William Mayo Atkinson was born on April 22, 1796, in Chesterfield County, the eldest of six sons and five daughters of Robert Atkinson and Mary Tabb Mayo Atkinson, and one of four brothers who became clergymen. He spent his youth at Mansfield, his parents’ estate in Dinwiddie County. At sixteen Atkinson entered the junior class at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and graduated in 1814. Of Quaker descent on his father’s side but baptized in the Episcopal Church, Atkinson held strong religious feelings from an early age. A college classmate recalled that for a time he slept on the rounded top of a trunk as a penance. He also introduced works on religion into the library of his college literary club, the American Whig Society.
On his return to Virginia, Atkinson studied law under David Robertson in Petersburg and, after admission to the bar, established a practice in that city. On July 10, 1821, he married Rebecca Bassett Marsden, of Norfolk. One of their four sons and five of their eight daughters survived him. On May 3, 1821, Atkinson’s father died, followed by his mother in March 1823. With his uncle Thomas Atkinson he looked after his younger siblings.
During a religious revival in the summer of 1822, Atkinson joined the Tabb Street Presbyterian Church and was elected an elder two years later. His combination of legal skill, courtesy, and piety soon made him one of the leading Presbyterian laymen in Virginia. In 1824 Hampden-Sydney College awarded him an honorary AM. He served on the board of trustees of Union Theological Seminary from 1827 to 1829 and from 1840 to 1842 and on the board of trustees of the adjacent Hampden-Sydney College from 1830 until 1847.
The death of two of Atkinson’s children within two weeks in June and July 1832 resolved his decade-long struggle to determine his proper calling: he closed his law practice and prepared for the ministry. On April 23, 1833, Atkinson was appointed general agent of the Bible Society of Virginia, a branch of the American Bible Society, which distributed Bibles and religious tracts to the unchurched. Although dominated by Presbyterians, the society included representatives from the other major Protestant denominations in Virginia, and Atkinson proved an excellent choice as agent. Widely known through his law practice, church activities, and family connections, he also expressed an evangelical devotion to spreading the Christian message without the doctrinal narrowness of a sectarian. He remained close to his younger brother Thomas Atkinson, later the Episcopal bishop of North Carolina, despite the latter’s decision not to follow him into the Presbyterian Church. The East Hanover Presbytery, of which Atkinson was a ruling elder, recognized the importance of his new duties on June 17, 1833, by licensing him to preach.
Atkinson left his family in Petersburg and traveled throughout Virginia and into adjoining states, organizing Bible societies and women’s auxiliaries, collecting contributions, and speaking at any church that would have him. The East Hanover Presbytery ordained him as a minister on April 26, 1834, but he continued to serve the Bible Society. Late in the summer of 1835 Atkinson was one of several prominent Virginia Presbyterian clergymen suspected of harboring abolitionist sentiments. From Lunenburg County he responded with a letter that the Southern Religious Telegraph reprinted on September 11, 1835, under the supportive headline, “Rev. Atkinson An Abolitionist?!!” Atkinson explained that he and his siblings owned slaves. He regarded slavery as “a great evil” that held back Virginia’s progress, but he considered the abolitionists’ remedy “a still greater” one. Atkinson seemed especially concerned that the charges might interfere with his work for the Bible Society.
Slavery was only one of a complex set of issues—also including matters of theology, church governance, relations with other denominations, and ecclesiastical control over voluntary societies—that divided Presbyterians into what became known as the “Old School” and “New School” factions and led in 1837–1838 to schism. Like most Virginia clergymen, Atkinson tried to maintain a neutral position, although he was closer to the more conservative Old School in his own views. As moderator of the Synod of Virginia in 1838, Atkinson preached the opening sermon at the annual meeting on October 4 from the text: “Let your moderation be known unto all men” (Philippians 4:5).
Following the meeting Atkinson took up his new duties as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Winchester. He had resigned as general agent of the Bible Society earlier that year, no doubt tired of constant travel and anxious to spend more time with his family. Formally installed as pastor on February 2, 1839, Atkinson soon faced schism in his own church. The Winchester Presbytery met in April, and Atkinson voted with the scant majority that approved a resolution endorsing Old School doctrines. The ministers and elders in the minority then withdrew from the Presbytery. On June 17 the elders and thirty-six members of Atkinson’s congregation informed him of their decision to separate. He met with the remaining members, emphasized that the separation was not by his choice or acts, and counseled tolerance toward those of different opinions. Contemporaries credited him with easing a potentially divisive situation and ultimately limiting the effects of the schism in his own presbytery. In 1843 he received an honorary DD from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
Atkinson preferred to preach without a written text, although when he gave his younger brother’s installation sermon he did arrange for its publication as A Sermon Delivered at the Installation of the Rev. John M. P. Atkinson as Pastor of the Church at Warrenton, Fauquier County, September 15, 1844 (1844). He spoke with a pronounced lisp, which contemporaries said actually drew attention to his words.
Atkinson’s first wife died on August 11, 1844. On January 6, 1846, he married Elizabeth J. White, of Winchester, and they had one daughter and a son, William Mayo Atkinson, who later became a lawyer and mayor of Winchester.
In the spring of 1846 Atkinson resigned his pastorate to become a traveling agent in the southern states for the Presbyterian Board of Education. He apparently felt that he could be of greater usefulness in this capacity and that his church would be better off with a minister unconnected to the schism of 1839. Once again Atkinson traveled from church to church to collect funds, this time for the education of ministers. In 1848 he began to suffer from chronic respiratory ailments, and rest failed to restore his health. Atkinson died on February 24, 1849, in Winchester and was buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery in that city.
- A Sermon Delivered at the Installation of the Rev. John M. P. Atkinson as Pastor of the Church at Warrenton, Fauquier County, September 15, 1844 (1844)b