Seeds Of Revolution Began At Glebe Church
March 1775 saw most of Great Britains’ American Colonies in turmoil. In Richmond, Patrick Henry gave his “Give me Liberty or give me Death” speech. In Philadelphia, John Hancock was elected President of the Second Continental Congress. But one other event, largely obscured by the passage of time, had a greater impact, most certainly in Virginia.
Years earlier, in 1754 John Agnew, a Glasgow-born Scot, was appointed Rector of Bennett's Creek Church by the Bishop of London (a British Crown appointment). In time he became a man of immense property on the coastline, and had the tendency to get into loud, public arguments with Virginia burgesses, as well as his own Church’s leadership. One memorable assessment of Agnew’s character was by Thomas Jefferson in 1771 who defended Agnew in court over a controversy regarding vestry lands in Suffolk and Norfolk. In a letter to Thomas Burk, Jefferson wrote that Agnew was “an irascible old gentlemen”. By the early 1770’s Agnew’s relationship with the Church Wardens and the Vestry grew increasingly acrimonious, to the point where there were lawsuits and countersuits being filed. As unrest in the Colonies grew and relationships with Great Britain further deteriorated, Parson Agnew proved to be a zealous supporter of the British cause and open in his condemnation of the growing spirit of independence.
While Suffolk, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore were all well-knownLoyalist powerhouses in Virginia, there were many members of Agnew’s church who did not agree with his loyalty to the crown and believed he should no longer be allowed to preach in Virginia. Matters came to a head for Agnew in March 1775.
His continued non-cooperation, his sermons and his general anti revolutionary stance caused the Nansemond County Committee of Safety to summon him to appear before them and answer charges on March 6th. Agnew refused to a attend. Instead he called for a special service at Bennetts Creek Church that was intended to aim primarily at the female congregants. Our small church was packed to overflowing. The grounds were filled with hundreds of parishioners, spectators and interested bystanders. The topic of Parson Agnew's sermon was "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s" and he proceeded to denounce the sins of disloyalty and rebellion. In the middle of the sermon William Cowper, a vestryman and magistrate, left his seat in the pews and mounting the pulpit, ordered Parson Agnew to sit down. "I am doing my Master's business", said the Parson; Cowper replied "Which Master? Your Master in heaven or your Master over the seas? You must leave the church or I will use force." "I will never be the cause of breeding riot in my Master's house", said Parson Agnew. He stepped down from the pulpit, walked through the crowd to his carriage and drove away. Not long after, facing criticism in some quarters, The Committee of Safety penned a lengthy article dated March 24th that appeared on the front page of the Virginia Gazette’s April 1st and 8th issues. In the article, the Committee essentially called for public censure of Agnew.
The events of March 1775 at Bennetts Creek Church pre-dated the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord by weeks and received substantial press coverage throughout the Colonies, which served to heighten the pressure for independence. This was the first overt defiance of the British Crown in Virginia and served notice to the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, that Upper Nansemond county was in open rebellion. Ensuing events leading to the revolution are well documented, however this first step towards independence has been widely overlooked, despite the intense and widespread publicity at the time. Parson Agnew never again entered the church he had served for 20 years. He joined the Canadian forces and was later taken prisoner by the French. Major William Cowper, popular for his stand for the Revolution was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776.
Historians may disagree on what event or events started the domino effect that led to the Revolution. Some religious historians would argue that it was the Great Awakening. Military or war and society historians point to the French and Indian War; economic historians–the Stamp Act. Some argue it’s Lexington and Concord. Political historians say it was the King’s Proclamation of Rebellion. And then you have some cultural historians who say it’s Thomas Paine’s 1776 publication of Common Sense. But Historian Stephanie Walker, who has visited Glebe Church, has a more nuanced view of the matter. “I’m more interested in what led the Old Dominion to cross the Rubicon. As a student of social history, I firmly believe that John Agnew’s story is when civil resistance and open rebellion went from a fine line to a big blur. For the Revolution in Virginia, Agnew isn’t necessarily the point of no return, but his incident certainly represents the first significant domino to topple over and divide society”