The Reverend William Coutts: Tory or Whig?By Otto Lohrenz
It has sometimes been assumed that William Coutts, a minister of the established Church of England in Virginia during the Revolution, was a tory.1 He resigned as rector of Martin's Brandon Parish in Prince George County in 1777, at the very time he was expected to renounce his loyalty to the king and take the oath of fidelity to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Recusants could not hold office and since clergymen were public officials until the separation of church and state in the mid-1780s, Coutts supposedly gave up his cure to avoid the oath. A more careful look at the record, however, reveals another reason for his resignation; namely, his brother, Patrick Coutts, a wealthy merchant in Richmond and a town trustee, died in late 1776 and William became executor of his estate. The assignment required his complete attention and therefore he surrendered his parish.
Heretofore almost nothing about William Coutts has been known. The standard authorities on the Anglican clergy of colonial and revolutionary Virginia knew very little about him.2 Coutts was not an important minister, but for historians to make valid generalizations about the clergy and the Revolution in Virginia, correct data of individual parsons is imperative. Patrick and William Coutts were natives of Scotland. Nothing about their parents or their education has been found; it is only known that they had a brother John and a sister Leslie living in Aberdeen. Virginia records first mention Patrick as a merchant in Port Royal, located on the Rappahannock River in King George County, in 1750.3
Sometime thereafter his brother William joined him in Virginia. How William occupied himself upon arrival has not been determined but in a few years he declared himself a candidate for the Anglican priesthood. Since there was no bishop in America he was obliged to sail to England for ordination by the bishop of London, the nominal diocesan of the colonial churches. With him he carried a testimonial "of his discreet and sober conduct," dated October 16, 1767, from Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant governor and chief executive of Virginia, and from William Robinson, the bishop's commissary in Virginia. No record of his ordination has been found but on June 7, 1768 the bishop of London licensed him to officiate in Virginia.4 Ordination meant that Coutts had met the Anglican standards of character, orthodoxy, and knowledge, and that he had taken the required oaths of allegiance and canonical obedience to the king and to the Church of England.5
After his return to Virginia Coutts appears to have located in Richmond while he sought clerical employment. In January 1769 Jonathan Boucher, the well known cleric of Virginia and later of Maryland, reported that Coutts was warmly soliciting Trinity Parish in Louisa County which was vacant. He was an unsuccessful candidate, however, for the vestry chose Robert Yancey as rector.6 Coutts may have filled some pulpits on occasion before becoming parson of Martin’s Brandon Parish in Prince George County, located directly east of Petersburg. Since the vestry book of the parish is not extant it is unclear when Coutts began his duties in Martin’s Brandon but it was certainly no later than 1773. The parish had become vacant on November 17, 1770 at the death of Alexander Finnie, who had served as rector for forty-six years.7 In December 1770 the vestry advertised for a builder, called an undertaker, to make extensive improvements on the glebe, the parish farm. He was to add two rooms to the dwelling house, erect a kitchen, stable, barn, dairy, smoke house, and a “necessary house,” and fence in a garden. A month later a Williamsburg newspaper, in a news story, declared that an undertaker had agreed to a contract and that when the work was finished Martin’s Brandon would have one of the best glebes in the colony. The vestrymen flattered themselves that “some clergyman of Learning and distinction will be induced to offer himself, as the Parish will be kept open for some time for that purpose.”8 It may be that the vestry originally employed Coutts on a temporary basis with the hope of attracting a minister of exceptional abilities, and when that became impossible the churchmen accepted Coutts as permanent parson. Coutts probably did not qualify as a “clergyman of Learning and Distinction” but there is every reason to believe that he was entirely acceptable. No complaints or incidents about his ministry were recorded.
His chief duty as minister was that of conducting Sunday morning services at the two worship centers in the parish, the New Brandon church and Merchant’s Hope church. The former structure has long since disappeared but the latter has been restored and is in regular use by an Episcopal congregation.9 The minister also officiated at baptisms, marriages, and funerals for which he was entitled to perquisites. According to law his annual salary was 16,000 pounds of tobacco, plus the percentages for cask and shrinkage. He was also to have the use of a farm or plantation, called a glebe, of at least two hundred acres with a suitable rectorate and appropriate outbuildings for agricultural production.10 Coutts had the distinction of presiding at the marriage of Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton on January 1, 1772 at The Forest, the Wayles estate in Westover Parish in Charles City County. Why, and under what circumstances, Jefferson engaged Coutts to officiate, rather than William Davis, the minister of Westover Parish, is not definitely known. It is known that Davis was ill and near death and may have been incapacitated while Coutts may already have been located in Martin’s Brandon which was located directly across James River from Westover. On the day of the wedding Jefferson paid Coutts £5, certainly a generous fee since it was considerably greater than the twenty shillings legally required.11 Of Coutts’s performance in the pulpit very little is known. None of his sermons have survived and only one reference to his preaching has been found. On March 21, 1771 one of the Williamsburg gazettes reported the tragic death of a young man by drowning near Richmond. At the memorial service Coutts preached a sermon “to a numerous and respectable audience,” using a text from Ecclesiastics IX:11, “But time and chance happeneth to them all.” The concluding ungrammatical sentence of the piece read: “[b]ut whether well suited to the occasion, or delivered in a new and animated Manner, is left to the Criticks to determine.”12 Why the family chose Coutts to conduct the service, rather than the parson of the local parish, can not be determined.
Coutts’s “new and animated Manner” of preaching indicates that he was energetic and used dramatic gestures and voice inflections, techniques sometimes associated with the evangelical dissenting preachers. It was newsworthy since many Anglican rectors did not use that style of delivery in their sermons. Presumably Coutts utilized the same mode of expression in his Sunday morning sermons. It can not be assumed, however, that the sermons were evangelical in content. The text and the writer’s apparent doubt of the sermon’s suitability suggest that Coutts ascribed the drowning to sheer accident and not to divine interposition. His sermon contrasted sharply with one preached by James Ogilvie, later rector of Westover Parish in Charles City County, at the funeral of another drowning victim a year later. For his text Ogilvie used Samuel III:18, “It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth to him good.” The text suggests that Ogilvie saw the hand of providence in the event, and he evidently did not preach in an animated manner. This time the same editors called it “a Discourse very well adapted to this melancholy occasion, and much approved of by the Hearers.”13 Coutts engaged in tobacco trading during his ministry in Martin’s Brandon. In 1774 “the Rev. William Coutts” is listed as having exported sixty-five hogsheads of tobacco to England from the Upper James River Naval District.14 Possibly he also exported tobacco at other times. He also speculated in real estate. He acquired many lots in Richmond and on Shockoe Hill, some land in or near Richmond, and certain islands in the James River. Some of the lots, the acreage, and the islands he had drawn in the lottery conducted by William Byrd in 1767. Not all real estate deeds in Henrico County have survived but those for the 1780s show that Coutts sold at least two dozen lots in Richmond, many of them on Shockoe Hill, as well as eight acres in or near Richmond in that decade. As a result of Byrd's lottery, Coutts also acquired The South Ferry across the James River in 1767.15 Presumably this ferry produced a good income for Coutts.
Coutts is not known to have involved himself in clerical activities in Virginia. He did not take part in the Fund for the Relief of Distressed Widows and Orphans of Clergymen; that is, unlike many other clergymen, he did not preach a sermon at the annual meeting of subscribers or act as a trustee of the Fund. The newspapers of Williamsburg, which have been indexed, identified clerical participants of the Fund each year and Coutts’s name can not be found.16 Coutts witnessed the attempt by some of his peers to petition the king for an American bishop in the early 1770s, but he took no part in what became a bitter controversy.17 How Coutts may have reacted to the early developments of the Revolution is not known. In 1769, 1770, and 1774 Virginia’s leaders adopted Associations calling for the boycotting of British imports. Patrick Coutts was one of the merchants who endorsed the Association of 1770 but William Coutts did not place his name beneath any of the three. Thirteen ministers, who happened to be in Williamsburg to attend a clerical convocation, signed their names under the Association of 1774.18 Coutts’s name was not among them. Possibly he simply declined to sign, or did not attend the convention, or departed before the opportunity to sign arose. On June 30, 1774 the freeholders of Prince George adopted a county nonimportation association but the names of the signers have apparently not been preserved.19
The Virginia patriots called for a day of prayer, fasting, and humiliation on June 1, 1774 and the Continental Congress set aside July 20, 1775 for the same purpose. Rectors were expected to conduct special fast-day services in one of their churches on those days.20 Since the gazettes of Williamsburg, which was relatively near Martin's Brandon, made no mention of Coutts's refusal, it is probable that he led special services as requested in 1774 and 1775, as well as on similar occasions that were to follow. In contrast, James Herdman, rector of Bromfield Parish in Culpeper County, spurned the opportunity to officiate at a fast-day observance, explaining that "it was inconsistent with his duty to his Majesty." Thereupon the county committee advertised him in one Gazette as "a person inimical to American Liberty," thereby inviting his complete ostracism.21 In July 1776 the fifth Virginia Convention, the last of Virginia’s extralegal assemblies, formally altered the passages in the Book of Common Prayer which included prayers for the king and royal family; henceforth rectors were to substitute prayers for the magistrates of the Commonwealth of Virginia.22 Since Coutts continued as rector for a full year thereafter it seems probable that he adopted the new prayer. Its utilization constituted a violation of his ordination vow. In 1777 the state legislature ruled that all free, adult males were to abjure their allegiance to the king and to swear true fidelity to the Commonwealth before October 10 of that year.23 On September 30, only ten days before that deadline, the church wardens announced the resignation of Coutts as rector of Martin’s Brandon Parish and invited professionally qualified candidates of “good Character” to apply for the position.24 The proximity of the two dates has caused some scholars mistakenly to conclude that Coutts was inimical to the American cause and relinquished his cure to avoid the oath. As will appear below, Coutts in all probability took the test.
On December 27, 1776 one gazette reported the death of Patrick Coutts.25 Since he “left no legal heir in this country but only a natural child, Reuben Coutts” of Richmond, evidently an illegitimate son, his brother, William, became executor of his estate.26 Patrick Coutts’s estate was large and heavily indebted. The administration of the estate called for the full time and efforts of William Coutts, prompting his resignation as rector of Martin’s Brandon. Thereafter he established his residence in Richmond in Henrico County where he showed interest in civic affairs. In November 1785 it was reported that Coutts, among others, had subscribed £10 “for erecting the public Buildings on Shockoe Hill.”27 A secondary factor in his withdrawal from the clerical profession may have been the termination of clerical compensation from tax sources, by the new state Assembly, as of January 1, 1777.28 After that salaries had to be raised by subscription from parishioners unaccustomed to voluntary contributions, often leaving the parson with very little income. Two American agents, Charles F. Bates and William W. Hening, investigated the claims of British merchants against American debtors in Henrico County at the end of the century. Bates found that Patrick Coutts had “left a great estate,” and Hening wrote that he “left a considerable estate.” His personal property included an unknown number of slaves, much livestock, and the usual household items which William Coutts sold at public auction on December 16, 1777. There was also real estate of unknown quantity in at least three counties plus “a considerable number of half acre lots” in Richmond. Some of the real estate the executor leased and some he offered for sale. The most valuable part of the estate was the Coutts Ferry, across the James River from Richmond to Manchester, which, according to Bates, was “worth $1,000 a year” at the turn of the century, notwithstanding that the Mayo Bridge, which had been constructed across the river about 1785, diverted much traffic.29 Our subject apparently operated the Coutts Ferry for a number of years. In 1777 and 1778 the Council of State authorized the payment to Coutts for ferrying military personnel across the James. Evidently he was challenged by Reuben Coutts, the son of the deceased. In 1777 William Coutts was obliged to insert a warning in the newspaper: “I am under necessity of forewarning all persons from paying any ferry money to the young gentleman who goes by the name of Reuben Coutts.” This warning was not entirely successful for in 1782 the Council of State ordered payment to Reuben Coutts for ferrying French troops and baggage across the James River.30 In a short notice in one gazette on September 4, 1779, Coutts asked for “a capital sum of money: the banker to secure himself.” Apparently he needed capital for settling his brother’s debts, which the proceeds of the sale of his personal property had not covered. In the same notice Coutts announced that he “intend[ed] to set out for France as soon as my affairs will permit, and to return as soon as convenient.”31 This was the standard notice for debtors to settle their accounts and for creditors to make known their demands. It may be that his brother’s affairs necessitated the voyage to France.
William Coutts died on January 18, 1787, when he was about forty-seven years old.32 Since he signed his will only six days before his death it can be inferred that he died rather suddenly. The site of his interment is unknown. Coutts had married Mildred Shepard Brown sometime before 1782; she was the daughter of Samuel Shepard and the widow of Samuel Brown, whose identities remain unknown. Since Coutts mentioned neither wife nor children in his will it can be assumed that Mildred Coutts predeceased him and that there was no offspring.33 In his will Coutts referred to "all my lots in the City of Richmond or elsewhere [and] all my Islands in James River and also my ferries and the privileges belonging to them." It is known that he also held lots in Manchester, Hanover Town, and in New Castle. No doubt his ferries were the South Ferry and the Coutts Ferry. He wanted his executors to sell the personal property and the real estate which had not been specifically bequeathed. First, they were to use the proceeds to retire the debts of his deceased brother, Patrick Coutts, and secondly, the debts he himself had incurred.34 His residence in Richmond with the outbuildings on one acre of land and four slaves he transmitted to Mrs. Margaret Barnes, a widow. He gave freedom to his slave Isaiah, with the provision that he be sent to school for two years and then to be "bound out to some trade," after which he was to receive £50 Virginia currency to help him set up his trade. To Reuben Coutts, "the natural son of my brother Patrick Coutts,” he devised his rights to the South Ferry “together with all the land and appurtenances belonging thereto," as expressed in the deed . . . given by Col. William Byrd deceased." Patience Barnes, daughter of Margaret, was to have £500 Virginia currency, when she reached the age of twenty. He asked his executors to provide for the support of Margaret and Patience Barnes until they received their legacies. He gave his brother John £1,000 and his sister Leslie £200, both of whom were residents of Aberdeen, Scotland. The remainder, if any, he devised to Margaret and Patience Barnes. He named five prominent citizens of Richmond as executors, one of whom was John Marshall, the future Chief Justice. He wanted those who actually served as executors to have £500 for their trouble.35 Margaret Barnes and her daughter, whose bequests were sizable, have not been identified. Possibly Margaret Barnes was the daughter of Mildred Coutts by her first husband.36 One can only speculate as to why Coutts singled out Isaiah, identified as the son of Monimia, also one of his slaves, for freedom from among his slaves. Three of the five named executors, Benjamin Lewis, Alexander McRobert, and John McKeand, qualified in March 1787, presented their security bonds of £15,000, and received the legal certificate to execute the will.3 How well they were able to carry out Coutts's wishes is not known. The appraisers signed the inventory of his personal property on February 15 1787 and the Henrico County Court ordered it to be recorded on April 2. Named were nineteen slaves to whom the viewers assigned a value of £775. Probably Coutts had used his slave labor to operate the ferries he mentioned in his will. Plantation equipment was virtually absent in the appraised inventory. Included was a considerable quantity of household furniture which included walnut tables, silver spoons, wine glasses, napkins and table linen, and "a parcel of books" thought to be worth £3, indicating that Coutts had a small library. There were twenty-two head of cattle, nine horses, and four pigs. The total value of the personalty added up to £1,044 7s.38 The will and the inventory indicate that Coutts was well-to-do and enjoyed a genteel standard of living.
Since Coutts lived undisturbed, first in Prince George County and then in Richmond, throughout the Revolution, it is apparent that he was considered a patriot and that he subscribed to the test, thereby directly repudiating his solemn promise to the king. First as minister and then as administrator of a large estate, Coutts was not an inconspicuous figure. Had he been a loyalist, the patriots might well have asked him to explain his conduct and placed an account of his misdeeds in a gazette, thereby inviting all patriots to ostracize him. Five Anglican ministers, Thomas Johnston, John Wingate, John Agnew, James Herdman, and John Buchanan, were dealt with in that manner. The latter two, who were residents of Richmond, were specifically accused of refusing an oath of loyalty to the Commonwealth.39 It is very doubtful that state authorities would have paid ferriages to Coutts had he been a loyalist or a nonjuror. Coutts also supplied material goods for military use during the war for which Henrico County officers compensated him later.40 It is equally unlikely that the local magistrates would have allowed payment to anyone less than a conventional whig. It seems fair to conclude that Coutts was not a loyalist but a passive patriot. Coutts was not a prominent figure, but as clergyman and resident of Virginia during the unsettled years of the Revolution, he merits some historical recognition, not consignment to historical oblivion. He lacked the offspring and immediate family members in America to perpetuate his name and to preserve his memory. It is to be regretted that the records concerning him are not more complete. Additional information about him might shed some light on the established church, mercantile practices, and the Revolution in Virginia. This essay has assembled the information about Coutts that is known to have survived, but has also, it is hoped, fixed his name in the clerical annals of Revolutionary Virginia. Perhaps additional data about him can yet be uncovered in the years to come.