Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why church records aren’t there

For comic relief Ol’ Myrt here reads until she falls asleep. At any given point in time, some three to five books are found on the floor at the side of my bed. I used to put them on the night stand, but when an avalanche ensued in the middle of the night a few years back, I decided to forego the possibility of another rude awakening where books independently decide to test out the law of gravity. (I.E. Do two books of different sizes and weights fall at the same rate?)

Last night, reading from T. K. Cartmell’s
Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and their Descendants: A History of Frederick County, Virginia from its Formation in 1738 to 1908 page 167, I came across the following passage concerning a small pre-Revolutionary War community where my Hite and Froman ancestors once lived.

Dr. Foote* says “That in 1739, Mr. John Thompson, as an evangelist, preached at Opecquon and the new settlements on the frontiers of Virginia, and that Mr. Wm. Robinson, on his long to be remembered tour through Virginia and North Carolina, Repeatedly preached at Opecquon in 1742.” The first Presbyterial Records of the Old Donegal Presbytery furnish the names of Rev. John Hindman, Samuel Caven, Wm. Bertram, ______ Linn, and Alexander McDowell, as frequent visiting Ministers from their Presbytery to do Missionary and Evangelistic work at Opecquon, Cedar Creed and Elsewhere. This was continued at intervals until 1754, when we find Opecquon with her first Pastor, who was Rev. John Hoge, grandson of Wm. Hoge (Hogue), who gave the land on which the first Meeting House was built. Mr. Hog’s pastorate continued for eighteen years. The Presbytery records show that his salary was scarcely adequate. He made complaints of privations and great labor while he rendered efficient service to the early settlers, and that he did not receive sufficient support from the two churches to justify his further service in this field. This last statement to his Presbytery, produced prompt action in that body, for this language appears: “My. Hoge is released from his pastoral charge on account of non-payment of salary.” We find these churches for some years after the withdrawal of Mr. Hoge, were supplied by Revs. Vance, McKnight, Thompson, Slemmons, Craighead, Balch, Linn and others, who had pastorates in other sections. […] Unfortunately no church records were preserved for many years; and this state of affairs narrows the history of the church to either tradition or Presbyterial reports.”

Given this brief description of poor funding and traveling clergy predating by 15 years an officially-appointed minister, is it no wonder there is a scarcity of church records of christening, marriage and burial records? These Virginia church records are nothing like those that have survived from the late 1600s in Bisham, Berkshire, England where I’ve found an abundance of ancestral records. The difference is that Bisham wasn’t on the outer boundaries of a developing and emerging nation in the 1600s.

Long have genealogy instructors advised students to turn to church records which were typically kept prior to public vital records. However, perhaps frequently, as in this case of the Virginia’s developing “western frontier”, traveling pastors administered ordinances as weather and schedule permitted, leaving those of us yearning for complete chronological reports saddened by the absence of necessary direct evidence of our ancestor’s lives. Such early development challenges also explain why some church records show a couple’s marriage and the christening of the oldest two children on the same date. The community approved of the marriage, but it wasn’t officially solemnized until a few years later when a traveling minister came through the area.

Given a lack of church records, genealogists may next turn to land and tax records, and probate files. In fact, any activities noted in the court files would provide direct or indirect evidence of an ancestors life. Simplistically put -- direct, if he is the subject of the action (for instance, his own will listing heirs), and indirect if he is perhaps merely a witness to a document (for instance, a friend's will).

Cartmell, T. K.
Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and their Descendants: A History of Frederick County, Virginia from its Formation in 1738 t0 1908 copyright 1909 by the author, facsimile reprint Heritage Books, Inc. 2007.

* On page 165, Cartmell cites “Doctor Wm. H. Foote, in his Sketches of Virginia, 1855” among others who in Cartmell’s estimation have composed detailed histories of early church development in Virginia. We know from additional research that a more complete citation would include the following text – Foote, William Henry, Sketches of Virginia, Historical and Biographical, second series, 1855. The
1856 version published at Philadelphia by J. B. Lippincott & Co. is available in full view at Google Books, from a scan of the original 596 pages at the New York Public Library in Feb 2008. The title page of this version lists Rev. Foote as the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Romney, Virginia.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.


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