The State of Religion Among the Protestant Dissenters in Virginia
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I observed, Sir, before, that I obtained the Licensure of four Meeting-Houses when I first came to the Colony. In October 1748, the People petitioned for the Licensure of three more, which with great Difficulty was obtained. Among these seven, I have hitherto divided my Time, in Proportion to the Number of Dissenters at each Meeting-House: Three of them lie in Hanover County, one in Henrico County, which lies Southward; one in Caroline County, which lies Northward; one in Louisa County, situated to the Westward; and one in Gocchland, to the South-west of Hanover. The nearest are 12 or 15 Miles distant from each other, and the Extremes about 40. My Congregation is very much dispersed; and notwithstanding the Number of the Meeting-Houses, some live 20, some 30 and a few 40 Miles from the nearest. Were they all compactly situated in one County, they would be sufficient to form three distinct Congregations; but in their present Situation, I believe they could constitute but two large ones, each capable of affording a competent Maintenance to a Minister. At the lower Meeting-House in Hanover, which I took more immediately as my Charge when I accepted their Call, there is a sufficient Number to form a large Congregation; but as it lies between that in Caroline, and that in Henrico which are but weak, it would seem cruel to separate it from them, as they could not each of them maintain a Minister of their own. The People about the four upper Meeting-Houses are waiting for a Minister with impatient Eagerness, and intend to reduce their Houses into three.
Were you Sir, to preach at any of these Houses, where there is the smallest Number of Dissenters, you would imagine there was a sufficient Number of People to form a distinct Congregation at each of them; for where there are not above 15 or 20 Families that have fully join’d with me, you’d see perhaps 4 or 500 Hearers, and sometimes twice that Number; the Church-People in general being very eager to hear. This I looked upon at first as a meer Curiosity after Novelty; but as it continues in general without Abatement, and in some Places seems to increase; I cannot but look upon it as a happy Presage. This I have the more Reason to do now, as I have observed many of these neutral Hearers become at length thoroughly engaged, and sundry of them bro’t to be solemnly tho’tful. I believe I could number up 50 or 60 Families, who have thus been happily intangled in the Net of the Gospel by their own Curiosity, or some such Motive, since my coming here; and I have Reason to hope, that were there another Minister settled here, it would cause a very great Addition to our Number. Indeed this appears to me the most promising Circumstance that at present attends us; for alas! there seems no great Prospect of the Conviction of those that are thoroughly proselyted, and yet have rested short of real Religion (tho’ blessed be the Lord, a few of them are awakened now and then) but when any of these transient Hearers, that are at their own Disposal, and not under the Influence of their Relations, &c. who are already attached, do join with us, ‘tis generally a Sign of some considerable Degrees of Conviction; as the Epithet New-Light (the usual Brand with which we are here stigmatized) is so reproachful, that the Secure will not venture to incur the Odium.
There are about 300 Communicants in my Congregation, who make an external Profession of real Religion. I am not fond of publishing a Calculation of Christians; as I am sensible of the Fallibility of my Judgment in such Cases: but it is impossible for a Heart anxious for the Salvation of Men, to deny itself the Comfort of counting up at Times the Number of those that appear such in a Judgment of rational Charity; and I entertain the pleasing Hope that the greatest Number of these Communicants are sincere in their Profession, and shall walk with Christ in White in the Fields of immortal Glory. Besides these, there are many that are constant Hearers and cordial Proselytes, who thro’ a consciousness of Unfitness, or execessive Scrupulosity, do not seek Admission as yet to the Lord’s Table.
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