John Urmston, Anglican clergyman and schoolmaster, was born in Lancashire, England, the home of his family for centuries. The names of his parents and the college where he received his liberal education are unknown. After having lived "many years in divers foreign countries," he returned to England and entered the priesthood. He was ordained in the chapel of Fulham Palace by Henry Compton, bishop of London, on 17 Feb. 1694/95. From about this time until the end of the century Urmston was master of a school at Kensington, where he taught Latin, probably Greek, French, possibly Italian, writing, arithmetic, and drawing. From his experience in the school, he prepared and published The London Spellingbook: Being a Most Easie and Regular Method of Teaching to Spell, Read and Write True English, which ran through four editions between 1700 and 1710. Also in 1710 he published his octavo grammar, A New Help to the Accidence: With a Preface Shewing the Right Method of School Teaching.
Presumably Urmston performed the office of chaplain to his school. If so, his first clerical appointment independent of the school occurred in 1702. When the navy was activated preparatory to the War of the Spanish Succession, the bishop of London recommended Urmston to the lord high admiral. He entered as chaplain aboard HMS Woolwich on 23 Feb. 1701/2 but was discharged from the appointment half a year later at his own request and that of the merchants in the Russia Company with whom he then accepted a chaplaincy. Urmston took up this appointment in the hope that he might be "an instrument of great good" among the English mercantile communities in Moscow and Archangel. By March 1702/3 he was at Moscow, and by September at Archangel. Finding that he was not permitted to extend his services to the native Russians, he sent back to London a number of Greek testaments and liturgies with which he had been furnished by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts for distribution among them. Armed, instead, with practical books, Bibles, prayer books, and catechisms, Urmston focused his attention on the English merchant fleet and servants of the Russia Company at Archangel and artificers, sailors, and soldiers in the employ of Peter the Great at Voronezh, Azov, and on the Baltic. In 1704 he was made a corresponding member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but in the same year English trade at Archangel fell off by a third, and his chaplaincy in the Russian Company shortly afterwards came to an end.
Returning to London, Urmston became curate of East Ham in Essex in 1706. During this curacy he gave serious consideration to becoming a missionary in America, for which work he was recommended to the SPG by the bishop of London in August 1709. The vicars of East Ham and Barking testified to Urmston's pious, sober, and exemplary life, his conformity to the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer, and to the faithful discharge of his duties while curate. One of the society's missionaries, William Gordon, had just returned from North Carolina, and when the society offered Gordon's vacant place to Urmston, he accepted it. After several months of hesitation caused by the fears of his wife, Urmston departed for North Carolina with her, their three small children, and two indentured transportees in the spring of 1710, having first subscribed the Act of Uniformity and having secured from the bishop of London a letter recommending him to the Lords Proprietors as a person of worth, fully qualified as a minister.
Once in the colony Urmston discovered that its vestry acts had but weakly established the Church of England in North Carolina. Local vestries had begun building a few church edifices but had left them unfinished and abandoned to decay. Parishes were unable to raise the small stipend of £30 per annum to pay their ministers, and no glebes had been set aside for their maintenance. In Urmston's field of labor, Chowan and Perquimans Precincts, the boundaries of the parishes were contiguous with those of the precincts, and in the case of Chowan extended southward across Albemarle Sound to take in the settlements on the southern shore and westward across Roanoke River to include the long-established plantations on Salmon Creek and Cashie River. Public roads in the province were little more than the Indian routes they had been prior to European settlement, and public ferries were practically nonexistent.
As though these circumstances were not sufficiently daunting, Urmston found the inhabitants divided into two armed factions struggling for control of the government. Of the two, one faction was strongly supported by dissenters. Then, in his second year, a massacre in the southern settlements of Bath County provoked an Indian war that lasted four years. In this turbulent frontier Urmston was expected to acquire and farm a plantation so as to raise a crop to support himself and family and at the same time to travel through the two precincts preaching and administering the sacraments among a population whose general attitudes seem to have ranged from indifference to resentment. Urmston's predecessors, John Blair, William Gordon, and James Adams, like his later contemporary, Giles Rainsford, were all defeated by conditions in North Carolina and abandoned their missions after brief stays lasting from six to twenty-four months (Adams dying as he was awaiting passage to England).
A minister of a saintly disposition could have borne the situation in the province with greater grace than Urmston, who was not of a saintly disposition. Indeed, his temperament more nearly matched that of his parishioners, and that, in the final analysis, may account for his having successfully persevered in his mission for eleven years. It might account, as well, for the judgment that his mission enjoyed but a marred success. Probably it is not literally true, as Colonel John Barnwell reported in 1712, that after drinking a considerable quantity of punch those in attendance at the General Assembly stripped stark naked and boxed two and two—the governor with a militia colonel, Urmston with the speaker of the house, the provost marshal with a burgess, and so forth. Nevertheless, even the floating of such a rumor is suggestive of Urmston's determination to hold his own among the rough and ready gentry who controlled the provincial government.
Although one doubts the boxing scene that Barnwell said was described to him, it is true that Urmston waited on the Assembly when it was in session. He served as its chaplain, and he lobbied for the interests of the Church of England. His influence on the vestry act of 1711 appears to have been weak, for though that act ended the power of vestries to dismiss their ministers at will, a provision for which Urmston was a stickler, it failed to stipulate that ministers be of the vestry, which was among his desiderata. It also failed to clarify the role of readers in the services of the church or to address the common problem of uncanonical marriages, all of concern to Urmston. He had better success with the 1715 vestry act, which, while it did nothing to curb the presumptuousness of readers, stipulated that ministers were to be constituent members of the vestry, ordered the vestries to post the church's table of marriages, imposed a fine for uncanonical marriages, and established fees for marriages solemnized by the clergy. His personal influence on the supplemental vestry act of 1720 is evident in the section requiring his parishioners to pay him that portion of his stipend that had lain in arrears for a decade.
Urmston had less success with the Lords Proprietors. Before departing for North Carolina, he had tried to persuade the Duke of Beaufort to appoint him his chaplain in the colony, and he unsuccessfully renewed his efforts in 1712 after Beaufort succeeded as palatine at the Proprietary board. Whatever chance of victory he might have had in his application to be appointed provincial deputy to Sir John Colleton was ruined by a "very tart" letter he wrote to Colleton in 1711, and Urmston was not surprised in 1715 that John Danson was "mightily offended" by one of the missionary's letters to him. In fact, the Proprietors desired Urmston to write them no longer until he should write more like a missionary and less like a spy to the country he lived in.
Although settled in Chowan Precinct on an Albemarle Sound plantation southeast of Edenton, Urmston saw more of North Carolina than the Proprietors apparently realized. He was forbidden by the vestry act to absent himself from his duties in his parish more than one-sixth of the Sundays in the year without permission of his church wardens and vestrymen to officiate in vacant neighboring parishes. Nonetheless, he appears to have journeyed annually to Pasquotank and Currituck Precincts, whose parishes had been left vacant by the death of the Reverend James Adams shortly after Urmston's arrival in the colony. Similarly, once the Tuscarora Indian war was over, he traveled through Bath County in 1716 and 1717 preaching, baptizing, and catechizing. Unfortunately, reports of Urmston's missionary activities, his notitia parochialis, survive for periods approximating only about four of his eleven years of residence in North Carolina. But even this incomplete record shows that Urmston carried his mission into all precincts of both Albemarle and Bath counties. Because the baptism of 660 souls into the Church of England represents results of only slightly more than one-third of his whole mission, that total should probably be at least doubled when speaking of the success or failure of his ministry.
The exaggeration native to Urmston's satirical epistolary style leads one to suppose that he, with his family, was not nearly so often in danger of starving (i.e., perishing) as he claimed. The entire colony, however, suffered actual want during the Tuscarora war and had to accept relief from Virginia. Following the war, grain crops failed throughout the colony in 1716, and a widespread murrain decimated the livestock in 1717. Consequently Urmston's complaints should not be dismissed out of hand. Similarly, the vestry minutes for Chowan Precinct (subsequently St. Paul's Parish) reveal that the vestry was, indeed, dilatory from the beginning in paying Urmston the agreed-upon stipend. By the opening of 1715 his stipend was in arrears by £110, which, by the simple expedient of not meeting again until May 1717, the vestry avoided paying him. At the same time, Urmston's man of business in London appears to have failed or to have defalcated, thereby losing such of Urmston's money as he held. Edward Moseley, Urmston's chief creditor as well as his neighbor and one of his church wardens, was too astute to accept an assignment of the arrears in payment of Urmston's debt to him. Although as church warden Moseley could have obliged the Chowan vestry to meet, he probably knew too well what chance of success he would have with them, short of an action at law—a process Urmston declined to take for fear of injuring the infant establishment.
Urmston's junior missionary and fellow Lancastrian, Giles Rainsford, whose discretion seems to have been younger than his years, began his mission in North Carolina by fishing in these troubled waters and making invidious contrasts of the two. Having reinforced popular sentiment in Chowan Precinct by publicly stating that missionaries ought to live off the salaries paid them by the SPG and not expect pay from the parish, Rainsford wrote to tell the society how beloved he was in the precinct. However, when shortly thereafter his vestry failed to meet and provide a stipend for him, after he overdrew his accounts and had his bills of exchange protested in London, after he received a rebuke from the SPG, and after he became familiar with the pinch of hunger, Rainsford abandoned his parish. He left North Carolina denouncing the population as liars, slanderers, traducers, ingrates, and hinderers of Divine service. His disgruntled departure fulfilled Urmston's prophecy to that effect but did nothing to relieve the situation that had been exacerbated by the younger missionary. After Rainsford's campaign against Urmston, Urmston was able to gather the canonical number of communicants required to celebrate the Lord's Supper in Chowan Precinct only twice between 1715 and 1719.
In response to Urmston's frequent appeals to the SPG for relief, the society in 1715 induced Governor Charles Eden to intervene with the vestries to settle their accounts with Urmston. This the Pasquotank Precinct parish did in 1716. The Chowan vestry voted in 1717 that £50 be raised and paid towards its arrears but failed to enforce its order. In the interim, at Urmston's urging, the SPG voted on 16 Nov. 1716 to allow him to return to England and formally notified him of the permission in a letter dated 17 December sent to him via Boston. The history of this letter remains mysterious. The years 1717, 1718, and 1719 passed without Urmston having any news of the society. On 18 Oct. 1719 Mrs. Urmston died, her heart broken, he declared, "through our ill usage and our comfortless way of living." Urmston wrote the society threatening to return in the spring of 1720 to plead his case before them viva voce since his letters remained unanswered. Then, surprisingly, on 7 Feb. 1720, the 1716 letter was put into his hands three years after permission to return to England had been granted and three months after the death of the wife, who had begged in vain to be allowed to take her children and return home with or without him. Urmston, who originally assumed the letter to be erroneously dated, was staggered. The following month, during court week, he went out and got drunk along with Major John Plowman, William Charleton, Esq., and others in the presence of Chief Justice Frederick Jones, who laid an information against them; all were fined. Worse yet, Urmston's son Thomas, now on the eve of his majority, broke out of control, got the serving maid with child, and, having been turned out by his father for his undutiful behavior, went to the northern edge of the precinct to take up the independent life of a bachelor. Despairingly, Urmston wrote in February 1721 begging to be allowed a word from the secretary of the SPG. "I cannot hear from England," he cried; "I am buried alive in this hell of a hole."
Finally, in March 1721, Urmston gave Edward Moseley a power of attorney to collect the £138 owing him from the Chowan vestry. He left North Carolina for London in early April in order to appeal in person to the missionary society that had replied to none of his letters during the past five years. Governor Eden, alarmed at and highly displeased with Urmston's apparent association with Moseley, his political foe, wrote the society to say that Urmston had needlessly deserted his parish without informing a single provincial authority, on which account Eden was withholding the usual letter testimonial. A poisonous, anonymous letter denouncing Urmston as a notorious drunkard given to lewdness and swearing also followed him to London. One feels the letter to be a malicious invention, but it is possible, of course, that the writer had heard gossip of Thomas Urmston's behavior and mistakenly attributed to the father the son's scandalous conduct. The society took no notice of the anonymous letter, but it filed Governor Eden's letter for future reference.
In July 1721 Urmston informed the society of his arrival and expressed his intention of remaining in England if he could not return to North Carolina under terms better than his original ones. He seems to have used his leave to look about in London for a new place among the five hundred livings the city boasted. Urmston apparently discussed some of his prospects with the society's secretary, who helped him in his unsuccessful bid to go to Jamaica in 1722 in the entourage of the newly appointed governor, the Duke of Portland. When similar efforts also failed, Urmston applied to the society at the end of his year's leave, in June 1722, to be sent back to North Carolina. The society had concluded already that Urmston had left the colony with no intention of returning. It now refreshed its memory of Eden's remark that Urmston had needlessly deserted his parish and informed Urmston that, having already filled his vacancy, the society had no occasion for his service. He immediately made successful application to the bishop of London to license him for Virginia. Then, drawing on the King's Bounty on 29 June 1722 for £20 to defray his passage, Urmston set sail via New England. In Boston he hoped for appointment to the city's new Episcopal church but found that it was reserved for one of the church's own converts from Congregationalism who had gone to England for ordination. Pushing on to New York, he narrowly missed becoming chaplain to the fort and assistant to the Reverend William Vezey, commissary in that colony to the bishop of London. Then, learning that the incumbent of Christ Church, Philadelphia, had returned to England for his health, Urmston hastened there and was gladly received. Little apprehending that he was about to fall afoul of the Jacobites, Urmston wrote friends in England to intercede on his behalf for a permanent appointment from the bishop of London.
The Jacobites, or nonjuring clergy, had refused to withdraw their allegiance from James II and his descendants in the male line. They regarded as apostates all bishops who had sworn allegiance to William and Mary, as well as all successor bishops who had transferred their allegiance to the Hanoverian line. Playing at a dangerous game on behalf of a discredited doctrine, the nonjurors erected a shadow church and consecrated secret titular bishops for every see in England who were to replace their regularly consecrated counterparts should the Stuart pretenders ever seize the crown of England. Just as Urmston sailed for Boston in 1722, two nonjuring shadow bishops for America were consecrated. The first of these was Richard Welton, who had become vicar of East Ham three years after Urmston left it as curate in 1710. Welton had gained notoriety for having put up an altarpiece portraying a Last Supper in which Jesus was given the face of that idol of the Tory party, Henry Sacheverell; Saint John the Beloved was pictured as a mere boy with the countenance of Prince James Edward Stuart, and Judas bore the likeness of White Kennett, Whiggish bishop of Peterborough (the painter scrupling to put in the face of Bishop Gilbert Burnet). The second "American bishop" consecrated was John Talbot, who appears to have known Urmston ever since the two had served as navy chaplains in 1702. In 1715, while temporarily filling the vacancy of Christ Church, Philadelphia, Talbot had written to Urmston in North Carolina expressing surprise that he was still alive in "that dismal swamp" and inviting him to come north where there were several churches he might serve.
Talbot's regular station was at Burlington, N.J., from which he labored mightily, at least through the reign of Queen Anne, to secure a regularly consecrated bishop for America. It was owing to him that the SPG purchased property at Burlington in 1712 to serve as a residence for the anticipated bishop. Talbot dropped his campaign for an American bishop when the house of Hanover succeeded to the throne. Then, when the opportunity arose for his own consecration by the nonjurors, he was unable to resist it. One supposes the septuagenarian Talbot to have been drawn into this folly by Welton. The aged Ralph Taylor, "greatly weakened both in body and mind" (who had himself received nonjuring consecration little more than a year earlier), consecrated Welton solus, and he and Welton then consecrated Talbot in the summer of 1722. Having returned to America in November 1722, Talbot convened the clergy of Pennsylvania at Chichester in October 1723, at which time an unnamed clergyman criticized the missionaries who had recommended Urmston to Christ Church. Talbot and four others sent a message on 23 October to the Christ Church vestry stating that they would concur in Urmston's removal from the parish providing the vestry filed a complaint with the convention and applied for its assistance. The vestry accepted the invitation. Urmston was forced out of Christ Church by December 1723 ("starved out," according to Talbot), and Talbot supplied the vacancy while Welton was sent for from England. Welton arrived in Philadelphia in June 1724, bringing with him engravings of his notorious altarpiece, and in July was given charge of Christ Church, where "he entered at once upon his duties and secretly ordained clergymen, exercising the functions and wearing the robes of a bishop." Civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the northern colonies, alarmed at Jacobite developments in their jurisdictions, wrote to warn their superiors in England. Urmston, of undoubted "duty and affection to His Majesty King George," was among the several who wrote warning of the danger. In the end, Welton was ordered back to England under a writ of privy seal in 1725; he fled, instead, to Lisbon, where he died in August 1726. Talbot was removed from his missionary status for disaffection to the government in October 1724 and died at Burlington in 1727.
Urmston, against whom Talbot's biographers have railed for a century and a half as the chief instrument of Talbot's downfall (no one seems to have regretted Dr. Welton), went from Philadelphia to North Carolina by way of Maryland and Virginia. After selling his plantation on Albemarle Sound and settling his affairs, he returned to Maryland. Here he was inducted into St. Stephen's Parish, Cecil County, on the eastern shore in 1724. Urmston appears to have lived quietly at St. Stephen's during the lifetime of Christopher Wilkinson, "a truly good man" and the bishop of London's commissary on the eastern shore. On Wilkinson's death in 1729, Jacob Henderson, the bishop's commissary on the western shore, assumed jurisdiction over all Church of England clergy in the colony. In June 1730 Henderson held a visitation of the eastern shore clergy. When examining Urmston's credentials, Henderson noted his lack of the letter testimonial that the irritated Eden had withheld in 1721. Further, it was Henderson's opinion that Urmston was drunk, and on the following day he gave Urmston an admonition. Despite this, in July Urmston joined other eastern shore clergymen in an address to the bishop of London accepting Henderson as commissary over them.
Meanwhile, Henderson earmarked Urmston for removal from his parish. By October 1730 the vestry of St. Stephen's began drawing up complaints against Urmston, alleging (according to Henderson) frequent drunkenness. By August 1731 Henderson had removed Urmston from his priestly function in the parish. The vestry then asked the governor to induct a new minister, speaking in the petition of Urmston's conduct in a general charge as "too shameful to mention." Its only specific charge against Urmston was the disingenuous one that he had not exercised his clerical function for two months (suppressing the fact that Henderson had silenced him). Urmston is said to have officiated at Appoquinimy and Lewes in Delaware after he was silenced in Maryland. Despite Urmston's apparent acceptance of his sentence, Henderson, who had knowingly acted without proper authority, justifiably feared that Urmston might bring an action at law that would raise in Maryland a nervewracking inquiry into the question of the doubtful legal basis for the bishop of London's claim to American jurisdiction similar to the one that had been raised in Barbados only a few years earlier. Urmston's consultation with lawyers and continued occupation of the vicarage and glebe belonging to St. Stephen's Parish were ominous signs. He soon vacated the premises by death.
In November 1731 Urmston's manservant, in going out to visit a neighbor, left the sixty-nine-year-old clergyman sitting by the fire. When the servant returned, he found his master's body on the hearth, his pipe by his side, his head burned off in the fireplace. Henderson's relief over his narrow escape, greater than his love of strict truth, allowed him to suppose to the bishop of London that Urmston had met his death by falling into the fire in a drunken fit. The names of Mrs. Urmston and the two younger children are unknown. Urmston was survived by his son and administrator, Thomas, who had remained in America on the family's return to England in 1721.
Urmston's reputation in North Carolina has suffered greatly at the hands of Victorian church historians and biographers of John Talbot. Probably it is true that his mordant wit was grounded in a morose spirit. Certainly it is true that he was publicly drunk in the spring of 1720 and probably true that he routinely enjoyed wines and punches in an age when ale was a lady's usual breakfast drink. It is likely that he was treated contemptuously by many of those who were technically his parishioners and whom he is said to have scolded. One must remember that whereas it is generally believed that there was little organized dissent and opposition to the Church of England in early eighteenth-century North Carolina outside the Quaker community, there was probably a much larger body of unorganized dissent and opposition than is usually recognized. In England, where there was an active press to publish the polemical writings and controversies between the establishment and dissent, the parson's hatred of dissent and the dissenters' contempt for the parson are clearly visible. Although no press was available to record those same passions in early eighteenth-century North Carolina, such evidences as are available in official dispatches and missionaries' letters show that they were in place and were active.
Within the contemporary establishment in the colony, both civil and ecclesiastical, Urmston's faults were recognized, but so were his virtues. Governor Edward Hyde, in a confidential aside written in 1712, believed that Urmston's reception in the colony was "purely owing to himself and his unfortunate temper which noways suits with the humors of the natural born people of America." This is the harshest failing assigned to him by his superiors in the colony. His vestry, in 1714, informed the SPG that "His great Pains and universal Dilligence to keep together those of our Church hath had good success," and Governor Eden told the society in the same year that Urmston "is really an honest painstaking Gentleman and worthy your care." While Eden believed Urmston's economic difficulties stemmed from the fact that "he has been but a moderate conductor of his affairs," he reported in 1717 that he "does all he is able in the discharge of his function and spares for no pains."
There is never a hint, never a suggestion, that Urmston's North Carolina mission was marred by a lewd life or habits of dissipation. True, if one chooses to give credence to an anonymous letter (the hallmark of the blackguard), one can slander his North Carolina mission into the ground. The preponderance of evidence, however, leads one to feel Dr. Francis L. Hawks judged falsely when he ruled that Urmston "did more to retard the spread of Christianity and the growth of the Church of England in Carolina, than any and all other names combined." Had Urmston done nothing more than help secure the vestry act of 1715, which provided the foundation for firm establishment of the Church of England in North Carolina, he is owed a better opinion than that by his successors in the American Episcopal church.
With reference to Urmston's post–1722 reputation in the northern colonies, it is clear that he was considered to have a good moral character during the year he spent in London in 1721 and 1722. The secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, who knew him both personally and through his correspondence, did not hesitate to recommend him for ecclesiastical appointment, and the bishop of London did not hesitate to license Urmston for further ministry in America. Was there a real change in his character in 1723? Did the absence of a wife and family weaken Urmston's sense of social restraint when he entered the climacteric of his seventh decade? One wishes that the testimonials against his character had been expressed in specific terms rather than as general condemnations, for they require careful investigation and not mere acceptance or dismissal. When they are investigated, it should be borne in mind that the testimonials against his character in 1723 and 1730 appear to have been solicited by Talbot in Philadelphia and possibly invited by Henderson in Maryland. Full and impartial inquiry ought to be made before judging his experiences in those places.
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1 January 1996 | Stevenson, George, Jr.