Vestries also appointed individuals to maintain local roads and provide ferry service over Virginia's many rivers (although the county courts had largely taken over these tasks by the 1730s); to serve as "tobacco viewers," who ensured that the colonists were not planting too much tobacco; and to serve as churchwardens, who presented moral offenders to the county courts. Parish vestries took special care to relieve parishioners of the expenses associated with raising bastard children, especially those of indentured servants; they held the power to sell female servants to pay for the upkeep of their illegitimate offspring or to force the fathers to put up a bond to cover the expenses of caring for the child. Vestries were also charged with processioning or "going round … the bounds of every person's land" in the parish every four years and renewing the landmarks that separated one person's property from another's. Lands processioned three times without complaint gained legal status as the formal boundaries of an individual's property. Virginia vestries assumed responsibility for many of these duties until the Church of England was disestablished in 1784, existing vestries dissolved, and groups known as overseers of the poor elected to exercise civil powers of the former vestries, especially caring for the poor and for bastard children.
As territorial divisions, the parishes' bounds were set by Virginia's General Assembly. They also divided parishes, often at the request of parishioners, as in 1643 when the legislature created two additional parishes in Upper Norfolk County in response to complaints that the parish church was too distant from many of the people it served. More rarely, the General Assembly combined smaller parishes to create one larger parish when this made sense. In the eighteenth century, parishes took on expanded political roles as either power bases for local elites or sources of political controversy within counties. As county populations increased, splitting an old parish could be divisive: one set of residents would gain greater access to religious and welfare services while another set would gain little and have their parish taxes increased. Where vestry service had once been nearly a lifetime position for twelve gentlemen, a split parish would now require them to run for reelection, and would also expanded opportunities for other elites who had been effectively shut out of local politics. Such controversies could also spill over into House of Burgesses elections, as they did in 1752 in Hanover County and in the 1760s in Fairfax. In Accomack, the debate over managing the old parish and/or creating a new one lasted so long and became so contentious that it created highly competitive elections for more than fifty years.
1619 - A partial list of churchwardens' duties appears in the Virginia code of laws and includes the injunction that they present individuals accused of swearing and drunkenness to the commanders of each plantation.
1632 - A list of ministers' and churchwardens' duties appears in the Virginia code of laws and includes the injunction that they present moral offenders to the courts.
1642–1643 - The General Assembly formally establishes parish vestries, which are responsible for a variety of civil and religious functions. Vestries are given the authority "to elect and make choyce of their ministers."
1657–1658 - The General Assembly gives parish leadership authority over "all matters concerning the vestry, their agreements with their ministers, touching the church-wardens, the poore and other things concerninge the parish or parishoners respectively be referred to their owne ordering and disposeing from time to time as they shall think fitt."
1662–1663 - The General Assembly sets the number of parish vestries in Virginia at twelve.
1780 - The General Assembly passes a law creating overseers of the poor for Rockbridge, Botetourt, Montgomery, Washington, Greenbrier, Augusta, and Frederick counties; the overseers of the poor gradually take on many of the civil responsibilities of parish vestries.
1785 - The General Assembly orders the election of overseers of the poor for each district in Virginia and formally transfers to these groups the powers formerly exercised by vestries and churchwardens over the poor and bastard children.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Bond, E. L. The Parish in Colonial Virginia. (2016, November 14). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Parish_in_Colonial_Virginia_The.
- MLA Citation:
Bond, Edward L. "The Parish in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 14 Nov. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 1, 2011 | Last modified: November 14, 2016
Contributed by Edward L. Bond, a professor of history at Alabama A&M University.