Mathews County (Kingston Parish, now Kingston Episcopal) — to Williamsburg (Bruton Parish, Bruton Parish Episcopal) mentioned owning slaves in their vestry records.
Clergy were also slave owners until the eve of the Civil War. A 2006 report by the Virginia Theological Seminary noted that 82% of the Episcopal clergy tied to the Diocese of Virginia in the 1860 census “had at least one slave, while some owned dozens.”
Oast, the history professor, began her research in 2000 while working on her doctorate at William & Mary. Colleges, including William & Mary, had enslaved workers, and the colleges were closely linked with churches. Her work culminated in the 2016 book “I n sti t u t i o n a l S l ave r y: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 16801860.”
“I wanted to look at how these ‘philanthropic organizations’ that were supposed to be for the common good, look at how they use slavery to promote their mission,” she said. “And how was their experience of slavery different than those who worked on a traditional plantation.”
Oast said James Blair, an Anglican minister and cofounder of William & Mary, introduced the idea of slave-owning to colleges and churches. Blair arrived in Virginia in 1685 and by 1689 became the highestranking cleric in the colony.
Blair, for whom several buildings in Hampton Roads are named, suggested that parishes buy slaves to entice experienced ministers from England to settle in Virginia. The enslaved were included with the glebe, the land and home used by the minister. The enslaved worked the land and made money for the minister. Churches also used enslaved people in poorhouses to take care of orphans, the disabled or elderly, and hired them out to any business or enterprise that wanted their labor.
The legislature also sent the enslaved to churches. A 1691 law penalized white women who had children with African American or mixed-race men. The offspring, though born free, were required to work for the parish until the age of 30.
At first, benefactors donated cattle to churches because the cattle could reproduce and increase the parish’s wealth. Oast noticed that after 1680, as slavery became more prevalent, church records describe the donations of people as they did cows.
Thomas Walke III of Lynnhaven Parish, which later became Old Donation, in his 1760 will left the church 25 acres of “land and swamp” for the use of the disabled and orphans in the parish. If the vestry, the board of directors, thought it best, they could sell the property as soon as possible and buy “breeding negroes.”
“Breeding, he’s talking about women, not a man who will die in 20 years,” Oast said, “but a woman or multiple women who will have children and they’re thinking about it as longterm, growing endowment.”
Oast said she saw it repeatedly in church and school records.
“You can see over time how there might be six people in the initial donation and then there are 60, a large extended family, that all belong to the same institution.”
Church records were often incomplete — they might exist only for particular years — or they no longer exist at all. Oast said her research showed that the e n s l ave d owned by churches appeared to live a harsher existence. Likely, she said, this was because they did not have an individual owner who had a personal and financial interest in their survival.
Churches auctioned the enslaved once a year on hiring day, which was usually Christmas Day or New Year’s, for one-year contracts.
While individual slave owners tended to rent out adult slaves or slaves who were unattached, churches typically didn’t provide long-term housing for slaves and made sure they were all hired out or sent elsewhere each year. Even infants.
Oast found records of what were called “expensive slaves.” These were mothers and their children; the church paid someone to take them for the year.
If someone wouldn’t want a worker because she had children, the church looked for an entity and paid it to take the child. That might be a farm or plantation that had small children being looked after by an older slave. Once children were old enough to make some money, they joined the working pool, usually by the time they were 8.
“So that means they were constantly separated from each other; you couldn’t form long-term relationships with spouses and you never knew where they were going to be one year to the next,” Oast said. “Children were separated from their mothers just as soon as they could earn even one dollar.”
Oast said Briery Presbyterian Church in Keysville, which dates to 1755, had the most complete records and reported the enslaved it rented out each year. The records also detailed the physical condition of the enslaved.
Children owned by Briery were twice as likely to die before the age of 10 than enslaved children on a plantation, according to Oast’s research.
Briery’s records also reveal that very few enslaved people stayed at the same place for more than two or three years. About half went someplace different every year.
One reason: Plantations wanted young, strong male workers. As those men aged, they couldn’t fetch the same price and would be hired to another farm with a smaller budget.
“What’s really obvious from all these records, in my opinion, is that it was all based on finances,” Oast said. “It was all very capitalistic.”
After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the Anglican Church was “d i s e s t a b l i s h e d ” and churches rebranded themselves under the Episcopal name.
In 2008, the Episcopal Church issued a formal apology for its role in slavery
Daniel Ries, a member of Old Donation, went through the Sacred Ground program on his own and suggested to the rector that the church use the series. Ries, a retired engineer, said he lived decades and didn’t fully understand the ways in which racism socially and systematically hurt African Americans and other people of color until a few years ago as he traveled and read more books by Black authors and about American history. It was then, he said, that he realized “that the history that I had been taught wasn’t the full story and it wasn’t that uncommon.”
Once he learned about the enslaved owned by the church during the Colonial era, he wanted to know more about them. He wants to know what happened to them, if they had descendants — questions he realizes he probably won’t find the answers to.
But the church, and society, can think about that loss and how it has created the issues America deals with today.
“I think that an important part of what white people have to do, OK, is to listen to what people of color have been telling us for 400 years,” he said. “And so I’m listening to their voice.”
Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504,denise.watson @pilotonline.com
James Blair, an Anglican minister and co-founder of the College of William & Mary, introduced the idea of slave-owning to colleges and churches.
A paragraph in the Colonial Vestry Book of Lynnhaven Parish (now Old Donation Episcopal Church) Princess Anne County Virginia 1723-1786 shows an entry of a slave who was sold.