Sunday, July 15, 2012

Established Parishes of Colonial Virginia

Few are aware of the particular role occupied by the established parishes of pre-Revolutionary Virginia.  Indeed, for Virginia, the disestablishment and secularization of the parish was perhaps the most radical result of our Revolution, aside from the more obvious casting aside of King and Parliament.

As a side note, while the Established Anglican Church was disestablished in Virginia and the South during the Revolution, the Established Congregationalist Churches remained in place as official taxpayer funded institutions some time longer in New England -- until the 1830s for Massachusetts.

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St. Luke's Parish, Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, Virginia

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Interior of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Smithfield, Virginia.

The following is an excerpt of a paper on Parish government in Colonial Virginia, written with a focus on Southam Parish in what is now Cumberland County, Virginia:

"Writing in 1780 to representatives of the French royal government interested in the character of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, observed that:

The state, by another division, is formed into parishes, many of which are commensurate with the counties: but sometimes a county comprehends more than one parish, and sometimes a parish more than one county.  The division had relation to the religion of the state, a Parson of the Anglican church, with a fixed salary, having been heretofore established in each parish.  The care of the poor was another object of the parochial division.[1]

Indeed, the parishes of Virginia formed a parallel “government” that operated alongside the county government and even included many of the same officials as the county.  Until the disestablishment of the established church in October 1784,[2] the parish not only ministered to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants, but tended to a number of their physical needs, which later became the concerns of the state.  The erosion of the prominence and power of the established parishes began with the coming of the Revolution itself, but was not finally completed until the disestablishment after the Revolution.  The parish, however, prior to the great upheaval was an important and notable government body in Cumberland County, as in the rest of Virginia.  Although the men that operated and oversaw the parishes were virtually the same as those on the County court, those conditions and principles of the Revolution that made union with King George III impossible, also made the presence of a legally established church supported by the taxpayers at large no longer desirable or tolerable, even to the Anglican faithful.  Hence, where civil government in the form of the county remained virtually unaltered by the Revolution, the parish was not only altered, but dissolved for all but its spiritual functions.  Indeed, the parish that had long been the companion of the county in governing Cumberland County, “became a private incorporated body”[3] during the course of the Revolutionary era.  Thus, the parish is really the epicenter of change in the new Commonwealth where the county may be taken as a symbol of the continuity of the Revolutionary age.
              In his study of the colonial Anglican church of Virginia, John Nelson notes that in the Southside of Virginia, which includes Cumberland County and Southam Parish, the average county levy was at a rate of eleven pounds, versus the twenty-eight of the parishes of the region.  Indeed, the average annual expenses of the parish exceeded those of the county in every part of the colony.[4]  Here it becomes all the more evident that the parish was very much a public governmental body that demanded more from the freeholders in terms of revenue than the county.  Church and state in colonial Virginia both sought and received their share of funding to fulfill their responsibilities to the common good.

            These expenses, of course, went to the upkeep of the parish and the care of the poor or disadvantaged.  The vestrybook of Southam Parish is replete with the cost figures for these expenses.  Included in the upkeep of the parish is, of course, the salary of the minister, but also recompense for the clerks and sextons of the chapels.  In 1771, for example, the following items were listed in the parish budget of 20 March:

                        Southam Parrish                                              Dr.                   Neet Tobo.

To the Revd. Robert McLaurine Minister                                16000

To John Barns Clk Petervile Church                                       1040

To Gideon Glen Clk Tarwallet Church                                   1040

To Amey Hill Sexton of Petervile Church                              500

To Avis Tayler for keeping & Clothing Winfield Sanders     1500

To Daniel Wilmore for keeping Elizabeth Howl                    800

To Elenor Sutlief a Poor Person of this Parrish                      600

To Thomas Strange for the support of his two unfortunate

            children                                                                       800[5]

 [The amounts here are in tobacco, which, with coin, was currency in colonial Virginia]

The paid officials of the parish, the minister, the clerks, and the sextons, always appear in the rolls of expenses, but are never as prominent as the items for the upkeep of poor persons or “unfortunate children.”  The parish, rather than the civil government, was the body responsible for the underprivileged in the county of Cumberland, charity for the poor was an ecclesiastical and not civil responsibility in colonial Cumberland.  A brief mention is made in the vestry records of Southam about the erection of a poor house for the disadvantaged of the parish.  This 15 February 1770 order indicated that, “Littlebury Mosby Wm. Fleming & George Carrington Jur. Purchase a Tract of Land Not Exceeding one hundred acres and to Employ Persons to Erect Necessary houses thereon for the Reception of the Poor of this Parrish…”[6]  No further mention is made, however, of this humanitarian project.  The £36.9.4 allotted to Doctor William Cable “for keeping and trying to Cure Stephen Holland for a cancer in his mouth”[7] on 20 March 1771 might qualify as an early form of medicare.  This function as caretaker of the poor of Southam Parish would be transferred to the county government after the Revolution.

          The majority of the pages of the vestrybook are not occupied, however, with poor relief or parish upkeep, but, rather with the processioning records.  This unique capacity of the parish saw to it that every four years “the boundaries [or property] were walked around by an official of the parish, probably accompanied by the owners, the marks officially observed and renewed when necessary, and the results recorded.”[8]  This process was the official means by which property lines were confirmed and finalized.  For this purpose, the vestry would “divide the parish into precincts and … appoint two freeholders in each to see that the processioning was performed.”[9]  After three processionings in which all parties were in agreement, the boundaries were finalized, and no longer subject to the process."

[1] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Frank Shuffelton (Paris: 1785; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 114.
[2] Albert Ogden Porter, County Government in Virginia: A Legislative History, 1607-1904 (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1966), 144.
[3] Ibid., 147.
[4] Ibid., 326.
[5] The Vestry Book of Southam Parish, 204-205.
[6] Ibid., 204.
[7] Ibid., 205.
[8] Porter, County Government in Virginia, 96.
[9] Ibid.

Lest the reader be confused, the currency of the day was either in pounds sterling, or pounds tobacco. If pounds sterling, 1 pound, or £1, was equal to 20 shillings, and 1 shilling was equal to 12 pence. Thus, £29.11.10 is the shorthand way of writing twenty-nine pounds, eleven shillings, and ten pence. For what its worth, the penny was divided into four farthings.
[From,"To declare for an Independency": Cumberland County, Virginia and the Revolution: 1749-1789 / by Thomas Eric Cole;]

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