Excerpted from the official website of the Diocese of Virginia (www.thediocese.net)

Post-Revolution and Re-establishment of the Church of Virginia

When the Church of Virginia, in which a bishop had never set foot, was disestablished beginning in 1784, it was at one stroke left without a governing body and a means of support. Taxes had supported it during its years of establishment, and Virginians, therefore, had never learned to support their Church voluntarily. Although the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia was allowed to organize itself in 1785, its incorporation was not permitted because the new General Assembly feared the return of an established church.

The General Assembly continued Virginia’s geographical parishes as basic units of local church life and ministry. A parish was administered by a vestry that was elected by the freeholders in a parish. For the first Convention in 1785, each parish, through its vestry, was to choose two deputies, one of which was to be the ordained minister of the parish, if there was one. If not, the second deputy could be a layman. Ordination was not enough to entitle a clergyman to a seat in Convention. He had to hold a parish.

It is generally considered that in 1776, at the onset of the Revolution, there were 98 geographical parishes in the established Church of Virginia. The new Virginia Legislature added at least six more by 1780, bringing the total to 104. Many parishes had within them more than one church building and, in some cases, there were several.

During the week of May 18-25 in 1785, although 35 parishes were unrepresented, 71 laymen and 36 clergymen representing 69 parishes came to Richmond for the first Convention. Only 29 parishes were represented by both a layman and a clergyman. The Convention met at Henrico (St. John’s) Parish Church and in the public buildings and chose the Rev. James Madison, D.D., rector of James City Parish, as President of the Convention.

In an address in 1910, the Rev. Dr. Edward L. Goodwin said:

It was preeminently a layman’s convention. Not only did they outnumber the clergy nearly two to one, but they far outweighed them in ability and legislative experience. No convention or council since has enrolled so many distinguished names or numbered so many statesmen of the first rank in the Commonwealth. Twenty of its members held seats as members of the State Legislature, including the speaker of both the Senate and the House. Nine had sat in the convention of 1776, and had aided in formulating the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the State. Four became governors, four members of Congress and three adorned the bench of the highest state courts, while two sat in the convention which framed the Constitution of the United States. One was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one was to hold two portfolios in the Cabinet of the first President.

Its primary business was to frame and adopt a set of canons which it called “Rules and Regulations.” A second order of business was to select four deputies, two laymen and two clergymen, to represent Virginia at the first General Convention that was to be held in Philadelphia “on the Tuesday before the Feast of St. Michael” in the following September. The Virginia Convention chose John Page from Abingdon Parish in Gloucester County and William Lee from James City Parish, as well as the Rev. Dr. David Griffith of Fairfax Parish and the Rev. Samuel M’Groskey of Hungars Parish in Northampton County. Page, Lee and Griffith have descendants active in diocesan life today.

The early canons of the Diocese reflected a post-revolutionary spirit of caution. Strict limits were set on the authority of the bishop, who was permitted only to ordain, confirm, and to “take precedence in ecclesiastical assemblies.” Virginians saw no place for lordly bishops or episcopal palaces in their new Commonwealth. A bishop, indeed, was to have no authority over the parishes of the Diocese and was, himself, “to do the duty of a parish minister,” except when called upon to exercise a particular function of his episcopal ministry. The laity?in the form of the vestries?was firmly and happily in control of church life.

In 1786, the Rev. David Griffith, rector of Fairfax Parish and a surgeon, became the first Bishop-elect of the Diocese of Virginia. He was unable to raise sufficient funds, however, to finance a trip to England with William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York for episcopal consecration. In 1789, he resigned his election in disappointment and died the same year at the age of 47.

The Rev. James Madison, president of the College of William and Mary and rector of James City Parish, was elected, then consecrated in England in 1790, to be the first Bishop of Virginia. His vast diocese included not only what is today the Commonwealth of Virginia, but also West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and parts of the states north of the Ohio River. His duties at the college and his parochial ministry permitted him to make long-distance episcopal visitations only during the summer months. Bishop Madison’s second cousin of the same name served as President of the United States, 1809-1817.

In 1792, Bishop Madison was privileged to take part with Bishops White, Provoost and Seabury in the consecration of Thomas J. Claggett, the first Bishop of Maryland. Bishop Claggett’s consecration, the first on American soil, brought together both the English and Scottish lines of episcopal succession for the newborn American Church. Bishop Seabury never participated in another episcopal consecration.

A man of tremendous ability, talent and intellect, Bishop Madison was given the impossible task of two diverse forms of service to the people of his day, more than any one man could fulfill. Although he was diligent in ordaining as many men as any other American bishop, Bishop Madison could not prevent the number of parishes in the diocese from declining from a pre-revolutionary 98 to fewer than 50. In addition to the lack of financial support and a uniform means for educating those preparing for ordination, priests who had been driven out of the more closely governed dioceses of New England took Virginia parishes and contributed to the overall decline. Attendance at Conventions declined, and between 1799 and 1812, it was possible to muster a quorum only twice. The influence of the Presbyterians, the Baptists and eventually, the Methodists grew as the Episcopal Church waned. Furthermore, as the parish ministers incumbent at the time of the disestablishment died, and as parishes became vacant to clergy, the glebes were seized by counties and used as poor houses. The church plate and bells were sold at auction to finance the Overseers of the Poor, completing the disestablishment and ending an important responsibility of the Church of Virginia.

When Bishop Madison died in 1812, after many years of failing health, only 40 parishes still survived, clergy had been deprived of their livelihoods and church buildings stood abandoned in all parts of the Commonwealth. The outlook was grim. The Rev. John Bracken, rector of Bruton Parish, was elected second Bishop of Virginia in that year, but was opposed by several persons, including the Rev. William Meade. He resigned his election 1813 and died in 1818.

In 1814, the Rev. Richard Channing Moore of New York, the first man ordained by Bishop Provoost, was persuaded to accept election as rector of Monumental Church in Richmond and as Bishop of Virginia. A man of strongly Protestant and evangelical outlook, Bishop Moore was a gifted and eloquent preacher. There is a story about a congregation that listened spellbound to one of his long, 19th century-style sermons, and when it was over, demanded that he preach another. When that homily ended, they called for another. After the third sermon with supper time near, Moore declared that he had preached enough!

An able and tireless leader, as well as a great preacher, Bishop Moore crossed and re-crossed the Commonwealth, reviving parishes, replacing the reprobate priests who had come in during the early years of the century, and building up the financial support of the Church. Virginia’s second bishop’s episcopate was marked by the founding of the Virginia Theological Seminary and of the Diocesan Missionary Society.

In 1829, the Rev. William Meade was elected and consecrated assistant bishop and, until Bishop Moore’s death in 1841, gave his diocesan bishop immense help in reviving the Church in Virginia. Bishop Meade was a prolific writer of letters, prayers, devotional guides, and of historical articles that were later collected in Old Churches and Families of Virginia. Historians and genealogists owe Bishop Meade a great debt for collecting and depositing many of the colonial parish registers and vestry-books with Virginia Theological Seminary.

By the time Bishop Meade became third Bishop of Virginia in 1841, he was himself in ill health and another assistant bishop was chosen, the Rev. John Johns, D.D. Bishop Johns was the first bishop to be consecrated in Virginia, at Monumental Church in Richmond, October 13, 1842. By the time he became fourth Bishop upon Meade’s death in 1862, the Diocese had assumed a leading position in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States and was large, wealthy, and strong in every respect, its evangelical character and witness owing to the tireless ministry provided by Bishops Moore and Meade.

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