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.


The Booke of Common prayer

When English men and women of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries began to establish colonies in North America, they, like other Europeans, took their national churches with them to the New World. For English settlers this meant the Church of England, a peculiar form of Protestantism that had emerged out of the English Reformation. This hybrid church blended elements of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, retaining an episcopal form of church government (a church governed by bishops) and combining reformed Protestant theology with the Christological cycle of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar—purged of some of its Marian festivals and celebrations of saints days. (While historians used to claim that the church’s theology borrowed heavily from Calvinism, modern scholars have begun to debate whether the church’s theology tended more toward Calvinism or Lutheranism.)

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

Baptism of Pocahontas

The Church of England came to Virginia with the first colonists who settled Jamestown. They soon set aside a makeshift worship space described by John Smith: “Wee did hang an awning (which is an old saile) to three or foure trees to shadow us from the Sunne, our walls were rales made of wood, our seats unhewed trees, till we cut plankes, our Pulpit a bar of wood nailed to two neighbouring trees, in foule weather we shifted into an old rotten tent, for we had few better … this was our Church.” Most of the colony’s early settlers likely sympathized with the Anglican wing of the church—Smith did, as did John Rolfe and Thomas West, baron De La Warr. A Spanish spy in 1609 claimed that a majority of the settlers refused to attend services led by a minister whom they suspected was “somewhat a puritan.” That is not to say that the colony enjoyed a religious homogeneity. It did not. Brownists, Separatist Puritans, and at least a few Roman Catholics lived in Virginia during the 1610s. In fact, the Pilgrims (a group of Separatist Puritans) who eventually settled in Plymouth had intended to settle in the James River Valley of Virginia.

Parish Burial Record

Although the Church of England was not formally established by the House of Burgesses until 1619, earlier charters assumed that it would be Virginia’s church and directed settlers to follow its practices “in all fundamentall pointes.” Leaders of the Virginia Company of London, in fact, took seriously their obligation to provide for the religious instruction and solace of the colony’s settlers, and from the time of the colony’s founding in 1607 until the company’s dissolution in 1624, company leaders tried to maintain a religious presence in Virginia. Ministers who wished to serve in Virginia under the company had to pass a rigorous selection process that included preaching a trial sermon before the company; only the most qualified ministers were accepted. In 1619, under the company’s auspices, the burgesses passed statutes that urged clergy to catechize individuals who were not yet ready to receive the Eucharist, prescribed penalties for violating the moral laws of scripture, and required ministers to keep accurate records of all baptisms, deaths, and marriages, thus giving the church responsibility for maintaining these vital records.

The Development of the Church in Virginia

Bruton Parish Church

With the dissolution of the Virginia Company in 1624, the Church of England in Virginia began to suffer. For much of the seventeenth century, neither the English Church nor the English Crown took much interest in the colony’s religious life. The supply of ministers declined and the colony entered what one historian has called a “religious starving time.” The Church of England that developed in Virginia during the seventeenth century evolved out of the adaptation of the colony’s mother church to the peculiar circumstances of the colony. This leads to a larger point: governmental disinterest in the religious life of England’s overseas colonies, combined with the fact that several colonies were established by religious minorities, meant that the status of the Church of England varied from colony to colony. It was not so much a single institution in North America as a series of institutions born out of the church’s traditional practices and the particular economic, political, geographic, and religious circumstances of each of England’s seaboard colonies.

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).

The men and women who worshipped in the Church of England in Virginia came from all segments of society, because, technically, the established church was the church of all colonists, rich or poor, white or black, slave or free—although slaves often worshipped in segregated galleries or attended a separate service. Church edifices varied considerably in appearance, from the stately buildings in Jamestown, Williamsburg (Bruton Parish), and Lancaster County (Christ Church) to backcountry churches that resembled tobacco warehouses. The buildings were usually rectangular or cruciform (cross-shaped) and, by the eighteenth century, were often constructed in the Georgian style. Churches rarely had steeples. On the interior, Anglican churches in Virginia by the mid-1700s would typically have been dominated by a two- or three-decker pulpit, usually off to the side, that would have been the center of attention in the church (the pulpit emphasizing the Protestant emphasis on preaching). The parish clerk used the lowest level as a reading desk and led the congregational responses from there. The minister led the service and read the day’s scriptural lessons from the second level. He would have preached from the highest level of the pulpit. While sermons were of great interest to colonial Virginians (they sometimes did not attend church on days when the minister was not present and they would not hear an original discourse), some parishioners’ attention wavered. The Reverend Charles Clay complained of parishioners who are hanging first on one hipp then on the other; leaning with their Elbows on the pews or on the windows … or are Running in & out to the great anoiance & disturbance of those whose minds are piously inclined. … And while the Psalms for ye Day are Reading, instead of having a book & answering in turn; are playing with their Snuff box; dancing their foot with one leg across the other for amusement; or twirling their Hat about; making their observations on ye Congregation, whispering to the person that Sits next to them; or Smiling & grinning at others yt sits at a distance from them.

William Byrd II

On the other hand, William Byrd II noted that not all colonial ministers were the best preachers, commenting that he had attended at least one service at which the minister had preached the “Congregation into a Lethargy.”

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.)

Church Governance

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.

Reverend James Blair

James Blair, the colony’s most important commissary, served in the position from his appointment in 1689 until his death in 1743. He was instrumental in founding the College of William and Mary, which began educating growing numbers of ministers for Virginia’s church, and he managed to convince the General Assembly to raise clergy salaries to 16,000 pounds of tobacco a year and to pass an act requiring all parishes to purchase glebe lands and a “convenient dwelling house for the reception and aboad of the minister of such parish.” He was less successful at convincing the assembly to require the induction of clergy. Blair, in fact, was never inducted into his position at Bruton Parish and eventually came to side with the vestries on the induction issue.

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.

  • Bond, Edward L. Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2001.
  • Nelson, John K. A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Rasor, Paul and Richard E. Bond, eds. From Jamestown to Jefferson: The Evolution of Religious Freedom in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.
APA Citation:
Bond, Edward. Church of England in Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/church-of-england-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Bond, Edward. "Church of England in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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