REVEREND JACOB KEELING -
A Key Figure in the History of Glebe Church
Submitted by Helen and Larry todd
Who was Jacob Keeling? And, what role(s) did he play in history of Glebe Episcopal Church that makes him an important person in our history? First, however, let’s review the meaning of the term “glebe” which plays a major role in our church’s history.
The term “glebe” is a reminder of colonial times when the Church of England was the established church of the Virginia Colony. The primary responsibilities of parishes were civil governing, levying and collecting taxes and deciding legal judgements, as well as the responsibility for religion in the parish. They were the local government and controlled religion in the parish, assuring conformity with the practices of the Church of England. The practice of providing a glebe (farmland) to the clergy as a benefit originated in medieval England and the practice continued in the colonization of Virginia. The minister farmed and/or managed the glebe farm to support himself and the church.
Following the Revolutionary War, the Church of England was disestablished in Virginia, followed by the 1784 General Assembly incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church as a denomination. The issue of what to do with the glebe properties was a source of disagreement for more than 10 years after the Act of Disestablishment of the Church of England, which ended the power of Great Britain over colonial Virginia churches.
“Finally in 1802, the General Assembly passed an act that allowed the Overseers of the Poor in each county to seize and sell the glebes and use the monies for the benefit of the poor. “ [The Glebe Houses of Colonial Virginia by William Webb and Anne C. Webb, page 10]. The act also exempted from seizure and sale any personal donations to the churches of property that occurred before 1777.
As we have discussed in previous Glebe Gazette articles, the glebe of the first Lower Parish colonial church was land donated by Perceval Champion on what we know as Glebe Point in 1637 ( the sight of the first church opened for service in 1642). Thus, a court case under the leadership of the Rev. Jacob Keeling, rector of Bennett’s Creek Church, was pursued. That case in 1817 won the exemption of the glebe lands of Bennett’s Creek Church. He argued that the lands were a private donation by an individual and not a grant from the King of England. Unfortunately no record of that court case has been found.
These are the lands still in our possession from which the church gets the name we know as Glebe Church. Although a few other churches were allowed to retain their glebe lands, most sold them to convert the land’s value to cash. Glebe Church is the only known church to retain ownership of its original glebe land.
Who was Jacob Keeling?
Jacob Keeling was born in Princess Anne County in 1774. He is described as a “ simple-hearted and single-minded man” known by all as “Parson Keeling” [Suffolk in Virginia c.1795-1840. A Record of Lots, Lives, and Likenesses by Fillmore Fleet]
He was an Episcopal clergyman and successful businessman and farmer. He led an ecclesiastical life as a deacon (from 1812-1836 ) serving St. Paul’s, Suffolk, St. John’s, Chuckatuck, and Glebe Church, Driver. It was during this time that his role in the court case took place. At the age of 54, on February 28, 1828 , he was ordained at St. Paul’s Church on the hill near the town of Suffolk by Rt. Rev. Richard Channing Moore, Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia. The bishop then appointed him as the Rector of St.Paul’s parish. He retired from the ministry at age 69 in 1843. He died on September 18. 1853 and is buried near the site (now known as Cedar Hill) where he conducted most of his ministry.
Jacob Keeling married Sarah Webb of Norfolk in 1801. Sarah died in 1816, leaving Jacob as the single parent of two children, John and Ellen. He remarried on Christmas Day in 1817 the widow of Dr. Fischer, Charlotte Fischer, of Suffolk.
Parson Keeling kept himself busy in a number of different enterprises such as the shingle trade and a partner in a venture called “Keeling and Charlton ” plus he prospered through real estate purchases. His own home was destroyed by fire in 1837 along with the parish records. After a series of real estate transactions, he bought a farm on the Nansemond River which he called the “Hermitage “ and later was known as the Parson Keeling Farm, and still later as “Holliday’s Point”.
In conclusion, Rev. Jacob Keeling’s role in the Glebe Church History is monumental because of his successful legal battle to retain the Glebe donated by Perceval Champion which in later years influenced the naming of the church from Bennett’s Creek Church to Glebe Church. The glebe land continues to provide financial aid for the support of Glebe Church missions and is one of many reasons Glebe is uniquely historic among the colonial churches.
The Glebe Houses of Colonial Virginia by William Webb and Anne C. Webb
Suffolk in Virginia c.1795-1840. A Record of Lots, Lives, and Likenesses by Fillmore Fleet