Defending the Establishment: Letters from colonial Virginia regarding the Reverend Samuel Davies and the Dissenter Movement

Presented 30 April 2006 by Historic Polegreen Church Foundation

Following are a series of letters, written principally by Anglican ministers expressing their concern regarding the entry of dissenting Presbyterians into their community.

It is evident from reading them that these ministers are very concerned about the moral fabric of society being torn asunder by these "interlopers." The letters are a wonderful window on changes taking place on the landscape in the 1740s, changes that would play a significant part in the political revolution of the 1770s.

—Mark Howell, Director of Programs

A Proclamation issued by Governor William Gooch to the Colony of Virginia:

Whereas, it is represented to me that several Itinerant Preachers have lately Crept into the Colony and that the Suffering these Corrupters of our faith and true Religion do to propagate their Shocking Doctrines may be of mischievous consequences. I have, therefore, thought fit, by and with the Advice of his Majesty's Council, to issue this Proclamation strictly requiring all Magistrates and officers to discourage and prohibit, as far as they legally can, all Itinerant Preachers, whether New-Light Presbyterians, Moravians, or Methodists, from Teaching, Preaching or holding any meeting in this Colony. And that all Persons be enjoined to be aiding and assisting in that purpose.
Given under my Hand at Williamsburg this third day of April, 1747 and in the XXth year of his Majesty's Reign.William Gooch

And so it begins . . . A letter from the Rev. Patrick Henry to the Rev. William Dawson, Commissary of the Bishop of London regarding New Light itinerants before the arrival of Davies to Virginia.

St. Pauls parish, Hanover, Feb. 13th 1744/5

Reverend Sir
I would have wrote you before now concerning the new Preachers that have lately seduc'd some unwary people in this Parish, had I not expected to be more distinctly inform'd of some of their principle and practices which I thought might render my account of [these new light men] or their followers more full and satisfactory . . . .

I beg leave to add a few sentences relating to their practice especially that of the three Enthusiasts that preach'd lately in this Parish. These have been a great pains to vilifie the Clergy of this Colony and have told their followers, both in publick & private that they can never reap any benefit by going to hear them . . . .

They thunder out words and new coind phrases what they call terrors of the law, & scolding, calling the old people, Grey headed Devils and all promiscuously Damn'd, double damn'd whose souls are in hell, though they are alive on earth . . . 1000 times worse than Devils &c and all the while the Preacher exalts his voice puts himself into a violent agitation stamping & beating his Desk unmercifully until the weaker sort of his hearers being scar'd, cry out fall down & work like people in convulsion fits to the amazement of Spectators, and if a few only are thus brought down, the Preacher gets into a violent passion again, Calling out Will no more of you come to Christ? thundering out as before, till he has brought a quatum sufficit of his congregation to this condition . . . .

You may probably think, Sir, that I am a little hyperbolic in this last relation, but I beg leave to assure you, that I have unquestionable authority for the truth of it, and that they have acted in this parish in the same manner as I have now described.

I am told that there are two or three of these Enthusiastic Preachers expected in Hanover next month, to administer the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper; I wish they could be prevented, or, at least be oblig'd to show their credentials, for they may be Jesuits for anything we know. . . .

I propose to wait on you at Wmsburg — as soon as my parochial and other business will allow, that I may have some further directions about my conduct with respect to these wild & wicked men, and am very respectfully Reverend Sir
Your most obedient humble Servant
Patrick Henry

Reverend Patrick Henry to the Commissary Reverend William Dawson about Davies' actions.

Hanover June 8th 1747
Reverend Sir
I was inform'd by a Gentleman in Amelia That Mr. Davies is to preach at Goochland Court-house next Thursday, from whence he is to travel as far as Roanoke, preaching at certain appointed places in his way, and that circular Letters and Advertisements are dispersed all over the upper [western?] parts of this Colony, that the People may have notice of the times and places of meeting. My Informer has one of the circular Letters, and the Advertisement at Goochland Court-house has, I believe, been seen by hundreds.

I persuaded my self that the Govinor & Council never intended to encourage Itinerant Preachers, and therefore think it my duty to acquaint you with this Man's behaviour. I think also that the Govinor, by his Indulgence, did not allow Mr. Davies to administer the Sacrament of the Lords Supper, which notwithstanding he did celebrate at the meeting-house in St. Pauls parish . . . and had a great many Communicants.

I need not inform you of the present distracted condition of my Parish nor of the future disturbances I justly apprehend from these Itinerants, who make it their Study to screw up the People to the greatest heights of religious Phrenzy, and then leave them in that wild state, for perhaps ten or twelve months, till another Enthusiast comes among them to repeat the same thing over again. . . .
Revd Sir your most obedient & obliged humble Servant
Pat. Henry

Reverend Samuel Davies responds to Reverend Henry's accusations in 1747:

I readily concede, That principles subversive of Civil Society . . . may be justly checked by Civil Authority, & the Propagators of them punished . . . . But I cannot grant, That civil Rulers have Authority to preside in, and determine Controversies about Matters of Faith, & Affairs that Peculiarly concern the Church: The Determination of these, I humbly conceive, belongs ultimately to God speaking in his Word . . . .

Reverend Samuel Davies explains his actions regarding the rites of marriage: 3 February 1749-50

Soon after my settling here, some Presbyterians in my Congregation apply'd to me for the Solemnization of marriage; But lest I should arrogate any Priviledge which did not legally belong to me, I refus'd it; 'till some time in March last, I had the opportunity of submitting it to the Honble Sir William Gooch; who was pleased to tell me . . . that, after regular Publication of the Banns, or obtaining a legal License, I might lawfully marry my own People; still securing the fee for the Parish Minister. Confiding in the Opinion of so qualified & authoriz'd a Judge concerning the Sense of the Law, as sufficient to direct me . . . I lately marry'd a Couple living in the Revd. Mr. Brunskill's Parish, after thrice Publication of the Banns in the Meeting Houses where the Parties . . . were wont to attend; & I order'd the Fee to be sent to Mr. Brunskill.

My Procedure herein as so inflam'd his resentments, that tho' I have inform'd him -- That I had the Governour's Permission to warrant it, -- That the Perquisites shou'd by always reserv'd for him, & I designed never to take a Penny, -- . . . Yet he is determin'd to prosecute me. . . . I despair of convincing myself of the Illegaility of my Conduct; & therefore humbly submit it to your Honour's Determination . . . .
Revd. & Honour'd Sir,
Your oblig'd
Most humble Servt.
Samuel Davies

Reverend Henry squeals on the Reverend Davies

Hanover Augt. 22d 1751
Reverend Sir. . .
Mr. Davies perform'd several Parts of his pretended Ministerial Office, both here and in Henrico, before he was legally qualified. That, last May, he transgressed his Limits, by preaching &c in the Southern Parts of this Colony? That he hath celebrated the Rites of Matrimony, in this, and a neighbouring County. That many of his Hearers do, in their Meeting houses hold unlawful Assemblies, in Contempt of the Act of Toleration. That some of them have spoke reproachfully of the Liturgy, & officers of the Church. . . . These Facts will, I hope, demonstrate that both Mr. Davies, and many of his Congregation have faild in giving Sufficient Evidence of their Fidelity to the civil Governments, and inoffensive Conduct. I wish I could find any Thing provd against them before the Genl. Court, wch might strengthen what I have to say. . . . If they obtain a Testimonial from our [local] Court, I think, it can be no other than a Certificate from the Clerk bearing that they or some of them, have taken the Oaths enjoyned by Law to be taken by such People; but this is not what they aim at. I shall look for your Directions in the Matter, and observe them, in the best Manner I can.
Reverend Sir
Your most obedient
Obliged, humble Servant
Pat. Henry

Letter from Reverend James Maury, an Anglican minister, to the Commissary:

Reverend & honorable Sir,
Not doubting but . . . tis your great Study to preserve, as far as may be, Purity and Faith, as well as sound Morals & good order in this remote corner of his Lordship's Diocese, it seems not improper to inform You that the revd Messrs Davies and Todd have lately been guilty of what I think Intrusions upon me, in having preached each of them a Sermon at a Tavern in my Parish; within the Bounds of which I have never heard, that either of these Gentlemen, or any of their Communion, have obtained any properly authenticated License to exercise their Function. . . .

What they are, tis needless to mention to You, Sir, who for some years past have had the frequent opportunity of remarking, what Heats & Dissentions, what Breeches of Charity, what Ruin & Decay in the Families of many well meaning but deluded People, what Confusion & Disorder, what Disaffection in the People . . . together with many other unhappy Effects, have usually attended the Ministry of Itinerants & Enthusiasts in the Colony. . . . Tis a Doubt, I am told with some worthy Members of your honorable Bench, whether the Act of Toleration extends to the Plantations. I wish that Doubt were indisputably solved, which, perhaps, if would be, on proper Application of proper persons.

I trust I am far from the inhuman & uncharitable Spirit of Persecution. No Man either professes or thinks himself a warmer Advocate for Liberty of Conscience, that natural Right of Mankind. But when Man under Pretence of asserting & exercising this Right, sow the Seeds of Discord & Confusion . . . none, surely, not their most zealous adherents, nor even themselves, can justly complain, should they be laid under just & equitable restraints.

Do me the Justice, Sir, to believe, that a pure Zeal for the established Church, a sincere Desire to guard that Part of it which is intrusted to my Care . . . for many honest but ignorant People who [are] being unhappily seduced from the Church [of England].
Reverend & affectionate Friend
& affectionate Brother
James Maury.

Letter from Mr. George Trask to Commissary William Dawson

Dec. 9th 1758

Reverend Sir Chesterfield
. . .
I beg Leave, Sir, now I am writing to you, to put you in mind of an Affair, which I could only hint to you, when I was at Town. That, if any Dissenters should appear in Behalf of an unlicensed Meeting House, which has been lately in a Corner of my Parish, you will take Care to oppose them. It was chiefly promoted by some Scotch Merchants & others in Petersburgh. . . . It meets with no encouragement from the Gentlemen or Generality of the People of my Parish, except one wrong headed Colonel, & a very few others. But if factious and restless people may build a [meeting] House, when and where they please, without Leave or License; the Peace & Security of the established cch will be very precarious. This method of proceeding must appear to be audacious, irregular & illegal, & inconsistent with any lawful Toleration, & Will always I hope be opposed. Therefore I hope you will take Care to disappoint them if they should apply for a preposterous License now.
R[everend]. Sir I am wth the greatest Respect
Your most hble Svt.
Geo. Trask

Reverend Samuel Davies gets the last word: Samuel Davies to Commissary [Thomas] Dawson, ca. 1753

I am not fond, sir, of disseminating sedition and schism; I have no ambition to Presbyterianize the colony. But I may declare without suspicion of ostentation . . . that I have a sincere zeal . . . to propagate the [universal] religion of Jesus in its life and power; though I feel but little anxiety about the denomination its genuine members assume. The profession of Christianity is universal in this colony; but alas, sir, if the religion of the Bible be the test of men's character, and the standard of their final doom, multitudes, multitudes, are in a perishing condition. Their ignorance, their negligence, their wrong notions of vital Christianity, their habitual neglect of its known duties, their vicious practice proclaim it aloud; and he that can persuade himself of the contrary, in spite of evidence is possessed of a charity under no rational or scriptural regulations. For my part, sir, should I believe that religion is in a flourishing state in the colony, I must renounce the Bible, disbelieve my eyes, and my ears . . . . Could I indulge the pleasing dream, my life below the skies would be an anticipation of heaven. . . . But the unwelcome evidences that force the conclusion upon me, are, the general neglect, and stupid unconcernedness about religion, the habitual omission of its duties, and the vicious practices that glare upon me around, and which are utterly inconsistent with true religion in any denomination. . . . I am as mean and insignificant a creature as you can well conceive me to be. But I dare profess, sir, that even a heart so insensible as mine, is at times dissolved into compassion and racked with agonies of zeal, when so dismal a scene opens around me.

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