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Parish History Notes 11: The Duties of a Colonial Parish Vestry

Colonial Virginia parishes were governed by the General Assembly of the colony.  In the days before the American Revolution, many responsibilities that we now ascribe to local, state or federal governments were performed instead by the churches. Actually, a large part of a parishioner’s church donation, or tithe, was used to fund these community services.

One of the vestry’s secular responsibilities was “processioning,” where appointed men would walk property lines with adjacent neighbors to confirm an understanding of the boundaries between them. The General Assembly of 1662 provided that each vestry should divide its parish into precincts and appoint “at least two intelligent honest freeholders of each precinct to see such processioning performed.”  The law also stated that “bounds three times processioned should be considered settled and determined forever.”

Roads were surveyed, cleared and maintained by the local vestries. Property holders who would benefit from the improvements were ordered to contribute labor for these efforts. “In Obedience to an order of Court dated may 20th 1720 Ordering Thomas Stanley to Clear a Road, from Ceder Creek to the road that goes to new market Mill, its Ordered, that the said Stanley have all the Tithables between Newfound river, & Ceder Creek, until he Comes to the Gang, Belonging to Mr. John Glenn.”

The church compensated individuals who provided housing for an elderly or infirmed person or an orphan. An example from 1706: “Ordered, that William Stephens has Six hundred pounds of good Sweet Tobacco Convenient, for keeping Susannah Copes, one whole year.” An example from 1717: “Ordered that Richard Anderson have 1000 Tobacco Convenient, for keeping Mary Clark one year from this time, to this time twelve months, and if he make a Cure of her foot & Leg, to have five hundred pounds Tobacco more.”

When all disbursements were determined, the vestry assessed each member for his share. For the year 1736 the net payout for St. Paul’s Parish was 38,415 pounds of tobacco, and there were 1,332 “tithables” in the parish. Each member was assessed 29 pounds of tobacco, “only theres a Ballance of 213, to lie in the Church Warden’s hands till next year.”