Separating Church from King, 1775-1814

        Throughout the 17th and most of the 18th centuries, both the physical and moral welfare of the people were the responsiblity of the local praish. The churchwardens were empowered by the government to find a living for persons lacking in means of support, and to oversee the behavior of all those in the parish.

       The means of regulating behavior resulting in funds for supporting the needy. Fines of tobacco were regularl imposed for lewd behavior, bastardy, etc. These fines were then used to pay for clothing and other necessaries for the poor. For example, in 1693, one Elizabeth Paine of York Parish was ordered by the churchwardens to levae the plantation where she had been living, because she was a woman of "blown reputation". She appealed to the ocunty court for permission to stay on the land where she ahd a crop planted for the suppport of her children. The court awarded her freedom to stay on the plantation until the tobacco crop had been cut, and ordered "all persons disposed to interfere with her...to refrain from doing so" under penalty of a heavy fine. [Institutional History of Virginia in the 17th Century, P.A. Bruce, 1910]

        Following the Revolutionary War, this situation changed. The state of Virginia divested the churches of the authority to impose fines, and required that church assets, provided in the past by public monies, revert to the public good. They were ordered to sell silver plate, bells, and finally, after 1800, glebe lands to provide a county budget for welfare. In light of this, it is remarkable that the bell and silver plate survived at York-Hampton Parish. It is possible that the bell remained because it was in fact a county bell at the time.

        Yorktown escaped most ill effects of the Revolution until the very end, when it was occupied by Lord Cornwallis and the British allies and beseiged by General Washington and his allies. York-Hampton Parish chruch was used by the British as a powder magazine, and "the pews and windows of the Church all broke & destroyed"; a claim for damages of £150 was made after the war. [York County records, "Claims for Losses of York County Citizens in British Invasion of 1781"] The devastation to the church building and to the lives of parishioners was the beginning of a protracted period of decline which did not begin to reverse itself for more than 150 years. Details of the formation of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America can be found elsewhere; for our purposes, it is encough to say that in Yorktown, as in many other locales, a few faithful parishioners struggled to keep the order and forms of Anglican worship in the face of prejudice that attached to oppressive establishment.

In the fifty years after the Revolution the Episcopal Church in Virginia was forced to go through a bitter experience of prostration and sequestration of property, during which the great majority of its parishes were disorganized and the churches abandoned. Within this period many churches were destroyed and almost all of these still standing were left to decay and desecration. Only gradually was the Church able to regain and restore to use those that remained. Almost every one of them shows some evidence of this unhappy period. [The Colonial Church in Virginia, G. Maclaren Brydon and Mary Goodwin, 1968]

        Bishop William Meade, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, attributed to the Nelson family the continuation of the congregation at York-Hampton Parish [Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, 1857]. In 1785, the Rev. Robert Andrews left the parish and gave up the ministry to work at a profession that would better support his family. In June of that year, 45 men and women of the parish organized themselves to raise money for the support of a new rector, the Rev. Samuel Sheild. The first bishop of Virginia, James Madison, visited York-Hampton for confirmation soon after his consecration in London in 1790. Meade describes how Hugh Nelson prepared the confirmands in the parlor of Nelson House before they went to the church. This is the first recorded confirmation service at York-Hampton, and possibly in Virginia.


        Despite the efforts of lay leaders like Hugh Nelson, the parish continued to struggle, beset by the successive losses caused by the continuing antagonism between the new government and the new church. By 1804, the church had lost its glebe lands by order of the General Assembly.

In 1814, another disaster struck. An article from the Richmond Enquirer, dated March 9, 1814, tells the sad tale:

York, March 4 — Yesterday about 3:00 P.M. Mrs. Gibbons' house in this place took fire and together with the county Court-house, the Church, the spacious dwelling of the late President Nelson, and the whole of the town below the hill, except Charlton's and Grant's houses, were consumed. The lower town was occupied principally by poor people, who are now thrown upon the world without a shelter or a cent to aid them in procuring one....The wind was high and the boulding were old — the fire spread, of course, like a train of powder.

TimeLine of Significant Events

  • 1775 - Battle of Lexington and Concord begins War for Independence
  • 1777 - Oath of Allegiance - those who refused to take the oath in support of the patriot's cause were forced to leave the area
  • 1779 - Virginia capital moves to Richmond
  • 1781 - Cornwallis surrenders to Washington at Yorktown
  • 1782 - On the Peninsula, 78% of householders own slaves; median number is six per household
  • 1784 - First Virginia clergy convention to revise Anglican church laws
  • 1786 - The Rev. Samuel Seabury consecrated in Scotland, becomes first Episcopal bishop in America
  • 1800 - United States capital moved to Washington, D.C.
  • 1802 - Disestablishment Act - churches lose glebe lands
  • 1812 - War of 1812 begins
  • 1814 - Fire along the Yorktown waterfront spreads to the top of the bluff and burns the church
Last Published: March 5, 2010 10:11 AM
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