When Europeans first settled in the area that became Prince William County and for many years thereafter, there was only one authorized church: the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church.
Three Anglican churches were in or near present-day Prince William County: Pohick Church in Lorton, then part of Prince William, Quantico Church, and Aquia Church. All three were created in 1667, when present-day Prince William and Fairfax counties were part of Stafford County. Two of the three still exist: the current Pohick Church building was built in 1774 and Aquia Church, which was rebuilt in 1757 after a fire damaged the 1751 building. (There were earlier structures both places.) George Washington and George Mason were members of the Pohick Church.
Anglican Church operations
Virginia was divided into church parishes (similar to counties) which not only served religious purposes, but also provided governmental oversight. The Anglican Church was responsible for caring for the poor, overseeing the conduct of parishioners, establishing and supervising land boundaries, setting the rate of taxation for church support, and establishing plantations operated by the church, called “glebes”. Church attendance was compulsory and punished by fines, and everyone had to pay taxes to support the church.
The church was even responsible for building roads, especially those leading to parish churches, county courts, the colonial capital, and connecting counties. All men (including slaves) had to participate in the construction of these roads. Each individual was required to provide six days of work each year with a system of fines to ensure compliance. These roads were essentially just cleared equestrian and pedestrian paths, as nearby waterways provided transportation for trade.
One of the earliest and most historic of these early routes was the “Potomac Way”, which US 1 generally parallels today. The route of the Potomac Road passed very close to the Anglican churches of Pohick and Aquia. It also provided access to an English fort built on Neabsco Creek in 1679 which was one of the first forts built in Virginia and to the church at Quantico.
Change is coming to the Anglican Church
In the mid-1500s, the Church of England separated from the Catholic Church and the Pope, and King Henry VIII became the head of the Church of England. There were further reforms by other English monarchs during the 1600s, which resulted in an intermediate position between Protestantism and Catholicism in many respects. The Anglican Church of Virginia was generally reformed with the English version, but while the English Church retained direct royal control, things developed differently in Virginia.
In Virginia, church oversight initially came from the Bishop of London, but gradually more local control became the norm. This was partly due to the difficulty for the monarchy to bring clergy from England to America. The first settlers who came to Virginia faced conditions such as long sea voyages, primitive living conditions, and Indian attacks. They were willing to do this because many were looking to improve their financial situation in the new world. Church leaders did not need the same financial incentives, so it was harder to entice them to make the trip to America, and so the church hierarchy became more localized. This shortage of leaders also meant that the church in Virginia was less able to fulfill some of its civic responsibilities, which were slowly taken up by the civil courts.
Baptists assert themselves
Even so, there were those who wanted complete autonomy from the Anglican Church and its practices, and Baptists figured prominently here. Before the revolution, the early Baptist churches were considered outlaw sects and their members were persecuted. Baptist reverends have even been arrested for preaching without permission.
One of the earliest Baptist churches in Virginia, and the first in Prince William County, was variously known as Occoquan Church, Bacon Race Church, or Oak Grove Church. This church was near the intersection of Davis Ford and Bacon Race roads. Bacon Race Church’s last building collapsed on Christmas Eve 1987, but the site remains as it was, including the historic cemetery.
Colonial-era Baptists took advantage of sentiments for political freedom and petitioned the government for complete separation of church and state and freedom of worship as they pleased. The Occoquan Baptist Church was a leader in this effort and sent its petition to the Committee on Religion, Convention of Virginia, on May 11, 1776. The petition had three main conditions: to be able to worship as one pleases without interruption; to have his own ministers and not others; and that one can be married, buried, etc., without paying the Parsons of any other denomination. (The full petition as written can be found in the text box).
Passage in Virginia of Thomas Jefferson’s Establishment of Religious Liberty Bill of 1785, placing Virginia at the forefront of religious liberty, was in part the result of lobbying by the Occoquan Baptist Church .
Another early chapter in the quest for religious freedom in early America was also an example of land speculation and development so familiar to county dwellers today. King James wanted to expand settlement in the western parts of Prince William County, so he formed a partnership with George Foote, Nicholas Hayward, George Brent and Robert Bristow to create a refuge for the Huguenots in a 30,000 acre land that they named Brent Town in the Brentsville area.
The Brent family was Catholic and came to Virginia in the late 1640s, establishing the first Catholic settlement in Virginia. The Huguenots were French Protestants who separated from the Catholic Church and were persecuted in France and later in England. Brent Town was a real estate venture designed to entice Huguenots to settle there and protect themselves from persecution.
The concept failed, as few Huguenots came.
A later effort to make Brent Town a Catholic haven also failed, but that effort adds to Prince William County’s remarkable record of pioneering religious liberty in America. Prince William is now incredibly religiously diverse, with local religious communities practicing all Christian denominations as well as Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism, to name a few. And just as importantly, Prince William and America has become a place where we not only have the freedom to choose a religion to follow, we are also free not to belong to any religion and not be penalized or persecuted for it.
Contact Martin Jeter at [email protected] . Sources referenced in this article include: