How America Separated State from Church in Colonial Virginia

Dateline: 1696 to 1763, Virginia. Ten clergymen signed a key document. These historical primary documents tell the story of the gradual, great “divorce.”

The Anglican clergy in Virginia demanded that parish levies must be collected for their support, even during a drought. Would the people—the taxpayers—be pleased?

Early on, the colony of Virginia was not allowed by law to have its own currency, and trade with Great Britain brought no adequate amount of gold or silver, so the colonists had to use goods. Tobacco was the staple crop, so they used it. They wouldn’t use food crops like barley.

The colony of Virginia took over from the Old World the custom—and law—that the clergy must be paid through parish levies or taxes.

This entire seventy-year issue was a big deal to the Virginia colonists, especially in the mid-eighteenth century, because they were farmers, and the dispute touched them where they lived.

Year 1696

Here is the 1696 Act that makes their demands official and sets the clergy’s salary at 16,000 pound of tobacco. Times were flush.

Modernized transcription begins:


Whereas a competent and sufficient provision for the clergy will be the only means to supply this dominion with able, faithful, and orthodox ministers whereby the glory of God may be advanced, the church propagated and the people edified;

And whereas the law now in force entitle the glebes [ministers’ homes] to be laid out, in making such provision, does seem very deficient and uncertain.

Be it enacted by the Governor, Council, and Burgess of this present General Assembly and the authority thereof, and it is hereby enacted,

That the said act of Assembly in the printed book entitled Glebes to be laid out and every clause and article thereof be from henceforth repealed and made void, to all intents and construction and purposes as if the said act had never been made, anything in the said act or in any other act contrary in anywise notwithstanding.

And be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that all and every minister or ministers in all and every parish and parishes in this dominion incumbent in the said parish or parishes and herein officiating as minister or ministers shall have and receive for his or their maintenance the sum of sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco besides their lawful perquisites [“perks”] and that it shall and may be lawful for the vestry or vestrymen of any parish or parishes and they are by virtue of this act authorized and empowered to raise and levy the same in their respective parish or parishes, as also to levy five percent for collecting and paying the said tobacco convenient.

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that it shall and may be lawful for the vestry and vestries of all and every parish and parishes to appoint the church wardens of whom they think fit to collect and receive the ministers’ or other parish dues, and the said person or persons so qualified as aforesaid shall be and are hereby empowered in case of nonpayment to make distress of the same.

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that all and every vestry and vestries in this dominion shall be and are hereby authorized and empowered where the same is not already done to purchase and lay out a tract of land for the glebe at their discretion and at the charge of their respective parishes; and likewise to build and erect a convenient dwelling house for this reception and abode of the minister at their discretion of such parish or parishes vestry or vestries. Provided always and it is the true intent and meaning of this act, that if any vestry or vestries of any parish or parishes shall find their parishes to be so small and poor and not able to allow and maintain a minister as aforesaid, that then their respective parishes may be united and consolidated to the next adjacent parish or parishes. And whereas the clerk of the register fee seems to be so small an encouragement for an office of so much trust;

Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that every clerk of the register shall and may lawfully by virtue of this act take and demand the sum of five pounds of tobacco or sixpence for recording and registering every birth, burial, or marriage; and the church wardens of the said parish or parishes or any other person or persons appointed by the vestry or vestries are hereby authorized and empowered to collect the same or in case of nonpayment to make distress.

Transcription ends.

Year 1751

This act repeats and reinforces the previous one. The clergy can get paid in 16,000 pounds of tobacco per year. As we shall see, drought hit Virginia. So would the clergy demand their 16,000 pounds or relent? More on that after this act.

Modernized transcription begins:


I. Be it enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council, and Burgesses, of this present General Assembly, and is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that every minister now preferred, or hereafter to be preferred to, or received into any parish within this dominion, shall have and receive an annual salary of sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco, and cask, with an allowance of four per cent for shrinkage, to be levied, assessed, collected and paid, in manner herein after directed.

II. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that the vestry or every parish within this dominion shall, and they are hereby authorized and required, at some convenient time, before the first day of December, in each year, to meet and lay the parish levy, whereof public notice shall be given by the minister or reader, at each church in the parish: And every vestry is hereby authorized and required to levy and assess, upon the tithable persons in their respective parishes, as well the minister’s salary aforesaid, as all other the parish charges, and also the legal allowances for cask, where the tobacco due to any parish creditor shall be contracted for to be paid with cask, together with the allowance of six per cent for collecting the parish levy.

III. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that where any parish is or shall become vacant by the death or removal of their minister the vestry of such parish shall have power to levy the salary aforesaid, or any part thereof for satisfying some neighbouring or other minister. or ministers, for serving in the cure [care or oversight as in curator] of such parish during the vacancy.

IV. And for the better collecting and paying the parish levies, be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid. That the vestry of every parish respectively shall be, and is hereby authorized and empowered to nominate and appoint such person as they shall think fit, to collect and receive their parish levy, the person so appointed giving bond, with sufficient securities, that he will duly collect, pay, and satisfy, unto the several parish creditors, all tobacco for them levied; and every such collector, for his trouble, shall have the allowance herein before appointed, and shall also have full power and authority, by virtue of this act, upon refusal of payment of the !aid levies, or any part thereof, by any person or persons chargeable therewith, to distrain the slaves, goods, and chattels, of the party refusing, and to make sale thereof, in the same manner as is by law directed for other distresses: And if the vestry of any parish shall neglect or refuse to levy the tobacco due to the minister, or other parish creditors, in such case, all and every the vestrymen of the parish neglecting or refusing, shall be liable to the action of the party grieved, his, or her executors, or administrators, for all damages which he or they shall sustain by such refusal or neglect.

V. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that in every parish of this dominion, where a good and convenient glebe is not already purchased and appropriated, a good and convenient tract of land, to contain two hundred acres at the least, shall be purchased by the vestry, and assigned and set apart for a glebe, for the use of the minister of such parish, and his successors, in all times hereafter; and where mansion, and other convenient outhouses, are not already erected, for the habitation of the minister, It is hereby declared and enacted, That the vestry of every such parish shall have power, and they are hereby authorized and required, to cause to be erected and built on such glebe, one convenient mansion house, kitchen, barn, stable, dairy, meat house, corn house, and garden, well pailed [sic], or enclosed with mud walls, with such other conveniences as they shall think fit, and to levy the charge of the glebe land, and buildings, on the tithable persons in their respective parishes.

VI. And to the end the buildings already erected, or hereafter to be erected upon every glebe, may be kept in good repair, It is hereby further enacted, that every parish minister within this dominion shall, during the time of his being minister of the parish, keep and maintain the mansion house, and all other the outhouses and conveniences, erected, or to be erected on his glebe, in tenantable repair, and shall so leave the same at his removal from his parish, or death, accidents by fire, or tempest, only excepted: And in case any minister shall fail so to do, such minister, his executors and administrators, shall be liable to the action of the churchwardens of the parish, for the time being, wherein the value of such repairs shall be recovered in damages, with costs of suit, and the damages so recovered, shall be applied and laid out in making necessary repairs upon the glebe: And every vestry of a vacant parish is hereby empowered and required to put all the buildings upon the glebe of their parish, into such good and sufficient repair, as that the same may be fit for the reception of the succeeding minister;

Provided nevertheless, that any vestry, who shall judge that the minister has not willfully committed any wait on his glebe, may make such necessary repairs, at the charge of their parish as they shall think fit: And every minister, received into any parish as aforesaid, shall be entitled to all the spiritual and temporal benefits of his parish, and may maintain an action of trespass against any person or persons whatsoever, who shall disturb him in the possession and enjoyment thereof.

VII. And whereas it is doubted, how long the right of presentation of a minister to a parish, remains in the vestries in this colony: For settling that matter, be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that the sole right of presentation shall be, and remain, in the several vestries, for and during the term of twelve months next after a vacancy shall happen in their respective parishes.

VIII. And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid that one act made in the first year of the reign of his present majesty, entitled, An Act for the better support of the clergy of this dominion; and for the more regular collecting and paying the parish levies: And all and every other act and acts, clause and clauses heretofore made, for or concerning and matter or thing within the purview of this act, shall be, and are hereby repealed.

IX. And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that this act shall commence and be in force from and immediately after the tenth day of June which shall be in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifty one.

Transcription ends.

Year 1755

One problem with the above act is that it did not allow for fluctuation in prices. Sometimes the crop failed. Sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco was too much for the people to pay, so they could pay in money or in tobacco at a cheaper rate. Nonetheless, some (not all) of the clergy wanted their 16,000. So the value of the tobacco should not exceed the actual value placed upon their services—things could fluctuate.

This act is called the Two Penny Act because the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco.

Modernized transcription begins:


I. Whereas by reason of the great drought a very small quantity of tobacco is made, so that the inhabitants of this colony are not able to pay their public, county, and parish levies, and the officers’ fees and other tobacco debts in tobacco for this present year, according to the directions of the laws now in forced, for remedy whereof and to prevent the sheriffs and other collectors of the public dues, from taking advantage of the necessities of the people and exacting exorbitant prices for tobacco, due or payable to them from the poor and needy.

II. Be it enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council, and Burgesses of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same; that it shall and may be lawful to and for any person or persons from whom any tobacco is due by judgment, for rent, by bond, or upon contract or for public, county and parish levies or for any secretaries, clerks, sheriffs, surveyors or other officers’ fee or by any other way or means whatsoever to pay and satisfy the same, either in tobacco, according to the directions of the act of Assembly, entitled An Act amending the staple of tobacco and preventing frauds in his majesty’s customs, or in money at the rate of sixteen shillings and eight pence, for every hundred pounds of net tobacco and so in proportion for a greater or lesser quantity at the option of the payer;

And the sheriffs and other collectors shall, and they are hereby required to receive the same from any person or persons, in discharge of any such levies and officers’ fees; aforesaid shall account with and pay to the persons entitled to the same in proportion to their several demands all tobacco and money which they shall receive in payment of such levies and fees, which shall discharge such sheriffs and collectors from any other demand for such levies and fees, any law to the contrary thereof notwithstanding.

III. Provided always that nothing herein contained shall extend or be construed to extend to any public, county, or parish levies or officers’ fees now due or hereafter to become due in any county whereby law the inhabitants of such county are now empowered to discharge the same in money.

IV. And be it further enacted that this act shall continue and be in force for the space of ten months.

Transcription ends.

Year 1756

Here certain members of the clergy (not all by any means) write to the bishop of London, explaining why they want their 16,000 of tobacco. They fight back for their rights laid out by the king and royal privileges. The king, after all, was the head of the Anglican Church or the Church of England.

Modernized transcription begins:


Virginia, [blank] 25, 1756

May it please your Lordship,

We the subscribers being of the established clergy in the Colony of Virginia, humbly beg leave to represent to your Lordship the great hardships we at present lie under by an act of all of our legislature, passed here in November last (a copy of which is enclosed), which we humbly conceive is a breaking in upon our establishment, an insult upon the Royal Prerogative, & contrary to the liberty of the subject, as well as to natural justice & equity. This, may it please your Lordship, is a heavy charge; but yet, if upon a true & candid representation of the case, your Lordship shall think as we do, we hope for your interest & intercession at the proper board to have this law, so far as it affects us, your Lordship’s clergy, repealed.

That your Lordship may be sensible of the hardships we complain of, be pleased to consider that there ever has been a standing law in this colony & which has lately received the Royal Assent: that every beneficed minister of the Church of England shall receive an annual salary of 16,000 lbs of tobacco, paid by the respective parishioners, but this last year, because small crops of tobacco were made & a high price consequently expelled; our legislature in a new & unprecedented manner, have altered the law confirmed by the sanction of Royal Assent, so far as to make it optional in the people, to pay either money or tobacco; & which is still a greater hardship upon us, they have valued out tobacco at an underrate, viz., at 2d per lb., when the market is generally expected to be 3d if not 4d per lb. (of this currency which is at least 25 per cent worse than sterling & sometimes more). When the market is low, which has been generally the case from 1724 till now, the clergy are obliged to rest satisfied with what they can get for their salaries which are but too scanty at best, we therefore hope that your Lordship will think with us, that we ought in justice to have the benefit of the rising market, but when your Lordship is pleased to consider that this option law has a retrospect & deprives us of a property earned & due before it was a law, your Lordship may be satisfied of this retrospect in the law complained of, we beg your patience while we inform you, that the vestries (who have the power by law to levy the clergy’s salaries) take care not to levy any tobacco for their parish Minister till it is due (i. e.) suppose we are received into a parish (or institution & induction we have none), in the fall, when the parish levy is laid by law;

The vestries levy no tobacco for us till that time 12 months & the tobacco then levied is not demandable by law till the last of May following & perhaps not received for some months after that, so that at our first setting out in the world, in low circumstances, we are obliged to labor in our extensive parishes (some of which are 100, many 60 & 70, & the common extent of them 30 & 40 miles in length), in extremities of weather both hot & cold for a year & a half at least & sometimes longer before we receive our salaries; by which time many of us are obliged to run so much in debt that we can hardly ever after retrieve our circumstances & all this time the law we complain of has a retrospect & deprives us of a property due by virtue of a former law & a law too that has had the Royal Assent & pursuant to his Majesty’s instructions to the Governor cannot be altered or any other enacted in its place, without a suspending clause, till his Majesty’s pleasure is known (one of which instructions is, as we are assured, not to pass or materially to alter any law, in contradiction to one that has obtained the Royal Assent for a year & a day; or till such time as his Majesty’s pleasure shall be known).

Our legislature were so sensible that their option law is contrary to Royal prerogative & instruction & withal so apprehensive were they that it would be repealed, so soon as it was known at home, that to make sure work of it, they enacted it to be in force for 10 months only, which was long enough for their purpose, as all tobacco payments would be over in that time; & yet a repeal could not be obtained. This may it please your Lordship is a true state of the case, & one would think that there must needs be some extraordinary reasons for passing so extraordinary a law, yet when your Lordship is pleased to consider these reason, they are such as will by no means justify the conduct of the legislators, for in the first place, the small quantity of tobacco made (which seems to be their main argument), will by no means do it, for small crops of tobacco are so far from being a loss to the country that in the opinion of the most discerning judges, they are an advantage to it.

To explain this to your Lordship, we beg leave to observe that by reason of the great quantity of tobacco commonly made, the market is overstocked; & the low prices given are hardly able to support the planters. But if there was less made, the market would rise in proportion & the planter would get as much for his small quantity, as he at any time would, for his greater. This our legislature are so well aware of, that they have made several attempts to lessen the quantity of tobacco, by a stint law & now when Providence has made a stint to their hands by an uncommon drought in the summer & a frost early in the fall, it is very hard that the clergy should be denied the benefit of it.

The next reason given for parting the law is, to prevent frauds & impositions in collectors. But we humbly apprehend that this law now complained of will be so far from answering this pretended good end that it will open a door to greater frauds & impositions than any law ever yet did, for as it leaves it to the option of the payer to pay either money or tobacco, the collector will be sure to make his advantage by it & pay to public creditors what best suits his interest which in such a multitude of payers, he may safely do without the least risk of being detected.

Another scheme our legislators fell upon to make their option law go down & to gloss over the injury intended by it to our establishment was to tack [sic] our salaries to placemen’s fees, for if your Lordship pleases to observe, they do not strike at us directly & separately, but covertly & in conjunction with secretaries, clerks, sheriffs, &  other tobacco creditors. It is very true, may it please your Lordship, that all tobacco creditors are sufferers by this law, but none so much as the clergy; as our all depends upon it & the retrospect of the law affects us much more than it does any other tobacco creditors. But the most material thing in our favor is that our salaries have had the Royal Assent and therefore cannot be taken from us or diminished in any respect, by any law made here without trampling upon the Royal Prerogative, & surely there is a vast difference between the established clergy’s livings secured to us by royal sanction & placemen’s fees, which never had that sanction, but are temporarily & variable & discretionary in the legislature according to the exigency of the country.

In the last place, the law is colored over with charity & compassion to the poor. If this was really the design of the law, we beg leave to answer your Lordship that none are more ready & willing to promote charitable designs than the clergy are here according to our abilities. But if the more obvious designs of the law will be stripped of this dignity & viewed in its proper colors, & that this is really the case, will we doubt not appear to your Lordship when you are pleased to consider that all our public dues are paid in tobacco at a certain proportion for every tithable (taxable) person (taxable persons are all white males above 16 years of age & all negroes both male and female of that age). Now it is manifest that the rich man who pays for instance for 100 tithables (& some have several hundreds) must save 100 times as much by the law as the poor man who has but one tithable & many none at all. There is no charity therefore in the law, unless it be that charity which of all others may most truly & properly be said to begin at home, at the legislator’s own home. Had the law had a respect to the poor & them only, the clergy would have cheerfully acquiesced in it, but we think it hard that the whole burden should be laid upon us; nay, that near half a salary should be taken from us by law & distributed among the rich & the great (which is really the case here) & not among the poor. These are the plausible reasons given for passing this act & we must submit to your Lordship whether or not they will justify our legislature in what they have done.

As in our humble opinion the rights of the King & Church are struck at, we the established clergy who think ourselves instructed with the patrimony of the church reckon it our indispensable duty to acquaint your Lordship with this encroachment & all we desire is to have the free use & disposal of our properties & to hold our livings (small as they are) independent of those who have hitherto shown us good will.

If it should after all the objected to the justness of our complaint that other tobacco creditors are sufferers as well as we, yet they acquiesce under the law complained of, we answer that the reason why they do not complain is because their fees are entirely discretionary in the legislature, who would surely have docked them had they not acquiesced.

The salaries we ought to receive next June, pursuant to a former law, were due before the law we now complain of was made & were we to receive them in due course we believe upon the best computation we should not receive the 10th part of the tobacco made this year even where the crops are smallest, nor the 20th part take the crops upon an average all over the country; & in other years one with another, not 50th part of what is commonly made. Our being deprived of the benefit of this rising market will still keep us in debt in & so in a dependent state, a thing much aimed at my he great men of this country and & not only so, but it will sink our credit with our mother country by putting it out of our power to ship home our tobacco towards discharging our debts already contracted in Great Britain & for importing from thence many necessaries of life, which consequently we must buy here at a high advance at least double the first cost.

There is no doubt but those leading gentlemen of the legislature, who were principally concerned in passing this act, will or have already sent home some justification of their conduct & may possibly represent both it & us in a light neither deserves. If it should be so, as we are a poor helpless set of men, we having nothing to rely upon but the justice of our cause & your Lordship’s favor & protection, which we implore only upon condition that it shall appear to your Lordship that we ill used & have reason to complain, which surely is the case, so long as we are both subjected to such laws as make property precarious & while the legislature assume a power to take from us by one law what precarious & while the legislature assume a power to take from us by one law what they gave us by another as is notoriously our case & which your lordship may be satisfied of by comparing the clergy law of 1748 which then had the sanction of the Royal Assent, with this option law of 1755, which we hope never will obtain that sanction.

It is with great concern that we are obliged to take this opportunity to acquaint your Lordship that the established church & clergy are upon very precarious footing in this colony, but though often ill used yet they have never been totally deserted by every branch of the legislature till now. And since in this our unhappy situation at present we have the more need of a friend at court & we humbly think that we cannot apply so properly to any friend as to your Lordship our worthy diocesan & as we have already experienced your Lordship’s goodness in supporting out case, when we were attacked in our title by one great man in the case of the late Mr. Kay. We flatter ourselves that we shall have the continuance of your favor and protection, when we are now struck at in our properties by the whole legislative body of this dominion, who we must say it, has distinguished themselves in their maltreatment of the clergy. For Virginia and Maryland are the only two governments where tobacco is the staple & where the clergy are paid in that commodity; & though there are as short crops made there as here & though the Maryland clergy receive yearly, near twice as much tobacco as we do in Virginia, yet there is no option law in that government, nor any attempt made to subvert their establishment. As we are the most numerous clergy of any of his Majesty’s colonies & have done nothing to forfeit the protection of the legislature, it is very hard that we should be singled out & made the only sufferers.

Were we not apprehensive that we have already trespassed upon your Lordship’s patience, we could set forth sundry other pernicious consequences of this law, particularly how prejudicial to religion & the propagation of the Gospel in this part of the world, such treatment of the clergy must be, for surely it cannot but discourage us in the discharge of our ministerial duty & in a great measure defeat our power of doing good among our people who are but too apt to follow the example of their superiors in treating the clergy with scorn & contempt. It must also have a threatening aspect upon all useful seminaries of learning, particularly the college of William and Mary in this colony, founded by Royal Charter, in which seminary our youth are educated in several useful branches of learning & some trained up for the ministry.  For in our opinion no man will give his son a liberal education or bring him up for the ministry under such discouraging circumstances & no clergyman of worth & learning will ever come from Britain to settle here, where he will be so far from meeting with due protection that he runs the risk of being denied the rights & privileges of a freeborn subject.

We also humbly conceive that the making such law especially at this time is highly impolitic in a Church of England legislature. For of late dissenters of several denominations have settled here and are gaining ground among us, who make it their business not only to divide our church & seduce the unwary from our communion, but miss no opportunity of raising their own reputation upon the ruin of that of the established clergy. Here then is the best opportunity for them to exult and triumph.

And now to conclude this long Epistle we beg leave to assure your Lordship that they whole body of the clergy of this dominion unanimously lay to heart the grievances we complain of & the reason why so few names are subscribed to this is chiefly owing to the great distances between our respective habitations & because your Lordship’s Commissary judged it unavoidable to call a convention of the clergy, but withal assured us that he would heartily espouse our cause & second our addresses to your Lordship, & as he thinks that private representations will better answer our purpose, we have no other method left but to form ourselves into small brotherhoods & in this way to sue for redress.

So throwing ourselves & our cause on your Lordship’s favor & protection & in hopes that your Lordship will use your interest with his Majesty & the ministry that the evils we complain of may be redressed & such relief afforded to your Lordship’s suffering clergy as his Majesty in his great wisdom & goodness shall think fit, we be leave to subscribe ourselves:

May it please your Lordship,

Your Lordship’s most dutiful & obedient sons and servants,

John Brunskill, Sr., in the 40th year of my ministry

Henry Dunbar, in the 30th year of my ministry

Patrick Henry, in the 24th year of my ministry

Alexander White, in the 11th of my ministry

John Robertson, in the 11th year of my ministry

Alexander Finnie, in the 31st year of my ministry in the country

Thomas Wilkinson, in the 3rd year of my ministry

Peter David, in the 5th year of my ministry

John Barclay

William Willie, in the 18th year of my ministry

Transcription ends.

Year 1758

Once again, a drought hit Virginia, so the tobacco crop failed. As a result the General Assembly passes this act for the relief of the taxpayers.

Modernized transcription begins:


I. It being evident from the prodigious diminution of our staple commodity occasioned by the unseasonableness of the weather in most parts of the colony, that there will not be tobacco made to answer the common demands of the country; and it being certainly expedient at all such time to prevent, as much as possible, the distresses that must inevitably attend such a scarcity;

Be it therefore enacted, by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Burgesses of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same that it shall ad may be lawful to and for any person or persons from whom any tobacco is due by judgment for rent, by bond or upon any contract or for public, county or parish levies; or for any secretaries, clerks, sheriffs, surveyors, or other public officers’ fees or by any other ways or means whatsoever to pay and satisfy the same either in tobacco, according to the directions of the act of Assembly, entitled An Act for amending the staple of tobacco and preventing frauds in his majesty’s customs, or in money at the rate of sixteen shillings and eight pence for every hundred pounds net of tobacco and so in proportion for a greater or lesser quantity at the option of the payer; and the sheriffs and other collectors shall, and they are hereby required to receive the same from any person or persons entitled to the same in proportion to their several demands, all tobacco and money which they shall receive in payments of such levies and fees, any law to the contrary thereof notwithstanding.

II. Provided always that nothing herein contained shall extend or be construed to extend to any public, county or parish levies or officers’ fees now due or hereafter to become due in nay county by law the inhabitants of such county are now empowered to discharge the same in money.

III. Provided also that nothing herein contained shall extend to any contract made for tobacco have been bona fide paid at a greater rate than sixteen shillings and eight pence per hundred, as aforesaid, but that all such contracts shall be discharged in tobacco according to the price really given for such tobacco, together with the lawful interest arising on the same to the time of paying the same, at the option of the person or persons from whom the tobacco would have been due, had this act never been passed.

IV. And be it further enacted that this act shall continue and be in force for one year and no longer.

Transcription ends.

Questions about the above letter: Was it a good idea to call on London to settle matters that had come up in the colonies? How rebellious were the colonists against Old World England? How many colonists still felt allegiance to England in the middle of the eighteenth century?

Year: 1759

Here the bishop of London replies to the “epistle” from the clergy of Virginia. The Virginia Act, above, is from a lesser power than Royalty, and to pass it was treasonous when apparently the king had approved 16,000 pounds in tobacco. The bishop was surprised that a well-regulated and well-ordered and submissive colony like Virginia would suddenly seek to lessen the power of the crown (king) and clergy. The bishop concludes that the crown must take priority over the Virginia Assembly.

Modernized transcription begins:

Fulham, June 14th 1759

My Lords,

I have considered the Act of Virginia referred to me. It seems to be the work of men conscious to themselves that they were doing wrong, for though it is very well known that the intention of the Act is to abridge the maintenance of the clergy, yet the framers of the Act have studiously avoided naming them or properly distributing them throughout the Act, so that it may be doubted whether in a legal construction they are included or no.

But to take the Act as they meant it and as every body understands it we must first consider by what authority the Assembly acted in passing such a law and in the next place how inconsistent the provision of the Act was with justice and equity.

The subject matter of the Act as far as the clergy are concerned was settled before the Act of Assembly, which Act has the Royal Assent and confirmation and could not be repealed by a lesser power than made it; and to make an Act suspend the operation of the Royal Act is an attempt which in some times would have been called treason, and I do not know any other name for it in our law.

If they had brought in an Act of Repeal to take place from the time they could obtain the King’s assent to the said Act of Repeal, they would have been blameless, but to assume a power to bind the King’s Hand and to say how his power shall go and where it shall stop is such an Act of Supremacy as is inconsistent with the Dignity of the Church of England and manifestly tends to draw the people of the plantations from the allegiance to the King, when they find they have a higher power to protect them. Whether or not such an effect be produced, I know not, but surely it is time to look about us and to consider the several steps lately taken to the diminution of the prerogative and influences of the crown; lately taken, I say, because within a few years past Virginia was a well-ordered and well-regulated Colony and lived in submission to the power set over them; they were all members of the Church of England and no dissenters amongst them; the clergy respected and well used by the people, but there says are over, and they seem now to have nothing more at heart than to lessen the influence of the Crown and the maintenance of the clergy, both which ends will be effectually served by the Act now under our consideration.

It was not till the year 1748 that this spirit began to show itself, at which time an Act of Assembly passed by which the patronage of all the livings in the Colony were taken from the Crown and given the vestry in the several parishes and yet this Act receive Royal Assent, upon which inducements I know knot, but it was observable that the Assembly did not care to attack the rights of the Crown and that of the clergy at the same time; and therefore in the same Act of 1748 there is the strongest confirmation of the clergy’s right to their full proportion  of tobacco without any diminution whatsoever, which provision was meant to silence the complaints of the clergy against the other part of the Act; and reason they had to complain when instead of Royal Authority they were put under the power of the Vestry and made subject to the humors of the people.

That no good was finally intended the clergy is manifest from hence: That no sooner were they in possession of the patronages but they wanted also to be absolute masters of the maintenance of the clergy, in which attempt they proceeded warily and endeavored to bring in the scheme of degrees; and accordingly in the year 1755 the clergy in the counties of Princess Ann and Norfolk were deprived of their tobacco and force to accept of a compensation in money, very much to their loss.

The same year produced a general Act, but a temporary one, and was followed by a very extraordinary Resolution of the Council. The case was this: The Assembly had passed the Act; when it came to the Governor for his assent he boggled at it and for his own security thought proper to advise within the Council, that is, with the very persons who had been promoters of it; he tells them he apprehended it interfered with the law confirmed by his Majesty in regard to the allowance for the clergy.

Here the case is stated: it is admitted that the maintenance of the clergy had the King’s Confirmation and that the Governor by his instruction is restrained from altering it. But it seems the Act confirmed by his Majesty appointed 16,000 pounds of tobacco to each clergyman. The Act upon which this advice was asked took no notice of the quantity of tobacco allowed the clergy, but made it subject to compensation in money, which was to be rated by the very persons who were liable to the payment of the whole. Upon this circumstance the Council gave their judgment and declared it the opinion of the board that this bill was not contradictory to that law, insomuch as it by no means lessened the quantity of tobacco allowed the clergy, but only ascertained the price thereof to be paid in money for all dues, as well to officers as to clergy.

This declaration is a formal judgment in the case stated between the Authority of the Crown and the power of the Assembly and subjected the laws established by the Royal Assent to be altered, corrected or suspended by a vote of the Assembly.

The Lieutenant-Governor wanted something of an excuse for what he was strongly inclined to do and a very sad one they furnished him with. What made him so zealous in the cause I pretend not to judge, but surely the great Change which manifestly appears in the tempers and disposition of the people in that Colony in the compass of a few years deserves highly to be considered and the more so as the Deputy-Governor and Council seem to act in concert with the people, to lend their authority to support their unreasonable demand. But one would think upon consideration of the same late transaction there that the Deputy-Governor thought themselves obliged upon their first entrance to make a present to the vestries of the maintenance of the clergy the jurisdiction of the Prerogative and Supremacy and Rights of the Crown.

As to the want of justice and equity showed in the Act to the clergy, the case is too plain to admit of any reflection upon it: If the Crown does not or cannot support itself in so plain a case as is before us, it would be in vain for the clergy to plead the Act confirmed by the King, for their rights must stand, or fail, with the Authority of the Crown.

I am, your Lords,

Your most obedient humble Servant,

T. London

Transcription ends.

The Outcome

On April 1, 1762 Rev. James Maury of Fredericksburg Parish in Louisa County brought a suit against the collectors of the parish levies. Things were delayed. On November 5, 1763, Patrick Henry took up the cause of the defendants. The Act of 1758, which said the farmers could pay in money and not tobacco, was declared null and void. So Rev. Maury won. Now what about the damages? After five minutes of deliberations, they jury awarded the plaintiff only one farthing damages. Nothing, in other words.

This dispute, lasting 67 years, was only one factor in the Great Divorce between the State and Religion.


Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765, ed. John Pendleton Kennedy (Richmond, Virginia: 1907) xxxix-l (39-50),

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s