The Economic Benefit of
Slavery to the Episcopal Church in Virginia
What was the economic tie between slavery and the Episcopal Church in Virginia? How did the diocese, the Virginia Theological Seminary and its churches benefit from the system of involuntary servitude that had been an integral part of Virginia’s society and economy since the first sale of slaves at Jamestown in the early 17th century?
While it is clear the Episcopal Church benefited from slavery, documenting the details of the benefits is difficult due to the absence of rich institutional records and the nature of the records that survive. Diocesan records prior to the Civil War are almost non-existent beyond the diocesan Journal. The Archives of the Virginia Theological Seminary contains Board of Trustees minutes for only half of its antebellum existence and a handful of other related documents, while parish records are scattered and incomplete. For evidence of the ways the Episcopal Church’s benefited from slavery in Virginia, one must look for answers in government records, scholarly assessments of the economy and records of personal actions.
During the Colonial period, prior to the 1785 organization of the Diocese of Virginia, the Church of England was the established or official church of the colony, and all inhabitants were members by law, regardless of personal preference. Virginia church buildings, like other major structures of the period, were constructed with the assistance of slave labor. Some parishes owned slaves to work the parish glebe lands for the benefit of the parish or the rector. The major benefit to the church from the slave system, however, came through taxes. Parish churches were supported by the parish tax, or levy, not voluntary contributions. A head tax, or “tithe,” was paid on white males, as well as “unfree” laborers, male or female, 16 years and older. While the master, not the slave, paid the tax, a large percentage of parish revenue in slaveholding areas was based on slave labor.
In 1785, the last vestiges of an established church ended in Virginia and the Diocese of Virginia was officially created. Tax support of the church was replaced by voluntary contributions by parishioners. The absence of tax income for parishes, however, did not remove slavery’s monetary benefits from the churches, the diocese, or later, the Virginia Theological Seminary, founded in 1823. Historically, Virginia Episcopalians were slave owners, deriving much of their disposable income from the labor of their slaves. Voluntary contributions to parishes, the diocese or the seminary all came from the disposable income either directly produced by slave labor or from the economy based on involuntary servitude. Oral tradition indicates that slaves were donated or willed to various levels of the church in Virginia, but records have yet to be found to document this tradition.
Monies invested by the diocese or the seminary in banks or bonds in Virginia were also intimately connected with the slave economy, raising the same linkage issues as surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s regarding investments in U.S. companies supporting apartheid through their business activities in South Africa. The Virginia economy was based on slavery, so there was no way to benefit from the economy and not benefit from the institution of slavery.
Surviving records do not provide data on parish, diocesan or seminary ownership of slaves. It is known that building contractors included slaves in their construction crews and VTS buildings, and at least some parish churches were built with slave laborers. In addition, many slave owners rented out “extra” slaves to others. Documents at Mount Vernon from the 1850s record renting slaves to an agent for VTS to work at the seminary.
The ownership of slaves by individuals, however, can be determined through the U.S. Census records. These census records document the slave ownership of the first four bishops of Virginia--James Madison, Richard Channing Moore, William Meade and John Johns, and early professors Edward R. Lippitt, Joseph Packard and Williams Sparrow.
The Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of Virginia were slave owners, as well. Of the 112 Episcopal clergy canonically and physically resident in the Diocese of Virginia in 1860, 103 could be located in the U.S. Census of that year. Eighty-four of the brethren, or 82 percent, possessed at least one slave, while some owned dozens.
In short, the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia could not help but have economic ties to slavery. Involuntary servitude was the basis of Virginia’s economy, which ultimately produced the disposable income that supported the church. Episcopalians, both lay and clergy, owned slaves. The Virginia Episcopal Church’s economic ties to slavery, both institutional and personal, could end only with the dismantling of the slave system.
This article was originally published in Center Aisle (Issue No. 2), a daily journal of opinion produced by the Diocese of Virginia as an offering for the General Convention. This article and back issues of Center Aisle. It was reprinted in the Virginia Episcopalian 115 (2006): 23.