Monday, April 16, 2018

Peaks of Otter Presbyterian Church Petition

The Peaks of Otter Presbyterian Church was established in 1761 by a group of Bedford County, Virginia, settlers who were of Scottish descent. The Mitchell and McMullen families, and perhaps others had immigrated from Northern Ireland, where they had been planted by English kings in and effort to quell the "unruly" Irish Catholics. They typically arrived in Philadelphia and settled in Lancaster and York counties before eventually taking what became known as the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley and settling near Peaks of Otter in Bedford County.

My five times great grandfather, Rev. David Rice[1], served as part-time minister of the church from 1766 until he removed to Kentucky. My four times great grandfather, Rev. James Mitchell[2] was also a minister of the Peaks church. So I have also become interested in the history of church.

While reading Peter Viemeister's book, From Slaves to Satellites: 250 Years of Changing Times on a Virginia Farm, I learned that the church petitioned the House of Burgesses in 1774 for permission to own slaves:

First page of the petition from the Peaks Church to the House of
Burgesses as printed in The Virginia Magazine of History and
Vol. 12, No. 4 (April 1905), pages 417-424

Petition of the Peaks of Otter Presbyterian Church, 1774

To the Honorable Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Burgesses, --

The petition of a number of Presbyterians, members of a Presbyterian church congregation, in the county of Bedford known by the name of the Peaks of Otter humbly sheweth, that your petitioners have in time past and are still willing to contribute their quota in support of the Church of England as by law established in this Colony of Virginia; which they do with the more cheerfulness as they have hitherto enjoyed their rights and privileges and free exercise of the religion as Presbyterian Dissenters unmolested : nor have they any fears or doubts of being disturbed therein by this honorable House while your petitioners duly obey the laws of their country, continue good subjects of their most gracious sovereign, and are useful members of the community.  And as they look upon obedience to laws, and protection from the legislature be reciprocal, they therefore pray the protection of this honorable House in the future in the free exercise of their religion, which they humbly conceive is well calculated to make men wise and happy hereafter; to enforce due obedience to their lawful Sovereign, and to live in proper subjection to the laws.

While they thus implore your protection and favorable notice, they beg leave to inform this honorable House that they find it very convenient to support clergy of their denomination by the usual method of subscription, therefore a number of well disposed persons in said Presbyterian church or congregation, have made contributions to purchase therewith lands and slaves for the support of stated minister of their said congregation : but not believing the Elders or church session a body sufficiently corporated by any express law of this Colony in which to vest the freehold of the land and slaves in trust for the purpose of raising a salary and the same being in obeyance they would be liable to various trespasses without redress for remedy whereof your petitioners further pray that this honorable House would pass a law empowering the Elders of said congregation to dispose of the benefactions that now are or hereafter may be given for the support of a minister of the Presbyterian profession, in the purchase of land and slaves or to place the same or any part thereof to interest as shall seem most for the benefit of the congregation, and vest in the said Elders and the successors the freehold of the said land and slaves, to the use of said minister as long as he continues in the doctrine and subject to the discipline of the Presbyterian church as held and exercised by their sessions Presbyteries and synods; with power to withhold the profits of the said land and slaves and the interest of the money whenever the minister shall deviate from the doctrines or disciplines according to the judgment of the judicatures and if the profits of the said land and slaves and money should at any time exceed the salary agreed upon with the said minister, the Elders are to dispose of the overplus as also the profit, arising from the lands, slaves and money between the death or moval of a minister and the admission of his successor, according to the rules of the Presbyterian church, as shall be directed by a majority of the congregation : that the Elders shall have the power to sell any lands or slaves that may be thought less useful, and with the money arising from such sale to purchase other lands or slaves of more value to the same uses : that the said members of the Presbyterian church according to the doctrine and discipline thereof, and that shall be annually accountable to the minister for his salary or so much thereof as shall arise from the profits of the land and slaves, and the interest of the money, that the elders keep a fair book of all their transactions in the said trusts and render a just account thereof to such persons as shall be chosen by a majority of the congregation when thereunto demanded, and on refusal or default be liable to suit of the said persons so chosen with the consent of the said majority.

This our petition, being solely intended for promoting religion and virtue amongst the Presbyterians in this part of the Colony, is humbly left to the serious consideration of this honorable House to confirm or make such suggestions and amendments as you in your great wisdom shall think expedient, and your petitioners as in duty bound, shall ever pray.

Signatures of congregant petitioners*

[Endorsed]: Bedford. Petition of the members of the Presbyterian church, praying that Elders thereof may be enabled to take and hold lands and slaves, to the use of the minister, under proper regulation.

17 May 1774,
Referred to the Committee for Religion

21 May 1774,
Reported reasonable

Appended to the end of the petition is the following note from then editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography[2]:

"This was one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Virginia. Though Foote[3] does not give the date of the organization, he states that in 1766 Rev. Rice , afterwards known as the "Patriarch of Presbyterianism in Kentucky," became its pastor and continued in charge until 1783...

...As the petition was reported on favorably on the 21st of May and Dunmore dissolved the Assembly on the 25th, it is probable that no act was ever passed in accordance with the wishes of the petitioners."

The Enslaved People

Since we know the the congregants of the church purchased four slaves and acquired or were gifted a tract of land about 100 acres in size, either the House of Burgesses passed the petition before they were dissolved or the congregation of the Peaks of Otter decided to proceed without authorization once the legislature had been dissolved.

According to Peter Viemeister, the enslaved were Jerry, Kate, Tom and Venus. "In 1783, trustees Robert and William Ewing, William and Jon Trigg, and David Rice attested that the church now had clear title not only to the initial four adult slaves, but also their ten children: Nancy, Ishmael, Sall, Moses, Herod, Cyrus, Pharez, Jinney, Milly and Charles."[4]

*Signers of the 1774 Petition (Names have been alphabetized for ease of searching. If the same name appears more than once, then there were multiple congregants with the identical name.)

Jesse Abslon
William Adams
William Adson
Alexander Armstrong
John Armstrong
William Armstrong
John Beaney
Adam Beard
David Beard
Samuel Beard
James Boyd
William Boyd
Henry Brown
James Brown
John Burk
Charles Campbell
Samuel Campbell
Thomas Campbell
Merry Carter
William Cenedey
Charles Cobbes
Robert Cowan
Alexander Davidson
George Dickson
Abrah Dooley
George Dooley
George Dooley
Jacob Dooley
John Dooley
Thomas Dooley
Thomas Dooley, Jr.
John Downing
Willia Downing
James Edger
Jonas Erwin
Andrew Evins
John Evins
Abraham Ewin
Caleb Ewing
Charles Ewing
Robert Ewing
Robert Ewing, Jr.
William Ewing
John Ewinge
Samuel Farr
Thomas Feely
Michael Gilbert
Issack Groce
Dannal Gudane
William Handy
Peter Harman
David Harvey
Robert Hill
Abel Holmes
Thomas Howard
Andrew Irwin
Robert Irwin
Jarvis Jackson
Joseph Jackson, Jr.
Joseph Jackson, Sr.
Robert Jarvis
James Kennedy
John Kennedy
Thomas Kennedy
William Kennedy
James Kerley
William Lamme
Joseph Linn
Adam Linn
Adam Linn
John Low
Frederick Mayberry
Henry Mayberry
John McFarland
Charles McGlaf, Sr.
Lawrence McGuire
Thomas McHandres
Moses McIlvain
Nicholas Mene
Andrew Mitchel
Daniel Mitchell
Daniel Mitchell
Enos Mitchell
James Mitchell
James Mitchell
John Mitchell
Robert Mitchell
Robert Mitchell, Jr.
Robert Mitchell, Sr.
Stephen Mitchell
Robert Myers
John Patterson
Francis Read
Thomas Read
Francis Reed
James Reed
Slowman Rees
Benjamin Rew
Daniel Robinson
James Robinsone
Dudley Roundtree
Michael Roxer
William Rutherford
Adam Sharp
John Sharp
Abraham Sharpe
John Slayner
Polsin Smal, Jr.
Edmund Smith
Lege Stone
Isham Talbot
W. Tathane
William Thompson
John Todd, Jr.
William Trigg, Jr.
Thomas Williams
Benjamin Witt
John Wood
Thomas Wood
Michael Yocum
James Young
James Young

11 May 2018 Update: While reading The Ewing Genealogy with Cognate Branches, by Presley Kittredge and Mary Ellen (Williams) Ewing, I learned the following:

"The records of Bedford County, disclose a deed, dated 28 July 1783, recorded 25 August, of which Robert Ewing was the first signer, and from its vigorous style, probably the author, conveying certain slaves or their issue to be used for supporting a regular minister, and for such other church purposes as the elders and a majority of the congregation might agree upon."[5]

[1] Rev. David Rice was of English descent and his parents were Anglican as was the law in colonial Virginia during the time they lived. David Rice converted to Presbyterianism as a young adult.
[2] Rev. James Mitchell was of Scots descent and married a daughter of Rev. David Rice, Frances Blair Rice.
[3] Rev. William Henry Foote, author of Sketches of Virginia: Historical and Biographical, published in 1856.
[4] These enslaved people have been released on the Slave Name Roll Project.
[5] Ewing, Presley Kittredge and Ewing, Mary Ellen (Williams). The Ewing Genealogy with Cognate Branches: A Survey of the Ewings and Their Kin in America, (unknown location: Presley K. Ewing, 1919), page 43.

Memoirs of Rev. David Rice (1733-1816): His Comfort and Success Among the Peaks of Otter
Pray Together, Stay Together
Apostle of Kentucky

If you find names of enslaved persons in your research, I encourage you to consider contributing the information to the Slave Name Roll Project.


  1. A new Book on the Presbyterian Ewings, founders of Peaks Presbyterian Church, was published in January 2020 and is available through the Bedford VA Museum.

    1. Thank you. I will look into purchasing the book.

  2. My 5x great grandfather is the John McFarland mentioned in the document.

    1. It's an interesting snippet of history, isn't it?

  3. Is this church still standing? What was/is the location of it? Thank you

    1. The original church burned, but there is still an active Peaks Presbyterian Church. It's located at 1686 Penicks Mill Road, Bedford, VA.

    2. I mistyped: 1686 Kelso Mill Road, Bedford, VA.