Faith of Our Fathers – Church Records in Virginia

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Martha McCartney, author of Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, shared the following brief article which she wrote for a recent issue of Hickory Neck Nuggets, the monthly newsletter of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church in Toano, Virginia.

“On October 16, 1776, when the State of Virginia’s legislature convened for the first time, the delegates received a petition, asking for the disestablishment of the Church of England and for religious equality. This 125-page document, signed by an estimated 10,000 citizens, publicly initiated the debate over the relationship between church and state. Afterward, the legislature deliberated whether it was appropriate to levy taxes to support teachers of the Christian faith. James Madison circulated his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,� which received widespread support. Finally, in its 1785-1786 session, the General Assembly passed the Statute of Religious Freedom, which abolished the State Church, denied it the right of general taxation, and allowed abandoned parish-owned real estate to revert to the Commonwealth of Virginia. With that vote, separation between church and state was achieved.
Protestant Episcopal (formerly Anglican) churches that were in continuous use were not threatened by the new law, although church-owned real estate, such as a parish glebe, was to be sold as soon as the incumbent clergyman died or vacated the property. The funds generated by such sales were to be given to county Overseers of the Poor, the local officials deemed responsible for public welfare. During this transitional period, many Anglican churches came into the hands of other denominations or simply fell into disrepair. At Hickory Neck, worship services seem to have come to an end in 1780, a few months before the Allied Army began using the church as a military hospital.�

Martha’s article prompted me to think about the impact of religion on early Virginia and our ability to research successfully (even in burned counties) because of the records created by the early church. British colonists had, in fact grown up with an official, national church, supported by the Crown. Virginia’s colonists, in particular, brought that church with them, unlike many of their northern neighbors, who came to America to escape the established church.

Although Virginia developed a plantation system that was considerably different from English village life and although Virginians thwarted the establishment of an Anglican bishopric in their midst, the Anglican Church vestry, nonetheless, served as the focal point of local governance for Virginia counties. The General Assembly formally established fixed boundaries for each Anglican parish. Parish boundaries coincide with the boundaries of one or more Virginia counties.

The vestry’s interests were wide-ranging and included education, morality, social welfare, and in many cases, the creation and administration of laws, virtually taking care of the individual from cradle to grave. Vestry records provide a fascinating glimpse into aspects of every-day life and thus describe the context of our ancestors’ lives. For this reason, knowledge of available parish, or vestry, records is essential to successful research in colonial Virginia.

The following example, while from North Carolina, illustrates the value of these records. I have for many years researched George Barkley who lived in Isle of Wight County, Virginia in the 1750s, and who died in Northampton County, North Carolina in 1788. Other than several deeds and a will, I had never been able to document his life from original records. Research in Northampton County records, however, identified the parish vestry’s Minutes and Accounts, Wardens of the Poor (1773-1814) and from them I learned that George was a sextant in the parish. In the detailed accounting of warden meetings, he was mentioned several times, including a report outlining the financial support provided to him and his wife in their final years. Without consulting vestry records, I would never have learned this information. The same example could easily have been experienced in Virginia vestry records.

Research in parish vestry records is particularly important in the twenty-two Virginia “burnt� counties, jurisdictions whose civil records have been destroyed for the colonial time period. In such cases, vestry records often provide the only documentation for the time periods represented by these lost records. An excellent example is Nansemond County in which all records are lost prior to 1866, but for which two vestry books have been published. Not all such records are extant, nor are have they all been published. However, a First Search keyword search for “Vestry Virginia� yielded 294 entries, including 237 books, forty-five archival records, and ten Internet files. Your local public library can help you identify these titles and facilitate interlibrary loan if necessary.

Heritage Books of Westminster, Maryland has published a number of records of early parishes, including Henrico, Kingston, Alexandria and Fairfax Cities, Cople, Loudoun, Dettingen, Southam, St. Peter’s, Christ Church and South Farnham. Of these parishes, several are from burnt counties.

The following titles dealing with Virginia parish records may be found on genealogical.com (for those marked as out of print, please select the “Notify Me� button on the title’s page on genealogical.com and be notified by e-mail when it returns to print):

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