Historic Events: The Founding of the Presbytery of Hanover
Updated: Jan 6
When one ponders about important events in Virginia history, one often thinks about military conflicts and famous declarations, however, there can be other circumstances. While it is true that soldiers helped establish and preserve political institutions, the contributions of ecclesiastical leaders are often forgotten. From the Society of Friends (Quakers), Presbyterians, and Baptists, they all played crucial roles. It wasn’t until the founding of the Presbytery of Hanover at Polegreen Church that a major step toward religious freedom occurred.
When Presbyterian ministers, “Samuel Davies, Robert Henry, John Brown & John Todd,” and elders “Samuel Morris, Alexander Joice, John Macey,” met on December 3, 1755,1 little did they know the impact this gathering would have. Risking their reputations by establishing the Presbyterian denomination in Virginia and North Carolina, they participated in an unprecedented movement. Having officially organized the Presbyterian reading houses into a Presbytery, they could better serve the needs of their congregations.
Although, other religious dissenters had previously built Calvinist colonies in Virginia, this situation was different. Unlike the state-sponsored settlements of Manakin Town and Germanna, the Presbytery of Hanover was built on the struggles of nonconformists. Seeking religious tolerance and new opportunities, the Scots-Irish who migrated from Pennsylvania were crucial to the success of the Presbytery’s formation. While the French settlers of Manakin town and the Germans of Germanna were seen more favorably by colonial officials, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians were often harassed.
Despite political and religious persecution by the English government, the Presbytery of Hanover began to reform the educational, political, and ecclesiastical foundation in the colony. Under the leadership of the Rev. Samuel Davies, Presbyterian ministers educated African American and African slaves. By teaching them to read the bible, they challenged the socially-accepted norms of the era. Instead of only inspiring European pioneers, these Presbyterian leaders desired to “increase the knowledge and influence” of God “in the hearts” of the disenfranchised.2
As the Presbyterian's evangelical and educational mission became more popular, the Church of England became increasingly concerned. As Anglican Priests watched their Parishes lose members, they knew the Presbyterians were forever changing Virginia. Without the hard work of the Presbytery of Hanover, the history of the United States would have turned out differently.
Documentation and Suggested Readings:
1. Presbyterian Church in the U.S.; Hanover Minutes, 1755-1756; Union Presbyterian Seminary, microfilm.
2. Samuel Davies, Sermons on Important Subjects (1810; Forgotten Books : ,2012), V.