The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 800-801
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A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776. By John K. Nelson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 477. $49.95.)
John Nelson has produced the most significant book on Anglicanism in colonial Virginia since George MacLaren Brydon published his two volumes fifty years ago. This beautifully written, revisionist study will force historians to rethink the shape of colonial religion and Anglican development. For over a century, the dominant perspective on the colonial church belonged to Bishop William Meade, an evangelical Episcopalian in the mid-nineteenth century. His work, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, depicted colonial Anglicanism as a spiritual wasteland for clergy and laity alike. Recent historians have challenged Meade's views, but Nelson's prodigious research has buried them forever. While complementing Edward Bond's new book on religion in seventeenth-century Virginia, Nelson revises Dell Upton's perspective on Anglican worship, Edwin Gaustad's estimate of the number of Anglican congregations, and Rhys Isaac's case for dissenter strength on the eve of the Revolution.
A Blessed Company begins by focusing on parish structure and operation, then considers the clergy and the religious and pastoral services they provided, and concludes by examining various parish constituencies. An inclusive, flexible institution, the parish encompassed everyone living within its boundaries. As population expanded and shifted, the colonial assembly divided or suppressed old parishes and created new ones in the west. Because of the scattered population, [End Page 800] a parish was normally multicongregational with one minister rotating among several churches and chapels. Lay readers read the service from the Book of Common Prayer when the clergyman was absent. A vestry of twelve men, representative of the local gentry, controlled parish business affairs, ranging from erecting and maintaining buildings to caring for the poor. Virginians taxed themselves more heavily for parish services than for anything else, irrefutable proof that they took their religious faith and parochial duties seriously.
A major criticism against the colonial church has been that it lacked the oversight of bishops, but Nelson shows how the laity carefully and successfully assumed that responsibility, and suggests that they performed better than bishops would have done. Because they valued their church and its liturgy, Virginians regularly attended Sunday worship and maintained a well-educated, hard-working clergy whose professional abilities and religious qualities compared favorably to their counterparts in England. On the Revolution's eve all ninety-five parishes were staffed with clergymen and new parishes were being formed. In short, "Virginia's Anglican establishment was alive and vital" (p. 7). It had been so for decades.
If all was well, why have historians faulted Virginia's Mother Church? Nelson attributes much of the criticism to an "anti-liturgical bias" (p. 191) that privileges preaching over other forms of worship, conflates spirituality with emotional conversions, and reads back into pre-Revolutionary days a revolt against the established church that existed only among a very few dissenters. In reality, Anglicanism appealed to the great mass of white Virginians, and even to a minority of African-Americans, until the Revolution "suddenly opened the doors to radical change" (p. 289). By demonstrating the fundamental strength of Virginia's colonial religious establishment, A Blessed Company helps to explain why its destruction after 1776 took a quarter-century to complete.
Thomas E. Buckley, S.J.
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley
Graduate Theological Union