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Dawson, William (1704?-1752)

William Dawson (1704?-1752)

Anglican minister


The Office of Commissary. The key role of established church officials in colonial governmental affairs should not be underestimated. This is especially true for the Reverend William Dawson. Between the years 1743 and 1752 Dawson served as commissary of the Church of England in Virginia. Commissaries were essentially extensions of the bishop of Londons authority throughout the English empire. The bishop of London held considerable authority, especially in post-Restoration England. In 1689 the Anglican church in America came under the auspices of his office. In that same year commissaries were positioned throughout the American colonies to carry out the bishops business. In 1728 by royal decree the bishops customary jurisdictions were narrowed. With this limitation the American commissaries duties were also confined. Prior to the royal commission a commissary, by virtue of his position under the bishop of London, held both ecclesiastical and civil authority. His ecclesiastical jurisdiction, like the Bishops, included church appointments as well as church discipline, discipline that extended to the clergy as well as the laity. Also, a commissarys temporal or secular duties included jurisdiction over marriage licenses and probate. These duties generally fell to the royal governor after 1728. Although after that year the commissarys duties were limited, in one sense the powers he did possess held more authority than before since they were backed directly by royal decree.

Instructions. Bishop Edmund Gibson sent to each commissary detailed instructions for the implementation of their duties as well as a copy of his own royal commission from King George II. Included in these instructions was a stipulation requiring each commissary to keep the bishop abreast of all legislative activity related to the suppression of crime and vice. Since the bishop and commissaries no longer possessed direct lay control, at least they could stay informed on how well the colonial civil governments held wrong in check. Presumably the commissaries and the bishop of London could use their positions to influence legislation related to lay parishioners. Added to this function there existed in Virginia a unique custom of even greater civil authority for the commissary: in addition to customarily becoming president of the College of William and Mary, a position of considerable dignity, Virginia commissaries were appointed to the royal council. As a councilor, therefore, Virginias commissary sat as a legislator, judge, and gubernatorial advisor. In this capacity he held considerable power not only in ecclesiastical matters but also in civil matters.

Early Success. Virginias royal governor William Gooch heavily petitioned the bishop of London to approve the appointment of William Dawson, an English-born Oxford graduate (A.B. degree, 1725; A.M. degree, 1728), ordained Anglican minister, and professor of moral philosophy at the College of William and Mary. On 18 July 1743, three months after the death of Commissary James Blair, the bishop issued the commissary commission to Dawson. Once in office Dawson soon received an appointment to the twelve-member Virginia Royal Council. Commissary Dawson was able to demonstrate early his potential influence in civil matters by taking the lead in calling for loyalty to the Hanoverian Dynasty which was under threat by Charles Edward Stuart. In 1745 the Young Pretender, using Scotland as a base of operations, launched an attack into northern England in hopes of reaching London and claiming the throne for the Stuarts. The prospect of a Catholic monarchy caused considerable fear in the colonies, no less so in Virginia. Commissary Dawson sent out a letter to all Virginia Anglican clergy admonishing them to preach pro-Hanoverian sermons to their parishioners. He also called a special meeting (6 March 1746) in Williamsburg of the same clergymen. There he preached a moving sermon emphasizing again loyalty to the Crown. He also took the opportunity to speak to the Royal Council and House of Burgesses, an address received favorably by both bodies, thereby affirming his right to speak out and influence public affairs.

The Clergy Act. A study of William Dawsons actions surrounding the Clergy Act of 1749 provides an excellent window through which to examine the rising mid-eighteenth-century tensions between English control and provincial resistance. In 1749 the House of Burgesses debated a bill designed For the better Support of the Clergy; and for the regular collecting and paying of the Parish Levies. The fundamental elements of the bill, which were largely designed to improve the financial status of clergy, had been written by Dawson. Once the bill passed the Burgesses, however, several amendments had been attached to it, including a provision that gave vestries a year as opposed to six months to hire a minister in the event of a vacancy. Dawsons larger concern was the vestrys sovereign prerogative granted in the amendment to choose or dismiss local priests apart from the governors or the commissarys consent. Dawson was accurate in insisting that the act, because of this amendment, went against English custom and precedent. The royal authority vested in the governor and commissary would normally have secured their lead role in parish appointments and dismissals.

Gooch and Dinwiddie. Interestingly, Dawson, normally an ally with Gov. William Gooch, was not willing to sacrifice the entire bill for this one amendment. Soon after Goochs successor, Robert Dinwiddie, arrived in the province (November 1752) Dawson successfully persuaded him that the Clergy Act was detrimental. Governor Dinwiddie wrote in complaint of the bill to the Board of Trade, the secretary of state, and the bishop of London. The Clergy Act, he argued, forced him to disobey his instructions, an action he was not willing to commit. The most damaging outcome of the Clergy Act to Dawson and Dinwiddie, however, concerned the loss of patronage power. In 1752 Governor Dinwiddie wrote that the patronage, presentation [concerning ministerial appointments], and prerogative of the Crown and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of London are quite destroyed. In the end Dawson and Dinwiddie were not successful in obstructing the Clergy Act of 1749. In retrospect, however, the act strengthened the Anglican Churchs role in the colony by means of improving the clergys financial lot. Even though Dawson opposed the act, he is credited for the improvements to the clergy that came as a result of it since he, after all, did write it. The larger significance from a civil-government perspective is that Commissary Dawson, as a councilor and advisor to the governor, strongly swayed Dinwiddie to such a firm stand on an issue in which he had previously not held a decided view.

The Kay Affair. On the surface it seems unusual that Commissary Dawson would oppose a bill he had written based solely on his fear of greater vestry control. After all, parishes across Virginia had long practiced a considerable amount of autonomy. An episode that began in 1745 no doubt influenced Dawson to take such a decided stand. A newly appointed priest in the Lunenberg parish, William Kay, preached a sermon on the sinfulness of pride. One of his more elite parishioners, a vestryman, Col. Landon Carter, took offense, believing the sermon was intentionally directed toward him. Carter became so incensed that he eventually used his influence in the vestry to have Kay removed from the church. The affair turned ugly when Kays opponents attacked his property and undermined his marriage. Commissary Dawson, who already believed that laymen in the vestry had far too much power over the clergy, convinced Kay to file suit against the vestry. As a councilor he used his civil authority within the court to help Kay win on 21 April 1749. Carter appealed the decision. A victory for Carter would mean another step away from the desired Anglican control that Dawson believed vital to the life of the church and colony. A minister aligned with Dawson, John Camm, expressed the high stakes involved. If Carters appeal was successful, Camm wrote to the bishop of London, it will be of very ill consequences to the clergy in general. Since there will remain very few in this colony who may not be driven out of their parishes upon the least disgust conceived against them, by the same method. To Camm the Kay affair was a struggle to increase the power of the vestries, which almost universally exercise their power with too high an hand already. Commissary Dawson died before the failure of Carters appeal. Largely due to Dawsons previous support, however, Kay not only defeated the appeal but also won a second suit a year later awarding him even more. What Dawson could not do legislatively, he did judicially.

Dual Role. The Young Pretender uprising, the Kay affair, and the Clergy Act show the extent to which an established church leader and government official such as Dawson could play a dual role. Once the bishop failed to renew Dawsons official commission in 1748, the commissary began to play an even more defined civil role in the colonys governmental structure. Dawson greatly enhanced the churchs place in Virginia by wielding the combined power of his ecclesiastical office as Commissary and his civil office as a member of the council. Overall, this dual role made him an exceptionally influential figure in eighteenth-century Virginia.


Dan M. Hockman, Commissary William Dawson and the Anglican Church in Virginia, 17431752, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church,54 (June 1985): 125149;

Hockman, William Dawson: Master and Second President of the College of William and Mary, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church,52 (September 1983): 199-214.

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