Unlike many other Protestant groups, the Church of England developed no particular creed to define its beliefs and was united more by shared forms of worship set down in the Book of Common Prayer than by a common theology. By the time of Virginia's founding in 1607, a number of religious parties coexisted in the Church of England: Anglicans were generally content with the extent of reform in their national church, while Puritans believed that the reformation of the church should continue and remove all vestiges of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England, including the prayer book's set liturgies, the use of the sign of the cross at baptism, the use of vestments, and kneeling to receive communion.
Arrival in Virginia
The Development of the Church in Virginia
In Virginia, that meant accommodating the church to the colony's tobacco culture. Planting tobacco required the colonists to abandon England's traditional settlement pattern, and instead of settling in towns, Virginians established themselves on plantations scattered throughout the countryside, often along the banks of one of the many rivers that still divide the Tidewater and Piedmont regions into a series of peninsulas. This, in turn, led to the formation of parishes much larger than those typical in England, which, in turn, meant that it was often difficult for settlers to meet weekly for public church services because so many people lived far away from the church building. Clergy, all of whom were immigrants during the seventeenth century and unfamiliar with the colony's peculiar circumstances, found the settlement pattern vexing as well. Virginians lived like "Hermites … dispersedly and scatteringly seated upon the sides of Rivers," one minister complained, "as might make their due and constant attendance upon the publick worship and Service of God impossible to them."
To address the problem of large parishes and to take the church to the people, most parishes constructed a number of chapels of ease at convenient spots in outlying areas in order to facilitate church attendance for parishioners who lived at great distances from the main, or "mother," church. Colonial ministers served the mother church and any chapels of ease on a rotating basis, officiating and preaching first at one church and then the others in their turn, often on successive Sundays, although sometimes ministers held mid-week or Saturday services at their chapels. Ministers, in fact, often preached the same sermon several weeks in a row to the different congregations in their parishes. As a result, many colonists only saw the rector of the parish once every three or four weeks. In order to provide church services in the minister's absence, vestries often hired clerks to read prayers from the Book of Common Prayer and a sermon either from The Book of Homilies or from the published works of popular English preachers (particularly, in the eighteenth century, from the discourses of Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson).
In the small sanctuary, tablets containing the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and sometimes the Royal Arms would have hung to the side of and behind the holy table. (The holy table would not have been decorated with flowers or candles; until at least the late nineteenth century, bishops of Virginia denounced the use of floral decorations on the holy table during worship services as a novelty introduced by Roman Catholicism. They did, however, allow the floral decoration of churches at Christmas, because that practice was grounded in Virginia tradition.)
The shortage of clergy in Virginia led to what historians have called the church's "laicization," or submission to lay control. Laicization functioned on at least two levels: Virginia's General Assembly passed laws governing the church, and local vestries oversaw the day-to-day operation of the individual parishes. County courts often heard cases involving moral laws that would have fallen under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts in England. The assembly routinely set clergy salaries, established new parishes as the colony's population grew and moved west, defined parish boundaries, set requirements for church attendance, defined how often ministers should preach and celebrate the Eucharist, instructed clergy to catechize children in their parishes, and delegated local authority over church matters to vestries and county courts. Sometimes these powers were extraordinary. In 1624, for instance, the assembly modified the traditional liturgical calendar of the Church of England, declaring that when two holy days followed each other on subsequent days "betwixt the feast of the annunciation of the blessed virgin [25 March] and St. Michael the archangel [29 September], then only the first to be observed." This was an obvious accommodation to the colony's tobacco culture.
Vestries gained powers much greater than their counterparts in England, most importantly the authority to "elect and make choyce of their ministers," a right legislated by the General Assembly as early as 1643. In England, that power lay with the parish patron. There, the bishop then inducted the minister into his appointed parish, or cure, which he generally held for life unless he committed serious moral offenses. Virginia's church government did not function that way. Vestries frequently refused to induct their ministers (the colonial governor would have performed the induction) and hired their clergy on annual contracts. This practice may have originated in the seventeenth century to help vestries protect themselves from continuing the services of a poor minister. Certainly there were some clergy who were not the best of men, but the number of those ministers has been routinely overestimated.
Nonetheless, clergy from England resented the power of Virginia's vestries and their refusal to induct ministers into their cures. The Reverend Morgan Godwyn denounced colonial vestries as "Plebian Juntos" and "hungry Patrons" who often preferred to hire lay readers rather than ministers because the costs were lower. Another minister complained that clergy in Virginia "have 12 Lay patrons [vestrymen] whom we must humour or run the risque of Deprivation." Because elections for vestrymen only occurred with the establishment of a new parish or the modification of an old one—and deceased members were replaced through recommendations of the sitting members—the powers of any particular vestry could rarely be challenged. The conflict between vestries and clergy was not simply between different conceptions of church government; it actually represented the construction in Virginia of a new form of church government in which local vestries shared authority with bishops in England. By the end of the seventeenth century, one could argue that the church in Virginia was English in theology and colonial in form.
In 1675, when Henry Compton became bishop of London, the see (or office) traditionally charged with overseeing the church in the colonies, the fortunes of Virginia's Church of England began to improve. He recruited more and better men to serve the colonial church and required all who wished to serve a colonial cure to present a certificate from an English bishop testifying to the individual's orthodoxy and good moral character. He also introduced the commissary system to Virginia and several other colonies. Commissaries acted as representatives of the bishop of London, held some authority over the clergy, and, at least in Virginia, often served on the governor's Council. They could not, however, ordain men to the priesthood or the rank of deacon and did not have the authority to confirm individuals. Colonial men who wished to become ministers in the Church of England still had to make a dangerous journey to England to be ordained and then travel back to North America. During the eighteenth century, about one in six North American postulants died before completing a return journey to the colonies.
As a result of Blair and Compton's work, nearly 80 percent of Virginia parishes were being served by clergy by 1703. This progress continued throughout the remainder of the colonial period, although a series of clergy deaths coupled with the expansion of the colony in the 1720s briefly slowed the progress. Only when the American Revolution broke out—when parishioners refused to support Loyalist clergy and the bishop of London, Richard Terrick, refused to ordain rebels—did the established Church of England in Virginia face a crisis that weakened it substantially. In fact, despite the inroads made by dissenters such as the Baptists and the Presbyterians, on the eve of revolution, Virginia's established church was likely stronger than it ever had been.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Bond, E. L. Church of England in Virginia. (2013, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Church_of_England_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Bond, Edward L. "Church of England in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 17, 2012 | Last modified: January 29, 2013
Contributed by Edward L. Bond, a professor of history at Alabama A&M University.