Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dating of Newport Parish

The dating of this gothic church is a matter of disagreement between local traditions and academic researchers. Local sources insist that the church can be dated by rather unreliable evidence to 1632. The basic argument is:

  • The vestry records were concealed by burial during the Revolutionary War by Colonel Josiah Parker and read by his daughter, a Mrs. Cowper and other reliable witnesses who assert a brick church was built in 1632. Upon reading, the records were used as wadding for muskets during the war of 1812 (Meade I 299) or crumpled into dust (Mason 193)>
  • Local tradition links the name of a militia Colonel Joseph Bridger who is interred in the chancel of the church to the construction of the church (Rawlings 8),
  • A set of dating bricks, discovered in a roof collapse in 1887 (Rawlings 8) or 1886 (Meade 193), bear the date 1632.
  • Architectural elements such as buttresses, crow step gables, and the principal rafter roof were characteristic of early 17th century churches (Upton 60-61).

Other evidence calls into doubt the verisimilitude of these assertions:

  • It was common for several churches to be built on the same site generations apart. The presence of a brick church on this site does not mean that it was this brick church. On the contrary, according to the guide with whom we toured the church, no evidence has been found of other church foundations on the site (as in Bruton Parish for which there is clear documentary and archaeological evidence of previous churches.) (King 2007 interview with tour guide).
  • Joseph Bridger was born in 1628 and was four years old in 1632. Some sources (Meade 206ff and Mason 1994ff) cite clumsy efforts to link Bridger’s father with the site, but his name was Samuel, and he can not be documented as having come to America.
  • The bricks have indeterminate numerals that can be read as 1632 or 1682, and the style of numerals does not match colonial scripts. According to Upton (1985) the bricks are clearly forgeries. The bricks also have a mortar coating indicating that they may have been re-used as interior bricks in later repairs, alterations, or new construction.
  • Two other local figures, Charles and Thomas Driver, are also associated with the church, but they, like Colonel Bridger, are associated with records in the later 17th century when they were adults. There are two bricks in the third story of the tower bearing the initials CD and TD usually associated with these two men (Rawlings 8).
  • The architectural features of the building can all be documented in English churches of the later 17th century or much later time periods (Upton 83ff).

General historical data militate against the establishment of such an elaborate edifice in 1632 and generally agree with a date in the 1680s:

  • The other Virginia buildings with gothic features were all constructed in the late 17th century or after:

Bacon’s Castle 1665;

Jamestown Church circa 1676 (according to Upton 62) not 1639-1647;

2nd Bruton Parish Church 1681-3;

St. Peter’s Parish Church 1701;

Yeocomico 1706. (Dates from Rawlings Table of Contents; Upton 61-62)

It is unlikely that one of these buildings predates the other by fifty years or more.

The population of Isle of Wight was 31 people after the uprising of 1622 and 522 in 1634. The cost of such a church was approximately 100,000 pounds of tobacco paid for by tax levies three years before construction began. This would entail a tax of 60 pounds of tobacco per year if the figure 522 represents tithables only and 120 pounds if half of the population consisted of tithables when the average tax was considered a burden at 20 pounds per tithable. The average tax was 20 pounds of tobacco for the colonial government and the same for parish taxes. It seems unlikely that the population could bear, in the best case, double taxes, or, in the worst case, quadruple taxes (Rawlings 8; Upton 60; figures King).

The association of Joseph Bridger with the church agrees with a date in the 1680s as does the local links to the Driver brothers (Rawlings 8; Upton

Funding for the Jamestown church of 1639 was such a problem that it took eight years to complete the church. Could a more elaborate building have been constructed in 1632 in a sparsely populated county such as Isle of Wight?

A compromise theory that the church was begun in the 1630s and then modified fifty years later, resulting in the current edifice is also posited. According to the guide who gave me the information, there is no physical evidence of multiple building times (King interview with tour guide).

My personal view is that it is most likely that the church was constructed in the 1680s on the general site of an earlier church, possibly one with brick foundations under wooden walls. The assertion of 1632 construction is predicated on dubious evidence and is not accepted by dispassionate authorities who have no particular viewpoint to advance. Occam’s Razor, or the rule of simplicity in drawing conclusions, states that of multiple theories to explain an event, the one that is simplest and agrees with most data is likely the correct one. I would like to hear from those who disagree with me so that I can post their comments. Like them, I await archaeological evidence to clear up the dating.

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