Parish Records and Courts

Parish Registers & Vital Records

In 1661, Virginia passed legislation that required the parish churches to keep records of births (and/or christenings) and deaths (and/or burials) that occurred within the parish, regardless of the religion of the parties.  (Whether all the parishes actually did so is anyone’s guess, since so few of these records still survive.  It seems likely though, that births were recorded since that would have been very useful in settling disputes over the ages of tithables, servants, and orphans.)   The provisions of this act continued in effect in Virginia until the Anglican Church was disestablished in 1782.  The 1661 law required that one parent of every freeborn child, or the owner of every newborn slave, report the event to the parish minister within 20 days.  The minister was to keep a register with names of the baby and its parents (or the slave and its owner) and dates of birth and christening.  Similar regulations applied to deaths and burials.

Unfortunately, few of these records survive.  The few that do survive are fragmentary, generally covering the stewardship of a particular minister. When you find them, however, pay careful attention to the boundaries of the parish at the time of the event.


This is a useful type of record found in surviving vestry records.  For several reasons – inaccurate or overlapping surveys, the disappearance of boundaries, and the like – boundary disputes among landowners tended to be annoyingly commonplace.  In 1661 the Virginia Assembly required landowners to “goe in procession” once every four years to examine and agree upon the boundary lines of each tract.  Responsibility to organize this function was given to the parish vestries, which established precincts for the purpose.  Selected landowners within each precinct plus two surveyors performed the task for their precinct.   From 1662 through 1691, processioning was to take place in the 50-day period after Easter.  After 1691, it took place during the September-March period. Processioning records, where they exist, help to verify ownership and neighbors.  See a more detailed description in the paper on Processioning.

Parish Courts

The parish system was not only an important element of colonial social life in Virginia, but the power and influence of the parishes in legal matters were quite significant.  In England at the time of the colonization of Virginia, parish vestries had broad powers over semi-ecclesiastical affairs such as marriage, the administration of estates, and guardianships.  When James I made Virginia a royal colony, the Anglican church enjoyed the same status as in the mother country.

The parish vestries and the county courts essentially divided  the responsibility of local government, with the parish focusing especially on the maintenance of religion and morals, and on care of the poor, the young, and charity in general.   Governing marriages, separations, bastardy, church attendance, and moral affairs fell for many years into the venue of the parish.  But parishes also cared for the poor and had oversight of orphan’s affairs, including the responsibility to apprentice poor orphans.  The Virginia Assembly also from time to time enacted laws adding to the vestry’s responsibilities – for example, the responsibility for processioning land boundaries mentioned above.

The vestry also collected taxes (a portion of the annual tithables tax) to support the minister, church, and court.  These taxes were also used to support the poor and occasionally for public works.   In some cases, parish tithables lists survive where the county tithables lists are lost.

In 1705 and again in 1744, the Virginia Assembly enacted legislation requiring church attendance for all citizens, at least once a month. Failure to attend without a reasonable excuse was at one time punishable by a fine of 5 shillings or 50 pounds of tobacco, or whipping of ten lashes. Exemptions were granted to those who had legally declared themselves dissenters in their county courts. Exemption from church attendance did not exempt dissenters from their duty to pay the annual parish levy, however. Dissenters in Virginia did not declare themselves casually – they were restricted form holding office and from several other functions.  Furthermore, with very few exceptions, a legal marriage was required by law to be performed by an Anglican minister regardless of the religion of the parties.