The Anglican’s in Early Virginia Colonies

Church pencil sketched by Wendy Harty June 2021

If you read my last blog, One of Mine Was at Jamestown, Virginia, John Stockley was in court for violating laws “failing to remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy.” On December 20, 1643 he and his brother Francis were fined for “profaning God’s name”. This sent to me researching in to the times and to the religion being practiced by the colonists.

England broke from the Catholic Church to form the Church of England when the Pope wouldn’t grant King Henry VIII a divorce. The church was part of government. The Church of England was legally established in the colony in 1619. By 1624, when the Virginia Company of London was dissolved by King James I, authorities in England had sent 22 Anglican clergymen to the colony. The local taxes were used to handle the needs of local government, the salary of the minister and to build roads and give the poor relief.

Ministers complained that the congregation were either sleeping, whispering, staring blankly into space or out the windows. I imagine John and Francis were still guilty after being fined. During Anglican church services which were compulsory, the colonists who did not wish to be there were inattentive, uninterested and bored. The churches were built within walking or riding distance, not more than six miles from every home in the colony. Also there was a court not more than a day’s ride from every home in the colony .

By 1689, Parliament passed the Act of Tolerance which allowed freedom of worship. Baptists, German Lutherans and Presbyterians, funded their own ministers, and wanted disestablishment of the Anglican church. But between 1768 and 1774 there was much persecution and half of the Baptist ministers in Virginia were jailed for preaching. By 1740, the established Anglican Church had about 70 parish priests. They were paid by the vestry who provided some land, a house and 16000 pounds of tobacco plus 20 shillings for weddings and funerals. While not poor, the priests made a modest living with slim opportunities for improvement. When a crop failure occurred in 1758, the price of tobacco went from two to six pennies per pound, inflating clerical salaries. The Two Penny Act was passed allowing clergy to be paid. Britain said no, angering the colonists, as they saw King George III veto of their law as a breach of their legislative authority.

Enter those Henry relatives of my father. At the Hanover County Courthouse, December 1763, Colonel John Henry was that judge (father to Patrick Henry) that came to prominence, by arguing that a King, by disallowing the act was a Tyrant and should forfeit the right to his subjects’ obedience. The case was called the Parson’s Cause, and the British Crown attempted to set the salaries of clergy in the colony regardless of conditions in the county. Hanover County was developed by planters moving west from Virginia tidewater, where soils had be been exhausted by only planting tobacco.

This early Virginia was dominated by elites. By 1740, there were stately English designed houses, imposing county courthouses and elegant parish churches. The English had arrived, pushed out the earlier inhabitants and started to accumulate wealth. Church attendance dropped and people began reading religious books on their own. There were divisions between Virginians and the clergy and the old ways broke down. New sects arose and attempts by religious authorities to repress these new religious movements further annoyed the colonists. The dissenters became more distrusting of colonial and British authority which led to the idea of revolution. Lower class Virginians weren’t willing to pay taxes to a state supervised church that they saw as corrupt. This reduced Anglican influence based on social standing or aristocratic lineage. Slavery even came into question.

Neither Francis or John Stockley’s names were found in the Anglican Church records at Hangar’s Church, Accomack County in 1660-61. For the infraction of profaning God’s name, they had been fined 30 pounds of tobacco apiece, December 20, 1643. Then John Stockley after his brother died, in the 1660’s had a brush with the law and religion. John was called before the Grand Jury of Accomack County for violating the laws of the Colony of Virginia, specifically “remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy”. John Stratton, member of the grand jury of Accomack County, attested that John Stokely had made a breach of the Sabbath by “talking and making a noise when the minister was in divine service”. When admonished by Stratton, Stockley answered that he came there to do business.

In the Virginia colony, people were commanded to attend The King’s church and could be fined if they did not. This was the rule of the Anglicans, in the early American Colony.

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