ENTRY

Bracken, John (bap. 1747–1818)

SUMMARY

John Bracken was the rector of Bruton Parish from 1773 until his death, ran the grammar school at the College of William and Mary, and, from 1812 to 1814, served as the school’s ninth president. Bracken was born in England, where he was ordained a minister. His appointment as rector of Bruton Parish, in Williamsburg, was controversial and exposed rifts within the colonial church. In 1775, he took over the college’s grammar school, which closed and reopened and then closed again in the ensuing decades. He became a professor of humanity in 1777 was granted a DD in 1793. In 1812 Bracken was elected William and Mary’s president at a time when the school had only a few dozen students. He was generally ineffective and was asked to resign after two years. In his later years, Bracken served as mayor of Williamsburg and president of the board of Williamsburg’s Public Hospital. He died in 1818.

Bracken was born probably in Westmorland County, England. On May 2, 1747, he was christened in the town of Winton, parish of Kirkby Stephen, the son of Joseph Bracken and a woman whose name is not recorded in the parish registers. Bracken’s youth and education are not well documented. He arrived in Virginia not later than the summer of 1769, probably to tutor the children of one of the merchant families residing in or near Petersburg. In the summer of 1772 Bracken went back to England to be ordained a minister of the Church of England and with an expectation that he would become curate of Raleigh Parish in Amelia County.

Old Bruton Church

On June 12, 1773, soon after Bracken returned to Virginia, the vestry of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg elected him rector. He filled the post until his death forty-five years later. Bracken’s first months were filled with controversy because Samuel Henley, one of the professors at the College of William and Mary, had sought the position and complained in the newspapers about Bracken’s selection, drawing him into a protracted public debate between factions within the colonial church. In November 1775 Bracken succeeded Thomas Gwatkin as master of the college’s grammar school, and on April 1, 1777, he was formally appointed to the post with the rank of professor of humanity. He also took charge of the college’s library. Early in September 1776 Bracken married Sarah Burwell, of Carter’s Grove. They had one son and two daughters.

Bracken preached the opening sermon at the first convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia in 1785. He served as secretary of the second and third conventions and president of the 1789 convention and attended regularly during the 1790s as the clerical delegate from Bruton Parish. Two months after Bracken preached the funeral sermon for Bishop James Madison, he presided over a special Episcopal convention that on May 14, 1812, named him bishop-elect of Virginia to succeed Madison. Several younger delegates objected that Bracken lacked the youth and vigor to revive the languishing church. He declined to be consecrated and resigned on May 26, 1813.

The Bodleian Plate

  • Engraved Copperplate of Colonial-Era Williamsburg
    Engraved Copperplate of Colonial-Era Williamsburg

    An original mid-eighteenth-century engraved copperplate depicts Virginia flora, fauna, and Indian life, as well as the College of William and Mary and government buildings in colonial-era Williamsburg. Part of the vast collection at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the plate lay unlisted and forgotten for about 150 years. Once discovered, the plate was recognized as including the most important visual record of early Williamsburg. The so-called Bodleian Plate emerged as the "cornerstone of the restoration" of Colonial Williamsburg that began in 1929, according to Margaret Pritchard, the foundation's curator of prints, maps, and wallpapers. The librarians at Bodleian, aware of the importance of the plate in restoring the original capital, presented the artifact to John D. Rockefeller in 1938.

    Pritchard believes that the Bodleian Plate was one of a series of copperplates created to illustrate The History of the Dividing Line, an account by Virginia planter William Byrd II of the expedition he led in 1728–1729 to establish the boundary between Carolina and Virginia. Byrd's interest in architecture, his unabashed boosterism, and his concern about the widespread notion of the capital being a backwater, probably led him to have the artist include these impressive Williamsburg structures. Shown on the top row are three buildings at the College of William and Mary—the Bafferton, the Wren Building, and the President's House; shown on the row beneath it are the Capitol as it appeared before the fire of 1747, another view of the Wren Building, and the Governor's Palace.

  • Print Made from Bodleian Copperplate
    Print Made from Bodleian Copperplate

    A modern print made from a mid-eighteenth-century copperplate known as the Bodleian Plate depicts Virginia flora, fauna, and Indian life, as well as the College of William and Mary and government buildings in colonial-era Williamsburg. Margaret Pritchard, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's curator of prints, maps, and wallpapers, believes that the Bodleian Plate was one of a series of copperplates created to illustrate The History of the Dividing Line, an account by Virginia planter William Byrd II of the expedition he led in 1728–1729 to establish the boundary between Carolina and Virginia. Byrd's interest in architecture, his unabashed boosterism, and his concern about the widespread notion of the capital being a backwater, probably led him to have the artist include these impressive Williamsburg structures. Shown on the top row are three buildings at the College of William and Mary—the Bafferton, the Wren Building, and the President's House; shown on the row beneath it are the Capitol as it appeared before the fire of 1747, another view of the Wren Building, and the Governor's Palace.

Bracken lost his post at the College of William and Mary when the grammar school was abolished during an institutional reorganization in December 1779. He opposed the concurrent reform of the college and thereby incurred the enmity of Governor Thomas Jefferson and others. Bracken twice sued the college to reclaim his position and salary, but he lost both cases on appeal. In 1780 he opened a school in his house in Williamsburg, and in January 1787 he took charge of a school conducted in the old Capitol. William and Mary’s board of visitors revived the grammar school in 1792 and appointed Bracken to the faculty, and in 1793 it granted him a DD. On March 9, 1812, the board elected Bracken to succeed Madison as the ninth president of the College of William and Mary. The institution was at one of its historic nadirs, and Bracken was no more able to revive the college than the church. He was in poor health, may have had a drinking problem, and was widely regarded as ineffectual. The board requested his resignation, and he complied in June 1814. The college had only thirty-two students when Bracken became president and probably no more than that when he resigned. During his short term the board abolished the grammar school and appointed professors of chemistry, law, mathematics, and natural philosophy, but Bracken may not have contributed anything to these changes.

Virginia Lunatic Asylum at Williamsburg

The prominence and prosperity of his wife’s family enabled Bracken to live in some style in Williamsburg, where he acquired several lots. He also purchased plantations in Gloucester and York counties and the property known as the Secretary’s Land in James City County. He held stock in and sat on the board of directors of the Dismal Swamp Land Company, served several years during the 1790s and in 1800 as mayor of Williamsburg, and was president of the board of the Public Hospital in Williamsburg. Bracken died in Williamsburg on July 15 or 16, 1818, and was buried in the Burwell family cemetery at Carter’s Grove in York County.

MAP
TIMELINE
May 2, 1747
John Bracken is baptized in Winton, England.
Summer 1769
By this time John Bracken is in Virginia, probably tutoring the children of merchants.
Summer 1772
John Bracken returns to England to be ordained as a minister in the Church of England.
June 12, 1773
John Bracken is elected rector of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg. He serves until his death in 1818.
November 1775
John Bracken succeeds Thomas Gwatkin as master of the grammar school at the College of William and Mary.
September 1776
John Bracken and Sarah Burwell, of Carter's Grove, marry. They will have one son and two daughters.
April 1, 1777
John Bracken is appointed master of the grammar school and professor of humanity at the College of William and Mary.
December 1779
The grammar school is abolished during a reorganization of the College of William and Mary.
1780
John Bracken opens a grammar school in his house in Williamsburg.
1785
John Bracken preaches the opening sermon at the first convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia.
January 1787
John Bracken takes charge of a grammar school conducted in the old Capitol in Williamsburg.
1792
The board of visitors of the College of William and Mary revive the grammar school.
1793
The College of William and Mary awards John Bracken a DD.
March 9, 1812
The board of visitors of the College of William and Mary elect John Bracken the school's ninth president.
May 14, 1812
A special Episcopal convention names John Bracken bishop-elect of Virginia to succeed Bishop James Madison. He declines to be consecrated.
May 26, 1813
John Bracken resigns as bishop of Virginia.
June 1814
John Bracken resigns as the president of the College of William and Mary at the board of visitors' request.
July 15 or 16, 1818
John Bracken dies in Williamsburg and is buried in the Burwell family cemetery at Carters' Grove in York County.
FURTHER READING
  • Gentry, Daphne. “Bracken, John.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 179–180. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Gentry, Daphne. Bracken, John (bap. 1747–1818). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/bracken-john-bap-1747-1818.
MLA Citation:
Gentry, Daphne. "Bracken, John (bap. 1747–1818)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Aug. 2021
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