Slave Literacy

Samuel Davies and Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia

Samuel Davies PortraitReverend Samuel Davies

Jeffrey H. Richards, Dept. of English, Old Dominion University

Published by permission of The Virginia Historical Society

The 2003 Spring issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography carried a 45-page article by Dr. Jeffrey H. Richards of the English Department and Coordinator of American Studies of Old Dominion University. The story title was “Samuel Davies And The Trans-Atlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy In Virginia.” In the most scholarly detail Dr. Richards documented the case for Davies's enormous contribution to black slave education, and clearly concluded that he had no peer in any of the colonies.

At the request of the Historic Polegreen Foundation we have been permitted to print an abridgment of Dr. Richards article. As a convenience to many readers who may wish less scholarly “footnoting,” Dr. Richards has kindly addressed the subject by summarizing the original article to a third of its length.

Since 1990 the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation has engaged in a considerable effort to teach the exciting and important stories of the struggle for religious and civil liberty that began in Hanover County, Virginia in the 18th century. The Hanover Dissenters under the leadership of Samuel Davies placed our nation in its debt, and the historic site has emerged as a place of inspiration. Any search to identify those who have contributed significantly to the social and intellectual advancement of the African slave and his/her descendants will surely find in Davies an advocate beyond equal. Of the many contributions made by Samuel Davies in his lifetime, few can match his work with the African slaves. This is the subject of this publication.

[Please note: This is a much abridged version of an article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, volume 111, no. 4 (2003): 333-378. Please consult the published version for many names and details not included in this outline, as well as illustrations.]

Long known as the first resident Presbyterian minister in Piedmont Virginia, Samuel Davies earned the respect of his white dissenting contemporaries almost as soon as he moved permanently to Hanover County from Delaware in 1748. Early in his ministry, Davies identified evangelizing slaves in the households and on the farms and plantations of his parishioners as crucial to his project of bringing awakened religion to the seven meetinghouses in four counties in which he preached. Indeed, his efforts were “the first sustained proselytization of slaves” in colonial Virginia, and as such have received scholarly attention from a number of commentators. i

One dimension of his conversion work among slaves that has received relatively little focus on its own terms, however, is Davies's attempt to teach slaves to read. If his own accounts can be trusted, no white person in colonial American history was as successful as Davies in stimulating a relatively widespread literacy among slaves in the South. Unlike a later generation of evangelists, primarily Baptist and Methodist, who worked among slaves and free blacks for conversions based on heartfelt outpourings of the spirit, Davies as a Presbyterian believed that the attainment of true religion by anyone, bond or free, black or white, required extensive religious knowledge that came from not only hearing the word of God but also reading it. Counting the work of Davies, his white ministerial associates in the Hanover Presbytery, and the many unnamed blacks who took their lessons from the clergy and taught other slaves, Davies's campaign for literacy in conjunction with the evangelizing of Virginia was the first sustained and successful program by a white clergyman in the South to stimulate large numbers of Africans and African Americans to read in English. ii

In late 1753, Davies traveled to Britain to raise money for the new College of New Jersey. While abroad, Davies met many British evangelicals and acquainted them with his literacy efforts. When he returned to Virginia in early 1755, he was inspired by his prospective benefactors to begin a full-scale effort to acquire materials by which to prosecute his literacy and conversion campaign. The group that he turned to most directly was the London-based Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor (SPRKP), one of many organizations of the time charged with bringing Christianity to the wilds of North America. With the aid of the Society, Davies promoted a skill, reading, to a people over whom he had little control or even understanding, African slaves. It made possible within slave quarters and communities the transmission of knowledge that for a time reduced slave dependency on white owners for its achievement. And while Davies never promoted literacy purely for its own sake, his emphasis on it was so much greater than that of his contemporaries in the colonial South that, intentionally or not, he seems to have made the acquisition of reading skills the prime attraction for slaves in Piedmont Virginia to come to Christianity. iii

III. The Transatlantic Connection

Upon his return to Hanover in 1755, Davies began in earnest to plead to the Society for additional resources. To the SPRKP he explains that, in general, the people in the Piedmont are woefully ignorant of religion. The need for books, he says, is great throughout his area: “But the poor neglected NEGROE SLAVES,” Davies laments, “who are so far from having money to purchase books, that they themselves are the property of others; . . . whom their masters generally neglect, as though Immortality was not the privilege of their souls, nor the Religion of JESUS their concern! These poor Africans are the principal objects of compassion; and, I think, the most proper subjects of the SOCIETY's Charity.” From this point forward, Davies identifies his special mission as to the slaves and will repeat in subsequent letters the efforts he makes on their behalf. Whereas he has always made a point of slave conversions, only upon his return from England does he emphasize literacy as crucial to his overall effort. iv

IV. The Campaign for Literacy

Although without the number of large-scale plantations found in the South Carolina lowcountry, Virginia's Tidewater and Piedmont areas by 1750 had developed substantial slave populations. Davies himself estimates that “The inhabitants of Virginia are computed to be about three hundred thousand; and one half of them are supposed to be Negroes.” Philip Morgan estimates that from 1755 to 1782, the number of slaves in the Piedmont grew by an average of 7.1% per year, while in the Tidewater, the growth rate was a mere 1.2%. And as the minister suggests elsewhere, many of the slaves in his jurisdiction were Africans. In fact, of the 15,000 Africans who arrived in Virginia from 1755-1774, nearly all went directly to Piedmont farms and plantations. “In 1755,” Morgan continues, “perhaps as many as one-third of adult slaves throughout the Piedmont were Africans.” Thus, part of the challenge faced by Davies was teaching both literacy and religion to individuals whose first language was not English and whose religious traditions were derived from a vastly different world view. v

Once he had resources, the next step was to get them distributed. Even then, while Davies was at pains always to pour copious gratitude on his correspondents for their generosity, he repeats one theme: what he has is not enough. The problem was one of scale. The slave system in Virginia had become so extensive—and the efforts of others outside his own circle so paltry—that Davies felt as if he were fighting against the tide of history. Providence was dragging hundreds, thousands of unwashed souls before his purview, and he could not meet the demand: “Alas!” he complains to Society member Joseph Forfitt, “what are four or five hundred Books” — the usual size of a shipment from the Society — “among so many thousands?” All around him, he says, are enormous numbers of people living as heathens and, by implication, hungry for knowledge and Christ; even a big shipment of books within the confines of his own meetinghouses only whets a tiny portion of the collective slave appetite. Therefore, he must urge upon the fortunate recipients of books a communal responsibility: “I believe there are more than a thousand Negroes that attend upon my ministry, at the sundry places where I officiate alternately,” he explains in March 1756, “and sundry of them who are well disposed, I am obliged to send away without a Book; for they were all distributed within a few days after their arrival, and I took care not to give one of each sort to every particular person, but ordered them to borrow and lend among themselves.” For all the excitement he was creating, Davies recognized that he was already stretching the limits of promise and ability to meet that promise—limits that were built into the slave system. Because at this stage of his ministry he could not depend on masters providing resources, and because his slave (as well as poor white) parishioners had none of their own for book purchase, he was facing what he could not publicly acknowledge: in economic terms, slavery and literacy were incompatible without a deus ex machina—in this case, the Society. As long as the Society provided, however, he could carry on the campaign without the necessity of appealing to slaveowners for assistance. vi

Whatever inklings Davies had of that essential contradiction, he gamely soldiered forth with what he considered a self-perpetuating system of learning. In his letters, Davies does not indicate that he himself did much actual teaching of reading; in fact, he suggests otherwise. To be sure, he took responsibility for instructing catechumens in their doctrine and preparing individuals to be baptized and become communicants, but the actual literacy part seemed to happen almost outside his efforts. Because he believed that black intellectual capabilities—on the level of literacy—were equal to those of whites, he imagined that it was enough to get a few slaves started. They themselves would become teachers of others. Not only did this have the practical benefit of relieving him of trying to teach a thousand people to read in addition to his normal ministerial duties, but it also allowed him to circumvent what he thought was the biggest barrier to black achievement: slaveowners. Therefore, “if a considerable number of the present Generation were taught, they might teach their Posterity with little trouble to their Masters.” What he encouraged was a self-mastery that could go forward independently of slave-master control. Therefore, even if Davies justified the teaching of literacy in terms of slave tractability, he made it possible for blacks to assume some agency in their own intellectual, as well as spiritual, development. vii

This notion of slaves teaching slaves was linked to his belief that, while motivation to receive religion was important in the process of learning to read, the mechanics of literacy were almost the precondition to acquisition of a lasting faith. Literacy, said Davies, “will render them more capable of being their own instructors, and of receiving instruction from others.” Again, Davies presumes upon native African abilities: “Their natural genius is [such that] when they set about learning in earnest, it is astonishing what Progress some of them make, though with little leisure or assistance.” viii

Given that slaves only had late evenings and Sundays to themselves, this show of learning is, in fact, remarkable, for it suggests that well beyond Davies's own efforts, slaves were actively developing their own systems of learning and teaching. Especially impressive is how slaves coped with the problem of language. If, using Morgan's estimate, the slave population of Davies's meetings was one-third African—and probably from a variety of peoples and language groups—that would mean over three hundred potential students of his one thousand black parishioners had a native language that was not either English or a creolized dialect. In the case where African learners were adults—particularly, those captured in Africa and sold in Virginia as such—then the “Progress” Davies speaks of must have come from the achievements of individual slaves in constructing methods that matched the population. With a little more insight and humility, Davies might have asked one of his literate slave communicants to write the textbook he could not manage to develop himself.

VI. Reading the Campaign

The obvious question arises: What of the evangelized slaves themselves? If we can trust the letters to the Society, we are left with a portrait of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Piedmont blacks expressing an almost desperate desire for books. Many of those people, but possibly only a minority of those asking for them, received books, all of which, with the exception of spelling books, were religious in nature. Davies and the other ministers who worked with him report slaves crowding into kitchens at three in the morning to sing the songs in Isaac Watts's hymn books; they note on several occasions the grievous disappointment of Africans and African Americans who can get no books because the allotment has been exhausted; they even describe the practice of slaves getting books to fellow blacks elsewhere in Virginia and neighboring colonies. And while they sometimes make the sort of demeaning comments one expects from eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans, they also suggest both an ability for literacy among even the most difficult to teach, specifically adult persons of African birth, and a facility for teaching reading to others. Unfortunately, except for the reported remarks of two or three unnamed individuals and the general reactions of the “poor Negroes” as a group, there are currently no identified contemporary statements extant by Hanover Presbytery blacks themselves on the meaning of their literacy experience. ix

Modern scholarship has enabled us to see that Africans brought with them a rich set of cultural resources that by and large were not recognized as such by early purchasers of slaves in America. The current standard of wisdom is that Africans were raised in societies that stressed orality, and that the linguistic gifts they demonstrated upon their arrival to America centered on speaking. As Sandra Gustafson has recently observed, American “eloquence” derived its power from a variety of traditions, including the “performance semiotic” of Native American oratory and a “cultural hybridity” enriched with African forms of the oral tale. Literacy to people without it would have seemed strange on first encounter. In the narratives of Olaudah Equiano and James Gronniosaw, to name two, the central figures encounter the “talking book,” a seeming totem that conveys language by some secret, silent, magical means; and indeed, may have spurred both Equiano and Gronniosaw to become literate, the former enough to write an eloquent book of his own. But for the most part, the southern slave experience has not been measured effectively in terms of literacy. There were likely a certain number of African slaves who were literate on arrival in America, albeit in Arabic or some other European language. Such individuals might quickly have made the transition to English literacy had they the access to books and teaching that Davies describes. x

Nevertheless, it appears that given the opportunity, a very large number of Africans or creoles understood the meaning of literacy far more deeply and quickly than perhaps they have been given credit for. Might we imagine, not so much a “world they made together,” as Mechal Sobel has argued, but rather parallel yet different worlds: a public teaching occurring in front of the faces of the enabling white ministers and an underground network of literacy training, in the quarter, spreading out of their sight? Davies and his ministerial colleague John Todd in particular seem surprised even at their own success, a success that Davies acknowledges is not always due to his direct efforts. Davies, for example, mentions the exceptional faith of “ten of them in one quarter”; but when he adds that they are “sincerely and zealously engaged in the doctrines and duties of our holy Religion” he means also, even if he does not directly utter, that they are “able to read the Scriptures.” As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., remarks, “To read and write was to transgress this nebulous realm of liminality” for slaves, to find a location somewhere other than the assigned margin of white society. Two white writers in the mid-nineteenth century describe experiences in their lifetime of a connection between Davies and blacks of their knowledge. One describes seeing “persons, born in Africa, who were baptized by Mr. Davies, and by his care had been taught to read: and have seen in their hands, the books given to them by this eminent preacher." Another, writing in 1853, claims, “The [Negro] children are taught by their parents in the doctrines and truths of the Bible, and are made familiar with the Shorter Catechism.” If those books and the transmitted ability to read lasted into the early decades of the 1800s, might they have lasted further—past the 1831 Virginia statute banning the gathering even of free blacks to learn to read—past secession—and into Reconstruction? More to the point—is it possible to trace a literate core of former slaves in 1865 who at the remove of two or three or four generations learned how to read, openly or secretly, from fellow slaves or free persons of color, as a result of the efforts of Davies and the books of the Society? xi

Although a number of colonial clergy in the South attempted to bring slaves to the church or Christ or both, few made any sustained effort at reaching blacks through literacy. In that sense, Davies's campaign to combine conversion and reading, prosecuted vigorously by him and others between the years 1755-1765, has few parallels in terms of scope or claimed success. By 1760, hundreds of African and African American slaves in the Virginia Piedmont appear to have had some rudimentary literacy; these individuals could read simple catechisms, books of hymns, the Bible, and sermons and tracts of various kinds. More importantly, some of the “leading” persons of various farms and plantations were capable of teaching other slaves, without the direct intervention of a white minister or instructor. Unlike other southern clergy who began with low expectations, the men around Davies started with the assumption that blacks had equal capabilities as whites to learn to read and that if they had enough books and time they could make rapid, even stunning progress. So exciting was this venture, that a number of people in the circle of the Society in London contributed thousands of books to this seemingly remote part of the colonies and added their skills in public relations, through the medium of print, to make the campaign seem to be a shining example of the extraordinary outpouring of spirit that characterized mid-century evangelism on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the fact remains that Davies and his cohorts were exceptions, rather than the rule. Whatever aid they gave slaves to read, the ingenuity of African Americans had more to do with the spread of literacy than a few well-intentioned ministers. The next stage of the story is to figure out the degree of literacy obtained by colonial-era slaves and by what means—a task that will have to await other research.


i. Jonathan Edwards to James Robe, May 23, 1749, in Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, v. 16 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1998), 276; Philip D. Morgan, “Slave Life in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1800,” in Colonial Chesapeake Society, ed. Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 472; Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 426. The range of scholarship on Davies's efforts at conversions of slaves can be seen in Wesley M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1930); George William Pilcher, “Samuel Davies and the Instruction of Negroes in Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 74 (1966), 293-300; Michael Greenberg, “Revival, Reform, Revolution: Samuel Davies and The Great Awakening in Virginia,” Marxist Perspectives 3 (1980), 102-19; James D. Essig, The Bonds of Wickedness: American Evangelicals Against Slavery, 1770-1808 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 12-14; and Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), 182-87. Biographical studies for Davies are numerous, but few of them say much about the literacy effort. The standard biography is George W. Pilcher, Samuel Davies, Apostle of Dissent in Colonial Virginia (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1971). Other treatments include [John Holt Rice], “Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Davies,” Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine 2 (1819), 112-19, 186-88, 201-17, 329-35, 353-63, 474-79, 560-67; Richard Webster, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America from Its Origin until the Year1760 (Philadelphia: J. M. Wilson, 1857), 549-63; William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, v. 3 (New York: R. Carter, 1859), 140-46; Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1911), 44-57; DAB 3, pt. 1, 102-3; Mark A. Noll, “Samuel Davies,” American National Biography, ed. John Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, v. 6 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 159-61.

ii. For a brief summary of Davies's education efforts, see Gewehr, Great Awakening, 235-37; and Pilcher, Samuel Davies, 115. D'Allone's bequest that made possible the formation of Thomas Bray's educational mission in the colonies stipulated that the money be used “in the Erecting a School or Schools for the thorough Instructing in the Christian Religion the Young Children of Negro Slaves & such of their Parents as shew themselves inclinable & desirous to be so instructed”: John C. Van Horne, Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 5. But Van Horne estimates that during the entire period of active laboring in colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia, 1730-1777, the Associates reached no more than “two or three thousand of colonial America's blacks” (38). As one can glean from statements quoted in this article, literacy for poor whites in Virginia was also probably very low, but Davies and his associates found working with slaves to be more rewarding, largely because blacks seemed more enthusiastic than whites in undergoing literacy training.

iii. Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. Shewing the State of Religion in Virginia, Particularly among the Negroes, 2nd ed. (London: J. Pardon, 1757), hereafter referred to as Letters 1757, 28; Essig, The Bonds of Wickedness, 14; Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 427. On the mixture of messages both spoken by Davies and the evangelicals and heard by slaves, see Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 138-39.

iv. Joseph Forfitt apparently kept a manuscript book of copies of letters to Society members, and it is possible that Davies felt obliged to send him a separate copy of the one he addressed to Cruttenden the previous month. There are enough minor wording differences, however, to suggest that Davies had each man in mind separately. John Rippon, A Discourse on the Origin and Progress of the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, from Its Commencement in 1750 to the Year 1802 . . . (London: J. G. Barnard, 1803?), 6. Cruttenden's connection to John Gillies in Scotland is unclear, but both participated in the same network of evangelicals, and Cruttenden quite possibly had seen Gillies's first volume, Historical Collections (1754). This duplication could be the beginning of a circulation and reprinting of letters that marks the movement, and the desire of as many as possible to claim close connection to the work of Davies. Quotation from Letters 1757, 9.

v. For the situation in South Carolina, see Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1974). Letters 1757, 10; Morgan, “Slave Life,” 435, 436, 441; Letters 1757, 9.

vi. Letters 1757, 18, 21-22. One moderate anti-abolition writer from the early nineteenth century attempted to justify the teaching of reading to slaves as the very thing that, counter to the popular wisdom, would prevent them from sinking to sheer brutishness, the precondition to a violent revolt: C., “Thoughts on Slavery,” Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine 2 (1819), 296-98.

vii. Ibid., 24. A similar process occurred with the Associates of Dr. Bray: “Often the recipients distributed books to blacks who presumably could already read, for their self-edification. And frequently literate blacks were used as intermediaries between the Associates' American representatives and the larger black population. In this scheme, whites educated certain blacks and then provided them with books with which to teach their fellow blacks.” Van Horne, Religious Philanthropy, 25.

viii. Letters 1757, 24, 17, 28.

ix. Methodologically speaking, it would be difficult to assemble concrete evidence that would indicate how successful the campaign was in the long run. Janet Duitsman Cornelius has used the Federal Writers Project slave narratives and others published or written in the nineteenth century to assess literacy among slaves in the immediate antebellum period. See especially Cornelius, “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read’: Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process,” Phylon 44 (1983), 171-86; When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991); and Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), esp. 124-45. Because the penalties for being caught reading tended to be more severe in the nineteenth century than in the eighteenth, it is possible that in selected areas, like Hanover County, the percentage of slaves who were literate might have been higher in 1755 than 1855, even though Cornelius has documented many cases of resistance to slaveowners and slave laws among late antebellum slaves.

x. Philip Morgan's Slave Counterpoint is perhaps the most exhaustive such treatment, a book from which I have learned a great deal, but when he mentions literate slaves, it is usually in the context of something other than literacy per se. John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, rev. ed, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), likewise has rich materials on songs, for instance, but virtually nothing on slave reading practices. Sandra M. Gustafson, Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), xv-xvii, 75-78, 101-10; Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 68; James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars . . . (Bath: W. Gye, 1770), 10. A standard article on the subject is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book,” Southern Review 22 (1986), 252-72. For other narratives in the same motif, see Gates as well as Carretta's note and additional references in Equiano, Interesting Narrative, 254-55 n.143.

xi. Sobel, World; Letters 1757, Pilcher, Samuel Davies, 108; Gates, “James Gronniosaw,” 253; Archibald Alexander, “Charles C. Jones, The Religious Instruction of the Negroes . . .,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 15 (1843), 26-27; Aliquis, “Biographical Sketch of President Davies,” The Presbyterian Magazine 3 (1853), 573. In addition, one Federal Writers Project narrative records something like a Virginia tradition in literacy: “The owner of Robert Cheatham's mother in Kentucky tried to carry on a family tradition from Virginia, telling his slaves, ‘You colored boys and girls must learn to read and write, no matter what powers object . . . your parents and your grandparents were taught to read and write when they belonged to my forefathers and you young negroes have to learn as much,’” in Cornelius, “‘We Slipped,’” 178-79. Beginning in 1805, various measures were passed in the Virginia state legislature restricting educational opportunities for enslaved blacks, which culminated in the 1831 measure to deny even free Negroes the right to assemble for the purpose of education. See June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts Concerning Negroes from the Earliest Times to the Present [1936] (Lovettsville, Va.: Willow Bend Books, 1996), 174-75, 176. I am indebted to Deborah Lee and James Sweeney for this last reference. For attempts by antebellum Baptists in Virginia to circumvent both custom and law that prohibited teaching slaves to read, see John S. Moore, “‘The Ban on Teaching Blacks to Read and Write,’” Virginia Baptist Register, no. 37 (1998): 1872-76.

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