Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Anglican Theology and Devotion in James Blair's Virginia, 1685-1743: Private Piety in the Public Church

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Anglican Theology and Devotion in James Blair's Virginia, 1685-1743: Private Piety in the Public Church

Article excerpt

When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right- he shall save his soul.

Book of Common Prayer, 1662

WILLIAM FITZHUGH, an attorney and tobacco planter in Stafford County, reflected briefly in January 1686/7 on the difficulties of life in the Virginia colony. Education for children was hard to come by. Financial security rested upon too many contingencies and forced Fitzhugh to devote more time to worldly affairs than he thought proper. With the exception of that found in books, "good & ingenious" society was scarce. "[B]ut that which bears the greatest weight with me," he wrote, " . . . is the want of spirituall help & comforts, of which this fertile Country in every thing else, is barren and unfruitfull."1

Complaints similar to Fitzhugh's were common throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As early as 1611 the Reverend Alexander Whitaker had expressed concerns that would linger for more than a hundred years: "Our harvest is froward and great for want" of ministers. Conditions improved slowly. In 1662 a former colonial minister estimated that nearly 80 percent of the colony's parishes lay vacant. No more than ten or twelve ministers served a population approaching 26,000. Three decades later, in 1697, only twenty-two of Virginia's fifty parishes had ministers, and that for a population of approximately 62,800 souls. Not until the 1730s did an adequate supply of clergymen fill Virginia's churches.2

Tobacco culture required Virginians to adapt their religious calendar. In 1623/4 the House of Burgesses declared that when two holy days fell "together betwixt the ffeast of the Annuncyation of the Virgin Mary and Sct. Michell the Arkeangell, then only one to be kept." This period between 25 March and 29 September was the prime growing season for tobacco, and the colonists were likely expected to devote most of their energies to planting, tending, and harvesting.

Yet had ministers filled every vacant parish in the colony, the church's work still would have suffered, only to a lesser degree. The Church of England's mission in Virginia was hampered not only by a shortage of clergy but also by the colony's environment. Virginians learned early that their land's promise lay in tobacco. Consequently, they did not settle in towns as did inhabitants of England or its other colonies. Instead, they scattered across the countryside, often settling along one of the rivers that divided the Tidewater and Piedmont regions into a series of peninsulas. This settlement pattern-essentially an accommodation to tobacco culture-hindered the public practice of religion. Parishes in Virginia were very large, and most contained more than one church. Colonial parsons served each on a rotating basis by officiating and preaching first at one church and then at the others in their turn on succeeding Sabbaths.3

The various obstacles confronting Virginia's established church doubtless shaped that institution, but they did not fundamentally alter the church's mission or eliminate its influence. The shortage of ministers, the colonists' scattered manner of settling, and the absence of ecclesiastical courts common in England were but "occasions," situations the church simply had to deal with as it went about its work. As one historian has recently noted, "the political, social and cultural context can only provide the occasion for a church and contribute to the shaping of its outward form: it cannot provide a definition of a church or its raison d'etre." Viewed in this context, the many complaints about Virginia's church are more properly understood not as criticisms but as expressions of devotion to a way of religion struggling to guide the faithful toward salvation in a "novel environment."4

Although hampered by the colony's "occasions," Anglicanism in James Blair's Virginia5 was primarily a pastoral religion, concerned with the spiritual care and guidance of individuals rather than with theological polemic, intellectual debate, or a "prying into adorable Mysteries" beyond comprehension by the human mind. …

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