The Life and Career of William Peaseley
of Colonial and Revolutionary America
See also: Clergyman and Adulterer Page 1
By 1764, and possibly earlier, Peaseley was a resident of Lunenburg County, Virginia and apparently was parson of St. James Parish. In that year a list of tithables in the parish names the Reverend William Peaseley as responsible for one tithe and adds that he was not a land owner. In 1762 St. James had been taken from Cumberland Parish in Lunenburg and in 1765 the area comprising St. James became the new county of Mecklenburg, located on the North Carolina border. Virginia church authorities have not mentioned Peaseley as rector of St. James and have not identified a minister of the parish before 1770 when John Cameron assumed the duties of St. James.41 The Church of England was established in Virginia and was viable without assistance from the SPG.
The chief duty of the rector was to conduct Sunday services in the several worship centers which were about four in number in St. James.42 It was also the minister’s duty to serve communion at least three times a year, to catechize the children, and to record all births, marriages, and deaths in the parish register. Unfortunately, the St. James vestry book and parish register have been lost or destroyed. Peaseley officiated at baptisms, marriages, and funerals for which he received perquisites. Law provided that the minister annually receive a salary of 17,280 pounds of tobacco (16,000 pounds plus 1,280 pounds for cask and shrinkage) and that he have the use of a glebe of at least two hundred acres with a suitable residence and appropriate outbuildings for agricultural purposes. The vestry of St. James acquired a tract of about four hundred acres for a glebe in 1762. In all probability Peaseley and his family resided in the rectorate on the glebe.43
After his wife Mary died, Peaseley married Lucy Sanders on 8 November 1764 in Lunenburg. It is thought that Lucy was the widow of Francis Sanders, who died in 1760, and the daughter of Richard and Jane Swepson. Richard Swepson, a prominent local figure, was a large landowner in the area that became Mecklenburg County and a vestryman of St. James Parish. After the marriage Peaseley became guardian of Lucy’s three sons. It seems likely that Lucy brought resources to the marriage.44
The date of Peaseley’s departure from St. James is not definitely known but by 1770, according to the Virginia commissary’s list, he was officiating in Tillotson Parish in Virginia.45 Tillotson was taken from St. Anne’s Parish in Albemarle County in 1757 and Buckingham County was taken from the same county in 1761, making the new parish and county coterminous. There were many dissenters, Presbyterians and Baptists, living in the county and the Baptist Church was “one of the largest and most flourishing churches ” in the colony. Once again, as in his previous locations, Peaseley enjoyed the support of only a portion of the parish’s inhabitants. With the enactment of Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom and the disestablishment of the church in Virginia the Baptists took over the Buckingham church which is still a meeting house for that denomination.46 The minutes of the meetings of Tillotson’s vestry from 1771 to 1774 are extant and in print and name four churches: Buckingham, Goodins, Buck and Doe, and Maynard’s. Tillotson’s parish register is not extant. There was a glebe, of unknown acreage, and the Peaseley family is known to have made its home in the rectorate on the glebe.47 The income from the tobacco, glebe, and perquisites provided the minister and his family with a comfortable, although not affluent, living.
None of his sermons in Virginia, or even texts, has survived and no contemporary is known to have commented about his performance in or out of the pulpit. The surviving segment of the vestry book of Tillotson merely reveals that Peaseley received his salary of 17,280 pounds of tobacco five times. Bishop William Meade, the well known chronicler of Virginia’s colonial church, did not know his given name and only knew that “a Reverend Mr. Peasly ” had been rector of the parish in the 1770s.48 In the absence of recorded complaints or incidents it can be said that he discharged his ministerial duties acceptably and conducted himself properly in both St. James and Tillotson.
Peaseley participated in an important provincial church program, which is certainly to his credit. He took part in the Fund for the Relief of Widows and Orphans of Clergymen which was organized in 1754 and functioned successfully until 1780. The clergy met each spring at the College of William and Mary, heard morning and afternoon sermons, and contributed their pledged fees. Trustees of the Fund then distributed the money to needy orphans and widows of clergymen. In 1767 Peaseley accepted appointment as one of the trustees and acted in that capacity for three years.49 The Williamsburg gazettes, which identified the trustees, did not name the parish Peaseley represented in that period.
There is no evidence that he attended any of the ministerial convocations Virginia’s commissary occasionally scheduled. Neither was he a deputy from his parish at the annual conventions in Richmond where clerical and lay delegates organized and governed the newly independent Episcopal Church.50 But by 1785, the year of the first convention, he may have been too aged and/or feeble to attend and by 1786 he may have been deceased.
Yet the record indicates that Peaseley was committed to his church and calling. In 1776 the state legislature took the first step in the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia when it ruled that clerical stipends from tax sources would cease on 1 January 1777.51 Parishes thereupon organized subscription programs, whereby parishioners pledged to contribute an amount annually for the support of the rector and parish. The success of this program varied from parish to parish but the result was that the reverends took a drastic cut in pay. Nothing about Tillotson’s subscription plan has been found but surely the adherents of the church arranged for voluntary pledges. Once again, as in previous locations, his income was small and precarious. Despite his sharp reduction in salary, Peaseley did not desert his parish or profession but continued to serve his church until his death.
One of Peaseley’s disagreeable duties involved a practice associated with slavery. Tom, a local slave, allegedly murdered a white women and fled with his master’s arms and ammunition and hid, lurking in the vicinity. Thereupon the county magistrates declared him an outlaw and called upon him to surrender. If he refused, any citizen who came upon him was authorized to kill him. On 11 April 1774 Peaseley certified that he had published the proclamation “at the several churches ” in the parish. Later Tom was found dead, of cause unknown.52
Peaseley took the patriot position during the Revolution. In July 1776 the Virginia Convention, an extralegal assembly, formally altered the passages in the Book of Common Prayer which included prayers for the king; henceforth rectors were to substitute prayers for the magistrates of Virginia. In 1777 the new state legislature ruled that all free, adult males were to abjure their allegiance to the king and to swear true fidelity to the Commonwealth.53 At his ordination Peaseley had sworn allegiance to the king and promised to defend him against any threat, foreign or domestic, and had sworn to conform, without exception, to the Book of Common Prayer in the conduct of worship services.54 His continued service as minister makes it evident that Peaseley used the new prayers and took the test, thereby repudiating his ordination vows. During the conflict with the mother country Peaseley furnished supplies, with a value of £39-19-6, for military use for which the state reimbursed him.55 Two of Peaseley’s wards served in the military during the Revolution.56
Peaseley functioned as rector of Tillotson until his death. Bishop James Madison listed him as minister of the parish until 1787 but he may have died in 1786. His name is not to be found in the published personal property tax records of 1787. On 17 October 1787 the dissenters of Tillotson dispatched a petition to the legislature asking for the sale of the glebe and Anglican churches and added that “we have no Episcopal Minister in the Parish.” In another petition, dated 15 November 1794, the nonconformists of the county stated that the minister of Tillotson had been “long since deceased.”57
Fire destroyed the records of Buckingham County in 1869. Thus it is not known if Peaseley left a will, in which he might have identified survivors and property; nor is it known if appraisers did an inventory of his personal property. Buckingham County reality tax lists indicate that he owned 350 acres in 1782 and 300 acres in 1787. The tax list for 1788 is missing but beginning in 1789 the William Peasley “estate ” was responsible for taxes on 300 acres. In 1782 he owned two slaves. Ownership of property hints that he was able to improve his economic situation somewhat in Virginia. Fragments of records relating to Buckingham show the William Peaseley estate sold 250 acres in 1796 and 50 acres in 1806, suggesting perhaps that Lucy, the widow, continued to reside in the county until her death.58William and Lucy Peaseley apparently had at least three children and today a number of Americans claim the minister and his second wife as ancestors.59
This examination of the record indicates that Peaseley did not have an easy life in America. His income was small and unpredictable most of the time and, moreover, his cures were in less developed areas where not only the economic but also the social and cultural opportunities were limited. From his Anglican and clerical perspective the Roman Catholics in Newfoundland and the dissenters in South Carolina and Virginia were irritable obstacles to his professional obligations. War often added to his problems. Peaseley could be confrontational and even violent and of course in St. Helena’s he created difficulties with his alleged adultery.
This lapse into scandalous immorality makes him less than admirable in some ways but there are positive things to say about his career. He was well educated and from many indications was a dedicated and capable minister. The historian of Newfoundland writes that Peaseley discharged “his duties diligently ” and the SPG records confirm that he was an energetic and committed minister on the island from which one might extrapolate that he performed similarly in his subsequent parishes.60 His contributions to education in Newfoundland, his participation in provincial clerical affairs in South Carolina and Virginia, and his continued service in Tillotson after public stipends ceased are certainly to his credit. Contemporary Virginians surely viewed his patriotism with favor. Although not a church leader, he served the church in six locations for more than forty years. Had he settled in an old, well-established parish in Virginia or Maryland when he first arrived in the colonies he might have had an entirely different career. It has been Peaseley’s posthumous good fortune to have left a numerous progeny who have perpetuated his name and revered his memory.
41Katherine B. Elliott, Early Settlers of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Vol. 1 (Easley, S. C., 1983), 158; William W. Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large: Being Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 13 vols. (New York, 1819-23), 7:413, 8:41-42; Otto Lohrenz, “Highly Respected Anglican Clergyman: John Cameron of Virginia, 1770-1815,” Anglican and Episcopal History 74 (2005): 387.
42Bishop William Meade, the well-known chronicler of the colonial church, named six churches: City, Speed’s, St. James, St. Andrew, St. Luke, and one at Clarksville. Some, however, were constructed after Peaseley left St. James; Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, 2 vols. ( Baltimore, 1966), 1:487; Henry Read McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 13 unnumbered vols. (Richmond, 1905-15), 1770-1772, 257-58, 263, 1773-1776, 80, 102-04, 183.
43Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 6:88-90; Mecklenburg County Deed Book, No. 11 (1801-1804), 374-76, reel 11, Library of Virginia, Richmond; letter, Walter R. Beales, III, Boydton, Virginia, to the author, 28 September 2004; the author is indebted to Mr. Beale for valuable information about the St. James parish and glebe and wants to express his thanks and appreciation.
44Sadie Greening Sparks, “Other Records Pertaining to Family of Richard Swepson,” http://home.inu.net/sadie/otherswepsonrecords.htm.
45An Account of the Clergy in Virginia from Mr. Horrocks, 1770, American Ecclesiastical Affairs (Lambeth Palace), Virginia Colonial Records Project, Survey Report, No. 1099, 133, manuscript, Library of Virginia, Richmond.
46Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 7: 131-42, 419; Robert B. Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, revised and extended by G. W. Beale (Richmond, 1894), 282; Eugene A. Maloney, A History of Buckingham County (Waynesboro, Va., 1976), 33; for a recent photograph of the renovated and enlarged Buckingham church, see Don and Sue Massey, Colonial Churches of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va. 2003), 147.
47Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 6:88-90; Vernon Perdue Davis and John H. Loving, trans., The Vestry Book, 1771-74, of Tillotson Parish, Buckingham County, Virginia (Farmville, Va., 1974), 2, 4, 6, 8, 10; Early Virginia Religious Petitions, Buckingham County, 15 November 1794, microfilm, Library of Virginia, Richmond.
48Davis and Loving, trans., The Vestry Book, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10;Meade, Old Churches, 2:38.
49William Stevens Perry, ed., Historical Collections Relating to the American Colonial Church, 5 vols. (Hartford, Conn., 1870-78), 1:414-28; Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), 30 April, 1767, 17 March 1768, 4 May 1769, 22 March 1770.
50Joan R. Gundersen, The Anglican Ministry in Virginia, 1723-1766: A Study of a Social Class (New York, 1989), 204-25; “Journals of the Conventions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia, from 1785 to 1835, Inclusive,” the appendix in Francis L. Hawks, Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States of America, vol. 1 (New York, 1836), 3-4. 51Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:164-66, 10:197-98; on the disestablishment of the church, see Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776–1789 (Charlottesville, 1977).
52 “Miscellaneous Colonial Documents,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 18 (1910): 280.
53William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, 7 vols. (Charlottesville, 1973-83), 7:708; Hening, ed., Statutes at Large, 9:281-82.
54Nancy L. Rhoden, Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England Clergy during the American Revolution (Washington Square, N. Y., 1999), 1.
55 “Virginia State Troops in the Revolution,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 29 (1921): 59.
56Email, Erick D. Montgomery to the author, 21 October 2006. Francis and Lucy Sanders had three sons, John, Francis, and Zachariah. John and Zachariah fought in the Revolution. Mr. Montgomery is a descendant of John Sanders.
57Virginia Almanack for the Year 1787 (Petersburg, Va., ); Netti Schreiner-Yantis and Florene Speakman Love, comps., The 1787 Census of Virginia, 3 vols. (Springfield, Va., 1987); Early Virginia Religious Petitions, Buckingham County, 17 October 1787 and 15 November 1794, microfilm, The Library of Virginia, Richmond.
58Buckingham County Land Tax Books (1782-1795), reel 50, The Library of Virginia, Richmond; Augusta B. Fothergill and John Mark Naugle, comps., Virginia Tax Payers, 1782-87 (privately printed, 1940), 97; Roger G. Ward, Land Tax Summaries & Implied Deeds, 1782-1814, vol. 1 (Athens, Ga., 1994), 239.
59E-mail, Bradstreet Peaseley to the author, 28 July 2006. The three children were Lucy, Gabriel Bradstreet, and Mary. Bradstreet Peaseley of Richmond is a descendant of Gabriel Bradstreet Peaseley.
60Prowse, A History of Newfoundland, 581.