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“Practical Godliness”: An Episcopal Church Without Bishops

VIRGINIA was not founded by religious refugees, and the religion of earliest Virginia was not Utopian or “purified.” The going religion of England was to become part of the life of English gentlemen in America. No fact was more decisive in the history of Virginia and, through Virginians, in shaping the American character. In 1724, the Rev. Hugh Jones, who personally knew the colony, remarked:

If New England be called a Receptacle of Dissenters, and an Amsterdam of Religion, Pennsylvania the Nursery of Quakers, Maryland the Retirement of Roman Catholicks, North Carolina the Refuge of Run-aways, and South Carolina the Delight of Buccaneers and Pyrates, Virginia may be justly esteemed the happy Retreat of true Britons and true Churchmen for the most Part; neither soaring too high nor drooping too low, consequently should merit the greater Esteem and Encouragement.

The sectarians of New England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland believed that the “purity” of their religion required them to protest against the institutions of the mother country. But even before the others had set up their protesting communities, the Virginians had begun to transplant English religious life to American shores. Although small secessionist movements had troubled English religious life from the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics were the only major religious group outside the Established Church in England at the time Virginia was founded in 1607. The Church of England, instead of being only one among numerous religious sects, in Virginia was a catholic church, practically coextensive with the community. Many things changed in Virginia between its founding and the later 18th century, but Virginia’s religion somehow retained this catholic quality. Theirs was not a violent passion inspiring men to rebuild Zion or to make a City of Brotherly Love, but a quietly pervasive sentiment which suffused the institutions of the colony with a mild aura of divine sanction. The fabric of Virginia society was held together by ancient and durable threads of religion.

“Let others take what courses they please in the bringing up of their posterity,” Robert Carter wrote (July 14, 1720) from Rappahannock to the London agent supervising the education of his sons, “I resolve the principles of our holy religion shall be instilled into mine betimes; as I am of the Church of England way, so I desire they should be. But the high-flown up top notions and the great stress that is laid upon ceremonies, any farther than decency and conformity, are what I cannot come into the reason of. Practical godliness is the substance—these are but the shell.” In mid-18th-century Virginia this moderate spirit was expressed as much in warm but quiet devotion to the ways of the Established Church as in immunity to the more dramatic appeal of extremists. There were few dissenters of any denomination.

How had this moderation come into being in Virginia? The first explanation was historical. The English Establishment had arisen from a compromise and, in Lord Macaulay’s phrase, continued to hold “a middle position between the Churches of Rome and Geneva.” This mediating spirit qualified Anglicanism to be the State religion of a liberal society and helps explain its extraordinary vitality. In those days, even in England the emphasis of Anglicanism was traditionally on institutions rather than on doctrines. The catholic character of the church in Virginia simply increased that emphasis.

In Massachusetts Bay, Puritanism became more practical and less interested in dogma than it had been in England. The Puritans in England had been, doctrinally speaking, in a state of siege, but in New England they were free to practice their way of life. Challenged by few theoretical opponents, they showed less interest in sharpening their theological rapiers. The responsibilities of governing New England also dulled the edge of dogma so that by the late 17th century they had begun those prudent compromises which would produce 18th-century Congregationalism and 19th-century Unitarianism.

Anglicanism in Virginia, for similar reasons, was destined to be even more practical and compromising than it had been in England. Virginia was more barren of theological treatises than New England had been, and Virginians devoted their energies to the institutions of Anglicanism, to the problems of the parish, the vestry, the church-wardens, the assisting of government, the enforcement of morality, and provision for the poor. The practical character which Puritan New England paradoxically achieved by its doctrinal orthodoxy, Anglican Virginia arrived at by its catholicity and its traditionalism.

This practical religious spirit appears, for example, in the planters’ libraries, which contained many books about religion. In the library of Edmund Berkeley, a fairly typical planter-aristocrat who died in 1718, of one hundred and thirteen titles, the largest group (thirty-two) dealt with religion. So too in the libraries of William Fitzhugh, Ralph Wormeley II, Richard Lee II, Robert Carter, and William Byrd II, to mention only a few. In these collections, works of theological controversy were extremely rare; religious books consisted mainly of such Anglican guides as Richard Alestree’s The Whole Duty of Man, or Clement Ellis’ The Gentile Sinner; or, England’s Brave Gentleman. Even the occasional book of religious controversy was likely not to be theological but institutional, concerned with the organization and government of churches.

Although the Church of England, in becoming the Church of Virginia, had not altered its theology one iota, it had undergone a sea-change in institutions. While the ocean insulated Virginia Anglicans from the controversies of the metropolis, wilderness-spaces made a new thing of the English church. The Anglican has commonly been called the “Episcopal” church because it is a church of bishops; but in colonial Virginia there would be no bishops. Anglicanism, in contrast to the dissenting churches, was proverbially a church of hierarchy; but in Virginia congregations became notoriously independent and self-governing. There is surely no better example of the talent of Virginians for adapting English institutions, for bending the outward form without breaking the inner spirit. This transformation was accomplished in two ways: first, by nullifying the power of English bishops in the colony, and second, by diffusing the episcopal power into the local vestries. The Virginia Church did not in fact become truly “episcopal”—that is, it did not acquire a bishop—until 1783, after the separation from England.

During the colonial period the question of whether Virginia should have a bishop had agitated people on both sides of the water. It was generally assumed, although the legal origins were obscure, that the control of the colonial church lay in the hands of the Bishop of London, but the more prudent Bishops refused to assert a control they felt they could not enforce. “For a Bishop to live at one end of the world, and his Church at the other,” Bishop Thomas Sherlock (Bishop of London, 1748-1761) wrote, “must make the office very uncomfortable to the Bishop, and in a great measure useless to the people.” As a result of legal ambiguities, political ambitions, and hysterical fears, colonial Virginia never had its own bishop; in 1771, the House of Burgesses of Episcopalian Virginia took the same stand against bishops that had been taken by Puritan Massachusetts. The sole tie between the colony and the Mother Church throughout the colonial period was a vaguely empowered official called a Commissary.

Without a bishop in Virginia, every candidate for the Anglican clergy had to go to England to be ordained. “The people of the Country,” Bishop Sherlock complained in 1751, “are discouraged from bringing up their Children for the Ministry, because of the hazard and expence of sending them to England to take orders where, they often get the small pox, a distemper fatal to the Natives of those Countrys.” English clergymen, arguing for colonial bishops, painted the unhappy plight of young Virginians aspiring to the ministry. “And if they have the fortune to arrive safe, being here without friends, and without acquaintances, they have the sad business to undergo, of presenting themselves unknown to persons unknown, without any recommendation or introduction, except certain papers in their pocket. Are there not circumstances in this case, sufficient to deter every ordinary courage, and to damp the most adventurous spirit?” In 1767, an American writer noted, the trip could not cost less than £100, and, of the fifty-two candidates who had recently gone to England for ordaining, only forty-two had returned in safety.

These hazards and expenses of travel enabled Virginia Anglicans to build an American church, very different from the English church which they purported to imitate. Without manifestoes, without treatises to defend their position or new dogmas to buttress it, without sounding theological trumpets—and all under the respectable Anglican cloak—Virginians developed their novel institutions. Long before the Revolution, Virginia possessed a Congregationalism all its own. It differed from the Congregationalism of New England partly because it lacked any explicit theological defense. The ancient hierarchical pile of the Church of England was a defensive facade behind which Virginians built their own modest, self-governing structure. They were so unobtrusive and so successful that the full significance of what they were doing remained long hidden. If they could maintain an “episcopal” church without bishops, what other improvising miracles could they not perform?

Before the middle of the 18th century, the Church of Virginia had acquired a fixed character: it was a group of independent parishes, governed in temporal matters by the House of Burgesses and in doctrinal matters by no central authority at all. So far as we know, there was no regular gathering of clergymen and hence no authentic voice of dogma. Under these circumstances the supervision of the clergy and the definition of religious practices fell into the hands of the leading lay members of the parish, who of course believed it was in the best possible hands.

In England an Anglican minister held his post from the bishop; once “inducted” he had a kind of property in his parish. He held it regardless of, sometimes in spite of, the will of the parishioners, and could be removed only by a trial before his bishop. The result was the notorious twin evils of English parish life in the 18th century: “pluralism” or the holding of numerous parishes by a single clergyman; and “absenteeism” or the holding of a parish where the clergyman did not reside, and in some cases had never visited. The unfortunate English parishioner was powerless.

The Virginia remedy was nothing more complicated than the power of each parish through its vestry to choose its own minister and to retain him only so long as he satisfied them. The Anglican laymen of Virginia had not acquired this power by legislation; they simply took advantage of a legal technicality which they quietly transformed into a major institution. Technically, a minister in Virginia came into full possesson of his parish and into legal control of the “glebe” (farmland owned by the parish to help support the minister) only after he had been “presented” by the vestry to the Governor and Council and then “inducted” into the living. After induction he had a kind of property in the position; but until that time he held his post at the will of the parish. Practical Virginians, bent on getting their money’s worth from their tithes, developed the simple practice of not “presenting” or “inducting” their ministers. Thus the ministers were kept on year-to-year contracts, “which they call by a Name coarse enough,” Hartwell, Blair, and Chilton reported with disgust in their Present State of Virginia in 1697, “viz. Hiring of the Ministers; so that they seldom present any Ministers, that they may by that Means keep them in more Subjection and Dependence.” Thirty years later, the Rev. Hugh Jones still worried over “such Vestry-Men, who erroneously think themselves the Masters of their Parson, and aver, that since they compacted but from Year to Year with him as some have done, they may turn off this their Servant when they will.”

But most fears for the Virginia clergy were ill-founded. In 1724 Virginia clergymen had, on the average, served the same parish for twenty years. Yet, of the twenty-eight replying to the Bishop of London’s questionnaire in that year, twenty-three had never been “inducted” into their parishes and so, technically, were still on year-to-year tenure.

In England the pauper curate, filling a pulpit for a wealthy absentee who lived comfortably on a distant estate, received treatment befitting his squalor and servility: he ate with the butler and the lady’s maid. But in Virginia even the lower clergy had the status of gentlemen. “Any young ministers that intend to marry,” Commissary Blair cheerfully reported, “after some proof that they are sober good men, need not fear but that they may match to very good advantage with the Gentlemens daughters of the Countrey.” It would be pleasant to report that the Anglican clergy of Virginia were all men of learning and high morals; the fact is that we know too little about the character of individual ministers. But we have no reason to doubt that the Anglican ministers in Virginia parishes were on the whole a conscientious and hard-working lot. In 1759, the Rev. Andrew Burnaby noted that Virginia’s sixty-odd clergymen were “men in general of sober and exemplary lives.” They were not much inferior to the ministers of other days and were decidedly superior to their English contemporaries.

But the clergyman’s life was suffused with the special aroma of the colony, the aroma of tobacco. If there was some exaggeration in saying that the colony had been “founded on smoke,” there was much less exaggeration in the remark that in Virginia “the Establishment is indeed Tobacco.” In one sense at least, this was literally true, since almost from the beginning the compensation of clergymen had been defined and paid in tobacco. After 1695, the annual salary of a clergyman was fixed by law at 16,000 pounds of tobacco. Since the tobacco in which a minister was paid was that of his particular parish, the money value of his wage depended very much on the quality of that crop. “Some Parishes,” the Rev. Hugh Jones lamented, “are long vacant upon Account of the badness of the Tobacco.” The minister who found himself in a parish which raised the cruder “Oronoko” type considered himself unfortunate compared with his colleague who preached to parishioners who grew the milder, broader-leaved (and higher-priced) tobacco called “Sweet Scented.” When Commissary Blair wrote back to the Bishop of London in 1724 requesting more clergymen for Virginia, he compared the vacancies in “five sweet scented Parishes” with “about double that number of Oranoco ones vacant.” The old Virginia parable is still useful for an ambitious clergyman: “The best way to get sweet-scented Tobacco is to use sweet-scented Words.”

Virtually the only occasion when ecclesiastical matters became a pressing political issue in colonial Virginia was the so-called “Parson’s Cause” (1763). Then Patrick Henry, at the age of 27, first gained popular notice and began his public career. No question of theology or even of church-government was involved, but simply whether, in a period of high tobacco prices, vestries should be permitted to pay their clergymen in the money-values of an earlier age of cheap two-penny tobacco.

“The public or political character of the Virginians,” the Rev. Andrew Burnaby sharply reported in 1759, “corresponds with their private one: they are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controuled by any superior power.” By the end of the 17th century the practice had become established for the people of the parish, through their vestrymen, to select their own minister. It was actually supported by an opinion of English Attorney General Sir Edward Nor they in 1703, but never reached clear judicial decision. After Commissary Blair’s bold defense of the principle against Governor Spotswood in 1719, it was never again seriously challenged in colonial Virginia: the parishes went on selecting their own ministers, and employing them on a yearly basis. Thus the battles of the American Revolution, as Bishop Meade has observed, had already been fought in Virginia vestries for a hundred and fifty years. “Taxation and representation were only other words for support and election of ministers. The principle was the same.”

“Self-government” in 18th-century Virginia—in religious no less than in civil matters—was, of course, self-government by the ruling planters on behalf of their servants and neighbors. The parish was their elementary school in the political arts. By law the members of the vestry, not over twelve in number, were supposed to be elected by the parishioners. Since no regular intervals were legally fixed for these elections, however, the ruling planters developed the convenient custom of allowing vestrymen to continue in office indefinitely, until death or resignation. When vacancies occurred, the vestry itself named new members. This self-perpetuating power was important, and the ruling planters were reluctant to give it up. The “rebellious” session of the Virginia Assembly which met under the domination of Nathaniel Bacon in 1676 enacted numerous “reforms,” many of which survived; but later Assemblies refused to reenact the requirement that vestrymen be elected every three years. Throughout the 18th century vestries remained self-perpetuating. It was not until 1784, when Anglicanism was no longer established in Virginia, that regular elections of the vestry were required. During this long period, the only appeal from the decisions of the vestrymen was to the General Court or the Assembly of the colony.

On the whole, these self-elected representatives of the parish did their job well. They met at least twice a year, normally at the home of one of their members. The power to choose the minister and to continue or terminate his employment rested with them. Qualified by education, morals, and property, they appear to have exercised their powers with wisdom and restraint. If Virginia was remarkably free of the absenteeism, pluralism, docility, and corruption which cursed English parishes, if Virginia parishes refused as ministers those from England “who could roare in a tavern and babble in the pulpit,” the credit was the vestry’s.

The parish, through the vestrymen or their deputies, the churchwardens, wielded some of the powers of a modern sheriff, of a district attorney, and of a grand jury. Among other things, vestrymen had the duty of presenting to the court persons guilty of such moral offenses as drunkenness, blasphemy, profanity, defamation, sabbath-breaking, staying away from divine services, fornication, and adultery. The vestry levied parish taxes, assessed property for their payment, and defined the boundaries of landed property. Once in every four years, under the supervision of the county court, the vestrymen appointed two persons to “procession” the land, that is, to examine and renew old landmarks and to record the bounds in the parish books.

The parish, acting through its churchwardens, was the main social welfare agency. It was the vestry’s general duty to call attention to cases of extreme poverty and in the absence of an almshouse to provide for the “poor and impotent” by boarding them at public expense in the homes of willing citizens. The vestry tried to save the parish the support of bastards by binding out the mother, compelling the father to give bond, and indenturing the children till the age of thirty. In the western counties it was the vestry that looked after children orphaned by marauding Indians. Between 1748 and 1752 Augusta Parish, in the Valley where the Indian menace was greatest, found new homes for forty-seven orphans. The people of Norfolk, who saw their town burned on New Year’s Day of 1776, had their vestries to thank for relieving their suffering. In the late 17th century it was not unusual for the parish tax-levy to equal three or four times the amount of all other taxes. Just before the Revolution, Truro and Fairfax, the two parishes into which Fairfax County was divided, each had larger budgets than the county government.

No prominent citizen could decently withdraw from churchly institutions, for church duties and civic duties were one. Justices of the county courts were commonly also vestrymen: George Washington, George Mason, and George William Fairfax; all justices of Fairfax County, were all vestrymen of Truro Parish; four of the nine vestrymen of Wicomico Parish who met on Nov. 10, 1757, were justices—and so it went. The officers of the militia, who had to be recommended to the Governor by the county justices, were apt to be these very same men. In 1785 after the Church had been disestablished in Virginia, many powers of the vestry were transferred to the county court, but the leading planters still did the parish jobs in their capacity as county justices.

It would have been strange had not the political and social leaders of Virginia been leading Anglicans. Of the more than a hundred members of the Virginia constitutional convention of 1776, only three were not vestrymen. Two-thirds of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of the Established Church; six were sons or grandsons of its clergymen. During the Revolution the movement toward resistance and independence flourished in the Virginia vestries. When, after the colonial legislature had been dissolved and the county courts abolished, each county was required to elect a small committee of safety to act as a de facto government, an Anglican clergyman was elected a member, in many cases president, of that committee in a third of the counties. It is hard to name a leader of the Revolution, including such men as George Washington, James Madison, Edmund Pendleton, and Patrick Henry, who were not securely within the fold of the Church. The fact that there were also outspoken Loyalists like the Rev. Jonathan Boucher who were loyal Anglicans does not alter the case. For in Virginia a quiet devotion to the English Church—both as a bulwark of things ancient and English and as a local expression of the passion for independence—nourished that very reverence for the British constitution and for the traditional rights of Englishmen which inspired the Revolution.

There is no paradox then in the facts that the leaders of Virginia were almost to a man good Anglicans and that these same Virginians led the Revolution. It has been all too easy to imagine that the “English” church in Virginia, like the British government over the colonies, was shaken by a rationalist, anti-clerical, and anti-traditionalist earthquake with its epicenter somewhere in Europe. Such a view does not square with the facts.

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