The series will explore words used in the Episcopal Church that are arcane, unusual or have changed over time. This week’s word is basic – the minister.
The Colonial Minister was a man in the middle. As a branch of Church of England, the Virginia church was governed from London. The church required that all priests be educated and ordained in England. However in practice they were hired by colonial vestries unlike their English counterpart. The parish vestries defied the governor in two primary ways — through control of the recruitment or selection of clergy and through refusal to present for induction
Even so clerical appointments were part of extensive clientage or patronage relationships. Local landowners and gentry by mid-century possessed over half of the “advowsons” (legal right to appoint) in the church since in many cases they owned the land where the church was built. Ministers were also challenged by the increasing of dissenters and those caught up in the Great Awakening by 1740.
Colonial ministers are easily distinguished from their current counterparts. They were all male. There was no Diocese or support from an church agency. There was no staff aside from the churchwarden. The minister was also automatically a farmer. He was assigned the income from a "glebe," or parcel of land that they could farm. In counties with good soil for growing tobacco, the income from the glebe was relatively high – and those parishes were able to attract the best-quality ministers.
Early on, there was a severe shortage of priests in Virginia early on—only 28 priests served a population of 140,000 in 1724. Virginia parishes almost doubled in number between 1725 and 1775 (from fifty-one to ninety-five). Even so, in no single year during the period were fewer that 76 percent of the parishes supplied with a minister. However by the Revolution that percentage had improved to 100% Diversity in ethnic origins and birthplace characterizes Virginia’s eighteenth-century parsons
What accounts for the change ? As time went on more priests came not from England but were home grown in the colonies. In Virginia as in the British Isles, the ministry functioned also as a path of upward mobility for young men from society’s middling. Another path was coming from abroad before deciding to go in the ministry They made decisions for ordination in the context of their Virginia experiences. Others came from other counties such as Scotland
Mastery of classical languages was at the heart of education for priests. Indeed the reason for setting up a college in Virginia "want of able & faithfull ministers" While the majority of Virginia’s parsons attended college, some did not. Presumably they satisfied the loophole in the requirements for ordination ("he is able to yield an account of his faith in Latin, according to the Articles of Religion"). There were no seminaries as we have now . The minimum age to be a priest was 24.
Once they achieved position it was not bad job. Vestries did not subject their ministers to annual reviews. They did not renegotiate contracts with parsons. Apart from stipulating in some cases an initial probationary term for clergy not known to them previously, vestries behaved as if the parson they hired was theirs for life This tenure record is all the more noteworthy when considered in the light of clergy mortality. The mean age at death for parsons was fifty-seven years. Over a third were dead before they reached age fifty.
Socially it was a was of moving up in life. All Anglican parsons were gentlemen by profession. Some were gentlemen by birth. Many augmented their gentle status through marriage. Many were of modest background so it was a way of climbing the social ladder.
What was their call ? In their ordination vows, Anglican clergy pledged to teach nothing but what is proven by scripture; to preach and administer the sacraments faithfully; to combat error and heresy; to be diligent in study and prayer; to foster quietness, peace, and love among the people in their charge; "to frame and fashion your own selves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make both your selves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesom examples and Patterns to the flock of Christ."
The clergy dressed the part with more rigid dress codes than today. The priest had to dress the role as the "model" or "pattern" of the Christian life. For clergy holding academic degrees, the usual "decent and comely Ap¬parel" were "Gowns with standing Collars and Sleeves strait at the Hands, or wide sleeves, as is used m the Universities, with Hoods or Tippets [scarves] of Silk or Sarcenet [a fine soft silk or cotton fabric], and square Caps.