No one who has been reading the account of our family that I’ve been posting on the Northen history blog could accuse the Northen’s of being an overly religious family. At least two member were either hauled into court or kicked out of their congregations for failure to attend church. Against the background of this religious indifference, I was surprised to learn that Edmund Northern, the first of our ancestors to actually be born in this country was involved in trying to advocate for a modest freedom of religion.
Unlike the Puritans in Massachusetts or the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the English who settled Virginia came strictly for the money. Some thought they would get rich and then hit the road back to England while others saw that there was a great opportunity to become a land owner and build up their wealth that way. Despite not being religious-minded, all of the who were allowed to come to Virginia had to pledge their allegiance to the Church of England (the Anglican Church), and attendance at services was mandatory.
When William and Mary came to the thrown in 1689, the Acts of Toleration were enacted and ten years later the word about them finally reached Virginia.
This did not mean that people living in Virginia automatically began the church of any religion they wanted to. Church attendance was still mandatory and the Anglican church was the only game in town. Those wanting to build a new church had to apply to the governor for a permit. The first religion to challenge this rule was Presbyterianism. The Presbyterian Church was the official Church of Scotland and was brought into Virginia through Scottish merchants. In many ways it was like the Church of England.
Records show that in the year 1724 a group of five prominent men from Richmond County Virginia made a request to be able to have a Presbyterian church. The request to their request reads “The petition of Richard Branham Gentlemen Robert Phillips, John Brown Edmund Northern, William Waker and Thomas Smith for the liberty of a Prsbiterian meeting house, is continued till next court to be considered.” When the next court date came, their petition was push back. This was repeated several times. At last action was taken and the decision was expressed in these words: “Petition being this day taken into consideration. It is the opinion of this Court that the petition doth not lye before them, and do therefore reject the same.” In other words, their request to build the church was denied. Even so, it is interesting to think that one of our ancestors was involved.
Several years later, one county over in Northumberland County, a second request was made for the right to build a Presbyterian Church. It was to be built on the land of a man named Joshua Nelms. That request, too, was denied, but it is interesting to note that some time later, Sarah Northern – Edmund’s daughter married Joshua Nelms. They eventually moved to Frederick County, Virginia which at that time was at the edge of the American frontier. Because it was a much less “civilized” area, people were left more alone to practice religion as they pleased. It was hardly freedom of religion in our sense of the word, since Catholics and Jews were really not welcome, but at least it was a beginning.
(The Northen History blog that I referred to in the first paragraph is a private blog limited to family members. If anyone is interested in reading more about the family and would like to access it, just go to www.northenhistory.wordpress.com. You’ll get a note saying that you need permission in, but then I’ll just approve it and you will be able to put in your password and access the blog.)