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Transition of the1642 Church on the Glebe

a New 1738 Church on Bennetts Creek


Submitted by Larry and Helen Todd



          The article in the January issue of the Gazette discussed the origin of Glebe Church in 1642 on a 450 acre land patent donated to the parish to serve as a glebe on which a parsonage and church would be built.  The donor, Percival Champion, had made the donation to serve the local population of settlers, many of whom were sponsored by a future colonial governor, Richard Bennett.  A large share of the emigrants to the area east of the Nansemond River were Puritans, as was Mr. Bennett. 


          Mr. Champion disappeared from documented history in 1644, but the glebe and the church lived on to become the Glebe Church we know today.  In this issue of our series on the history of Glebe Church we will reveal what is known of the church’s life from the 1642 to the construction of a new brick church on Bennetts Creek.



          In 1624, 18 years prior to the establishment of the church on the glebe, the colony had been declared a royal colony by King James I forcing the Virginia Company to yield its control to royal authority.  Then, after King James died in 1625, his son, King Charles I, aimed to prevent in the Virginia Colony the kind of religious and political unrest that eventually did lead to civil war in England.  Religious tolerance was less of an issue under the Virginia Company’s management since their main goal was to bring in as many settlers as possible to make the colony work.  Consequently, many Puritans and others who were considered religious dissenters in England were tolerated prior to the establishment of the royal colony.


          The years surrounding 1642 when the first church was established on the glebe made for a very dynamic period of rising levels of intolerance of non-conformists.  Ministers were in notable short supply in the colony; consequently in 1641, Richard Bennett, then a member of the Governor’s Council,  sent for Puritan ministers from the New England colonies to be brought to Virginia.  It has been recorded that these ministers gained their strongest foothold in Nansemond County where a “flourishing church of 118 members was organized. (The History of Nansemond County by Joseph B Dunn, pg. 19)


          When the staunch royalist Sir William Berkeley became colonial governor in 1642,  he was ordered by Charles I to oppose any religious nonconformity within Virginia.  A House of Burgesses act of 1643 then established a law requiring “the littargie of the Church of England for the administration of the word and sacrament be duly performed according to the Booke of Common Prayer.”   Furthermore, all nonconformists were to depart “with all convenience.” (Henings Statutes.  Pg. 241)



          The relatively large Puritan population in the East Nansemond Parish was just getting their church on the glebe established in 1642 when this act requiring conformity to the Anglican Church was passed.  The remoteness of the parish from Jamestown, however, allowed the parishioners to worship more freely as Puritans while ignoring the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  That changed when Rev. Thomas Harrison openly declared himself a Puritan minister.


          Of interest, is the fact that Rev. Harrison, formerly Governor Berkeley’s chaplain and notably married to a cousin of Massachusetts Governor Winthrop, came to the the East Parish of Nansemond County in c.1645 to serve the local population who attended church on the glebe. Just prior to serving the East Parish, he served the Elizabeth City Parish and progressively displayed his affinity for the Puritan faith which he had kept under wraps as Berkeley’s chaplain.  Rev. Harrison was banished from the  colony in 1648 by Gov. Berkeley and was replaced by Rev. William Durand who was also subsequently banished.


          The banishment of the ministers was followed by dissolution of the East Nansemond church by Gov. Berkeley as a place of worship while other parishes loyal to the Crown were rewarded with efforts by the colonial leadership to build brick churches.   The East Parish, however, remained intact for the purposes of its civil administrative responsibilities.  The plight of the non-conformists is well summarized in the History of the Colony and Ancient Commonwealth of Virginia, pg 212…..

          “At first their pastor was banished, next their other teachers, then many were confined in prison; next they were generally disarmed, which was a very harsh measure in such a country, where they were surrounded by Indian savages; lastly the non-conformists were put in a condition of banishment that they knew not how in those straits to dispose of themselves.” 


          An Act of 1647 read….”If any ministers were reported as not reading the Book of Common Prayer, their parishioners need not pay their tithes”….. added further impetus to forcing non-conforming ministers to leave the colony.   The resultant diminishing support by parishioners suffering from the economic implications of the act led to further impetus for non-conforming ministers to leave. (Separation of Church and State In Virginia. Citing Hening Statutes Pg 149, 155,159 )


          About 300 Puritan settlers left the Lower James River region in 1648-49 along with Richard Bennett who moved to the Severn River area of Maryland where he came to own more land than he owned in Virginia and also gained political power as he had in Virginia.  (The Early Relations between Maryland and Virginia. Expulsion of Puritans from Virginia, Pg. 47 )  Ironically after the fall of the English monarchy, Bennett returned to Virginia and was elected colonial governor in 1652 by the House of Burgesses, despite his commitment to Puritanism.  His three years of colonial leadership were marked by religious tolerance.



          Based on Rev. Harrison’s estimates, more non-conformists remained in the East Nansemond Parish than migrated to Maryland and the parish showed unmistakable indications of Puritanism during the following decade. (Early Puritanism in the Southern and Island Colonies. Pg. 133). A number of prominent Puritans kept their plantations along the James River, including Richard Bennett who also retained his Virginia citizenship.


          Records of the parish following dissolution of the church become scarce for the remaining of the 17th century, but long periods of 18th century Vestry Books reflect active parish operations and church ministries.  (The Vestry Book of Suffolk Parish 1749-1856).  No records of assigned ministers is evident from 1648 until Rev. John Wood is appointed parish minister in 1680.



          After nearly a century of using the church, the Vestry voted on the 15th of December 1737 on the following motion, “Whereas upon examination and proof of ruinous condition of the church built on the south side Nansemond River in part formerly called the Lower Parish.  It was a full vestry held the 16th of May 1737 Resolved and Agreed to build a new brick church at a place called Jordans Mill Hill as more convenient for the people on both sides Nansemond River than the old church was.” (Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia, Pg 176-77)


          The confusion of dates reflected in the motion is due to a delay resulting from friction between vestrymen from the two component parishes of the Suffolk Parish, the Lower and the Chuckatuck.  Edward and Thomas Godwin, vestrymen on the Building Committee from the Chuckatuck Parish, refused to perform their duty or allow others to do so with the hope a delay in the church erection would allow a majority of the vestry to rescind the construction order and make Chuckatuck the parish church.

(Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia, Pg 177)


          Political differences within the vestry representing the three churches of the entire Suffolk parish were finally overcome through the influence of Richard Bennett, Jr (Gov. Bennett’s nephew), Thomas Tilley and John Yeates.  This brought to fruition their years of effort to locate a parish church near the poor farm derived from the 1675 will of Gov. Richard Bennett land.


          For several years, Bennett Jr and Tilley had set aside 200 acres of land for a church and a glebe, but were lacking funds to construct the church.  Funding of the church construction was resolved by selling 198 acres of the reserved land and dedicating 2 acres on the old highway from Portsmouth and Bennett’s Creek for the new church.  The church then became known as Bennett’s Creek Church.  “The old ‘horse road’ which was deeply cut into the soil is still evident between the church and the highway and the original spring lies just below the road on the north side of the creek.”  (Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia, Pg 177).


          The Glebe Church we worship in today is the same church built in 1738, although with architectural changes related to periods of deterioration and reconstruction.  A future article will discuss the original architecture and alterations when the parish was recovering from disruption of the church’s operation, primarily following the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.



          As we learn more about Glebe’s history through the efforts of the History Committee, the more we realize the uniqueness of our history among the early colonial churches.  The work of the vestry-appointed special committee for Strategic Planning will give us an opportunity to replicate the kind of foresight Bennett, Jr., Tilley and Yeates had when they  adapted the parish to changes happening in the community the church serves.  Next month the Glebe Church history story will continue with an article by Steve Turner on the deposal of Rev John Agnew in March 1775.


Acknowledgement:  Much of the research source material for this article was

generously contributed by John Cross.



Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia by George Carrington Mason. Historiographer Diocese of Southern Virginia.  Whittet and Shepperson. Richmond Virginia 1945


Early Puritanism in the Southern and Island Colonies by Babette M. Levy. Reprinted from the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for April 1960.  Worcester, Massachusetts.   Chapter


 The Early Relations between Maryland and Virginia.  Chapter II: Expulsion of the Puritans from Virginia.


Henings Statutes at Large.  Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619.  By: William Waller Hening. Transcribed for the internet by: Freddie L. Spradlin, Torrance, CA.


History of the Colony and Ancient Commonwealth of Virginia.   pg. 210-212, 258. (Discusses the growing intolerance of non-conformists in Nansemond County c.1642


The History of Nansemond County by Joseph B Dunn


The Vestry Book of Suffolk Parish 1749-1856.  Hand transcribed copy at Suffolk County Clerks Office, Suffolk, Virginia.


Separation of Church and State In Virginia:  A Study in the Development of the RevolutionCornell University. (Chapter 9) Virginia State Library. Special Report OF THE Department of Archives and History. H. J. Eckenrode, Archivist RICHMOND: DAVIS BOTTOM, SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC PRINTING, 1910. F V6l…  Chapter 9 Citing Hening Statutes Pg 149, 155,159.




By Larry and Helen Todd



          This article deals with the history of how our present Glebe Church building became a reality.  Interestingly, it took an action of the Virginia Governor’s Council to overcome local political disputes and obstructions  that prevailed on the west and east sides of the Nansemond River.  The first part of the article describes details of the history and the second part is a transcription of the original Governor’s Council minutes.


Overview of the History Behind the Council Deliberations

          A Virginia Governor’s Council met on 15 December 1737 to deal with the matters related to the West (now St. Johns) and East (now Glebe) Parishes of the combined Suffolk Parish having separate churches on each side of the Nansemond River.  Formerly, these parishes were referred to as the Chuckatuck and Lower Parishes, but in 1725 they were united to form the Suffolk Parish which was to be served by one minister.  After they were combined they became known as the West and East Parishes, instead of Lower and Chuckatuck. This is confusing history and anyone can be forgiven for inability to keep these names straight, especially for the time period.  At this December 1737 Governor’s Council meeting the East and West Parishes were still referred to as Lower and Chuckatuck.


           It was duly noted in the May 1737 vestry minutes that the wood frame church at Glebe Point was in ruinous condition.  The lack of a safe and sound church building on the east side was requiring the East residents to cross the river to attend church and parish meetings.  The vestry of the combined East and West Parishes voted on 16 May 1737 build a brick church at Jordans Mill Hill to replace the wood frame church on Glebe Point.


          The deliberations by the Governor’s Council were intended to resolve these disputes between the West and East Parishes as reflected in the 16 May 1737 vestry minutes.  Fortunately the Council showed intense sensitivity to the needs of the East Parish for having a safe, usable, and better located church, albeit a “brick” church on the east side.   It is important to also understand that in the “political” background was the plan to establish the Town of Suffolk within the county which took several years to accomplish.


          The minutes of the Governor’s Council were originally hand written and were transcribed as accurately as possible in the McIlwaine document referenced below.  The Mcllwaine reference can be easily accessed in a digital format online, although it still is a very difficult read.  This modern transcription for the purposes of this article is done to make the minutes even more readable for general consumption, but with every effort to maintain the intent of the minutes, as originally written.


          Despite the complexities of the make-up of the local parishes in colonial times, there is a value in understanding the historical intrigue of how Glebe Church became a reality.  It is another chapter is the long unique history of Glebe Church as a colonial church that continues as an active church in the 21st century.



The Governor’s Council Minutes, as transcribed for this article….


At a Council held at the Capitol Dec. 15th 1737



The Governor

                    Cole Digges                                                    John Curtis

                    John Carter                                                     John Taylor &

                    John Grymes                                                  Tho’ Lee Esq


          Whereas upon the petition of the Vestry of Chuckatuck Parish and the Lower Parish of Nansemond representing their inability separately to support the charge of maintaining a minister in each of the said parishes or other parochial charges.  The Governors  pleased to consolidate and unite the said two parishes into one by name of Suffolk Parish and to continue the then vestry men until by death or a removal out of the parish. The said vestrymen should fall Under the number of twelve.   And whereas, upon Examination and proof of ruinous condition of the church built upon the south Side of the Nansemond River in that part formerly called the Lower Parish, it was in a full Vestry held on 16th of May 1737 Resolved and Agreed to build a new brick church at a place called Jordans Mill Hill as more convenient for people on both sides the Nansemond River than the old church was and persons were Chosen and authorized by the said Vestry to agree with workmen for building the same. Yet by the combination of some of the persons so entrusted therein refusing to act and Influencing others of the said Vestry to dissent from what was formerly agreed on by them, no progress hath yet been made toward erecting the said church.  And whereas, upon humble petition by the minister and church wardens of the said united parish,  the Governor was pleased to order all parties concerned to attend the Board this day in order to reach a final determination of the controversies between them touching the building of the said church; and now upon hearing the arguments and allegations of both parties it evidently appears to this Board that the old church on the south side Nansemond River is so much decayed and in such ruinous condition that the people cannot without eminent danger attend the divine worship therein and that the said Order of Vestry for building the New church was a just and reasonable appointment both in respect of the situation and the ease and of the parishioners whose expense will be greatly lessened by applying thereto a considerable donation left for that purpose by John Yates deceased. It is therefore the opinion of this Board and accordingly ordered that the vestry of said united parish do with all convenient speed meet at the lower church of the said parish and take care that their former Order be complied with either by appointing other persons in the room of Mr. Edmund Godding and Thomas Godding Jr (if they refuse still to accept the trust) to be joined with the other trustees heretofore by them named to agree for the speedy erecting the said new church as they will answer their contempt in a matter wherein the Honor of Religion the respect due to His Majesty’s Royal Instructions in this behalf and the safety and conveniences of the parishioners are so greatly concerned.  And whereas, it hath been represented to this Board that the said vestry having now got a majority on the north side the said river whereby as is suggested they intend to continue & increase the hardships of said Lower inhabitants which is contrary to that Justice an Equality upon which the consolidation of the two parishes was first established.  It is ordered that in the future choice of vestry men none of the upper inhabitants be chosen until there be an equal number of Vestry men on each side of the said Nansemond River and that this Order be entered in the Vestry Book of the said parish.



Mcllwaine, Executive Journals of Council of Colonial Virginia, IV, (available digitally online) pg 411

Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia by George Carrington Mason. pg 177



By Steve Turner

The spring of 1775 saw most of Great Britain’s 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 Creek Church by the Bishop of London (a British Crown appointment). In time he became a man of substantial property along the coastline, and had the tendency to get into loud, public arguments with Virginia burgesses, as well as his own Church’s Vestry. 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 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 there were many Loyalist sympathizers in Suffolk, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore, most 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 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 attend. Instead he called for a special service at Bennett’s Creek Church. The 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. The events of March 1775 at Bennett’s Creek Church 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 thetime.ParsonAgnewneveragainenteredthechurchhehadservedfor20years. Hejoined the pro-British 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.

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Submitted by Larry and Helen Todd and John Cross



          Every now and then someone asks the very good and insightful question about what Glebe Church looked like in the past.  A good place to start the discussion is with a copy of the floor plan for the 1759 addition of the north wing. (shown in Figure 1) It is somewhat helpful that the 1759 floor plan includes the original church floor plan, but with alterations to accommodate the north wing.  For all to see, a copy of the 1759 floor plan is hanging on the wall in the lobby of Keener Hall.  This blueprint has appeared in several colonial church history books including the authoritative Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia by George Carrington Mason in 1945.


          In this article we will discuss the details of the church as it looked after the 1759

north wing addition and especially as it looked on the day Rev. John Agnew was challenged by magistrate and vestryman William Cowper to cease delivering a sermon by which he was calling for loyalty to the crown.  We will begin, however, by discussing the original  design of the 1738 church based on norms in the colony for Anglican church design in colonial times and and the 1759 plan.


The 1738 Church (then known as Bennetts Creek Church)

          In an effort to replace the deteriorated wood structure church on the Glebe farm, the vestry voted in 1737 to build a new brick church at Jordan’s Mill Hill on the bank of Bennetts Creek, Glebe Church’s present building.  No time was wasted to get the church built as it was finished an opened in 1738, which had to be a major feat by the parish.  As we’ve discussed in previous articles, Richard Bennett, Jr (Governor Richard Bennett’s nephew, and Thomas Tilley, a local landowner,  made the new church possible after almost two decades of efforts on behalf of the parish. 


          Highways were slowly replacing waterways for travel and the church was built on 2 acres along Nansemond Parkway, then Kings Highway, which was one of the major colonial roads that connected Portsmouth and Edenton, NC.  Wood frame churches were being replaced by brick structures in the colony and they consistently complied with  the ecclesiastical  requirements of the Church of England, which mandated  that churches be oriented on the long axis east to west with the chancel in the east end. (Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia, pg x)  Glebe Church’s Georgian architecture is consistent with many of the early 18th century colonial churches.  (Virginia’s Colonial Churches: An Architectural Guide pg 3-4) The original church’s roof may have been higher and steeper and the roof gable ends may have been clipped which was commonly done at the time in a Queen Anne style.


          Glebe Church today retains its original 1738 footprint of 48ft-6 in long and 25ft-4in feet wide, likely the smallest in the colony.  With the chancel and altar located on the east end, the main entry door for the congregation was on the west end with a connecting walkway to a wharf on Bennetts Creek.  An additional door was located near the chancel on the south side for primary use by the minister.  There were three windows on the north side and two on the south.  A window on the east end overlooked the chancel.  Due to the church’s small size the doorways and windows had plain relieving arches, unlike the elaborate pedimented doorways which were typical of the period. The walls were constructed of brick laid in a Flemish bond pattern and with glazed headers.  An English bond pattern was and is present below the bevelled water table. (Virginia’s Colonial Churches: An Architectural Guide pg 148)


          When one sits in the church pews today, understanding the 1738 floor plan simply requires an understanding that the chancel would have been behind you and the pews would be facing in the opposite direction.  And, of course, entry would have been made through the door where the altar is today and the minister’s door on the south wall has been replaced by a window.


          Like Glebe Church, rural colonial Virginia churches had a notable lack of bell towers since they were usually built near waterways on which the parishioners were traveling to attend church, therefore bell towers served no purpose.  Conversely, churches built in more dense communities had bell towers to use for calling the parishioners to worship.  (Anglican Virginia: The Established Church of the Old Dominion 1607-1786. Pg 62-63)


A 1759 North Wing Addition Reflects Parish Population Growth     

          Just 21 years after the 1738 church was built, the vestry voted on July 13, 1759 to accommodate population growth with a north wing addition. The vestry order read as follows, "13 July 1759 Vestry meeting at the “Lower Church”, “Addition to the said church viz. a Brick Piece to the North side of the upper end 25 X 23.  On the East side pews leaving a alley 5 feet wide.  Trustees to agree with the workmen are Anthony Holladay, Jonathan Godwin, James Pugh, James Riddick, Allen Groves and Edward Wright.   Rev. John Agnew attending.” 


          This addition extended into the area where the present church office building is located and had a door on the north side.  Figure 1 shows the 1759 floor plan including the gallery over the addition.  As can be seen in the floor plan, galleries also existed over the west end of the church and over the chancel on the south side with an outdoor staircase.  Mason makes the point that such galleries were often devoted to use by schoolboys of the parish. 


          The pews, known as double pews, were 5X9 feet on each side of the aisle which was one of the more common designs in the colony. (Holy Things and Profane pg 177)



The galleries and additional floor level pew space likely was more than double the seating allowance in the present church.


          Although the exact location of the pulpit in the original 1738 church can only be surmised, it likely was to the left of the chancel area on the north wall.  With the addition it moved to the intersection of the addition and the pre-existing north wall where the minister could address the entire congregation, albeit with some physical pivoting.


A Visualization of the Church the Day in 1775 when Rev. John Agnew was escorted from the pulpit and the church by Magistrate and Vestryman William Cowper…..

          One of the purposes of this article is to show the church as it appeared on the day Rev. John Agnew was asked to step down from the pulpit for his “Render onto Caesar….” sermon intended to mobilize parish loyalty to the crown.  The floor plan shows the pulpit where he would have been giving his sermon and the short distance he had to walk to the minister’s doorway on the south wall and to his carriage which likely was parked close to the minister’s entrance.  Descriptions of the church that day have indicated there were 500 parishioners present, which would have filled the pews and galleries.  In fact, descriptions have indicated the outside of the church was surrounded by an overflow crowd of men.



          Hopefully, this article helps the reader to visualize the original Glebe Church, the 1759 addition, and the scene on the day Rev. John Agnew was deposed after 21 years as parish minister.  There is a tendency when contemplating history to picture a historic event in the physical setting as it appears today.  However, history can be more fully appreciated if we have a concept of what the scene looked like at the time of the event. 


          The church was relatively inactive after the Revolutionary War when the Anglican Church was officially rejected for its association with the crown.  During that long period, the church deteriorated, resulting in the loss of the roof and the entire 1759 addition.  In 1856, the church was restored with a new roof, but without the 1759 north wing.  Significant changes were made such as movement of the chancel to the west end of the church, the entrance door to the east end, and the congregation facing the altar on the west as it is today.  Reversal of the altar location is another example of the rejection of the Church of England influence that had prevailed on the colonial churches for almost 200 years. 



Colonial Churches of Tidewater Virginia.  George Carrington Mason. Whittet and Shepperson, Richmond, Virginia. 1945


Anglican Virginia: The Established Church of the Old Dominion 1607-1786

Arthur Pierce Middleton. 1954. Colonial Williamsburg Library Research Report Series - 0006 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library.  Williamsburg, Virginia.  1990


Virginia’s Colonial Churches: An Architectural Guide.  James Scott Rawlings.  Garrett and Massie 1963


(Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. Dell Upton. Yale University Press. 1997

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Glebe Church’s 1759 Floor plan showing the North Wing Addition

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