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Image Virginia Religious Ways: The Anglican Devotional-Liturgical Style

In a world that was haunted by death, religion became urgently important to the Virginians—more urgent then their worldly business, and more important than many secular historians have believed. When Sir William Berkeley sat down to write his will, for example, his first thought was not for his material wealth, but his spiritual estate:

First, I desire God, who gave it, to take my soul into his mercy; and that, for the only merits and mercies of my blessed Saviour Christ Jesus. My body I give to the earth, from whence it came.1

This concern was typical of its time and place. Another example was the will of Colonel John Stringer, which began with an elaborate declaration of faith. He wrote:

I bequeath my soul to God, who first gave it to me, Father, Son and Spirit in Unity and Trinity, and Trinity and Unity, who hath redeemed and preserved me by and through Jesus Christ, and also died for my sins, and for the sins of all peoples that truly believe in Him by unfeigned faith and repentance, for whose sake and loving kindness I hope to entertain everlasting life, wherefore, Dear Father, have mercy upon my soul.2

The spontaneity of this devotional creed revealed the depth of feeling that lay behind it.

Other wills testified not only to the religion of their makers, but also to their concern for its continuing support. In Surry County, for example, George Jordan insisted that his kin could inherit his estate only if they paid for a sermon to be preached every year in memory of his dead daughter. He also required that Holy Communion should be celebrated if the day fell on Sunday, and that all the neighborhood should be given food and drink. He demanded that this ritual should continue every year until the

“destruction of the world,” and that any owner who failed to honor it should lose the estate, “though it be a thousand generations hence.”3

Still more striking were the many wills in which Virginians provided for the religious education of their children, often at great trouble and expense. Historian Philip Bruce has published large numbers of these provisions, which show the breadth of Christian belief in Virginia during the seventeenth century.4

Virginia wills sometimes expressed their religious feeling in unpuritanical ways. An eminent gentleman of Westmoreland County, Colonel Richard Cole, ordered that the following words should be engraved upon his tombstone:

Here lies Dick Cole, a grievous sinner,

That died a little before dinner,

Yet hoped in Heaven to find a place

To satiate his soul with grace.5

Even these light-hearted words tell us that religion was important to the cavaliers of Virginia, as it had been to the Puritans of Massachusetts; but it was important in a different way. Strong contrasts appeared in the vernacular religions of these colonies—that is, in ordinary rituals of common worship, and also in the individual exercise of faith.

The vernacular religion of Virginia was closely linked to its official Anglican creed, which had been imposed upon the colony partly by persuasion and partly by force. Private eccentricities were tolerated, but open dissenters were harassed and driven out. The leading architect of this policy was once again Sir William Berkeley. By the end of the seventeenth century, religious belief was remarkably uniform in Virginia. Robert Beverley wrote in 1705, “There are very few dissenters … they have not more than five conventicles amongst them, namely three small meetings of Quakers, and two of Presbyterians.” Through the first century of Virginia’s history, Anglican orthodoxy was strong—and growing stronger.6

Governor Berkeley also worked to support this orthodoxy by actively recruiting an Anglican clergy for Virginia. Before he took office, a few of its ministers were thought to have a low-church bias and even a tincture of Puritanism in their beliefs. Berkeley recruited churchmen of a different cast, and urged them to “pray oftener and preach less.” The Royalist elite also tried to attract what William Fitzhugh called “able, painfull and sober Pastors” for the colony. This effort was successful. By the late seventeenth century many of Virginia’s clergy were able and pious men of good family and education. Several were younger sons of noble families; many were graduates of the more Royalist Oxford colleges, in particular Christ Church, Corpus Christi, Merton, Oriel and Queens.7

Led by these men, the vernacular religion of Virginia reached deeply into the lives of ordinary people. The Christian faith of the Chesapeake planters was not the central purpose for the founding of their colony, but many were men and women of deep piety.8Henry Filmer called his plantation Laus Deo, and in 1672 left a large legacy to the parish of Mulberry Island for the purchase of communion silver. Bequests of that sort were very common in the colony.9

Family libraries gave special attention to Bibles, prayer books and religious tracts of various kinds, which were very common in Virginia households. In the library of Ralph Wormeley of Rose-gill, as many as 123 of 391 works were religious or moral in their nature—a smaller proportion than in New England, but large by comparison with other times and places.10

One of the books in Ralph Wormeley’s library was Richard Allestree’s The Whole Duty of Man (London, 1660), a devotional work which was found more often in Virginia libraries than any other book. Its ideal of quietism and practical piety contrasted sharply with the restless striving of the New England Puritans. Other favorites were Richard Allestree’s The Gentleman’s Calling (1660), Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying (1650, 1651), Lewis Bayly’s Practice of Piety (1613), and Edward Synge’s A Gentleman’s Religion (1693).11


ImageBruton Church in Williamsburg is a classic example of Anglican architecture. The first building in this parish (ca. 1674) was a temporary wooden structure. The second (1681-83) was a small gabled brick building with five buttresses on a side. The third (1(1711) still stands, and claims to be the oldest church in continuous use in the southern colonies. It is in the shape of a long Latin cross, with the altar, rail and crucifix on the east wall, flanked by the pulpit and the governor’s throne. The baptismal font is said to have been brought from the old church at Jamestown; George Washington stood as godfather to at least fourteen slaves who were baptized here. A gallery was added in 1715 for unruly students from the College of William and Mary. Their graffiti still appear in the gallery railing. This church was the scene of many funerals where the first gentlemen of Virginia were mourned in high pomp. In 1720, after Secretary Cocke suddenly fell dead at the Capital, “the principal gentlemen of the country attended the funeral, and weeping saw the corpse interred.” For state funerals, the aisle, altar, pulpit and governor’s throne were draped in black cloth. Bruton Parish was named for the town of Bruton, Somerset, the English home of Governor William Berkeley, Philip Ludwell and John Page.

In place of the Puritans’ conversion journals and spiritual autobiographies, Anglican gentlemen kept devotional diaries which placed heavy emphasis on rituals of prayer and acts of exemplary piety. They showed less concern about salvation than did the Puritans, but gave more attention to liturgy and devotion such as morning and evening prayers.12

The religious differences between Virginia and Massachusetts were visible in the physical setting of public worship. The Anglican ideal was a small parish church, solidly constructed on a cruciform plan, with an altar and cross at the eastern end of the building and a pulpit tucked into a corner. At least forty-nine prerevolutionary churches still stand in Virginia, of which forty-three were built by Anglicans. In southern Maryland, twenty-eight survive, of which twenty-three were erected by the Church of England.13

The church architecture of Virginia was designed on the assumption that Christian worship was mainly a devotional act. Every part of the Anglican service had a liturgical quality which distinguished it from the “meeting and lecture” style of New England. The order of worship in morning and evening services, and also the administration of the sacraments, was strictly defined by the Book of Common Prayer. The exquisite cadences of this beautiful work celebrated moderation, proportion, refinement and restraint. Virginians commonly used an edition of the Book of Common Prayer which included the “Black Rubric” or “Declaration on Kneeling,” which was specially disliked by the Puritans.

Sermons were a secondary part of Anglican worship, and in tone and substance they were also very different from Puritan preaching. Northern visitors observed that Virginia sermons were much shorter than in New England, less theological, more pietistic and “all in the forensic style.” Philip Fithian was astonished to find that they were “seldom under and never over twenty minutes, but always made up of sound morality or deeply studied metaphysicks.”


Tyeocomico Church (Westmoreland County, 1706), is the oldest surviving T-form church in Virginia. A leading member of the vestry was Colonel William Ball, the grandfather of George Washington. The northern tutor Philip Fithian often worshiped here in 1773-74. He heard the parish clergyman Thomas Smith, a man of great wealth, preach on “the uncertainty of riches and their insufficiency to make us happy.” It was also at Yeocomico that Fithian was “surprised when the psalm began to hear a large collection of voices singing at the same time, from a Gallery, entirely contrary to what I had seen before.”

For all their brevity, these twenty-minute Anglican sermons had rhetorical structures of high complexity. They developed in fixed and regular stages from the opening praecognito to partitio, explicatio, amplificatio, applicatio, and peroration. The composition was cast in a belletristic style which made much use of tropes and flowers and figures of speech. The religion of the cavaliers celebrated the holiness of beauty as well as the beauty of holiness.14

Anglican church music was more important than in New England, and very different from that of the Puritans. Philip Fithian visited Yeocomico Church one morning and was amazed by the sound of a choir which he had never heard before. “I was surprised when the psalm began,” he wrote, “to hear a large collection of voices singing at the same time, from a Gallery, entirely contrary to what I had seen before.” It is not clear what most astonished this northern visitor—the existence of the choir itself, or the fact (surprising to a Calvinist) that they were all “singing at the same time.” This was very different from the traditional rote singing in Puritan meetinghouses.15 Bruton Parish Church also had an organ, and even a professional organist. Virginians enjoyed singing complex four-part hymns and anthems, and gave employment to as many as seven professional singing masters before 1711.16

On a Sunday in Anglican Virginia, these liturgical structures of common prayer, religious rhetoric and sacred harmony were joined to yet another set of secular rituals which preceded and followed the service itself. At Christ Church, Lancaster County, Virginia, built by the great planter Robert “King” Carter, the act of worship began with a grand entrance by the patriarch himself. “On the sabbath,” writes historian Louis Morton, “no member of the congregation dared to enter Christ Church until Carter’s carriage, drawn by six lively horses, drew up before its entrance. ‘King’ Carter would then alight and enter the place of worship, the others following respectfully. After he had taken his seat, the service would start.”17

This beautiful church still stands today, a fitting symbol of the style of worship that inspired it. The plan of the church is a perfeet


ImageChrist Church (Lancaster County, 1132-35), with its elegant swag roof and opulent detail, is built in the shape of a symmetrical Greek cross, 68 feet on each side. The walls are three feet thick, and the round window arches are of rubbed brick with masonry keystones. Its construction was paid for by the first gentleman of the parish, Robert “King” Carter of Corotoman (d. 1732). A special road, bordered with cedar trees, ran three miles from Corotoman Plantation directly to the churchyard. Every Sunday the congregation waited outside the church until “King” Carter arrived in his six-horse coach, entered the large front door and walked to his large pew which was decorated with damask curtains on heavy brass rods. The entire north transept was reserved for Carter servants and tenants. Many generations of Carters headed the vestry list of this parish from as early as 1654. Outside the church are the large sarcophagi of “King” Carter himself and his wives, embellished with the Carter arms and Latin epitaphs, to which one disgruntled parishioner added a chalk inscription:

Here lies Robin, but not Robin Hood

Here lies Robin that was never good

Greek cross sixty-eight feet on a side, with massive walls three feet thick, a pilastered entrance, oval windows, and an elegant swag roof. The interior still contains the original walnut table, a marble font, a handsome wineglass pulpit and other trappings of Anglican ritual.

Every Sunday the congregation of Christ Church joined in its devotions before that magnificent table, and heard a short sermon from the pulpit. After the formal service was over, the Sunday ritual continued in the churchyard. “Over three-quarters of an hour spent strolling round the Church among the Crowd,” Fithian noted in his journal, “in which time you will be invited by several different gentlemen home with them to dinner.”18 Altogether, Philip Fithian concluded, “a Sunday in Virginia don’t seem to wear the same dress as our Sundays to the northward.”19

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