Hawthorns and religion in colonial Virginia

This piece is adapted from a family history I wrote in 2020 about my Hawthorn(e) ancestors who originated in Virginia and migrated west through Georgia, Louisiana, and eventually Texas. This responds to the theme “Worship” in Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.”

Religion was central to the lives of colonial Virginians, as it was throughout the American colonies.(1) The Church of England was the established church of Virginia from 1619 until its disestablishment in 1786. During this period, church attendance was mandatory, and taxes went to support not only church functions but also civic activities like road building and poor relief.

My 5x great-grandfather Peter Hawthorn was born in Surry County, Virginia, in 1752, located south of the James River and extending toward the southwest. He and his wife Susannah Hines (1753–bef 1797) had at least nine children, including my ancestor Joseph Frederick Hawthorn (~1785–1850). At that time, Surry County was part of Albemarle Parish of the Church of England (there were many civil and church border changes around this time that I won’t explore here, but will just note that the southern part of Surry County, which included Albemarle Parish, became Sussex County in 1754).

Per the Albemarle Parish records, Peter Hawthorn’s parents Peter and Rachel (and the elder Peter’s first wife Sarah) were members of the established church. But these colonial Virginians were likely not a restful people in the pews, subservient to the preacher in his elevated pulpit. One historian has documented the widespread irreverent behavior in colonial Virginia churches. “Colonial Virginia was a churchgoing culture in which crowded pews and Sunday sermons were a part of everyday life,” the historian writes. “Yet, if Virginians took church attendance for granted, they also accepted a degree of inattentiveness and misbehavior in Sunday services.”(2)

The young Peter born in 1752, and his older siblings Fanny and John, grew up in this restless time, but also during a time of significant religious upheaval in pre-Revolutionary Virginia. The “Great Awakening” had spread throughout the American colonies in the 1740s and ‘50s, starting in New England and filtering its way south. Led in part by Anglican preacher George Whitefield, the movement “featured intense, emotional scenes of penitential sinners and new converts being filled, as they saw it, with the Holy Spirit, with associated outcries, visions, dreams, and spirit journeys.”(3) Further movements of dissent from Anglican orthodoxy—notably Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Baptism—arose during this era before the American Revolution as well. (N.b., my wife’s first cousin ten times removed was Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist clergyman from Northampton, Massachusetts who in the 1740s gave a sermon that also helped spark the Great Awakening. He was also the grandfather of Vice President Aaron Burr.)

I have no evidence what the Hawthorns of Albemarle Parish and later Brunswick County (the next county to the southwest from Sussex county, and bordering North Carolina) believed about this new movement (or what they believed at all), but they would not have been able to ignore it. In fact, Southside Virginia—the counties along the border, including Brunswick—were at the heart of the Methodist movement in Virginia both before and after the American Revolution. “To many,” according to one account, “Brunswick County, if not the fount of colonial Methodism, is the cradle of Methodism in the South.”(4) Robert Williams, a licensed Methodist minister from England, preached on the “Brunswick Circuit” in the mid-1770s, until his death in 1775, perhaps the same year young Peter Hawthorn bought land in the county.

After the Revolution, the former colonists continued to move away from the Church of England. The American Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Baltimore in 1784, and Methodism continued to spread in Virginia. One feature of the emerging theology was its opposition to slavery, stemming from the anti-slavery views of Methodism’s principal founder John Wesley.

One of the early Methodist circuit riders was Irishman Edward Dromgoole, who established a plantation in Southside Virginia’s Brunswick County in the 1780s and remained there the rest of his life.

Methodist camp meeting in North Carolina, U.S. National Archives

And yet Dromgoole himself represented the conflict between morality and economics—or piety and social respectability—that many of his contemporaries, even ministers, even Thomas Jefferson, encountered concerning slavery. “If they [the growing population of Methodists and Baptists in the region] wanted to prosper easily in the South they could hardly avoid slavery,” wrote one historian, “and many did want to prosper as easily as possible. This desire helped former opponents of slavery, such as the ambitious and pious Edward Dromgoole, to acquire slaves.”(5) By 1823, about a decade before his death, Dromgoole had acquired over 20 slaves. For him and for so many others in Southside Virginia and elsewhere, slavery and its justifications, including theological ones, were being solidified into the fabric of American life.

And this fabric included the sad fact that many of my Hawthorn(e) ancestors, including Peter Hawthorn and his sons, became enslavers themselves, a topic for a future post.


(1) Noting, however, that Virginia was not founded expressly as a religious colony, unlike those in New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. Though its earliest leaders have sometimes been described as “militant Protestants.” See “Faith of our Forefathers,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9805/religion.html.

(2) Jacob M. Blosser, “Irreverent Empire: Anglican Inattention in an Atlantic World.” Church History, vol. 77, no. 3 (2008), p. 605.

(3) Thomas Kidd, “The Great Awakening in Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia, online, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/great_awakening_in_virginia_the

(4) Worth Earlwood Norman, Jr., James Solomon Russell: Former Slave, Pioneering Educator and Episcopal Evangelist (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), p. 48.

(5) Donald G. Matthews, Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Morality, 1780-1845 (Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 44.

— Fred Dews

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