June 17: The Presbyterians of Williamsburg

A Presbyterian Church in the Heart of Anglican Virginia
by David T Myers

There is an expression commonly heard yet misunderstood by mostly every citizen today in our land. It is “the separation of church and state.” Most commonly, it is interpreted as American government should not enter into Christian principles and practices ever! In my area, an individual running for office in the county found out that her opponent actually quoted some Scripture in a personal letter. Why, she reasoned in an open letter, this violated his political position, because of the separation of church and state. I trust that the readers of this website understand that when we talk about the separation of church and state, we simply mean, as our forefathers understood, there is no such entity as a state church. And yet while that is true, it was not recognized to be true until 1786 in Virginia, eleven years after the American Revolution.

When Presbyterians entered Virginia, “the Church of England (Anglican) was the official church of the Virginia colony. Overseen by the Bishop of London, the church in Virginia had the royal governor of the colony as its head. The General Assembly passed laws for the ‘suppression of vice’ and set ministers’ salaries, fixed parish boundaries, required attendance at Anglican churches, and restricted secular activities on Sundays. Heads of households paid mandatory church taxes levied by Anglican parish vestries to pay ministers, to build and repair church buildings, and to assist the needy. Anglican churchwardens reported violators of religious laws to country courts for prosecution. Formal services from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer were the rule in parish churches.” (Quotation from the Colonial Williamsburg Sign on the wall of the Presbyterian Meeting House)

When Presbyterians (and other religious groups) began to enter the Virginia colony over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at first persecution met the new faith based groups. Gradually, these “dissenters,” as they were called, were the subjects of a more tolerant attitude, in that they were allowed to practice their own convictions. However, they had to obtain licenses for themselves and their meeting houses, and continue to pay Anglican church taxes.

On June 17, 1765, a group of Presbyterians successfully petitioned the county court for permission to meet in a house in Williamsburg, Virginia. Seventeen men signed the petitions. They were mostly Williamsburg business men composed of a carpenter, blacksmith, hatter, printer/bookbinder, stay maker, cabinetmaker, wheelwright, two shoemakers and two tailors. Solid members of Williamsburg society, they dissented from the established Church of England to worship as Presbyterians.

Presbyterian ministers were hard to come by in the early days. In 1767, Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and Delaware appointed Andrew Bay and Jacob Ker to minister to their small band of Presbyterians in the town. James Waddel, a newly licensed pastor, was appointed to the town for two Sundays in 1767 by the Hanover Presbytery. Certainly Samuel Davies of nearby Hanover County helped to minister to the little band of Presbyterians.

Sustained effort to change the laws of the Colony continued to keep the issue of religious freedom in the public mind all through the American Revolution. Finally this sustained effort was essential in the change in 1786 to pass the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson.

Words to Live By:
If you are able to visit Williamsburg, Virginia today, you can visit the Anglican Church on the grounds which is historic to the day and age of the early beginnings of our country. Don’t forget to visit also the plain building which houses the Presbyterian Meeting House of Williamsburg, where the Word of God was preached in all its fullness by faithful men of God in the beginnings of our country.

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