Religion in 1771 Virginia
by Philippe Halbert, 2005
In colonial 18th century Virginia, most people belonged to the Anglican Church, or Church of England. The Anglican Church was the established, or official, church. As the established church, all Virginians were guaranteed membership, with attendance and taxes mandatory. In addition, other religious denominations, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Quakers, established themselves in Virginia during this period. Providing structure and organization, religion permeated nearly every aspect of daily life and brought together members of each social class.
The Anglican Church was established in Virginia by the Jamestown colonists in 1607. By the 1720s, it was well organized in the colony, and by 1760 no parish was without a minister. Nearly one-third of Virginia clergy was locally born by this time, and most major towns contained at least one church.
Churchgoing in the 18th century provided a time for both public worship and social contact, as this image of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church illustrates.
There were three Anglican churches in Fairfax County in the 18th century. These were the Pohick Church, the Falls Church, and the New or First Church; the Falls and Pohick Churches still stand today and are active congregations. The Pohick Church was located in the Truro Parish, and the Falls and New Churches in the Fairfax Parish. Truro Parish was established in 1732, and encompassed all of what would become Fairfax and Loudon counties and a part of Prince William County; the Fairfax Parish was established in 1765, dividing the Truro Parish. It covered the town of Alexandria and all of Fairfax County. Both the Truro and Fairfax parishes became part of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in 1785 when the Anglican Church was disestablished.
The Falls Church was named for its proximity to the falls of the Potomac River. Begun ca. 1732 and completed in 1734, the original frame church was “greatly in decay” by 1762. In that year, churchwardens George Washington and George William Fairfax made arrangements for the construction of a new church in brick. With the creation of the new Fairfax Parish in 1765, the Falls Church became its parish seat. This proved further incentive for the construction of a new church, and from 1767 to 1769, Colonel James Wren undertook its construction. In 1771, this would have been the church occasionally attended by the “farm family” portrayed at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm. This living history farm demonstrates life on a tenant farm in Virginia prior to the American Revolutionary War.
The Falls Church, built 1767-1769. The Falls Church can be visited today at 115 E. Fairfax Street in Falls Church, Virginia.
The congregation of the Pohick Church first established itself in the second half of the 17th century. During this time it built a church near what would become the town of Colchester on the Occoquan River. In 1732, the congregation moved near Pohick Creek and built a second church, a wood frame structure. Construction of a third church two miles to the south began in 1769, after it had been determined that the ca. 1732 church was unstable. Local gentleman Daniel French, an undertaker, or contractor, took over the building project of the new brick church, which was completed in 1774. Among its parishioners were the Fairfaxes, the Masons, and the Washingtons.
The Pohick Church, built 1769-1774. The Pohick Church can be visited today and is located at 9301 Richmond Highway in Lorton, Virginia.
The final church in Fairfax County was the New or First Church, first documented in 1753. This house of worship was located in or near the town of Alexandria, founded in 1749. Unlike the other two churches, the New Church was not a main parish church. Under 18th century terms, it was known as a chapel of ease. This was a branch church created to accommodate parishioners living far from the main churches. Unfortunately, no known images of the New Church survive. In the mid-1760s plans were made to erect a true church to serve the Alexandrians, and from 1767 to 1773 work was performed on the construction of Christ Church.
A 19th century view of Christ Church, built 1767-1773, with its bell tower, built 1787-1820 with the addition of galleries. Courtesy, Historic Christ Church. Christ Church can be visited today and is located at 118 N. Washington Street in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
In addition to being a time for prayer, churchgoing was also an important social occasion. The hour before Sunday worship was the time for exchanging news and gossip, making business contracts, and meeting friends and family. In addition, it allowed all social classes to “show off” in their finest clothes.
New Jersey-born Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the children of Virginia gentleman Robert Carter from 1773 to 1774, wrote in his journal
“A Sunday in Virginia dont seem to wear the same Dress as our Sundays to the Northward—Generally here by five o-clock on Saturday every Face (especially the Negroes) looks festive and cheerful—All the lower class of People, and the Servants, and the Slaves, consider it as a Day of amusement, and spend it in such Diversions as they severally choose.”
For the most part, colonial Virginia churches were simple in exterior appearance. Except for those in major towns, few churches had bell towers or steeples. The typical church designs found in Virginia at the time included the rectangular, the cruciform (in the shape of a Greek cross), and the deep, an extended version of the rectangular design.
The interior of 18th century Virginia churches, the sanctuary, called attention to the social structure of the period. The pulpit, from where the minister addressed the congregation, was found in the center of the church. The minister preaching from the pulpit was the central focus. On the far side of the pulpit stood the altar, and above it, the Ten Commandments and Apostle’s Creed, often written on tablets. Seating in 18th century churches was in the form of box pews. The high backs of the pews prevented any distraction among churchgoers. The pews in which the gentry sat were closer to the pulpit and larger than the others. Men and women sat separately, with the exception of privileged gentry families who owned their own pews and sat together. Commoners, free blacks, and slaves sat in the rear of the church, sometimes on benches pushed to the back or in upstairs galleries. An excellent example of a colonial Virginia church interior is Christ Church, on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Completed in 1735, Christ Church is the most completely preserved colonial church in Virginia. It has retained much of its original Georgian architecture and embellishment, including the only remaining 18th century high-backed box pews in Virginia.
One of Christ Church’s original 1735 high-backed pews.
After nearly an hour of socializing, a bell would be rung and congregants would begin to enter the church. Lower class whites, like our “farm family”, blacks, and other women and children entered the church first. The last to enter were upper class gentleman, who Fithian notes were often in the process of “giving and receiving letters of business, reading Advertisements, consulting about the price of Tobacco, Grain &c., and settling the lineage, Age, or quality of favourite Horses.” On entering the church, these men gave the impression of importance and high standing in the congregation. Fithian writes:
“The Gentlemen go to Church to be sure, but they make that itself a matter of convenience, and account the Church a useful weekly resort to do business… It is not the custom for Gentlemen to go into Church til Service is beginning, when they enter in a Body, in the same manner as they come out; I have known the Clerk to come out and call them into prayers.”
A typical Anglican worship was divided into four parts, the Morning Prayer (Matins), the Litany, the Ante Communion, and the Sermon, which made up the Anglican “Divine Service.” During the Morning Prayer, the church clerk read prayers to the congregation from the Common Book of Prayer, the Anglican missal. Hymns and psalms were also periodically sung between prayers; musical accompaniment to such singing was uncommon, although some wealthy, urban congregations could boast an organ. For the duration of the Litany, prayers and petitions of the congregation were offered. Communion was celebrated on average four times a year, during what was known as the Ante Communion. Because the sacrament was performed very little, most of the year saw the Ante Communion as preparation for the sermon that was given near the end of the service. By about 1770 the fashion was to have short sermons, and most lasted about twenty minutes and covered topics from Biblical excerpts and political subjects to “metaphysicks.” Following the benediction and final rites, the congregation was dismissed and many spent additional time mingling outside, ironically often doubling the time spent socializing than in worship. As Fithian notes
||“They stay also after the Service is over, usually as long, sometimes longer, than the Parson was preaching.”Fig. 6.
Couple exiting Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church. Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
Gentry and other upper class families often hosted dinners following worship on Sundays. Taking place usually near 2 o’clock in the afternoon, dinner was the largest meal of the day. With extensive household staffs, local Fairfax County aristocracy and gentry such as the Fairfaxes, Washingtons, Masons, and Carlyles invited family, friends, and even the minister to their homes following the conclusion of the service.
“After the service is over three quarters of an hour is spent in strolling round the Church among a Crowd, in which time you will be invited by several different Gentlemen home with them to dinner…I observe it a general Custom on Sundays here with Gentlemen to invite one another home to dine, after Church.”
Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773
For families further down the social ladder, the time after church was spent in much the same manner as the gentry. Of course they did not entertain to the extent that did the upper class, but they emulated it to the best of their ability. On the small farms dotting the landscape of Fairfax county, farming communities often came together to celebrate the Sabbath and take a break from the exhausting tasks that made up farm living. Although generally a day of rest, during crucial periods of the agricultural year neighbors often came together Sundays to help with a communal chore, such as a harvest or slaughter, both economizing time and bringing the community closer together.
Here, a middling class couple entertains a neighbor following the conclusion of Sunday worship. Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
The way in which domestic servants and house slaves spent Sundays depended on their employer or master or mistress; slaves could attend worship only with their masters’ permission. Wealthy gentleman did sometimes bring along a favorite house slave or servant to church. However, as these men and women usually entertained in the afternoon, they depended on their servants, slaves, and other workers to make necessary preparations. This took away any free time such servants would have been given on Sundays. When their masters did not entertain, house slaves and servants were generally given the day off, although they were expected to perform basic chores.
Plantation slaves did not usually attend formal worship services. Sunday was given to these people as a day of rest and a break from chores. Unlike their counterparts up at the house, they were given the entire day off and time with which to do as they pleased on Sunday. However, like their peers working in the master’s house, field slaves required their masters’ prior permission to attend church services. Fithian writes that on Sundays these enslaved people would
“commonly spend in fishing making Potatoes etc., building and patching their Quarters or rather Cabins.”
Sometimes enslaved people participated in social gatherings where music, dancing, storytelling, and socializing took place. Religious ceremonies were often held at these gatherings. These traditions and rites were often a blend of Christianity and diverse African religions. Gatherings usually took place on Saturday nights into Sundays, and were a chance for slaves to forget their chores and celebrate. Nicholas Cresswell, an English visitor to America from 1774 to 1777, attended a slave gathering. In his journal, he wrote how he
“went to a Negro Ball. Sundays being the only days [they] have to enjoy themselves, they generally meet together and amuse themselves with dancing to the Banjo… In their songs they generally relate the usage they have received from their Masters or Mistresses in a very satirical stile and manner. Their poetry is like the Music—Rude and uncultivated. Their dancing is most violent exercise, but so irregular and grotesque. I am not able to describe it. They all appear to be exceedingly happy at these merry-makings and seem as if they had forgot or were not sensible of their miserable condition.”
Many slaves made do with the outdoor sermons given by traveling preachers. The 1760s and 1770s saw an increase in the spread of evangelical faiths, especially those of Baptists and Methodists, among enslaved Africans. William Lee, of James City County, Virginia, wrote in 1771 how,
“The wandering new light preachers f[ro]m the North-ward have put most of my Negroes crazy with their new light and their new Jerusalem.”
The “New Light” promise of such preachers was especially meaningful to slaves. It told of God’s equal love for all mankind, combined with New Testament themes of deliverance from persecution and ultimate salvation. Lee, in an effort to stop the spread of the “New Light” among his slaves, ordered his overseer to encourage his slaves to attend services every Sunday at the parish church “by giving those, who are the most common attendants at church, a larger allowance of food, or an additional shirt more than the rest.” In addition, Lee ordered “very exemplary and solemn” punishment for any of his slaves caught attending the meetings of “vagabond preachers,” illustrating a common attitude held by followers of the established church towards dissenting faiths and their followers.
This image depicts a traveling preacher of the late 18th or early 19th century.
Every colonial household was required to pay a tax, known as a tithe, to the local Anglican parish, regardless of its personal religious conviction. Funds brought in by this taxation were used to pay the minister, maintain the physical state of the church building, and cover other expenses accrued by the parish. In addition, parishes augmented their income with the purchase of a glebe. This was land that could either be rented or leased to increase parish funds. Most often the minister and his family inhabited a house, known as a glebe house, located on the glebe. The cost of living on the glebe was often considered part of a minister’s yearly salary, and when one had not been purchased, the minister’s salary was usually augmented. In the 1760s and 1770s, Fairfax Parish Minister Townsend Dade was paid a salary of 17,280 pounds of tobacco, which was used as currency or redeemed for transferable tobacco notes, and due to the lack of a glebe, was paid an additional 500 pounds of the plant.
Tithing required the yearly donation of ten percent of one’s annual income to the local parish. According to where one lived, one was always a member of a parish. Tithes were mandatory, regardless of whether one was Anglican or not. Tithables, or taxable parishioners, began tithing at the age of sixteen. All free, indentured, and enslaved men were considered tithable beginning at this age, as were all free and enslaved black women. White women did not tithe unless they were heads of their own households or owned and operated their own businesses. For the farm family, one hundred pounds of tobacco, a tenth of their cash crop, would go to pay their tithe.
Church officials also imposed disciplinary action on their parishioners when necessary. Swearing, blasphemy, adultery, and absence from worship on Sundays were among the most common violations. Usually the punishment for these crimes was in the form of a fine, but repeated offenses could result in public humiliation such as a day in the stocks or whipping. The following Fairfax Parish Record excerpts from 1775 and 1778 give an idea of other violations of Anglican Church statutes and the amounts paid in fines:
|1775||“By cash received of Mr. Wm. Adams, for the serval fines for deer killing out of season, delivered to him by Bryan Fairfax, £2 10s”|
|1778||“Received by Lawrence Monroe, for gaming, £2 10s|
|“Received by Thos. Lewis, for hunting on the Sabbath, 5s
“Received by John Lewis, for hunting on the Sabbath, 5s”
All were required by law to attend Sunday services at least once every four weeks. The penalty was in the form of a fine of either five shillings or fifty pounds of tobacco. This was not strictly enforced, however, and it was not possible for many to attend even the mandatory services. For example, the “farm family,” with its daily chores and the overall rigor of farm life, would not have found this feasible. Moreover, weather and conditions of roads were yet another factor affecting church attendance. Fithian and other Virginia diarists often write of the snow, wind, and other inclement weather preventing travel to and from church. Roads in the colony often consisted of little more than simple dirt paths, and for the “farm family” and others, travel to church on foot or wagon would have taken a considerable amount of time. From the vestry records, however, ministers often preached to full congregations most Sundays. As gentry and more affluent people made up only a small percentage of any congregation, it appears more middling and lower class people did make the effort to attend as often as possible.
Unlike in England, there were no bishops, church courts, or other centralized seats of clerical authority in Virginia. The colony was not a part of an English diocese or even a diocese in itself. Although loosely under the jurisdiction of the bishop of London during the period, the church vestry was Virginia’s dominant religious institution. A lay group, “conformable to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England, as by the law established,” the vestry was originally appointed by its respective colony’s government. In 1662 this changed, and vestrymen gained the right to fill in vacancies on their own. This practice, known as cooptation, led to the office staying in the hands of a few elite families. In fact, the lack of American bishops was due to the vestries. Any attempt at centralizing ecclesiastic authority would have undermined the power of parish vestries. In the 1760s and 1770s, the movement to install a bishop in the American colonies was met with opposition, as illustrated by the 1769 engraving in Fig. 9. A mob holding the works of enlightened 17th century thinker John Locke has formed. Railing against “lords temporal or spiritual,” they force the bishop packing back to his ship.
An attempt to land a bishop in America, 1769. Courtesy, The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Responsibilities of the vestry included hiring a parish minister and paying his salary, keeping a register of births and deaths within their parish, assigning seats in church, levying dues to fund church upkeep, furnishing, and construction, and overseeing the distribution of relief for needy parishioners. In addition, the vestry managed the “processioning,” or surveying, of all land boundaries in their parish.
Excerpts from the Lynnhaven Parish records for 1754 give an idea as to the sort of relief performed by 18th century Virginia vestries:
“To Elizabeth Oliver [for] keeping Mary Oliver’s child: 400 pounds of tobacco…
To Anne Norrice [for] keeping Duncan King’s child: 160 pounds of tobacco …
To Mary Morris for her Relief: 480 pounds of tobacco…”
The total expenditures in relief of the Lynnhaven Parish for the year 1754, including those above, totaled 11,687 pounds of tobacco obtained from the parish’s tithes. The Fairfax Parish Vestry assumed similar undertakings. One interesting example is when in 1770, Vestryman Townsend Dade, Sr., paid twenty-four pounds of tobacco for “the sitting of a poor man over the ferry.”
In 1771, the vestry of the Fairfax Parish included:
|*William Payne, Jr.||Edward Duling||Townsend Dade, Sr.|
|John West||Richard Sanford||Charles Broadwater|
|*William Adams||Daniel French||James Wren|
|John Dalton||Thomas Shaw||Henry Gunnel|
*Churchwardens were William Payne, Jr., and William Adams. As such, they were responsible especially for parish property and alms, and were at the head of the vestry.
The vestrymen who served the Truro Parish in 1771 were:
|*George William Fairfax||George Mason||Alexander Henderson|
|William Gardner||Peter Wagener||Thomas Ellzey|
|*Edward Payne||Daniel McCarty|
|Thomas Ford||Martin Cockburn|
*Churchwardens were George William Fairfax and Edward Payne.
The ministers of Virginia churches, like the vestry, also had many responsibilities. Administering of sacraments and tasks such as catechism, counsel, and burial all fell to the minister. By the late 1750s, one-third of the ministers in Virginia were born in the colony, with the rest usually Englishmen and Scotsmen educated at British schools. Of the Virginia-born ministers, some were educated within the colonies, often at seminaries affiliated with present universities such as William and Mary, Harvard, and Yale. Others were also educated in Britain. In colonial America, the appointment of Anglican ministers was renewed yearly unlike in England, where the minister was permanent rector. Candidates for Holy Orders, or the rite of becoming ordained a minister, were to have “taken some degree of school…or at least, be able to yield an account of his Faith in Latin, according to the Articles of Religion.” To officiate as a minister required the above ordination and proof of a college level education, seriousness of purpose, knowledge of scripture and articles of faith, or good character at the least.
In 1771, the minister of the Falls Church and Fairfax Parish was the Reverend Mr. Townsend Dade.
In 1771, the minister of the Pohick Church and Truro Parish was the Reverend Mr. Lee Massey.
An Anglican minister delivering a sermon.
Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
Taking on many of the duties of a bishop’s ordinary, or executive, the royal governor of the colony was also another prominent figure in Virginia’s religious administration. He held the power to examine the letters of ordination of incoming ministers, grant security of employment to recommended clergy, assign them to congregations where a minister had not yet been assigned by the vestry, issue marriage licenses, and probate wills and final testaments. Any disputes or conflicts within a congregation went to the governor, not a bishop, strengthening his power and will. At the start of 1771 the Virginia colony was without a formal royal governor; Governor Botetourt, governor since 1768, had unexpectedly died in office in late 1770. William Nelson, a Norfolk merchant and senior member of the late governor’s council, was appointed acting governor. He stayed in office until September of 1771, when Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s last royal governor, assumed office.
The General Assembly, the colony’s legislative body, also played a part in the administration of the Anglican Church in Virginia. In addition to establishing parishes and their geographic boundaries, setting ministers’ salaries, and enacting laws and decrees in keeping with Anglican doctrine, the General Assembly kept vestries in check, dissolving them when it could be proved that they were not doing their duty or abusing their privileges.
17th century Virginia’s General Assembly saw the creation of sixty-one parishes. The following listing shows the number of parishes created every ten years from 1700 to 1780 (from Charles Francis Cocke’s Parish Lines, Dioceses of Southwestern Virginia.)
In total, the number of parishes created from 1700 to 1780 numbered sixty-three.
In the case of the free lower class in 18th century Virginia, such as the farm family, there is little documentation of their religious lives. These people were in most cases illiterate to semi-literate, and as such had little means of having their voices heard. The Anglican Church was strictly ordered by a hierarchy of gentry and other leading men, both in America and England; this might have been a factor deterring lower class people from attending worship on Sunday. For the most part, Anglican ministers catered to the needs of their gentry and more affluent congregants. This left poorer whites and enslaved and free Africans, who made up the majority of both the congregation and colonies’ populations, without spiritual attention.
Religion in colonial Virginia was one of the sole aspects of life in which all of society shared and took part. All participated in religious worship on Sunday, and religious rites of passage such as christenings, marriage, and burial paralleled with the lives of every person, slave to gentleman, from birth to death. The first sacrament, baptism, took place several days after birth. The minister performed the christening ceremony at church, and more often at home, as the family and sometimes a few friends and neighbors looked on. Significant not only for the child, the rite established a sense of responsibility for its parents. At the time the child was christened, godparents were also chosen. These were usually siblings, or sometimes a close friend of the family, and the role of spiritual guardian to the newly baptized child fell to them. Following the christening ceremony, there was usually a celebration at the parents’ home.
Marriage, while not recognized as a sacrament in the Anglican Church, was nonetheless an important step in people’s lives during the period. It took place either at the church or at home, usually that of the bride. It appears that by the mid-18th century, fashionable people of English backgrounds were choosing more and more to marry at home. In the early 1780s, English novelist Ms. Fanny Burney wrote in her diary that, “of all things in the world I don’t suppose anything could be so dreadful as a public wedding… I should never be able to support it.” The poor, however, continued to marry at church. The Reverend Mr. Hugh Jones, an Anglican minister from England and mathematics professor at William and Mary, wrote in the 1720s that in Virginia,
“In houses there is occasion…to baptize children…In houses they most commonly marry, without regard to the time of day or season of the year.”
The Reverend Mr. Jones frequently complained of the difficulty of presiding over weddings and burials in Virginia, finding fault with Virginians’ insistence of holding such ceremonies at their homes. One option in getting married was the public proclamation of banns, either at church or home. Another was to acquire a formal marriage license, obtainable from the governor. This was followed by a ceremony at either church or home. Both choices were officially recognized in the eyes of the Anglican Church.
William Hogarth, Detail of The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, ca. 1729. This early 18th century painting depicts a wedding ceremony as it would have been performed in a church setting. The overall order of the ceremony had changed little, if at all, by the 1770s.
An alternative to marriage banns and licenses was known as a Fleet Wedding, after London’s Fleet Prison for debtors where so many such unions occurred. The custom developed due to the cost of marriage licenses and wedding ceremonies. A Fleet Wedding fee was negotiable, and they were popular with the lower class because of this. In addition, no formal witness was required for a Fleet Wedding. These informal marriages, while not recognized by the Church, were not unacceptable in society. They did not require the calling of banns or the consent of a third party, such as a parent, military officer, magistrate, or other important figure, did not require a witness, and could be performed anywhere and by anyone. Such weddings were outlawed in England in 1754 with the passage of the Marriage Act; the Act did not apply in Scotland. The practice however undoubtedly continued without the knowledge of the authorities in England, as well as the American colonies.
Death and religion were also closely intertwined. Though the funerary ceremony for Lord Botetourt in 1770 took place at Bruton Parish Church and continued on to the Wren Chapel, Virginians for the most part held funerals and burial services at their own homes instead of at a church as was done in England. Prayers were read aloud at the burial service and a sermon was read, costing forty shillings. With regard to burial, Reverend Jones says,
“It is customary here to bury in gardens and orchards, where whole families lye interred together, in a spot handsomely enclosed, planted with evergreens, and the graves kept decently…In houses, where at funerals are assembled a great congregation of neighbors and friends…”
Philip Vickers Fithian adds,
“I understand only the lower sort of people are buried at Church; for the Gentlemen have private burying-yards.”
In fact, many upper class families did own their own private burying plots. Those of the Lees at Stratford Hall and the Masons at Gunston Hall exist today, as do those of the Custis and Taliaferro families at their properties in Williamsburg. However, some, such as the Carters, and royal governors Edward Nott and Francis Fauquier, were buried in their churchyards at Christ Church on the Northern Neck and Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.
It is important to note the difference between burials and funerals during the period. Burials were a more somber affair and carried a more religious tone. They were held shortly after death. Immediate family generally attended the burial of small children and younger people, whereas more extended family and neighbors were often present at those of adults. Funerals, however, took place several weeks after the passing and were attended by many and marked by celebration. These were often held at the home of the deceased or that of their family, apparently in the evening. A Mrs. Browne accompanied her brother, an officer under General Edward Braddock, to Alexandria in 1755, a few months before the ill-fated Braddock Expedition. Staying several months in Alexandria, she noted in her diary May 29, 1755, that she
“received a note from Mrs. Salkeldat…[who] desired my Company to her husband’s Funeral…He had been dead a Month. It is the custom of this Place to bury their relations in their Gardens.”
A ca. mid-18th century French engraving depicting an upper class English burial. Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
According to recent studies, the rate of a poor person’s funeral in mid-18th century London might cost £15, an important investment, whereas that of more middling people was on average £100.
Education in the 18th century was closely identified with religion. For most, formal education at a school or university was impossible; necessary education was carried out at home, by tutors in upper class households and by most children’s “learning by doing” on a day-to-day basis. Of this education, catechism, or religious instruction, was a fundamental element. Knowledge of Biblical text, such as important stories, proverbs, psalms, and prayers was essential, and a Bible served as the catechistic “textbook.” In their journals, Virginia plantation tutors such as Philip Vickers Fithian and John Harrower recount having catechized the children under their instruction with memorization and recital of prayers and scripture. Many families, however, were illiterate and did not own Bibles. An example would be the farm family. For families like this, one of the only opportunities to practice their catechism was at church on Sundays. In addition, most parents would have heard the more familiar stories of the Old and New Testaments, such as Creation, the Flood Story, David and Goliath, and the various stories and parables of Jesus Christ, and would have shared them with their children. Families of all social classes would have known prayers such as the Our Father, Apostle’s Creed, and grace at meals. According to Fithian, before meals it was usual
“to ‘say Grace’ as they call it; which is always express’d by the People in the following words, ‘God bless us in what we are to receive’-and after Dinner, ‘God make us thankful for His mercies.”
||Fig. 13. Saying Grace, ca. 1730, J. van Aken. Here a common family says grace before their meal. It is interesting to note that despite their poverty, the family still makes use of a table cloth. Courtesy the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.|
At the Virginia colony’s only institution for higher learning, the College of William and Mary, religion was of supreme importance. When the General Assembly first proposed the idea of a Virginia college in 1661, the foremost reason advanced in the call for its establishment was “the want for able and faithfull ministers.” In the early 1690s, the Assembly sent the Reverend James Blair to England, where in 1693 he was able to successfully persuade King William and Queen Mary to grant the charter that would establish the College of William and Mary. Most of the college’s faculty consisted of ordained Anglican ministers, and its chancellors were Bishops of London. 1729 saw the addition of a chapel to the College, with its first service held in 1732. Grammar, arithmetic, and classical studies were complemented by courses in moral philosophy and divinity, and students were often read sermons and biblical passages.
William and Mary had also been established as a means by which to promulgate Anglicanism among America’s native inhabitants. Beginning in the early 1700s, a school was being run by professors of the College for this express purpose. Across the Atlantic, English scientist Robert Boyle had stipulated in his will that part of his Brafferton estate’s profits be left to a pious and Christian endeavor. Reverend Blair was able to convince Boyle’s executors that the Indian school at William and Mary was a perfect project, and in 1723 funds from the estate resulted in the construction of a brick school building named the Brafferton. Its goal was to educate boys of Virginia’s remaining American Indian tribes and to send them back to their people as Christian missionaries. Many came from the western part of the colony from such tribes as the Catawba, Cherokee, and Tuscarora. After converting their pupils to Anglicanism, it was the professors’ hope that they would return to their people as missionaries, reconciling differences and gaining valuable alliances for the colony. Brafferton pupils learned to read and write, but emphasis was placed on their understanding of the Bible and teachings of the Anglican Church. Unfortunately for the professors, their native pupils returned home to their people and traditions, eventually forgetting what they had learned. The experiment in educating American Indians for such purposes repeatedly floundered, and by 1775 only one student remained. The school was eventually shut down four years later in 1779.
At the Williamsburg Bray School, one of the first efforts in educating black children in America was attempted. This was one of several schools in the colonies, all known as Bray Schools, founded for free and enslaved black children and funded by an English philanthropist, Mr. Bray. Under the direction of a Mrs. Anne Wager from 1760 to 1774, the Bray School accentuated “speaking, cleanliness, and obedience,” as well as some reading, writing, and arithmetic; however the main focus of the school was the catechism of the Anglican Church, including how to read the Bible and say prayers.
Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
In addition to Anglicans, people of diverse faiths made Virginia their home during the colonial period. Although the majority of colonial Virginia was Anglican, by 1771 there were growing numbers of non-Anglican Protestants residing in and establishing congregations in the colony. Roman Catholics and Jews, very small minorities in Virginia during the colonial period, did not form their own congregations until after the Revolution. In addition to the predominant Christianity, the remaining few Native Americans followed traditional beliefs and rituals, and some enslaved Africans intermingled within their adopted Christian faith cherished spiritual beliefs they had brought with them from Africa.
As there were no Anglican bishops to aggressively enforce Anglicanism throughout Virginia, many Protestant dissenters, or non-Anglican Protestants, found refuge there. Among these were Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. As non-Anglicans, followers of these dissenting faiths could not worship or preach publicly without formal authorization or license from and registration with the colony’s legislature. In fact, as by law members of the legislature were required to be Anglican, this made it for the most part hesitant at permitting the formal organization of such faiths (note: two exceptions to this rule occurred, first in the late 17th century when a Catholic Mr. Brent joined the Assembly to better represent Northern Virginia, and again in the 1760s and 1770s when the legislature decided to admit a few backwoods Presbyterians into their ranks for the same purpose.) Usually, these groups made do with worshiping in private homes. However, even after having been granted official authorization to erect true houses of worship, non-Anglican colonists were received with opposition by many. As a contributor to the Virginia Gazette, who called himself Luther, submitted in November of 1775,
“No dissenter can complain as long as they are permitted free exercise of their religion, without molestation; but when their strides evidently tend to secure establishment in their favor, they need not wonder if they are opposed by all who prefer the present establishment to them.”
A Presbyterian Minister delivers a sermon. Notice the stark appearance of the interior of the meetinghouse, quite unlike what was found in Anglican churches, as seen in Figs. 9.and 11. Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
Edwin S. Gaustad’s Historical Atlas of Religion in America, 1962, shows the number and location of major churches in North America in 1750. This extract interprets the number of major churches in Virginia.
Location of Major Churches in North America, 1750:
The table gives a good idea of the religious diversity present in Virginia by the mid-18th century. By 1771, there were still no Catholic or Congregational churches or Jewish synagogues in Virginia. The numbers shown for the other churches increased somewhat by 1771.
The first great surge of non-Anglican Protestantism in Virginia came in the 1730s and 1740s with what is known as the Great Awakening. This religious movement began with New England Congregational Minister Jonathan Edwards and spread to affect all the American colonies. Well known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Reverend Edwards sought a return to the traditional Calvinist roots of the Reformed Church. In addition, the English George Whitefield, himself an Anglican minister and later a Methodist leader, also spearheaded the Great Awakening throughout the colonies beginning in 1738. Both powerful speakers, the Reverends Edwards and Whitefield drew large crowds at their traveling, outdoor sermons. Their dramatic and emotional style brought many to believe the tenets of the Great Awakening and shaped popular attitudes towards religion. For the most part, Anglicanism showed religion to be something marked by visible display, spectacle, and passive listening. In contrast, the Great Awakening showed religion to be something more personal and private. Its followers, the “New Lights,” began to study the Bible at home and actively discuss its passages and meanings. In effect, the Great Awakening paved the way for the coming and emergence of dissenting sects in the colonies.
||Fig. 16. Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758|
There were no non-Anglican houses of worship in Fairfax County until a Presbyterian Meetinghouse was built in Alexandria. Presbyterians were forbidden to meet publicly, but could worship in private homes. By 1760, when the restraints on Presbyterians had been lifted, Alexandria’s Presbyterian community was worshiping at the “Town House,” part of the courthouse on the town’s market square. Known as the Presbyterian Society, in 1772 they were recognized as an organized church by the Donegal Presbytery and assigned Pastor William Thom, sometimes spelled Them. This recognition led the congregation to build their own house of worship. Funded by the town’s large population of Scots, the meetinghouse was completed in 1774. Among its congregation were Dr. James Craik, physician to George Washington, and merchant John Carlyle, who managed the meetinghouse’s construction and served as an Elder beginning in 1775.
Carlyle is a unique example among Protestant dissenters in Virginia during the period. He arrived in Virginia ca. 1740 as an apprentice merchant. By the mid-1740s, he had established himself in the area that would soon become Alexandria, which he helped found in 1749. In the 1749/50 List of Tithables compiled by Truro Parish Minster Charles Green, Carlyle was recorded as a Presbyterian. Like all non-Anglicans, he was expected to practice his religion discreetly, if at all. Marrying Sarah Fairfax, a daughter of William Fairfax and related to Lord Fairfax, in 1747, he was wed by an Anglican minister. During the time it was unlawful for Presbyterians to meet, Carlyle declared his religious preference, but participated in Anglican Church services. His family attended the New Church, Christ Church, Presbyterian services held at the courthouse, and later the Presbyterian Meetinghouse. He also bought an expensive pew in Christ Church. A high-standing individual in Alexandria and the surrounding area, Carlyle served the community as a justice, colonel, and commissary. He was obviously on good terms with the local Anglican vestry; as a Presbyterian it was by law illegal for him to hold such offices, although he is recorded as having sworn an Anglican oath. As evidence of his good standing with Church authorities, he was requested by the Fairfax Parish vestry to take over the final construction of Christ Church in 1772. In addition, he was never recorded as having been charged the fine imposed on those who failed to attend Anglican Church services.
John Carlyle, by John Hesselius,
1766. Courtesy of Sir Charles McLean.
People of African descent composed a large part of Virginia’s population during the 18th century. By 1774, nearly half of Williamsburg’s population was black, and in northern Alexandria so was almost a quarter. By 1775, 20% of the thirteen colonies’ population was black, with 8% of this number free, and in 1776, 40% of Virginia’s population was black. Introduced to Christianity upon their earliest arrival in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia, many of these Africans were willing converts. Aspects of Christianity, including a supreme being, creation myths, priest-healers, and moral systems, paralleled with the varied cults and religions of West Africa, where most enslaved people came from. By the late 17th century, when the institution of slavery was well established, many enslaved Africans had found hope in Anglican Church doctrine and in passages they heard from traveling evangelical preachers. Some established their own religious congregations; the first of these was established in 1758, on William Byrd III’s plantation on the Bluestone River in Lunenburg County, Virginia. Blending this new faith with those they had brought with them from Africa, a unique religious experience in America began, and would continue to develop into the 19th century.
The Old Plantation, ca. late 18th century, by an unknown artist, depicts the degree to which native African traditions became infused in American slave culture. Aspects of traditional dress, musical instruments, and rituals are all present. The paper on which the painting was done can be dated 1777 to 1794 by the papermaker’s watermark, and it is believed that the scene is of a South Carolina plantation painted between 1790 and 1800. Copyright © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2005.
In conclusion, religion permeated nearly every aspect of daily life during the colonial period. It brought together members of each social class, and was an integral part in their lives. From birth to death, religion played a central role. Although the established church was the Church of England, people of diverse faiths made Virginia their home. However, as the official church, Anglicanism imposed its doctrine and laws on all in the colony. In the end, the call for freedom of worship would in part spark the American War for Independence and bring the disestablishment of the colonial Anglican Church in the 1780s.
**Note: any reference to the “farm family” refers to the fictional 1771 family portrayed at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm. This “family” represents typical low-income tenant farmers in Northern Virginia just prior to the American Revolution. For more information, see the Farm’s website at www.1771.org.
Many thanks to Colonial Williamsburg for kindly allowing the use of their images.
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