The “Parson’s Cause:” Thomas Jefferson’s Teacher, Patrick Henry, and Religious Freedom


April 30, 2018
by John Grady Also by this Author


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As Tidewater lands played out, exhausted from repeated tobacco plantings, or were encumbered by inheritance, the established church moved with young planters like Peter Jefferson into the Piedmont. One hundred thirty miles from the colonial capital Williamsburg and “planted close under the southwest mountains,” James Maury preached the gospel of the Church of England in the sprawling Fredericksville Parish. He was a graduate of the College of William and Mary, a tutor for a time in Williamsburg, and was sent for further ecclesiastical study in Great Britain on the recommendation of the politically powerful (when it came to Anglican prerogatives in Virginia) James Blair. Blair was the Bishop of London’s commissary—agent of the church’s interests – in the colony.[1]

Maury found the reaches of Virginia vexing service in the work of the Lord. The traveling over the primitive roads and traces of the Piedmont and through the slippery mountain passes “to baptize & marry & bury” took its toll. He lamented that his “Intervals of Leisure & Repose are as short, as they are rare.”[2]

To supplement his income under laws covering the church, James Maury founded a school, just as his Huguenot refugee grandfather in Dublin had done. He enrolled his own son; other students included Peter Jefferson’s son Thomas, who became one of the younger Maury’s closest boyhood friends, Dabney Carr, later Jefferson’s brother-in-law, John Walker, who would join Jefferson at William and Mary, and James Madison, a cousin of the president with the same name and decades later the first Anglican bishop of Virginia.[3]

“In a log house below the Southwest Mountains,” Jefferson and other students “received at an impressionable age personal instruction from a sound scholar who was aware of the niceties of language and the beauties of literature.” Jefferson, who spent two years living with the Maurys before enrolling at William and Mary College, recalled the reverend as “a correct classical scholar” who impressed upon him the value of literature and the study of nature. What Jefferson didn’t write was how Maury influenced his thinking on the proper place for the church and the state. It wouldn’t be in the clergyman’s favor. The same could be said about his classmate James Madison.[4]

James Maury was a cleric, educator, and pathfinder in faith and knowledge, but he also was very much a man of his time and place. Like his neighbors and in-laws, he was a land speculator. Like his parishioners, he invested his family’s financial future. All had been bitten by the “grab, grab, grab” reality of the colony’s land policy, forming themselves into the Loyal (Land) Company in 1749. It was a gamble—on securing for themselves and posterity an even bigger future; buying and selling far distant forests, water rights to creeks, runs, and rivers they had never seen on the western side of the mountains they had rarely if ever crossed.[5]

Although he was proficient in Greek and Latin, Maury belittled the teaching of “dead languages.” He wrote that most of his charges “ought to be instructed as soon as possible in the most necessary branches of useful, practical knowledge” on running their holdings. These boys needed the skills and the discipline to record their future transactions down to the Daybook penny: the number, gender, age, and health of their slaves; livestock births and sales; dates of harrowing, planting, and harvesting – with volumes counted; and weather on all days, changes noted in the course of a day – sunny dawn, mild; sleet in the afternoon.[6]

Being a pastor and an educator in a county with frontier tinges, James Maury exerted influence over the colony’s most ambitious men. By being a speculator as well, he shaped a vision of what new lands could be and he could rhapsodize about the possibilities—a salesman of earthly reward.[7]

In the 1760s, Maury’s income and prospects for prosperity suffered two major setbacks, the first of which was in the forefront of most Virginians’ concerns. The 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War was of no help financially to Great Britain’s oldest North American colony and men like Maury. What followed soon after was an abomination, an unforgiveable betrayal to them. A Royal Proclamation issued in October 1763 barred expansion west of the Appalachians, including the Loyal Company’s 800,000 acres that lay in that now-forbidden territory. It was an outrage. Virginians, like Maury in Albemarle and George Washington in Fairfax, felt stabbed in the back. Westward expansion was the very reason they had gone to war, marching alongside Gen. Edward Braddock from Alexandria into the Ohio wilderness.[8]

The French and Indian War had left Virginia planters in greater debt than usual. Adding to their burden were poor tobacco harvests in 1755 and 1758 caused by drought. To ease their plight, the colonial government passed emergency acts allowing debts, such as those owed to the established church, to be paid in currency or tobacco notes and setting the price of a pound of tobacco at the artificially low level of two pence. Tobacco prices underwrote the value of Virginia’s currency. The market price was about six pence. Planters naturally paid the church with the two-pence notes, keeping the difference for themselves.[9]

The Anglican clergy at first acquiesced, considering wartime necessity and the hardship of disastrous harvests. They were outraged, however, as the “emergency” acts, signed into law by Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, turned into the norm. They demanded their sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco, as guaranteed by statute. Thirty-five of the seventy Anglican priests in Virginia gathered in a convention to demand their due. To them, the legislature was daring to put itself ahead of Parliament and the king.

Because the 1758 law did not have a clause saying when the emergency act was to start—upon royal confirmation or on the day it was passed—the clergymen sent their case to the Board of Trade for a decision. There the Rev. John Camm, then in charge of William and Mary in Virginia and supported by the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury, won a ruling invalidating the colony’s law, but not from its inception. This provided maneuver space for more arguments later in counties across Virginia.

Matters didn’t end there. Fauquier, a man who generally leaned toward the colonists’ interests over the Board of Trade’s ignorance of Virginia reality, became outraged when politically-ambitious Camm, accompanied by several witnesses, showed him a copy of the ruling. The meeting deteriorated quickly. Fauquier accused the Camm of breaking the seals of an official document intended for him alone. Lieutenant Governor Fauquier very likely was infuriated by Reverend Camm’s pretense of civil power by taking the question to London in the first place. It reeked of James Blair’s plotting and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Williamsburg and London to remove royal officials he despised. Whether Camm was entitled to peek, or succumbed to his curiosity over what was written versus what he heard and remembered in the weeks of ocean-traveling, is not recorded.[10]

Although Fauquier let the relief act lapse, he left reimbursement to the courts, expecting they would rule that the clergy had no grounds for action, because the law had lapsed.[11]

Watching this all unfold in the usually quiet capital was Thomas Jefferson, fresh out of James Maury’s tutelage and home. He was enrolled at the college, and was a regular invitee to the governor’s palace through his friendship with the scholarly George Wythe, his own interesting companionship in serious conversation, and his proficiency with the violin.[12]

Jefferson was witnessing the first act in a drama that came to be known as the “Parson’s Cause.” This colonial legal struggle lead eventually to de-establishing of churches as part of government in Virginia and, many years later, to barring Congress from restricting “the free exercise of religion.” The outcome of the case had another important impact on what became the drive for independence in Virginia, asserting the colonies’ rights to determine what laws best fit their needs, not a far away Parliament in which they had no representation.

As a clergyman of the established church—in effect an employee of the government—Maury, with a large family to feed, believed like Reverend Camm that the burgesses had cheated him. Irrespective of his school and its little income, or his possible revenue from belonging to the Loyal Company, Maury wanted his base pay. Since the first cases by the clergy foundered in York and King William counties, he sued the collector of the parish levies for the difference between the two pence paid under the emergency act and the six pence market price of tobacco. His attorney, Peter Lyons, thought Maury’s chances better if he filed in Hanover County, rather than Louisa County where the collector lived, served on the county court, and was a burgess – member of the body that had drafted and passed the “two-pence law.” Lyons, born in Ireland and barely over thirty years old, also would be playing on his home court in the case before a judge who had strong familial bonds to church-state status quo.[13]

When the suit was filed, the Rev. Patrick Henry, the vicar of St. Paul’s in Hanover County, took a proprietary interest in the case. In the small world of Piedmont society, the Henry brothers were church and state in Hanover. Back in the mid-1740s the interests of both intersected. The brothers had felt duty-bound to contain the “religious Phrenzy” of revivalists, their itinerant and usually unlicensed preachers, and the doings inside their meeting houses. For all that effort to hold back the trembling of the Great Awakening, they couldn’t rein in John Henry’s wife Sarah Winston Syme Henry. She was enraptured with the evangelists’ message, particularly that of Samuel Davies. Instead of heading to one of Hanover’s two Anglican parishes on the Sabbath, she loaded their son Patrick into a wagon and set off for Davies’ Presbyterian services where the sermons were a heady brew of classical allusions in biblical reference.[14]

The Rev. Patrick Henry’s position in the county was obvious by his long education and ordination. Although his brother John, also born in Scotland, was well educated at King’ College, he took “a traditional shortcut on the road to wealth and power” in Virginia by marrying above his station.[15]By 1763, John Henry, a former teacher and a recognized surveyor, was a judge, a powerful man in handling local affairs. He was also a colonel in the militia; and, with his clergyman brother, an associate of key players in the Governor’s Council.[16]

In November 1763, Maury’s attorney Peter Lyons carried the first round when Presiding Judge Henry ruled the law invalid and ordered a jury to be selected to determine the amount owed to Maury. For the first time, a colonial court had ruled in favor of the clergy. Earthly prayers answered, in part, Maury, Camm, and the others eagerly awaited the denouement – the damages. The collector’s attorney then resigned, and Judge Henry’s son Patrick took over the case. His uncle cautioned young Henry against “saying hard things of the clergy” at the session. The Rev. Patrick Henry knew his nephew well. As an adolescent, the young man had paid scant attention to academics, fumbled his way into young manhood trying this in planting, failing that in storekeeping, moving on, and finally becoming an attorney more by the patronage of those who saw his raw genius rather than by his real knowledge of law. Young Patrick Henry seemed most comfortable with the rough hunters, the men that hung around the county’s taverns – loud talk, loud music with Patrick himself playing the violin. He certainly had a glib tongue – the mixture of known references and practiced allusions, delivered with passion, imbibed from his mother’s religious persistence. The second act in the Parson’s Cause drama had been reached.[17]

Court days always brought crowds to enjoy the spectacle even in the most rural courthouses, but the numbers milling about the single-story brick courthouse were larger than usual. On the December day of the trial to determine damages, men of property excused themselves when the sheriff tried to press them into jury duty. “Hence he went among the vulgar herd” for jurymen, enlisting tradesmen, deists, followers of evangelical preachers, and disgruntled Hanover County planters. Looking them over, lawyer Henry pronounced the jury “honest men.” His opponent, Lyons, having practiced in this court for almost ten years, knew the panel as well; but his feelings about their competency, their biases, or their prejudices are not known.

Once the veniremen were picked, there was a scramble for space inside. There were no seats in the courtroom so flesh pressed hard against flesh. As many as twenty of the colony’s Anglican clergymen were inside the court that day. Those in clerical robes and the men of property who could not squeeze into the small chamber battled with the vulgar herd to hold spots near the doorway to hear what was said.[18]

For a corpulent man who went about in measured stride, Lyons moved swiftly this day by calling two tobacco dealers to establish the price of leaf in the late spring of 1759. These experts in tobacco’s value set the price. Since the court already had upheld the old law from Parliament, the damages—the clergy’s salaries—were to be commensurate. As he finished, he admonished the jury to remember the clergy’s good deeds in the community when deciding how much was owed this man. He then rested Maury’s case.[19]

The “honest men” or “vulgar herd” were now primed for the “hard things.”

Lawyer Henry declared, “The Act of 1758 had every characteristic of a good law.” Drawing upon the oratorical skills he learned from evangelical preachers and passion that later impressed the college student Jefferson with its power, he said, “A King by disallowing acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a tyrant and forfeits all right his subjects’ obedience.”[20]

Disbelieving-what-he-just-heard, Lyons shouted across the courtroom: “The gentleman had spoken treason.” Although there were murmurs in the courtroom seconding Lyons, the court itself did not rule against Henry, and counsel tried several times to have the bench reprimand the defendant’s lawyer.[21]

That didn’t happen. Not pausing in his argument, Henry raced with his oratorical wind.

Taking the course the Reverend Henry feared he would, the twenty-seven-year-old, self-taught lawyer shot back for an hour that the clergy’s challenge to Virginia’s law made them “enemies of the community.” The clergy had put themselves on a pedestal and needed to be knocked off it. Henry said Maury and all the Anglican clergy “deserved to be punished by signal severity” as “rapacious harpies.” How malign was their intent? Instead of the “good deeds” that Lyons laid before the jury, Henry said the villains would “snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan child their last milch cow! The last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!”[22]

If that were not enough, the lawyer wanted to leave this warning with the jurors, one so stark it kept clanging like the tocsin – a clear warning heard far beyond the tiny Hanover courthouse, given to those men wearing clerical robes, sitting in Parliament in their finery, wandering officiously through Whitehall, or sitting regally on a throne in Westminster:

Not to have the temerity, for the future, to dispute the validity of such laws, authenticated by the only authority, which, in his conception, could give force to laws for the government of this Colony, authority of a legal representative of a Council, and of a kind and benevolent and patriot Governor.[23]

Henry had the jury exactly where he wanted them. He had turned their anger over the levy into a way through the legal thickets of London boards and kingsmen on the Thames. To the jurymen it was as visible as “chopt trees” trails, hacked out through the entangling vines and underbrush of his father’s ruling.

“We know best how to care for ourselves” was the intent of the final message, and the court let it stand. Why his father, the Judge John Henry, did not step in and remonstrate the jury is unknown, another secret lost in time.

Out for only five minutes, the jury awarded Maury one penny in damages. The insulting verdict stunned the clergymen. Lyons was on his feet offering motions to set aside the decision, but to no avail. Judge John Henry had lost control of his courtroom. He had a runaway jury marching to his son’s drumbeat. The only recourse open to Maury was to take the case to the General Court in Williamsburg, far away from the boisterous crowd that now hoisted Patrick Henry on their shoulders and marched in glee toward the nearby tavern owned by his father-in-law, John Shelton.[24]

The third act in the Parson’s Cause case was concluded.

The verdict affected James Maury instantly. Further frustrated by the Royal Proclamation’s barring over-the-mountain white migration (and certainly land sales), his ever-expanding family had even less to go around than before. There also now showed a darker side to this brilliant man’s legacy: self-righteousness. To his ordered mind, he had been cheated, a feeling shared by his fellow clergymen. Everything he had done in this matter had been lawful, proper. When the case ended up in Williamsburg on appeal before men who had been instrumental in writing the colonial law, they turned deaf ears to the clergy’s prayers. Camm and all the Anglican clergy had been knocked down a peg or two.[25]

In 1769, the impoverished James Maury died, and his oldest son, Matthew, Jefferson’s and Madison’s classmate, took over his church and school. The primogeniture and entail traditions, if no longer law, were as strong in the Piedmont as they were in the Tidewater and Great Britain. There was little for the younger Maury sons but to keep faith in God and try their luck in planting.[26]

The “Parson’s Cause” story didn’t end in a royal governor’s council before the Revolution. There were two more acts that needed to play out —to draw the sharpest of lines between what was the state’s and what was the church’s. The discontents on both sides—Why should a good Baptist pay anything to a church he finds popish? Where is the stipend guaranteed by law?—smoldered like tidal marsh fires as bonfires of Revolution were set and roared.

In the mid-1770s Patrick Henry was sent to the House of Burgesses by the grateful planters of Hanover after the Parson’s Cause case. He was more fiery than ever, from damning the Stamp Act on the floor of the General Assembly upon arrival in the capital to declaiming more treason against Parliament and King a decade later in a Richmond Anglican Church.

With him in the assembly then was Thomas Jefferson, no longer in awe of Henry’s power as a speaker, making a name for himself as a thoughtful and graceful writer on all matters political, collected as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In Williamsburg, he socialized with James Madison, now an Anglican clergyman himself, but a different breed than Maury and certainly different from Blair or Camm.[27]

Madison, who cast aside a career in law, was teaching at the college after being ordained in Great Britain in 1775; but unlike Camm, William and Mary’s president, a bitter ender on the elevated place of the church in a civil society, and a wealthy Loyalist to his death, Madison went the other way. He even organized a militia company of William and Mary students for the Revolutionary cause.[28]

By 1776, the Virginia revolutionary convention, already on its set course for independence, dumped the reference to praying for the well-being of the king, queen, and royal family from the Book of Common Prayer. In the attendees’ minds, revision of a prayer book was firmly its business. That was small potatoes compared to what followed from Madison’s pen. The Reverend Madison wrote shortly thereafter that the establishment of any particular church was “in incompatible with the Freedom of a Republic.” All “but two or three” of the one-hundred parishes—likely their vestries speaking, ignoring the rectors—agreed with the idea of dis-establishing.[29]

He had taken a sledgehammer to Blair’s and Camm’s pedestal.

The convention act of 1776 suspended the colonial law fixing the rector’s stipend and did not require non-members to contribute to it. But the convention did require all to pay tithes for the support of the poor and the sick in the parish.[30]

Although a decade had passed to reach that stage from the jury’s decision in Hanover, another nine years would have to pass before Jefferson’s dormant bill became Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom; and it would not be the first such law in the new republic.

The names of the players in this final drama on religious freedom were familiar: Jefferson, Henry, but now there were two James Madisons, clergyman and lawmaker, on the stage.[31]


[1]Ann Maury, Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, Translated and Compiled from the Original Autobiography of the Rev. James Fontaine and Other Family Manuscripts, Comprising an Original Journal of Travels in Virginia, New York, etc., in 1715 and 1716(New York: George P. Putnam, 1853; 2nd ed., 1872). James Fontaine,A Tale of the Huguenots; or, Memoirs of a French Refugee Family, trans. and comp. Ann Maury (New York: John S. Taylor, 1838); reprinted in a collection of Maury material as Memoirs of a Huguenot Family(Baltimore: Genealogical, 1973), 271-87; Virginius Dabney, Virginia: The New Dominion(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 73–77; Carl Bridenbaugh, Seat of Empire: The Political Role of Eighteenth Century Williamsburg(Williamsburg, VA.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1963), 27; John Hammond Moore, Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727–1976(Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia for the Albemarle County Historical Society, 1976), 8; David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Western Movement(Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 2000), 98–103; Henry Mayer, A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Revolution(New York: Grove, 1991), 19–21; D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: Atlantic America, 1492–1800(New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), 1:154; Clifford Dowdey, The Virginia Dynasties(New York: Little, Brown, 1969), 309; Fairfax Harrison, Landmarks of Old Prince William, 2 vols. (Richmond: privately printed, 1924), 1:133, 166, 233; Bishop William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia(Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1861), 1:315; Genealogical Account, Va. Mag. 11 (1901): 289–304; Richard L. Maury, The Huguenots in Virginia(Richmond: Huguenot Society of America, n.d.), 113.

[2]Letters of Rev. James Maury quoted in Fontaine, Tale, and specifically on 379.


[4]Letters of Rev. James Maury as quoted in Fontaine, Tale, 379; Dowdey, Dynasties, 309; Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ed., Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson(Charlottesville, Va.: F. Carr, 1829), 1:1.

[5]Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, A Biography (New York: Scribner, 1948), 1:6 (on “grab, grab, grab”).

[6]James Maury to Robert Jackson, July 17, 1762, Albemarle County (Virginia) Historical Society Records; Dumas Malone,Jefferson: The Virginian(Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), 42–45; Maury, Memoirs, 386–88.

[7]His grandson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, made turning that vision into reality his life’s work in charting the world’s oceans for the Navy. Cong. Globe, 32nd Cong., 2d Sess., appendix 238-39 (statement of Mr. Dodge on Railroad to the Pacific, citing Matthew Fontaine Maury’s quoting his grandfather on value of western exploration); “Loyal Company Grant, July 12, 1749,” Exploring the West from Monticello: A Perspective in Maps from Columbus to Lewis and Clark; An Exhibition of Maps and Navigational Instruments on View in the Tracy W. McGregor Room, Alderman Library, Univ. of Virginia, July 10 to Sept. 26, 1995,

[8]Dr. Thomas Walker, Journal of an Exploration in the Spring of the Year 1750 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1888, 7-34; William Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery(New York: Viking Penguin, 1987), 144; Fischer and Kelly, Bound, 152–53.


[10]Arthur P. Middleton, Anglican Virginia: The Established Church of the Old Dominion 1607-1786 (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series — 0006, 1990), 182-84; notes 8,10.


[12]Malone, Jefferson, 53, 73-4, also 44n19.

[13]William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry(Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), 24; Mayer, Son, 26–31, 34, 35, 59–66; Arthur Scott Pearson, “The Constitutional Aspects of the Parson’s Cause,” Political Science Quarterly(New York) 31 (1916): 558–77; Dabney, Virginia, 120–21; William Wirt Henry, ed., Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 38, 41; Genealogical Account, VirginiaMagazine 27 (1919): 375–76; John H. Gwathmey, Twelve Virginia Counties Where the Western Migration Began (Baltimore: Geneaological Publishing Co., 1997 reprint), 155.

[14]His wife Sarah Winston came from a prospering colonial family when she married Col. John Syme, then a vestryman in her future brother-in-law’s church. With his own fortunes and her dowry, Syme had an expansive view of his future, buying large tracts in Hanover, Goochland, and King Williams counties, and muscling his way into the House of Burgesses as one of the first members from Hanover admitted to that body. But they were ambitions cut short. He died in 1729. Middleton, Anglican, 182-84.

[15]Same as notes 13 and 14. The quotes on Henry’s address to the jury and Lyons’ objections come from Wirt’s account of Henry’s life and the Reverend Maury’s recollections.










[25]John Grady, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography, A Biography, 1806-1873,(Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 14; same as notes 13 and 14.


[27]Malone, Jefferson, 181-90.

[28]Middleton, Anglican, 196-98.



[31]Middleton, Anglican, 201-02.

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