Tories at the Pulpit: My Experience at Historic St. Luke’s


Historic St. Luke’s in Smithfield, VA

Opening my inbox to see an e-mail from an organization asking me to speak to their club or historic site is without a doubt my favorite part of being a historian.  If you know me personally, you know that I love to talk. There is no way you could be in a room with me for more than three minutes without realizing that I have an addiction to microphones. I have been accused many times in my life of being overly chatty and as the old saying goes, I could “talk to a brick wall” for hours. Just ask my poor kindergarten teacher who had to issue me a “yellow card” every day at lunch because I would rather talk to the table than eat my peanut butter sandwich. I love meeting new people and talking about anything ranging from reality TV to the Ottoman Empire.

A few months ago I received one of those exciting messages from Historic St. Luke’s: Virginia’s Oldest Church, in Smithfield, VA. They asked if I would be willing to give a talk on the Anglican church and it’s connection to loyalism. I’m pretty sure I responded with a big “yes” in about five seconds.  They are going to let me talk for 45 minutes? Yep. I’d like to do that. I also knew that the Anglican church was going to play a major role in my dissertation and my talk at St. Luke’s was the perfect way for a newly minted PhD candidate to get past the post-comps slump and head back to the archives.

At the time of the American Revolution, Virginia had almost 100 Anglican parishes and I researched each rector to better understand who remained loyal, who became a patriot, and how many were a part of that mysterious “neutral” population.  Very few Virginia ministers who identified as loyalists submitted a request to the Loyalist Claims Commission after the war–the staple source of all of my research.  By forcing my head out of the claims I discovered 17 new loyalists who could be added to my list. These ministers were imprisoned for their loyalty, forced out of their parishes, and moved elsewhere in Virginia during the war.  A few Tory ministers were even allowed to remain the rectors of their parishes until they joined Cornwallis at the end of his Southern campaign.

Besides giving me more reasons to better understand my loyalists, St. Luke’s offered another incredible opportunity. The executive director at St. Luke’s, Todd Ballance, also happens to be a dear friend who has enthusiastically supported my research for years.  Todd knows I’m a sucker for a good historic site and was kind enough to drive me across Hampton Roads to see where my loyalists lived and fought for King George. The day before my talk at St. Luke’s, Todd and I traveled to seven different sites in about 4-5 different cities.  In addition to site-seeing, we also shot several 30 second-1 minute promos for my lecture that explained the significance of loyalism to the region. Me? Talk at something? Never!

Here are a few of the videos we shot, which have now become the inspiration of a new vlog that will go live later this year.

If it was up to me, Bunker would be in every video.

Rev. John Agnew’s #1 fan girl!

A huge shout out to Todd for not fixing the stills for these videos so I constantly look surprised 😉

To see more of our adventures, visit Historic St. Luke’s YouTube channel here. There are plenty more where these came from!

Stephanie Seal Walters Glebe ChurchWhile Todd and I toured so many beautiful places that day, there was one site in particular that was unforgettable.  One of the loyalists I study is by far my favorite Tory.  Yes, I know–you aren’t supposed to pick a favorite, but the Reverend John Agnew has completely captivated my interest over the years. I always welcome any opportunity to speak about Rev. Agnew because he had one of those striking personalities that has survived over 200 years in the documents he left behind. In Virginia, he authored the second largest loyalist claim after Lord Dunmore and he used some of the most colorful imagery that makes you feel as though you’ve just stepped back into 18th century America. Knowing this, Todd brought me to Glebe Church in Driver, Virginia–the site of one of the most memorable Tory episodes in the Old Dominion.  After a Wednesday night service in March 1775, Rev. Agnew was famously thrown from his pulpit at Glebe for preaching Matthew 22’s “Let us render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”  Needless to say, his royalist sentiment didn’t sit well with his congregation and his “sacking” took the Virginia Gazettes by storm.

I was graciously welcomed to Glebe Church by their rector, Rev. Bob Gilman and members of the church’s vestry. I spoke with them about Agnew and they gave me a tour of their beautiful church. As a historian it is always a neat opportunity to stand in the same place where a person you study once stood.  However, there was something far more enchanting about this visit than I’d ever experienced at other historic sites. John Agnew ended a very important chapter of his life inside Glebe. I walked where Agnew and William Cowper argued in front of their congregation. I stood on the same floor where Agnew sadly walked away from his pulpit and out of the church he’d loved for the last time.  I will never forget that strange feeling I had standing inside Glebe, nor will I ever be able to adequately describe exactly what that feeling was, but it certainly refreshed a young historian with a long research road ahead of her. If you are ever near Suffolk, Virginia, I highly recommend driving by the church and waving hello at Rev. Agnew.

Stephanie and Ashton Walters

We are suckers for a great gift shop!

The day of my talk at St. Luke’s I was warmly welcomed by their staff and the 30+ people who signed up for “God Save the Kingdom.” I have always been blessed to walk into rooms with hospitable audiences, but there was something particularly special about St. Luke’s.  Not only was everyone open to the discussion about loyalism, but they asked engaging questions that allowed for an exciting, intelligent discussion. I mentioned in my first blog post “Tory Story” that I normally encounter some member of the audience who is resistant to the significance of loyalism and unsure of where it belongs in the historical narrative.  This was simply not the case at St. Luke’s and it was truly inspiring to be welcomed by so many members of the community who grew up in an area where loyalism in Virginia was once at it’s strongest. You also can’t beat giving a talk in Smithfield, where Virginia ham sandwiches are an appetizer at almost all events.

After my talk, my husband and I were able to walk into one of John Ericson’s famous tours of St. Luke’s church.  For a person who loves to talk as much as I do, I enjoy sitting in on other people’s tours and lectures so I can take away a few pointers for how to keep an audience engaged.  John is certainly one of the best examples of engaging speakers.  If you are ever in the Smithfield area (or even if you aren’t!) I highly suggest taking a trip to Historic St. Luke’s to jump on one of John’s tours.  It is educational, entertaining, and captivating.  The church is one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever toured and if you love cemeteries, you can’t miss the ones at St. Luke’s.

Once again, I would like to offer a huge thanks to Historic St. Luke’s for the hospitality and the fabulous weekend.  It’s one I will never forget!

Sad you missed the talk?  Historic St. Luke’s offers dozens of lectures each year open for community members and scholars.  If you are interested, please visit there events page here and sign up!

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One Comment

  1. Otto Lohrenz

    I noticed you had some nice things to say about my article on John Agnew. Thank you! My specialty has been “The Anglican Clergy of Revolutionary Virginia.” Fifty of my articles on that subject have appeared in historical journals.
    My days of research and writing are over. I am almost 94 and I recently lost my sweetheart of 65 years to Alzheimer’s. The energy and motivation, and the capability, are there any more.
    I wish you well in your career. I gather you are a gifted scholar and will no doubt make brilliant contributions to your chosen field.

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