter" built a church at his own expense in the Northern Neck. [Rev. Philip Slaughter in Perry's Hist. vol. i. p. 628.] A new church was built at Glocester, with pulpit "hung with costly lace and damask, and a fine picture of the Last Judgment" was set over the altar before which the Washingtons worshipped. [Ib. p. 627.] A dozen others in the colony date from the same period. Washington, Patrick Henry, Harry Lee, John Randolph of Roanoke, and others whose names afterward rang through two continents, were alive, working, scheming, planning, praying in the Church. A Welsh colony of Church of England people moved into Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania, and for a while maintained a vigorous and flourishing life, but were ultimately swept into the rising stream of Americanism, caught in the current of the revivalism which was then sweeping southward like a torrent, and, for the most part, carried away from the Church.

A root of bitterness had been planted from which sprung up a pestilent fruit. The next generation found but the ruins of their fathers' altars, their church walls crumbled and overgrown. An irreconcilable conflict of interests forced the clergy and people apart, and brought disaster upon the Church. The evil was inherent in the situation. The real question at issue was but dimly discerned by either party to it. It was the foredoomed struggle which became inevitable when the colonies were planted, and, sooner or later, was fought out in each one of them. The peculiar shape it assumed varied in the several commonwealths, but was in essence the same in all. In Virginia it was settled in its ecclesiastical form before it was opened in its civil shape. It came to an issue in the celebrated "Parsons' Cause." [For the best account of this important event see Prof. Moses Coit Tyler: Life of Patrick Henry, p. 32, et seq. Anderson: vol. iii. p. 136. Perry: Historical Collections, Va. 490, et seq.] The situation was as follows: The Church of England was established by law and supported by revenue from taxation. The political divisions known in the Northern colonies as townships were here parishes. The vestry was elected by the legally qualified voters. It was in their hands to "induct" to his living the minister nominated by the Governor representing the Bishop of London. Being once inducted, a salary of sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco was due him by law, to be collected by the sheriff. Tobacco was a commodity which fluctuated in value from year to year. In the seasons when it was low in the market, the parson pocketed his loss and waited to recoup himself next year, when it might be high. The quantity of sixteen thousand pounds was nominated in the bond. In 1763, a series of years in which the tobacco had been very low was followed by a time of very high prices. The parson could put his tobacco on the market and make good what he had lost in the preceding years. But the laity were reluctant to had over the weed. By withholding it they could fill their own purses, and at the same time squeeze out the clergy against whom their grudge had steadily risen. The only thing to hinder was the law. This they found a way to evade, or rather violate. The Assembly passed an act to pay the parsons' salaries in Virginia currency, at the rate of twopence halfpenny per pound for the tobacco. In effect, it confiscated their tobacco and compelled them to take for it a price less than one-fourth of that which it would have brought in the market. But the Assembly knew that they were acting ultra vires in passing such a law. It was null and void, without the indorsement of the Crown. This, they knew, it never would receive. They therefore made it operative for a period of ten months from the time it was enacted. This, as they estimated, would cover the time required to take an appeal across the water and return, and in the meanwhile, for that year, at least, their purpose would have been gained. The clergy asked to be heard in opposition to the act, and were refused. They therefore drew together for consultation as to the ruin which threatened them. They chose a committee of their number who proceeded to England to protest before the Privy Council. The Crown lawyers assured them that the act was of no legal force whatever, and advised them to go back and sue for their salaries. They followed the advice, and the Rev. Thomas Warrington, of Elizabeth City, made up his case as a test. His plea was that the act was inequitable, in that it, without warning and without redress, cut down the salaries from four hundred pounds to one hundred and fifty pounds; that it was a breach of contract which was perilous to every citizen; that the act was null and void wanting the royal indorsement. The case for the vestry, against whom his suit was brought, was so bad that no lawyer with a reputation would touch it. When the case was imminent, there chanced to be a lawyer without either legal reputation or social standing, himself a Churchman, who was willing to undertake it. His name was Patrick Henry. His argument before the jury raised him to celebrity at a bound, showed his wonderful sagacity, and brought into dazzling vividness the Church's position in America. He brushed away all question of either law or technical equity. He declared that England had no essential right to tax this country for any purpose; that the colonies had both the right and the ability to regulate their own affairs, religious as well as civil; that the only purpose of religion which law can recognize is its function of making good citizens; that the community wherein this function is exercised must regulate it; that the clergy by appealing to a foreign state had proven themselves to be at once bad citizens and unworthy ministers. These contentions he made effective, not only, and probably not chiefly, through his overwhelming eloquence, but because he put into words, biting, burning, unforgettable words, the sentiments which were and had long been vaguely in the people's hearts. In any case, through the plea of a man himself a devout communicant of the Church, addressed to a jury composed of hereditary Churchmen, the Church in the person of its clergy was defeated in a case where it had all the law, all the justice, and all the traditions of a hundred and fifty years on its side. The Church appealed to Cesar,--and lost. The appeal was never repeated. The breach was final. [Tyler: Patrick Henry, p. 77.] Ten years later, it was evident to all that the Church could not grow in America until it should be, either by kindly or forcible means, disentangled from the English state.

Passing southward from Virginia, the population gradually became more sparse, and clustered about Charleston and Savannah as its chief points of radiation. The Church life in Oglethorpe's Georgia settlement will come in sight in connection with Whitefield and the Wesleys and the Methodist movement. In North Carolina it remained weak throughout the century. The Scotch and later on the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians early made a lodgement in the territory, and became, in connection with the Baptists, [Benedict: History of the Baptist Denomination in America. Boston, 1820. p. 333.] the dominant religious influence. In South Carolina at the opening of the eighteenth century, there was one strong parish at Charleston,--the only one in the province. Between that time and the Revolution it had gained another parish in the same city, had spread to Beaufort, and from there as a second centre, to Goosecreek, Prince George, Santee, through and among the new plantations, and in the new settlements, as they one by one sprang up. [J. J. Pringle Smith, in Perry: History, vol. i. p. 633.] As early as 1707 the S. P. G. maintained six clergy in the province and had sent over two thousand volumes of books for gratuitous distribution. [Graham: Colonial History, vol. i. p. 389.] Two-thirds of the population at the beginning of the century were Dissenters. This proportion was increased by a stream of immigration from Massachusetts and the Northern colonies. The Church of England, on the other hand, was swelled by a considerable number of French Huguenots, whose names still survive. An ill-advised and impotent attempt to establish the Church, with rigorous laws against the Dissenters,--an attempt so indefensible that Queen Anne declared the act null and void, and the S. P. G. refused to send any more missionaries till it should be abandoned,--gained the ill-will of the majority of the people. In spite, however, of the internal broils in the colony, of frequent and wasteful wars with the Indians; in spite of the demoralizing effect of slavery, which, owing to the rice culture, showed itself more quickly in South Carolina than elsewhere, [Ib.: p. 292.] the Church continued to more than hold her own until the great cataclysm. [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 394.] A larger proportion of native-born clergy were probably produced in this than in any other colony save Connecticut. This fact kept the priesthood and people more in touch with each other, and saved the Church there from much of the evil which befell her in Maryland and Virginia.

In the Northern group of colonies the Commissary regime was little more than a name. The local churches, for the most part, managed their own affairs.

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