Author: Edward L. Bond

a professor of history at Alabama A&M University

Parish in Colonial Virginia, The

A parish in colonial Virginia was a unit of both civil and religious authority that covered a set geographical territory. Each Church of England parish in the colony was served by a single minister and governed by a vestry usually composed of local elites. As a religious institution, a parish contained a mother, or central, church, and frequently two or more so-called chapels of ease in outlying areas that the minister served on successive Sundays. As a civil institution, the parish vestry was charged with overseeing a wide range of responsibilities that included social welfare and presenting moral offenders to the courts. The contemporary understanding of parishes and vestries as institutions that deal primarily, if not exclusively, with internal parochial affairs is at odds with the extent of duties associated with the colonial parish. Indeed, according to the historian John Nelson, local government in early Virginia should be understood as “parish-county” government, these two “linked institutions sharing, dividing up, and intermingling their interests and responsibilities.”


John Clayton (1656 or 1657–1725)

John Clayton conducted key observations of Virginia‘s flora and fauna while helping secure the Church of England‘s authority. The Oxford graduate and clergy member left England to become rector of Jamestown‘s James City Parish. Clayton, known for his scientific observations, took an interest in the natural world of Virginia and recorded his observations of numerous natural phenomena. John Brickell later plagiarized his works when writing his Natural History of North-Carolina (1737). Clayton, known for his intellectual sermons, became Virginia’s commissary, or first personal representative of the bishop of London. From his position, he aggressively converted dissenters. Clayton returned to England in 1686.


Church of England in Virginia

The Church of England was the established church of the Virginia colony. It came to Virginia as early as 1607, when the first English colonists settled Jamestown, but was not formally established by the House of Burgesses until 1619. Religious life in Virginia reflected the economic, geographic, and political circumstances of the colony. People from all segments of society attended Anglican services (although slaves often worshipped in segregated galleries or attended a separate service). Because Virginians tended to settle in plantations scattered throughout the countryside rather than in towns, parishes were typically larger than those in England. This made it difficult for those who lived in outlying areas to make the weekly trip to their parish’s main church. Instead, most parishes maintained multiple “chapels of ease” to accommodate far-flung parishioners. The Church of England in Virginia was subject to laws passed by the General Assembly and, unlike in England, was supervised at the parish level by vestries (boards of local parishioners). In Virginia a vestry had the authority to choose—or refuse to induct—a minister for its parish. This led to a tense relationship between the congregation and the clergy. The status of the Church of England in Virginia improved late in the seventeenth century, after the bishop of London appointed minister James Blair to represent his interests in the colony, and on the eve of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the church was as powerful as it had ever been.