fter giving my talk at Historic St. Luke’s in August and having the opportunity to tour Glebe Church in Driver, Virginia, I’ve received quite a few questions about Reverend John Agnew. This is most likely due to the fact that even the most seasoned lovers of Virginia history have never had the opportunity to engage with Agnew’s story. He never really pops up in academic or popular history books. Only one historian, Otto Lohrenz, has ever studied Agnew in depth–and that was as recent as 2007. When I talk about Agnew it’s very easy to gather from my enthusiasm that I believe the incident between Agnew and William Cowper on March 24, 1775 is when the Revolution in Virginia “got real.”
Historians rarely agree on anything. When it comes to the historiography on “the coming of the Revolution,” historians disagree on what event started the domino effect that led to July 4, 1776. Some religious historians would argue that it was the Great Awakening. Military or War and Society historians point to the French and Indian War. Economic historians–the Stamp Act. Some historians argue it’s Lexington and Concord. Political historians say it was the King’s Proclamation of Rebellion. And then you have some cultural folks who say it’s Thomas Paine’s 1776 publication of Common Sense. And that’s only a few of the dozens of arguments out there. We all make different claims when it comes to significance. And that’s just for the general historiography on the “coming of the Revolution.” There are hundreds of more arguments about each individual colony.
I’m more interested in what led the Old Dominion to “cross the Rubicon.” As a student of social history, I firmly believe that John Agnew’s story is when civil resistance and open rebellion went from a fine line to a big blur. For the Revolution in Virginia, Agnew isn’t necessarily “the point of no return,” but his incident certainly represents the first significant domino to topple over and divide society. I also acknowledge that there are historians out there about to say, “oh heck no.” But, that’s also why I love this field.
Reverend John Agnew was born in Galloway, Scotland in the 1720s and moved to Virginia in the 1750s. He was a rector of Suffolk Parish in Virginia, a man of immense property on the coastline, and had the tendency to get into loud, public arguments with Virginia burgesses. One memorable assessment of Agnew’s character was by Thomas Jefferson in 1771 who defended Agnew in court over a controversy regarding vestry lands in Suffolk and Norfolk. In a letter to Thomas Burk, Jefferson wrote that Agnew was “an irascible old gentlemen (sic).” Sources have also survived from members of Agnew’s church. In 1852, a note written by one of his congregants ,which detailed a humorous story of Agnew’s theories on ghosts, was published in the Virginia Register.
While Suffolk, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore were all well-known loyalist powerhouses in Virginia during the war, there were many members of Agnew’s church who did not agree with his loyalty to the crown and believed he should no longer be allowed to preach in Virginia. On April 8, 1775, Hunter and Dixon reported in the Virginia Gazette that Reverend Agnew had been removed from his Suffolk church. According to the Gazette and stories from other members of Agnew’s church, Agnew held a special Wednesday evening service in March aimed at women congregants. It was there that he preached the popular sermon, Matthew 22–”Let us Render Unto Caesar the thing which are Caesar’s.”
Agnew’s message was unpopular that night, to say the least. It offended so many patriots in the vestry that one of the congregants, William Cowper, stormed up the aisle of the church before Agnew could finish his sermon and ordered the rector to step down. Agnew responded, “I am here doing my master’s business.” To which Cowper responded, “Which master—your master in Heaven, or your master in England?” After a long, heated engagement, Cowper added that if Agnew did no remove himself from the church that he and other men in the congregation would use force. Instead of inciting a physical resistance, Agnew stepped down after saying he would “never be the cause of breeding a riot in my Master’s house.” That was the last time Agnew spoke in his church and a few months later he was replaced by a new minister. Agnew found himself imprisoned soon after.
Before this Wednesday night altercation between Cowper and Agnew, there were relatively few Whig/Tory altercations in Virginia. The Committee of Safety spent a decent bit of time harassing merchants in Williamsburg and at Virginia ports, but it was always met with relatively little resistance. On November 7, 1774, in what historians have nicknamed the “Yorktown Tea Party,” a group of local Whigs heard someone in Yorktown was still importing British goods. So they waited for the said ship to arrive in Yorktown, boarded the vessel, poured any goods into the harbor, and left. Instead of fighting the Whigs, the owner of the vessel quickly apologized and all was forgiven. There was no resistance from the victim’s side. Virginians were well-aware of the issues surrounding them in the sister colonies and it was obvious how incidents in Boston caused rifts in Virginia society. However, up until March of 1775, nothing major had ever happened in Virginia between Whigs and Tories. Tarring and featherings in the colony were few and far between. They only amped up at the end of 1775.
The argument between Cowper and Agnew was published in the first column of the first page in Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette . It included commentary of the event and opinions. I’ve studied these newspapers for years and even the announcement of the Declaration of Independence was published on the second page. Every person with a subscription to the Gazette (who cared to read the newspaper) saw this story. Even though Cowper only threatened violence, the debate between these two men in Driver, Virginia was unfriendly, to say the least. Agnew did not completely back down like the owner of the Yorktown vessel. Instead, he fought back and defended himself before stepping down. The physical gloves did not come off, but the verbal ones did in a way that hadn’t yet happened in the Old Dominion.
Without a doubt, Lord Dunmore’s Scandal at the Magazine was when Virginia crossed the point of no return. The Gunpowder Incident in Williamsburg was on April 20th, almost a month after Agnew, and a few weeks after the Virginia Gazette‘s exposé . That evening in Driver, Virginia set a precedent. After all, Lexington and Concord happened almost the same day as the Magazine Affair, giving Dunmore no time to hear the news out of Massachusetts. Dunmore was obviously nervous that local Whigs were going to rebel and the Agnew/Cowper incident was certainly a major event which made the Royal Governor squirm. The Revolution was in Virginia and it was no longer a political elite issue. Agnew proved it was among the masses now.
“Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” This is probably the most problematic evidence that could derail my argument. In March of 1775 there was another incident which drew a lot of attention when Patrick Henry gave his famous speech to the second Virginia Convention. In fact, his speech happened one day before the Agnew incident. A lot of historians and our good friends at Wikipedia have traditionally attributed Dunmore’s rash response to Henry’s speech. It makes sense in the timeline, that Dunmore would be a bit uneasy when the icon of Virginia patriotism is getting people all riled up. However, just as in the Yorktown Tea Party and all other events surrounding the Committees of Safety, there is no real community resistance to Patrick Henry’s speech. The notes from the Convention in Richmond were even published in Dixon and Hunter’s Gazette on April 1st–one issue before the Agnew story was published. However, there is no mention of Henry’s impassioned speech, just that it was resolved to send a letter to the king regarding issues back in Virginia. Everyday readers of the Virginia Gazette had no clue about Henry’s speech. This is strikingly different from the Agnew/Cowper incident and how it was dramatically publicized just a week later. The biggest reactions to Henry’s speech came after Agnew’s story was published. Agnew still reigns as domino #1. You come in at #2 Patrick Henry.
And that is my extremely oversimplified, 1500 word, blog-style explanation. For a more detailed examination and argument stay tuned for Summer 2018–the year of the dissertation!
A Few Sources:
 Otto Lohrenz, “Impassioned Virginia Loyalist and New Brunswick Pioneer: The Reverend John Agnew,” Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 76, No. 1, (March 2007), 36.
 “A Ghost Story,” The Virginia Register, Vol 5 (1852-1853), 93- 95.
 Hunter and Dixon, The Virginia Gazette , April 8, 1775, 1; The Virginia Historical Register, “The Loyal Parson” Vol. 5 (1852-1853), 92-93.
 The Virginia Historical Register, “The Loyal Parson,” Vol. 5 (1852-1853), 92-93