Glebe Church -
Unique Among Colonial Churches
Submitted by Larry and Helen Todd
Co-Chairs of the Glebe Church History Committee
Over the past year you may have read monthly articles in the Glebe Gazette that document the 377-year history of Glebe Church. You may have also noted that the conclusion of the articles consistently pointed out the uniqueness of Glebe’s history. Much of the history has been known to the congregation, but we have been fortunate to uncover many aspects of our history that weren’t previously known. Much credit goes to John Cross who has contributed his research skills to documenting Glebe’s history.
This month’s article will summarize the history we have presented over the past year with special attention to the history that makes us unique among colonial churches. The specifics of our unique history are highlighted in each section. The Gazette articles have had a larger purpose however, as we will soon expand on their content to compile a “book” on Glebe Church’s history. While that effort is being accomplished there will be fewer and smaller articles in the monthly Gazette, mostly pertaining to the activities of the History and Cemetery Committees.
Each of the narrations below reflect on the uniqueness of Glebe Church and are presented as short summaries of each historical aspect of the church. The full stories can easily be read on GlebeChuch.org under the history section of the website.
A Puritan origin
The land east of the Nansemond River was heavily settled from the beginning by Puritans, many of whom followed Richard Bennett to the area which then known as Upper Norfolk County. This location was chosen by the Puritans as it was remote enough to be out of the sights and minds of the colonial leaders in Jamestown who were intensely supportive of the Crown’s requirement that the Church of England would be the only religion of the colonists. Naturally, the Puritan settlers would have a meeting house and would be reluctant to abandon their strong Puritan belief that there should be no intermediary between the individual and God. To comply, they soon learned to pretend they were worshiping as Anglicans, but they lived and believed as Puritans.
Glebe Church was born when Percival Champion gained a grant for 500 acres of land along the Nansemond River and immediately donated around 450 acres to what would become the glebe farm for East or Lower Parish of the Nansemond Parish. This was Glebe Church’s first historical uniqueness, and later the source of the church’s name. Traditionally parish churches became established first and then a grant of glebe land from the crown followed to facilitate the remunerative support of the minister and to the parish church. Champion, son of a Puritan minister and likely also a Puritan Minister himself, established the glebe first and proceeded to build upon it, first a parsonage and then a church. This uniqueness will continue in the following section on Rev. Keeling.
Reverend Jacob Keeling
Over time in the 17th century, the eastern Nansemond Puritans’ faith and lifestyle practices were diluted by pressures from the colonial leaders. Many were forced to leave the colony and for the ones who remained, Anglican practices slowly were incorporated into their worship and way of living. By 1738, the church we now worship in was built three miles east of the first church which had gone into disrepair by the early 18th century.
With uniqueness in mind, we now fast forward our interest to the early 19th century when the Anglican Church was abolished by the post-Revolution government and the Glebe lands were ordered to be confiscated from the previous Anglican parishes. The ordained minister, Rev. Jacob Keeling, who had served the church for almost 20 years as a deacon prior to ordainment, bravely pursued a court case to assure the glebe farm be retained as property of the local Episcopal Parish Church that was established after the Revolutionary war. And he won the court case since the glebe land was donated by Percival Champion and was not a direct grant from the crown. Glebe Church then became unique as the only church in Virginia and likely the United States that successfully retained possession of its glebe land. And again, the church is additionally unique as it continues to possess the glebe land to this day - no other church is known to own its colonial glebe land.
Our 1738 Church and the Poor Farm Graveyard
Another unique aspect of Glebe church is that few remaining churches in Virginia were built prior to 1738. And even more unique is that the church continues as an active church serving a vibrant and growing community.
The existence of our present church was assured by the nephew of Richard Bennett, who was known as Richard Bennett Jr., and a neighbor, Thomas Tilley, who owned property south of the church. The church was originally named Bennetts Creek Church and at some point after the Rev. Jacob Keeling 1817 court case it became known as Glebe Church in honor of its continued ownership of the glebe farm.
A large land mass around Driver had become known as the “Overseers of the Poor Donation” as a result of Governor Bennett's will that dedicated the use of the land for support of colonists who had fallen on bad fortune. Prior to the construction of the church, the Overseers of the Poor Donation had used 2.5 acres north of where the church was to be located for a graveyard for the Poor Donation recipients. In fact, in many instances the Donation supplied caskets and burial services. It is estimated that as many as three hundred colonists were buried at the site. Burials also continued after the Revolution into the late 19th and possibly 20th century. The Overseer of the Poor Donation eventually became the Richard Bennett Trust, now estimated to be the longest continually operating charitable trust in the United States.
Most of the names of those buried in the Poor Farm Graveyard are unknown, but a few headstones do exist. One prominent individual’s headstone which is remaining is that for Washington Cross, a member of the Colored Cavalry who was sworn in at Ft. Monroe in 1863 and fought in the Civil War for the Union and later in the Indian Wars in the southwest.
Revolution was stirring in the Lower Parish of Nansemond County in the spring of 1775 and at Glebe Church
Glebe Church’s minister, Rev. John Agnew, a well-known Tory who had served the parish since 1754, became embroiled in the growing local rebellion against the monarchy and was summoned on March 6th 1775 to appear before the Nansemond County Safety Committee to answer for his pro-monarchy sermons, his questionably legal business dealings, and his often uncooperative behavior as a parish minister. Rev. Agnew ignored the summons and never appeared. This was happening prior to the Patrick Henry Speech in Richmond and the Shot Heard Around the World in Lexington. Such a challenge by a county committee was so noteworthy it made two editions in the Virginia Gazette (published in Williamsburg); and front page on the second edition.
Following the March summons, Rev. Agnew’s behavior as a parish minister was noted to be increasingly irascible, a word Thomas Jefferson had used to describe Rev. Agnew when serving as his defense lawyer in 1771. He was known not to attend vestry meetings following the summons, but by late May it was noted he was making an unusual number of visits to parish homes during which he strongly encouraged the women to attend church on a given Sunday which we now estimate was WhitSunday, June 4th, 1775. It is surmised he wanted to address the women of the parish to co-opt them as proponents of the monarchy in their families and communities.
On that Sunday, an unusual number of parishioners showed at church, many more than there was room for seating in the pews. In fact, it has been estimated by authors that there were hundreds. When, in his sermon, Rev. Agnew proceeded to call for loyalty to the king, a parish magistrate, William Cowper, demanded Agnew cease with his sermon and step down from the pulpit. After an exchange between the two, Rev. Agnew stepped down from the pulpit, walked out through the minister’s door, mounted his carriage and left the church, never to return.
This event is another reason Glebe Church is known to be unique among churches in the colonies as it represents an outright act of rebellion against the crown prior to the Revolution - but without a shot being fired. Some might interpret the removal from the pulpit of a parish minister who was appointed under authority of the crown to be an act of rebellion of the same import as the firing of a gun at the crown’s military.
Final Thoughts on Glebe’s Church’s uniqueness
The Reverend Bob Gilman, Glebe Church’s rector, likes to remind the Glebe congregation of the parish’s long-standing history of commitment to the service to others, particularly the poor and disenfranchised. That caring attitude, Fr Gilman emphasizes, has been in the DNA of the parish since 1642.
The priority for Christian witness first was demonstrated by the donation of an unusually large grant of land to the parish to assure the establishment of a house of worship; and then again in 1817, by a parish minister who went to court to preserve ownership of the glebe land to be used for the poor of the parish; and again with the church’s association with the caring impact of Governor Richard Bennett’s will; and again when the parish and its leadership chose democracy over monarchy in the spring of 1775. Unmentioned, has been the fact that the church has struggled to survive when it went unused for decades after the Revolutionary and Civil wars; but the local parishioners assured its recovery after both wars and continue to maintain and grow the church to this day.
Glebe’s history of Christian witness in caring for others may not be unique unto itself; however, few churches can relate to almost 400 years of commitment to the Gospel. Unique seems to be the best word to describe Glebe Church’s long and nurturing history.