Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Impassioned Virginia Loyalist and New Brunswick Pioneer: The Reverend John Agnew

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Impassioned Virginia Loyalist and New Brunswick Pioneer: The Reverend John Agnew

Article excerpt

The most prominent, zealous, and active clerical loyalist in revolutionary Virginia was John Agnew, rector of Suffolk Parish in Nansemond County, an ecclesiastical unit of the established Church of England.1 A neighbor declared that Agnew "was the most remarkable of any Clergyman in that Colony for his early and uniform attachment to the British Government in Church and State." Another acquaintance asserted that Agnew "did everything in his power consistent with his Pastoral Function to keep his Parishioners steady in their allegiance and obedience to their lawful Sovereign." John Murray, earl of Dunmore, governor of Virginia when the Revolution began, testified that Agnew did "everything consistent with his character to keep his Parishioners and Neighbours steady to their Duty and attachment to their lawful Sovereign, and to persuade them to aid and assist the cause of the British Crown and government."2

His impassioned support of the royal cause led to his imprisonment by the Virginians. After his release he became chaplain to a loyalist military corps, and later the French captured him on the high sea and held him captive in several locations until the end of the war. Dunmore thought his experiences were so singular and adventurous that he should publish an account of them.3 After Great Britain conceded independence to the United States, Agnew settled in New Brunswick, where he accumulated large land holdings. Historians agree that the loyalists constituted an important component in the revolutionary generation in colonial America and that they merit scholarly attention. This article will analyze Agnew's clerical career, his revolutionary experiences, and his days as pioneer in New Brunswick. Agnew is not unknown to students of the Revolution, but an inclusive, integrated biographical sketch of him has heretofore not appeared in print.

From the date of his death and the age he attained it can be inferred that Agnew was born in 1727. Records of the University of Glasgow note that a John Agnew, evidently the future parson, matriculated in 1744 and identify him as the son of Jacob Agnew of Kirmanock, Galloway, Scotland. Presumably he took his baccalaureate degree about 1748 and, as he stated to British officials, went to Virginia in 1751 and soon settled in Nansemond County. He offered no information about his birth, parentage, background, or experiences in Great Britain prior to that date. James Agnew, very probably our subject's brother, was a merchant in Portsmouth, Virginia and also a loyalist who identified himself as a native of Galloway.4 John Agnew represented James Agnew before the loyalist claims commissioners in London in 1783.

How Agnew occupied himself for the first two years in Virginia is not definitely known, but possibly he conducted a school. His keeping a school for several years at his rectory after his ordination seems to support this assumption. Not long after arriving in Nansemond he declared himself a candidate for holy orders in the Church of England and prepared himself by private study. Since there was no bishop in America, an ordinand was obliged to hazard a voyage to England to seek investment at the hands of the bishop of London, the nominal diocesan of the colonial churches. To the bishop an aspiring minister was to present testimonials from local clergymen, the bishop's commissary in the colony, and the governor; he was also to have a title, a promise of clerical employment after ordination. Often these credentials contain valuable biographical information about the candidate, but Agnew's materials have apparently not survived.5

The bishop of London ordained Agnew deacon on 11 June 1753 and priest on 17 June. On the latter day he also granted him a license to officiate in Virginia and soon thereafter the new priest returned to the Old Dominion. Ordination meant that Agnew had met the Anglican standards of character, orthodoxy, and knowledge, and had taken the oaths of allegiance and canonical obedience to the king and to the Church of England. …

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