The Episcopal (Anglican) church in Virginia dates back four centuries to 1607. Colonists sent from England first landed at Cape Henry where the Reverend Robert Hunt, spiritual advisor to the settlers, planted a cross and proclaimed Anglican Christianity as the official faith of the new colony. The Anglican Church would remain the established church of Virginia for the next 172 years. Within a few days, the colonists took sail again and moved up the James River to Jamestown to establish the first settlement in the new world.

“A Goodly Heritage” by D.L. Raper and C.M. Jones, published in 1992 to commemorate the Diocese 100th anniversary was used extensively to develop the sections below.

Photo Provided by National Society Daughters of the American Colonists

The history of the Episcopal Church in Virginia and the history of Virginia itself are heavily intertwined. In the early settlements, daily church attendance was mandatory. Virginia priests were assigned to “parishes” in new settlements, given 100 acres of land (glebe), and a small salary. “The church in Virginia was subject to the authority of Governor, Council and House of Burgesses, and only vaguely subject to ecclesiastical authority across the ocean” (Raper and Jones, A Goodly Heritage, 1992, p. 13). The Rev. James Blair, the Bishop of London’s representative in the colonies, founded the College of William & Mary in 1693 and served as its president until 1743. Many of the presidents and professors in the early years were Episcopal priests. James Madison was President of the College and Bishop of Virginia at the same time. The Rev. William Goodwin was both a professor and fundraiser at William & Mary and rector of Bruton Parish when he persuaded John D. Rockefeller to help finance the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.

Photo Provided by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The New Republic

The Diocese of Virginia was established formally in 1784, and elected the Rev. David Griffith, but never raised the funds to send him to England for consecration. It was not until 1790 when James Madison was elected, sent to England, and consecrated that Virginia had its first on-site bishop. Some other dioceses elected bishops about the same time. Once there were three resident American bishops, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America could consecrate its own bishops, which lessened its dependence on England.

In 1785, Virginia enacted the Statute of Religious Freedom (written in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson and others). This became a model for other states, for U.S. President James Madison, and for Congress enacting the First Amendment to the constitution a few years later. In 1799, under pressure from other religious groups, the General Assembly repealed all laws that gave any preference to the Episcopal Church. As a result, much of the glebe property was taken back by the government. Of the 107 parishes existing in 1784 only about 40 could support a minister in 1802. The diocese could not afford to send delegates to General Convention or to hold a diocesan convention until 1812. A revival began in the Diocese of Virginia in 1814 under Bishop Richard Channing Moore and the Rev. William Meade. Virginia Theological Seminary was founded in 1823 and greatly helped to resolve the problem of too few clergy in Virginia. The Episcopal Church in Virginia was strong among landowners and thus did little to curb the use of slaves. Bishop Meade favored baptism and spiritual training for slaves. Sunday Schools for blacks were set up in some areas but the numbers were small due to disinterest and in some cases resistance of landowners. Other protestant groups allowed black ministers and were less formal.

Civil War and years following

Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. Bishop Meade gave General Lee (an Episcopalian) his blessing. Meade continued to push churchmen to care for the souls of the slaves entrusted to them. Virginia did not formally secede from the national church but did attend the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States where they elected a Presiding Bishop. Church prayers were said for Jefferson Davis, not Abraham Lincoln. In parts of Virginia occupied by federal troops, churches refusing to pray for the President could not hold services and many buildings were taken over and used for a variety of purposes. Many areas suffered greatly (Hampton was burned for example) and many lives were lost on both sides. The Diocese of Virginia was the last southern diocese to return to the national church. Bishop Johns would not accept schism within the diocese so given time, he was able to bring the whole diocese back.

The national church and the Virginia Diocese began programs to work among the freed slaves. In Virginia the largest groups were in Petersburg and in Brunswick county. Black congregations were established. St. Philip’s in Richmond (1861) and St. Stephen’s Petersburg (1867) were followed by many more over the next several years. The Bishop Payne Divinity School was opened at St. Stephen’s Church as a satellite campus of the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1878. James Solomon Russell was the first student. Learn More

The Diocese of Virginia continued to grow. In 1892, Council convened at Epiphany Church Danville and recommended division of the diocese. This was passed at National Convention in October, and the Diocese of Southern Virginia was formed. The two Virginia bishops at the time chose their “new” sees. Bishop Randolph came with Southern Virginia. At the first Council in 1893 Bishop Randolph noted in his address that the newest diocese was also “the oldest of the historic communities of the Episcopal Church in our land – in addition to being the largest” (quoted in Jamestown Churchman 1955). Learn more about our historic parishes and churches.  

As the diocese continued to thrive, new churches were established. In 1919 the western counties of Southern Virginia became the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Today, the Diocese of Southern Virginia comprises nearly two-thirds of the state, stretching westward more than 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Dan River and from the south side of the James River at Richmond to the North Carolina border. In 1893 the diocese had about 75 clergy, 10,000 communicants (about 12.5% were listed as colored) and 30 lay readers. The first decade was one of evangelism for the diocese. By 1901 there were 47 new church buildings and 17 old ones renovated.

Thanks to the efforts of the Rev. James S. Russell this diocese at the time had the largest population of black Episcopalians of any diocese in the United States. He founded St. Paul’s College in 1888 and started many black parishes. He was appointed Archdeacon for Colored Work in 1893. At Council in 1910, he reported 31 churches in the Black Convocation. Today, 12 historically African American parishes remain active in the Diocese.

WWI to 1960s

Despite the First World War and a flu pandemic, the Diocese of Southern Virginia continued to grow. The diocese established a newspaper, an executive committee, and a finance committee. The diocese transitioned to the new 1928 Prayer Book. As the country experienced the Great Depression in the 1930s and the build up to WWII, some churches closed, and the diocese shrank. In 1936, all color distinctions in representation at Council were eliminated, but it took another 10 years before all lay representatives were seated. During WWII, a large influx of military personnel and deployments greatly increased the need for clergy and military chaplains. More than 15% of clergy in Southern Virginia became chaplains. Even to the present day, a high number of military personnel remains in the corridor from Virginia Beach to Fort Eustis.

In 1949, the diocese closed the Bishop Payne Divinity School, and it merged with Virginia Theological Seminary in 1953. This marked the end of segregation in Episcopal seminaries. In the 1950s the diocese acquired property in Norfolk (Talbot Hall) and relocated the diocesan headquarters to this site. This period marked a shift from a small-scale and personal diocesan structure to a more professional and systematic way of doing church business.

1970s to present

The 1970s and 80s saw growth as 17 parishes were added, and women were ordained to the priesthood. A renewed spiritual and collegial focus could be seen at Annual Councils as well as a sense of confidence in diocesan leadership. Regular clergy conferences began. Cursillo began in the diocese in 1978. The Church of the Holy Apostles was formed, the only joint Roman Catholic-Episcopal congregation in the world. A Center for Spiritual Formation was opened in 1988, and a Commission on Aging established the Ballentine Home, Tucker House, and Westminster-Canterbury. The diocese embraced a variety of social concerns during this period (ecumenism, the hungry, and the need for all Christians to engage responsibly with the political system and issues of social justice, capital punishment, war and peace). Camp Wakonda was established during the 1990s, providing a summer camp for children and families affected by AIDS.

This period saw new support and expanded training for deacons. The Diocese experienced some turmoil during the latter part of the 1990s. The Diocesan bishop acknowledged alcohol addiction and sought treatment. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw some new ideas and innovations in administration, but the underlying processes needed to bring about change did not always follow. In 2002, the diocese elected the first woman of an indigenous population as suffragan bishop. A crisis over aspects of leadership and diocesan management erupted. The Presiding Bishop appointed three senior bishops to assess and review the crisis, and the report critiqued diocesan conflict management, the diocesan budget, and financial administration, which led to the bishop’s retirement in 2006.

The diocese then entered a period of healing (2006-2009) served by two assisting bishops. Clergy collegiality had suffered in the previous years, and there was a growing consensus that the diocese was fracturing. Bishop Hollerith was consecrated in 2009 and undertook major diocesan reorganization. He established values and goals for the diocese. The Talbot Hall properties needed extensive repair, and the decision was made to sell the property. The diocesan offices relocated to Newport News in June 2015. A capital campaign was launched to provide extensive renovations for Camp Chanco, the diocesan summer camp and conference center. These renovations are to be completed in 2019. Annual Council was restructured to make Education and Formation a priority. In 2010, in response to the Diocesan Resolution R-1 calling for a Diocesan response to the sins of slavery and racism, Bishop Hollerith set up a Task Force, called “Repairers of the Breach.”  A service of Repentance, Reconciliation & Healing was held on November 2, 2013, along with a formal apology from the Bishop on behalf of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. The intent is for parishes to hold an annual observance during the octave of All Saints.

Like many other Episcopal dioceses in the United States, Southern Virginia has experienced some decline during the last 10 years with the closure of 10 parishes and overall decline in baptized membership and average Sunday attendance. Diocesan revenues have not kept pace with inflation.  As evidenced by the questionnaire responses and reports from the Listening Sessions, there is a feeling of disconnect between some parishes and the diocese and a growing desire to develop a clear diocesan identity and vision moving forward.

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