While writing my biography of the Reverend James Craig, an eighteenthcentury Anglican minister in Virginia, I became acquainted with a fellow clergyman whose story intersected with Craig’s, the Reverend William Kay. I learned that Reverend Kay is a familiar figure to scholars of colonial Virginia’s established church. An ordained minister of the Church of England, Kay was sent by the Bishop of London to join the ranks of the Anglican clergy in Virginia. Upon Kay’s arrival in the capital of Williamsburg in 1744, Governor William Gooch, who served as the head of the church, arranged for him to become the minister of Lunenburg Parish in Richmond County. Kay enjoyed a warm welcome by the parish vestry and their fellow citizens in the community. But three years later he found himself at the center of a groundbreaking lawsuit that culminated in legislation creating a new legal protection for the clergy.
The controversy giving rise to these events began when Kay incurred the wrath of an influential vestryman, Col. Landon Carter. On one particular Sunday, Kay preached on the subject of pride, and Carter, who occupied an exalted position in the hierarchical society of wealthy planters, took personal offense. Swearing revenge for the perceived insolence of the young minister, the powerful colonel embarked on a campaign to drive Kay from the parish by extralegal means. At the direction of Carter and his allies on the vestry, three men in early 1747 entered the parish glebe, that is, the land and dwelling set aside as the minister’s residence, and destroyed Kay’s crops and livestock and laid waste to the land. Kay, drawing strength from his own supporters among other vestrymen and parishioners, stood his ground against the violent assault. He persevered as the minister of Lunenburg Parish, and upon the advice of Governor Gooch he brought a lawsuit against the three men, charging them with trespass. The trespass case pitted Kay against Carter, one man fighting for the rights of clergymen in service of the church, the other for the power of the laity over the clergy.
Over the following six years, the legal conflict between Kay and Carter played out in Virginia’s highest court and in the king’s Privy Council in London. The stakes were high and the trespass case captured the attention of the entire religious and political establishment––clergymen, vestrymen, and legislators alike. With support provided first by Governor Gooch, then by his successor, Governor Robert Dinwiddie, and eventually by the Bishop of London, Kay prevailed at every step of the legal battle. Moreover, the Virginia legislature enacted a law assuring that all clergymen would enjoy the rights won by Kay. When Kay prevailed in 1753 in a second lawsuit––for his back salary––the controversy came to an end. In the meantime, Kay had sought peace beyond Carter’s reach, taking up his clerical duties in Cumberland Parish, in the frontier county of Lunenburg.
It was there––in Lunenburg County––that my research into the life of James Craig led me to William Kay. Craig became the long-standing minister of Cumberland Parish in 1759. Kay had died in that office in 1755, and to gain a deeper understanding of Craig’s environment I researched accounts of the conflict between Kay and Carter and the role played by Kay in Virginia’s history. The story was well known. Church historian Francis L. Hawks included an account of the trespass case and legislation in his 1836 history of Virginia’s Episcopal Church, the body that arose from the disestablished church after the American Revolution. Bishop William Meade discussed the protracted controversy in his 1857 history of the church, as did colonial church historian George MacLaren Brydon a century later. In his 1960 treatise on Virginia’s history, Richard L. Morton expounded on the famous trespass case and the ensuing work of the legislators. And Professor John K. Nelson’s book on Virginia’s colonial church provides an example of recent historical commentary on the Kay/Carter affair.
But much to my astonishment, as I burrowed deeper into my research on Craig’s life in Lunenburg County, I discovered a document showing that Kay was murdered in 1755, that three of his slaves were accused of the crime, and that Governor Dinwiddie ordered the three to stand trial in Lunenburg County. This was a jolt: None of the historical accounts of the Kay/Carter affair mentioned that Kay met a violent death a mere two years after the conflict with Carter had ended. In addition, I had never seen a reference to such a crime in the detailed histories of Cumberland Parish and Lunenburg County penned by local historian Landon C. Bell or in any subsequent historical work on Lunenburg County. And to the best of my knowledge, no man of the cloth had been reported murdered in the colony of Virginia.
The discovery gave rise to many questions, among them: Did the slaves ever stand trial for Kay’s murder? If so, what form of justice governed their fate? Were they actually guilty? After Kay emerged the victor in his legal battles with Carter, had the colonel’s vow of revenge somehow lived on and extend into far-flung Lunenburg County? Or had Kay faced threats from another source? And foremost: Why did the crime vanish from history?
These are the questions this book tries to answer. While certainty about the true identity of those responsible for Kay’s death may lie forever beyond reach, there is a strong case that can be made respecting history’s silence about it. The events of this untold story arose in turbulent and contentious times, when the settled rules, customs, and expectations of an older society were being put to severe tests by the pressures of an expanding frontier in a new world. In trying to reconstruct what happened in this environment, I learned that key officials closely concerned with Kay’s career and death had their reasons for keeping the murder secret. What follows on these pages tells the story of a colonial Virginia cover-up.