Anglicans/Episcopalians in Virginia

The Anglican Church (the Church of England) was the official "established" church of colonial Virginia for 179 years, from the settlement of Jamestown until several years after the American Revolution.

The head of state in England (i.e., the king or queen) had been head of the church as well for nearly 75 years before colonists arrived at Jamestown. King Henry VIII had separated England from the Catholic church in 1534, and the king in London replaced the Pope in Rome as the head of the church in England.

Consolidating power over church and state strengthened the monarchy, and allowed the government to determine what religious beliefs and practices were acceptable. Parliament approved the Book of Common Prayer used in Anglican services. Ongoing rivalry in the 1500's, 1600's and 1700's with Spain - a Catholic country - created the sense that religious differences were also political differences, and that non-Anglicans were less patriotic.

Lord de la Warr imposed martial law in 1610, and he mandated church attendance:1

Services were held fourteen times a week, with sermons preached twice on Sunday and once on either Wednesday or Thursday. Two prayer services, one in the morning and one in the evening, were held Monday through Saturday... The Captain of the Watch was under instructions to round up all persons, except those sick or injured, and bring them to the Church at the appropriate times.

Pocahontas had to convert to Christianity and be baptised (in the Anglican faith) before marrying John Rolfe
Pocahontas had to convert to Christianity and be baptised (in the Anglican faith) before marrying John Rolfe
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Baptism of Pocahontas

The Puritans in Massachusetts punished nonconformists and created a state-imposed religion even more rigid than Virginia. Other colonies were more flexible on religious activities. The Calverts in the Maryland colony recognized that toleration of non-Catholics was essential for attracting new colonists. When Virginia expelled Puritan preachers, Maryland welcomed them. William Penn's Pennsylvania colony was the most successful in attracting people with various Protestant beliefs.

Virginia's political leaders first accepted religious diversity in the 1720's. Governor Spottswood saw the advantage in welcoming immigrants that had come from Ireland and modern-day Germany to Pennsylvania, but desired to settle on cheaper land in the Shenandoah Valley. The Presbyterian Scotch-Irish and the "Pennsylvania Dutch" might worship and organize churches in ways different from the Anglicans, but new Protestant settlers on the western border would provide a buffer against the French and the Native Americans.

Governor Gooch followed Spottswood's policy. Starting in 1730, Gov. Gooch granted John and Isaac Van Meter 40,000 acres near Cedar Creek, Opequon Creek, and the Shenandoah River. Such large grants of land within the boundaries of the Fairfax Grant triggered Lord Fairfax's fight to survey and establish his claim, a dispute the Van Meter's avoided by selling their claims quickly to Joist Hite.

Hite recruited his buyers from recent immigrants in Pennsylvania. In 1732, Col. William Beverly obtained a grant further south in an area already known as the Irish Tract, and in 1739 a Quaker from New Jersey (Benjamin Borden) got a large grant to the south of Beverly Manor in what now is Rockbridge County. Beverly partnered with Irish ship captain James Patton, who brought immigrants directly from Ireland up the Potomac River and then walked them west across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley. Later, Patton got his own grant on the New River. He populated Dunkard's Bottom, now flooded by Claytor Lake, with Anabaptists known as "Dunkers" (similar to Mennonites and Amish, and named for the practice of full-immersion adult baptism) from the German Pietist community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

By 1738, there were so many Presbyterians in the valley Some Anglicans in Tidewater also moved west of the Blue Ridge onto land grants originally issued by Fairfax's land agent, Robert "King" Carter. Cunningham's Chapel was built in 1747, and its 1793 replacement (now known as Old Chapel) is now the oldest Episcopal church west of the Blue Ridge.2

Large numbers of immigrants from Tidewater settled on eastern edge of the northern Shenandoah Valley late in the 1700's. The cultural differences in Frederick County between the area west of Opequon Creek settled by German/Scotch-Irish and the eastern edge settled by traditional Tidewater immigrants led to the creation of Clarke County in 1836.3



1. "Religion at Jamestown," Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, (last checked June 11, 2014)
2. "Old Chapel 021-0058," Virginia Landmarks Register, (last checked June 14, 2014)
3. "History," Clarke County, Virginia, (last checked June 14, 2014)

Memorial Church - Jamestown
Memorial Church -
Bruton Parish - Williamsburg
Bruton Parish -
Bruton Parish steeple
Bruton Parish
(click on images for larger versions)

Martha Dandridge married her second husband, George Washington, reportedly at St. Peter's Church in New Kent County (which Union forces visited in the Civil War...)
Martha Dandridge married her second husband, George Washington, reportedly at St. Peter's Church in New Kent County (which Union forces visited in the Civil War...)
Source: National Archives, St. Peter's Church, near the "White House", Virginia. (where G. Washington may have been married to Martha)

Religion in Virginia
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