The Road to Revolution, 1725-1774

        The rising prosperity of Yorktown was reflected in the York-Hampton Parish church. A wall enclosed the church yard. A 1781 map shows the outline of the church with the addition of a north wing, and a drawing from 1755 indicates the possibility that a separate bell tower had been added. A visitor to Yorktown, William Hugh Grove, in 1732, described it as a "neat stone church with a bell." [Manuscript journal of W.H. Grove, quoted in A Chapter of Church History, Charles E. Hatch, 1963.]

        Yorktown was at its most prosperous at the height of the tobacco trade, 1750-1760. Both the map and the drawing mentioned previously illustrate a thriving commercial district on the watefront and an established residential district on the bluff. According to Hatch [Grace Church General Study, 1970], as the town prospered, the church was able to attract "men of good training and ability" to minister there. Most of the early clergy were highly educated men who served as professors at the College of Willam and Mary. The Reverend John Camm, rector 1749-1771 and 1774-1778, was, in the course of his career, the leading clergyman of the colony, commissary of Virginia, member of the governing Council, professor, and president of the College of William and Mary.

        One of the factors that made the nearly one hundred Virginia parishes an attractive living for clergy was the offer of 16,000 pounds of sweet-scented tobacco as a salary in addition to glebe income. In good years, this meant a comfortable lifestyle. After a series of poor yields, however, when the price of tobacco was higher, a series of Acts of Assembly allowed debts to be paid in money at a fixed rate. Mr. Camm was at the forefront of clergymen in an uproar over what we essentially a cut in salary. The Revered William Robinson, commissary of Virginia, in a letter to the Bishop of London, supports Camm's position, stating that "by this act the condition of the clergy is rendered most distressful, various and uncertain, and deprives us of that mainenance which was enacted for us by His Majesty." [Papers Relating to the History of the Church in Virginia, 1650-1776, William Perry.]

        Following the death of William robinson, Camm was appointed commissary. In his new role, he was the leading clergy in the colony. A substantial body of letters and petitions documents Camm's history of appealing directly to the Bishop of London to ask for support of the clergies' position versus their vestries.

"I cannot help looking on this unhappy affair as a struggle to encrease the power of Vestries, which almost universally exercise their power with too high an hand already."

John Camm to the Bishop of London June 4th, 1752

        In the 1760's Camm spent months in London representing the Virginia clergy in their case against the Virginia Assembly and vestries concerning the tobacco payments. Through his patron, the Bishop of London, he was able to convince King George III to disallow the offensive act, and immediatly instituted a lawsuit of his own against the York-Hampton Parish vestry. In support of his suit, Camm prepared a list, which survives intact, of "tithables" in his parish, showing taxpayers and their respective number of servants and slaves. Although Camm was a highly educated, esteemed clergyman, worthy of his hire, his parish vestry seems to have balked at being ordered to give up more of their control, an attitude that festered in the colonies for the next two decades.

Camm lost his lawsuit when it came to trial in Virginia; he also lost his appeal in London. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the lines were clearly drawn: Camm, who became a Tory, was unable to garner support of either clergy or vestry, who tended to side with the patriots. Camm lost parish living, professorship, and commissary, and was forced to rely on his wife's family's largesse.


        At the time of the Revolutionary War, the affairs of the Church of England were very much entwined with the affairs of government in the Virginina Colony. Leading planters and merchants, including Thomas Nelson and Dudley Digges of York, served on His Majesty's Council, were Governors and Visitors of the College of Williams and Mary, and served as vestry members of their parishes. When it came to a vote of the Council on John Camm's lawsuit, Nelson and Digges abstained from voting due to conflict of interest.

With the dissolution of the royal government in 1774, the leading patriots in Williamsburg — Nelson and Digges among them — called for a Day of Fasting and Prayer to take place on Wednesday, Jun 1, 1774, the day appointed for the closing of the port of Boston by the British. While no record exists of services at York-Hampton Parish for this period, the home church of several prominent patriots would not have been backward in observing this day. Was the Rev. John Camm, vociferous Tory, able to bring himself to preach the sermon at such a service?

TimeLine of Significant Events

  • 1725 - A bell is purchased for York County which probably is the one mentioned as being for the church
  • 1726 - Norfolk, Williamsburg, and Yorktown are the only town in virginia with population greater than 250 (all three have fewer than 500)
  • 1750 - Population of Yorktown is between 500 and 1000 residents
  • 1752 - Britain and her colonies adopt the Gregorian calendar
  • 1754 - Beginning of the French & Indian War
  • 1756 - Population of Virginia is 250,000, more than 40% of whom are slaves
  • 1760 - Tobacco prices reach a 100-year peak. George III ascends to the throne
  • 1763 - End of French & Indian War. 184 "taxpayers" in York-Hampton Parish
  • 1765 - Stamp Act, Quartering Act
  • 1769 - Virginia governor dissolves House of Burgesses after they reject Parliment's right to tax colonists
  • 1774 - June 1, Day of Fasting and Prayer in support of the citzens of Boston at the closing of the port


Last Published: March 5, 2010 10:10 AM
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