• David Joyce

The Importance of Researching Eighteenth-Century Parish Records

Updated: Jan 2

Learn how to research your Anglican ancestors from Colonial Virginia

From it's early beginnings, the Colony of Virginia was founded on the principles of the Church of England. Established as the only legal Christian denomination, it held supreme political and religious influence. As a consequence of this law, pioneers had to decide whether to participate in the Anglican Church, or to face the consequences. Because of the widely-available documentation, it is easy to see if your Virginia ancestor is recorded as an active member.


Organized under parishes, each county was divided between one or more parishes. Functioning as both Church and State, these churches maintained the stability of the British colonial government. Overseen by a Vestry of elected officials, roads were built and tithes were collected. Although, not a perfect system, it was designed to provide for the welfare of the colony.


To begin researching your eighteenth-century ancestor within the parishes records, you need to determine which county they lived in. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on Camden Parish in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. One of the first facts one needs to determine is if they served a vestryman. Below is a transcribed example from the "Vestry Book of Camden Parish: 1767-1820" on page 1:



"At a vestry held for Camden Parish at Pittsylvania Courthouse (page torn) 1767....Present JOHN DONELSON, (JOHN PIGG), HUGH INNES, GEORGE ROWLAND, CRISPIN SHELTON, JOHN WILSON, PETER PERKINS, (THOMAS DILLARD, Jr.), ABRAHAM SHELTON, THEOHILUS LACY, ROBERT CHANDLER, and WILLIAM WITCHER, gent. vestrymen."



These officials provided for the poor. On page 7 and 9 are two examples:


"Ordered that THOMAS DILLARD, JR, select the gentlemen of the vestry of ANTRIM PARISH in the joining them to build a house for the poor; and nothing further being offered, the orders were signed."


"Ordered that the Church wardens supply the two blind children of JOHN DALTON with necessaries for their support, who are pensioners."



In charge of expanding and maintaining Pittsylvania County, they would also add new properties to Camden Parish. An example is on page 14:


"Ordered that DANL. LOVELL, JOHN WATSON, THOMAS WATSON, and JERIMIAH WORSHAM procession all the patent land from the mouth of GREAT CHERRYSTONE CREEK up BANESTER RIVER on both sides to the mouth of STRAWBERRY CREEK and to the ridges."



By searching these records one can find discover if their colonial ancestors were part of the Church of England. However, this method does not often apply to members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) or Presbyterians. In the next segment, we will explore how to research Presbyterian pioneers.

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