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Insights and Artifacts
Spring 2001 Courier

The Case of the Missing Presbyterians

By William C. Wooldridge

For over 100 years the Presbyterians of Norfolk have struggled with a curious gap in their history. The beginnings of the Presbyterian "church on the Elizabeth River" in the late 1600's are well documented, and the accounts extend up to about 1716. After the Revolution, and particularly after 1800, when the Presbyterians began a new church building, records are clear. But for a period of 70 years, from 1717 to 1788, the Presbyterians seem to have disappeared.

The Norfolk Presbyterians' great 19th century leader, George D. Armstrong, insisted that the local church's roots went back to the late 17th century. Academic historians, on the other hand, have debunked that notion and concluded that the church died out in the 1700's.

The solution to the case of the missing Presbyterians is more dramatic than either Armstrong or the academics imagined.

Rather than accept the disabilities on dissenters imposed by the British, the local Presbyterians appear to have co-opted old St. Paul's, the established borough church. Presbyterians in Church of England clothing, they carried on routinely until the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) made it expedient for them to resume overtly their Presbyterian identity.

St. Paul's was in effect the Norfolk Presbyterian Church for much of the 18th century.

The notion that the Presbyterians disappeared for 70 years was always implausible. Norfolk was a commercial and trading center with a large, perhaps predominant, Scots population. The Scots, famously and intransigently Presbyterian, did not abandon their faith when they set up shop in Norfolk. In fact, what little evidence there is emphasizes their religious identity. Alan Flanders recently published extracts from the 1765 journal of a French traveller to Norfolk and Portsmouth. "Both places are inhabited by scotch, all presbiterians [emphasis added] altho they have no house of worship of their own. There is a Church in each place of the English Establishment."

Ellis O'Neal, a retired theological librarian and expert on 19th century protestant periodical literature, recently brought to light surprising evidence of the Presbyterian ascendancy at St. Paul's. He found an 1823 obituary in The Virginia Evangelical and Literary Messenger which showed that St. Paul's had, at least briefly, a Presbyterian leader: Alexander Whitehead. Thereby hangs a tale.

Beginning in 1789 (the year the Presbyterian church in Norfolk started meeting openly at the courthouse), St. Paul's, with a vacancy in the pulpit, was bitterly divided between two contingents -- the William Bland faction and the James and Alexander Whitehead faction -- led by opposing ministers. Each faction held its own services and called its own pastor, but the Whitehead faction was by far the largest, comprising perhaps 200 of the approximately 220 communicants. After a contest, the 1789 Episcopal convention recognized "the Rev. Alexander Whitehead" as a proper representative of St. Paul's.

A curious thing about this schism is that its cause has remained obscure. Edward Ferebee's excellent history of the conflict concludes "No record of any kind has been found to explain why the congregation of the Borough Church in 1789 split into two irreconcilable factions, each with its own vestry and rector." Perhaps the schism at St. Paul's, besides reflecting personalities as all church conflicts do, had its origins in the insistence of the Presbyterian majority on selecting the minister, a fundamental feature of Presbyterian governance.

Ultimately, the Whitehead faction withdrew (1798) and some of its members in 1800 formed what is now Christ and St. Luke's. The Bland faction was so small that St. Paul's was abandoned by the time the Presbyterian church opened. In the meantime, a would-be poet visiting Norfolk wrote "No church, no meeting house was there/ The courthouse was the place of prayer."

The Presbyterians began building their own church in 1800, immediately after the exodus from St. Paul's. One of the first people to preach to them in their new church was Dr. (Alexander) Whitehead, and he became associated with the new church. The earliest surviving Norfolk Presbyterian records document baptisms of members' children by Rev. James Whitehead in 1802.

James and Alexander Whitehead were brothers, raised as Presbyterians in Scotland. James Whitehead retained his nominal Episcopal affiliation until his death in 1808. After the secession from St. Paul's, Alexander became a noted Norfolk doctor and educator. The 1823 obituary discovered by Ellis O'Neal says that Alexander Whitehead came to Norfolk to assist his brother the Rev. James Whitehead "and taught the higher classes in the [Norfolk] Academy then under the care of that gentleman." Later, it spells out, "Dr. Whitehead was a professor of religion, in communion with the Presbyterian church in this place [Norfolk]. From his earliest years indeed, he had been trained up in the doctrines and principles of that church, in which he was born, and which his riper reason had examined and approved."

The conclusion that St. Paul's was the de facto Presbyterian Church in Norfolk is not as radical as it sounds. The line between Presbyterianism and the Church of England was sometimes blurred. At times in the 17th century, Presbyterians occupied establishment benefices. Virginians dealt pragmatically with the Established Church. In Fincastle, Virginia, the entire vestry of the Church of England declared themselves Presbyterians as soon as it was legal. In Richmond in the 1790's, an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian alternated Sundays preaching from the same pulpit to largely the same congregation. The Presbyterians in St. Paul's were not organizationally affiliated with the Presbyterian church (either then or for the first 14 years after they built their own building). It sufficed for them that their theology and leadership were, in substance, Presbyterian. It sufficed for England that St. Paul's was, in form, established.

Norfolk's Presbyterians were like Sherlock Holmes' purloined letter. They did not disappear. They did not go underground. They moved into St. Paul's, in plain sight. Because they were in plain sight, they went unnoticed until now.

Sources: Traditional view: (George D. Armstrong), The Church on the Elizabeth River (Richmond 1892). Academic view: Howard McKnight Wilson, Presbyterian Beginnings in Lower Tidewater Virginia (1973), p. 25 ("Presbyterianism. . . vanished from the scene"). Schism: Edward S. Ferebee, Norfolk's Borough Church (now St. Paul's) (Norfolk 1977). Whitehead a Presbyterian: "Obituary Notice," The Virginia Evangelical and Literary Messenger, vol. 6, no. 6 (June 1823) pp. 614-16.

William C. Wooldridge, a former NHS President, is working on a history of Norfolk's First Presbyterian Church and would welcome additional information. Send e-mail care of


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