Page images
PDF
EPUB

means make any provision for their widows and children, who are generally left to the charity of their friends—that the small encouragement given to clergymen is a reason why so few come into this colony from the two Universities; and that so many who are a disgrace to the ministry find opportunities to fill the parishes; and that the raising the salary would prove of great service to the colony.” This petition was not granted; the time was unfavourable, whatever might have been the disposition of the legislature;—the troubles with the French and Indians were increasing, and ended, in the summer, in a furious war,--and the staple of Virginia that year failed. Whether the petition of the clergy was reasonable, depends upon circumstances connected with the rate of living at that time. Their stipends were a glebe of two hundred acres with the proper buildings, and sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco, which at two pence per pound would amount to £133 6s. 8d., together with marriage and funeral fees. This might or might not have been a sufficient support, according to the style of living adopted by the clergy. If they followed, or were expected to follow, the more wealthy planters in their rate of expenditures, it was certainly too small; if they followed the middling class of people, it was generally enough, with proper economy. If, however, it was really too small, they asked for an increase of salary at an unfortunate time. For on account of a severe and protracted drought, which spread its influence over the whole country, and was peculiarly oppressive in Virginia, the Legislature in October of this year 1755, passed Act 5th—to enable the inhabitants of this colony to discharge their Tobacco debts in money for the present year. The preamble is—“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 this present year according to the directions of the laws now in force; for remedy whereof, and to prevent 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--the enactment is that it shall 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' 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, intituled, An Act for amending the staple of tobaccos 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 nett tobacco, and so in proportion for a greater or lesser quantity, at the option of the payer.'

This act was to continue in force ten months. By this law the tobacco was rated at its usual value, when there was a fair crop, two pence per pound. And as this was the rate when the debts were contracted, the legislature determined there was no injustice to the creditors in paying them the estimated value of their debts. There was no complaint heard against this law during its continuance.

In September of the year 1758, the Legislature re-enacted the law of 1755. The preamble states—“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 times, to prevent, as much as possible, the distresses that must inevitably attend such a scarcity-be it therefore enacted,” &c. The crop failed; and the price of tobacco was greatly raised, getting as high as fifty shillings a hundred. The beneficial clergy complained loudly of this law, that by it they were compelled to receive their salary at the rate of two pence per pound for tobacco, when it was worth sixpence or more, and thus instead of about £400, the real worth of their salary, they received less than £134; and added that the action of the law was unjust, as the depreciation of tobacco had never been made up to them, -and their salaries were small. The commissary, the Rev. John Camm, of Williamsburg, assailed the law, which in a pamphlet written with great severity, he styled “ The Two-penny Act.” Colonels Richard Bland, and Loudon Carter replied with equal severity. The excitement spread through the colony. A portion of the clergy met in convention at the College of William and Mary, and instructed their Commissary, Mr. Camm, to make a representation on the subject to the Bishop of London, or the Lords of Trade. “ It is probable,” says Dr. Hawks, p. 118_" that this complaint was made to their diocesan, as there is extant a letter from that prelate to the Board of Trade, in which he inveighs against this law, as being subversive of the rights of the clergy.” Mr. Camm replied to the Colonels under the title--" The Colonels Dismounted;" and the Colonels rejoined, and carried the people generally with them. The excitement against the clergy became so great, that the printers in Virginia declined publishing for them; and Mr. Camm resorted to Maryland for publication. The king in council, however, denounced the act of 1755 and 1758 as an usurpation, and declared it null and void.

“This was," says Dr. Hawks—"an unfortunate contest for

rom

the church and the clergy. In every conflict of the kind, the merits of the questions, originally involved in the dispute, are apt to be lost sight of; and in the ardour of controversy, it is not unusual for men to transfer their condemnation opinions to those who avow them; and such there is reason to believe was the course pursued in this instance. While among the clergy there were some who were above just suspicions or reproach, it must be owned that, as a body, they were any thing but invulnerable; and the opportunity for censure, afforded by their conduct was too inviting to be overlooked by their antagonists. The leading laymen looked around, and saw almost every parish supplied with an incumbent of some sort, while the state of religion was in their view, far from flourishing; they did not hesitate to impute this condition of things to the clergy themselves—and the people at large were ready enough to lend a willing ear to the charge. It was not that there was any partiality for the dissenters, for the general sentiment was against them; but there was growing up in men's minds a gradual alienation from the church, because it was identified with those who were suspected of being more anxious to enrich themselves than to benefit the souls of others; and men began to admit the suspicions that the establishment was proving a burden, instead of a blessing. Doubtless, injustice was done, in the process, to many a worthy man, who was made to suffer by the indiscriminate censure which visited this order, while he probably would have been as prompt as any one in removing those who had subjected both the church and himself to undeserved reproach. This unfortunate dispute is recorded because it was one of the links in a chain of causes which was operating silently, but surely, for the prostration of the church; every thing which provoked hostility and awakened prejudice, of course prepared men's minds for the final blow struck in the stormy times of that Revolution, to which the country was even then approaching with unexpected but certain step.”

The preceding view of the contest of the clergy with the Legislature and the public at large, is undoubtedly correct, and is more impressive as coming from the pen of an able defender of the Episcopal Church. After the admission made by him, it would seem ungenerous, here, to cite any instances of delinquency in the clergy, which aided in increasing the excitement produced by this contest. The clergy continued the contest; and after the king in council had pronounced the law null and void, they commenced suits in the civil courts, to recover damages for the withholding their sixteen thousand weight of tobacco or its proper value in money. One suit only was brought to an issue, that instituted by the Rev. James Maury of the county of Hanover. Of this, says Mr. Wirt, in his Life of Patrick Henry, p. 40, “The record of this suit is now before me. The declaration is founded on the act of 1748, which gives the tobacco ; the defendants pleaded specially the act of 1758, which authorizes the commutation into money at sixteen shillings and eightpence; to this plea the plaintiff demurred; assigning for causes of demurrer, first, that the act of 1758 not having received the royal assent, had not the force of a law; and secondly, that the king in council, had declared the act null and void. The case stood for argument on the demurrer to the November term, 1763, and was argued by Mr. Lyons for the plaintiff, and Mr. John Lewis for the defendents; when the Court, very much to the credit of their candour and firmness, breasted the popular current by sustaining the demurrer.” On the first day of the following December, Patrick Henry appeared to argue the cause before a jury on the question of damages, Mr. Lewis having abandoned the cause as desperate. This is the famous case, in which Patrick Henry made his first appearance before a court, and won laurels as a pleader. The scene is well described by Mr. Wirt. Mr. Henry boldly maintained, that the people had only consulted their own safety by the law of 1758, and the king's veto was only an instance of royal misrule; and that notwithstanding the dissent of the king in council, the act ought to be considered as the law of the land. The jury seemed willing to admit his position, yet according to law returned a verdict of one penny damages. The court overruled the motion for a new trial.

No other case was brought to trial; they were all throughout the colony ultimately dismissed by the clergy, who took their revenge by an angry pamphlet from the pen of Mr. Camm. Mr. Maury did not think it advisable to prosecute an appeal, judging it to be entirely useless, in the excited state of the public mind. The tradition respecting this man is, that he was a clergyman worthy of his office, irreproachable in his morals, a believer in the gospel, whose faith triumphed in the last hour; his last expressions were those of praise. There were some advantages in having this cause tried at the suit of Mr. Maury; and there were some serious disadvantages in bringing the suit in Hanover, the home of Davies, and the strong hold of the dissenters east of the Blue Ridge.

The Legislature maintained the legality of their enactment in 1755, and 1758, and to prevent, as far as possible, any decision of the lower courts in favour of the clergy in their contest against the application of this act to their salaries, it was resolved on the 7th of April, 1767—“that the committee of correspondence be directed to write to the agent, to defend the parish collectors from all appeals from judgments here given, in suits brought by the clergy for recovering their salaries, payable on or before the last day of May, 1759; and that this house will engage to defray the expense thereof." The influence of the established clergy was now gone; and the people and the Legislature of the colony waited only for a fitting opportunity to break down their legal power: and such an opportunity, in a few years, occurred. The clergy were not sensible of their danger, at this time, when their rescue might possibly have been achieved; when their infatuation left them, their ruin was unavoidable.

The third auxiliary was found in the efforts and influences of the denomination of Christians called Baptists. There was a Baptist church, gathered in Isle of Wight county, by a minister from England, as early as the year 1714. But the denomination did not spread much in Virginia for many years. About the year 1743, a few Baptist families settled on the Opeckon in Berkeley county, and formed a church, which spread both in the Valley and east of the Blue Ridge, particularly by the labours of David Thomas, till by the year 1770, we are told by Semple, in his History of the Baptists in Virginia, p. 295, the regular Baptists had churches scattered through all the Northern Neck above Fredericksburg. And between the years 1770 and 1780, by the labours of Mr. Lunsford, a young preacher of extraordinary powers, their churches were extended to the Bay Shore.

The Separate Baptists, as they were termed under circumstances, which with the name have passed away, made their first appearance about the year 1754, when Shubael Stearns set out from New England on a mission to the southward, and took his abode on the Calapon in Hampshire county. Remaining here a short time, he and his companions removed to North Carolina and settled on Sandy Creek in Guilford county. Here the denomination greatly increased; and from this spot shot out its branches over North and South Carolina and Virginia. The most noted agent in extending the denomination in Virginia was Samuel Harris, of Pittsylvania. He was hopefully converted, in very interesting circumstances about the year 1758, and immediately commenced preaching through the counties bordering on North Carolina. About the year 1766, he went through the counties on the north side of James River; and on the 20th of November, 1767, assisted in forming the church of Upper Spottsylvania, consisting of twenty-five members, the first Separate Baptist church between James and Rappahanoc Rivers. By the time the Revolutionary war commenced, members of the Separate Baptist denomination were found from the Blue Ridge to the Bay Shore, both north and south of James River.

« PreviousContinue »