A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776

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A Blessed Company. Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776 By John K. Nelson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 477. $49.95.)

John Nelson has produced the most significant book on Anglicanism in colonial Virginia since George MacLaren Brydon published his two volumes fifty years ago. This beautifully written, revisionist study will force historians to rethink the shape of colonial religion and Anglican development. For over a century, the dominant perspective on the colonial church belonged to Bishop William Meade, an evangelical Episcopalian in the mid-nineteenth century. His work, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, depicted colonial Anglicanism as a spiritual wasteland for clergy and laity alike. Recent historians have challenged Meade's views, but Nelson's prodigious research has buried them forever. While complementing Edward Bond's new book on religion in seventeenth-century Virginia, Nelson revises Dell Upton's perspective on Anglican worship, Edwin Gaustad's estimate of the number of Anglican congregations, and Rhys Isaac's case for dissenter strength on the eve of the Revolution.

A Blessed Company begins by focusing on parish structure and operation, then considers the clergy and the religious and pastoral services they provided, and concludes by examining various parish constituencies. An inclusive, flexible institution, the parish encompassed everyone living within its boundaries. As population expanded and shifted, the colonial assembly divided or suppressed old parishes and created new ones in the west. Because of the scattered population, a parish was normally multicongregational with one minister rotating among several churches and chapels. Lay readers read the service from the Book of Common Prayer when the clergyman was absent. A vestry of twelve men, representative of the local gentry, controlled parish business affairs, ranging from erecting and maintaining buildings to caring for the poor. …


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