English settlers in Virginia introduced a parish system during the colony’s first few decades. Statutes from as early as 1623–1624 mention the existence of both parishes and parishioners, and a partial list of churchwardens’ duties appeared in the 1619 code of laws. Usually covering much less territory than a county (although still much larger than most English parishes), the parish was the layer of government closest to the people, and for many it probably had a greater day-to-day impact on their lives than the county or colony-wide government. Local vestries had the authority to exempt poor people “from all publique charges except the ministers’ & parish duties.” Vestries were formally established by the General Assembly in 1642–1643, although these bodies were likely acting to control church affairs by 1635. The General Assembly, in fact, charged vestries with meeting to lay the annual parish levy in 1641. (Some historians argue that the vestry laws of the 1640s reflect earlier statutes, passed in 1636, that are no longer extant.)
The parish vestries that developed in Virginia, like their English counterparts, engaged in a variety of civil and religious functions because the colonial church was not merely a religious institution but also the largest and most effective social welfare agency of the period. Virginia’s vestries, however, most closely reflected the “select vestries” established by Parliament in 1598. A vestry then meant a meeting of all members of the parish to take care of the church property. Select vestries referred to meetings of several of the leading men who had been elected by the members of a particular parish to care for the parish poor between regularly scheduled full vestry meetings. Early in the seventeenth century, select vestries gained additional duties, such as caring for roads, and they provided a model for the institution that developed in Virginia.
In 1657–1658 the General Assembly passed a statute charging the leadership of Virginia’s colonial parishes with authority over “all matters concerning the vestry, their agreements with their ministers, touching the church-wardens, the poore and other things concerninge the parish or parishoners respectively be referred to their owne ordering and disposeing from time to time as they shall think fitt.” In 1662–1663 the General Assembly set their number at twelve. One of the vestry’s most important duties was setting the annual parish levy, “often the largest tax paid” by colonists in Virginia, a charge that paid the minister’s salary and provided for members of the parish poor and for other individuals who could not otherwise care for themselves. Funds expended on the parish poor often accounted for more than 25 to 30 percent of a parish’s budget. Parish leaders could be very creative when it came to aiding sick members of the parish. Bristol Parish records, for example, note payment to an individual to “carry Rich Sentale a poor person to the Spring on New River for the Recovery of his health.”
Vestries also appointed individuals to maintain local roads and provide ferry service over Virginia’s many rivers (although the county courts had largely taken over these tasks by the 1730s); to serve as “tobacco viewers,” who ensured that the colonists were not planting too much tobacco; and to serve as churchwardens, who presented moral offenders to the county courts. Parish vestries took special care to relieve parishioners of the expenses associated with raising bastard children, especially those of indentured servants; they held the power to sell female servants to pay for the upkeep of their illegitimate offspring or to force the fathers to put up a bond to cover the expenses of caring for the child. Vestries were also charged with processioning or “going round … the bounds of every person’s land” in the parish every four years and renewing the landmarks that separated one person’s property from another’s. Lands processioned three times without complaint gained legal status as the formal boundaries of an individual’s property. Virginia vestries assumed responsibility for many of these duties until the Church of England was disestablished in 1784, existing vestries dissolved, and groups known as overseers of the poor elected to exercise civil powers of the former vestries, especially caring for the poor and for bastard children.
As a division of ecclesiastical government, parish vestries assumed powers unknown in England, the greatest of which was the right to “elect and make choyce of their ministers,” a power granted by the General Assembly in 1642–1643. English precedent recognized no such authority. Henry Compton, bishop of London, in fact, denounced this practice, claiming “the vestries there [in Virginia] pretend … to exercise an arbitrary power over the Ministers themselves.” In England the parish patron traditionally nominated a minister to become the parish’s rector; the diocesan bishop then inducted the minister into his new role, a position the pastor enjoyed for life barring the commission of gross offenses. The relationship between parish and clergy developed very differently in Virginia. Despite Crown instructions directing them to present clergy to the royal governor for induction (the absence of a bishop forcing the governor to carry out this episcopal duty), vestries in colonial Virginia acted independently and generally refused to abide by these royal injunctions, choosing instead, in the words of a contract from Hungars Parish, to “hire [ministers] from yeare to yeare.”
As territorial divisions, the parishes’ bounds were set by Virginia’s General Assembly. They also divided parishes, often at the request of parishioners, as in 1643 when the legislature created two additional parishes in Upper Norfolk County in response to complaints that the parish church was too distant from many of the people it served. More rarely, the General Assembly combined smaller parishes to create one larger parish when this made sense. In the eighteenth century, parishes took on expanded political roles as either power bases for local elites or sources of political controversy within counties. As county populations increased, splitting an old parish could be divisive: one set of residents would gain greater access to religious and welfare services while another set would gain little and have their parish taxes increased. Where vestry service had once been nearly a lifetime position for twelve gentlemen, a split parish would now require them to run for reelection, and would also expanded opportunities for other elites who had been effectively shut out of local politics. Such controversies could also spill over into House of Burgesses elections, as they did in 1752 in Hanover County and in the 1760s in Fairfax. In Accomack, the debate over managing the old parish and/or creating a new one lasted so long and became so contentious that it created highly competitive elections for more than fifty years.