T. Grayson Dashiell: Secretary and Envoy
  • Friday, January 13, 2012

By Worth E. Norman, Jr.

The Rev. T. Grayson Dashiell’s election as secretary of the Diocese of Virginia on May 20, 1863, would seem uneventful except for two facts: the diocese was part of the Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America, and Dashiell served his diocese faithfully for the next 29 years.

Probably no one else in the history of the Virginia diocese served the church in as many critical positions as Dashiell did over his career. Dashiell’s long tenure suggests that Virginia Episcopalians recognized his superior ability to take care of details while expressing a faithful churchmanship. Dashiell served as secretary for two bishops: the Rt. Revs. John Johns (1862-76) and Francis McNeese Whittle (1876-1902).

Dashiell’s name first appears in the diocesan journal of 1856, which does not mention his parochial assignment. Most likely he was assigned as an assistant minister at St. James’s Church in Richmond. In 1866 St. James’s formed St. Mark’s Church as a mission plant and Dashiell became its first rector. In the parochial reports for 1866 Dashiell reported no church revenues for St. Mark’s because it was in formation.

At the 1862 annual convention before he was elected secretary, council replaced the name convention on a motion by Mr. Dashiell. This name change mirrored a similar change adopted by the initial triennial council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. The diocese for almost four years was integral to the temporary national confederate church. The Rt. Rev. William Meade (1841-62) of Virginia was the senior and presiding bishop of the confederate church until his death in 1862.

One of Dashiell’s significant documentary contributions was “A Digest of the Proceedings of the Conventions and Councils in the Diocese of Virginia,” from 1876 to 1881. Dashiell’s introductory pages provide his perspective on the history of the “Church in Virginia.” In the first chapters he wrote an impassioned defense of the post-Revolution Episcopal Church against charges that it was part of the colonial Virginia government and exercised extra ecclesiastical or legal and judicial control of its people.

Leaders of other denominations, within decades after the Revolution, went to court and had glebes and properties of Virginia’s Episcopal churches confiscated or auctioned off, the justification being that they were “stolen” from the people during colonial days. Dashiell countered those arguments and legal actions with facts widely known and accepted: that the leaders of the American Revolution, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others, were not enemies of the people. They were all Episcopalians — indeed, Virginia Episcopalians.

As secretary of the annual conventions/councils Dashiell was responsible for the publication of their undertakings. The signs of the times are expressed in the minutes of the annual councils. For example, Bishop John Johns in his address to the 1862 convention mentioned that on May 24, 1861, the Federal troops had taken possession of the City of Alexandria and he and his family had to flee their home. The 1861 diocesan convention was to take place in Alexandria in May but was changed to Richmond because of the unsettled condition of the country. That turned out to be a prescient change.

The 1862 journal also mentions a completed project of the Diocese of Virginia’s Domestic Missionary Society: building a home for St. Philip’s African Church in Richmond. According to journal records, Bishop Johns had given much aid to this active congregation and had officiated there for four or more months. The charge now would be placed under the Rev. D.F. Sprigg. In the years following, the names of Sprigg, Giles Buckner Cooke, A.W. Waddell, and Dashiell would be attached to a major diocesan effort at promoting education and evangelization of African Americans in Virginia.

In 1865 Dashiell wrote that the “war between the Northern and Southern sections of the country terminated in April of this year. The lack of transportation facilities, the destruction of all kinds of property and the consequent poverty and confusion throughout Virginia, prevented a meeting of the Council in May.” Instead, the Council met at St. Paul’s, Richmond, on September 20. Bishop Johns reported that the Domestic Missionary Committee of the Episcopal Church in New York City offered financial assistance to the diocese, but while stating its gratitude, the diocese refused the offer.

This was also the Council that structured the diocese into convocations, and it adopted a paper encouraging the religious instruction of “colored” people. All clergy and laity were called upon to “engage with renewed effort in every available means that would contribute to their well-being.” In 1866 the council created the Standing Committee on Colored Congregations, to assist colored members of the church who wanted to form new and separate congregations. Dashiell was elected to this committee and was probably its most active member for many years.

According to the Rev. George Freeman Bragg, Jr., historiographer of the Afro-American Group within the Episcopal Church, there “were more colored communicants, and colored clergy in the State of Virginia, than in any of the other dioceses of the [Episcopal] Church.” Bragg wrote that the 1869 council acknowledged the formation of St. Stephen’s Church in Petersburg. Dashiell himself noted annually the progress of St. Stephen’s to the council and commended the work of its white rector, the Rev. Giles B. Cooke, a former confederate major on Gen. Robert E. Lee’s staff.

Cooke, Waddell, Dashiell, and the Committee on Colored Congregations worked diligently over the years to assist the development of African American communities within the diocese. At the 1867 council the Committee on Colored Congregations and Dashiell reported that progress, though reasonable and steady, was slow. The size of the diocese was huge. At that time the diocese still consisted of the communicants in the new state of West Virginia. But the highest density of its colored population was in central and southeastern Virginia. Richmond had the most difficult task because the area was “almost wholly preoccupied by other denominations” and postbellum political excitement was higher there than anywhere else, meaning that it was difficult to plant Episcopal churches. Still, one separate black congregation was worshiping in its own building. In Norfolk four white and five black teachers worked several Episcopal day schools with 450 scholars.

Petersburg was an entirely different story. In the summer of 1865 a Sunday school was opened and grew rapidly to 300 students. Another school had to be opened to handle the growth of students — former slaves eager to acquire an education and to learn the gospel. The rolls soon grew to more than 450. The St. Stephen’s Church school would eventually become the central location for continuing education of black laity and clergy. By 1870 another phenomenon was taking place in the Southside counties of Virginia.

Race relations turned sour as Congressional Reconstruction in the South met with resistance from whites. Although Virginia escaped official Reconstruction, its effects from throughout the rest of the South were nonetheless present. African American members of white churches, particularly in Mecklenburg, Lunenburg, and Brunswick counties, were more or less thrown out of their congregations.

In Boydton, a group of Methodists found themselves without their old church and were left on their own. A minister from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church named James R. Howell came to Boydton and helped the displaced worshipers form a new denomination known as the Zion Union Apostolic Church. This historical version is documented by the U.S. Bureau of the Census account of churches in the South (1909). Another historical account, according to theology professor Estrelda Y. Alexander of Regent Seminary in Virginia Beach, identified Howell as an elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who moved from the Tidewater area to Boydton. In either case the situation of the displaced congregations was the same.

The Zion Unions spread quickly throughout the Southside of Virginia and the adjoining North Carolina counties. A few miles south of Lawrenceville in Brunswick County a new Zion Union church was built near the farm of Mr. and Mrs. F.E. Buford. Mrs. Buford, also known legendarily as Miss Pattie Buford, had her own Sunday school class on her father’s plantation during the period of slavery. Whatever her reasons, Miss Pattie confronted the Zion Unions, saying their worship services were loud.

She also learned of their anti-white theology, mostly by their leader, James R. Howell. She offered to teach Zion Union children and adults; her offer was accepted. A positive relationship began to develop between Miss Pattie and Howell. In 1875 Miss Pattie opened a hospital to help former slaves, the indigent, and the poor. In order to maintain all of her work projects she appealed to the Episcopal Church for funds, Bibles, and books. She appealed both to Episcopal Church agencies in the North (where the money was) and to the Diocese of Virginia. Miss Pattie’s work eventually became well known and Bishop Whittle in Richmond sent an envoy to learn more.

The bishop’s envoy, Dashiell, left Richmond in the morning and arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Emmet Buford at 8 p.m. on July 11, 1878, a Thursday. During the subsequent three days several amazing encounters took place in the tiny village of Lawrenceville. Dashiell learned that the Zion Unions had more than 3,000 members, 25 to 30 schools, and approximately 17 ministers. Though initially organized as a church with hatred toward whites, the Zion Union church began changing after 1870. In 1877 Howell, as the Zion Union bishop, placed all of his Sunday schools under the charge of Miss Pattie, meaning the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Miss Pattie had broken down the barriers that kept people apart. There was more to come.

By Saturday morning, Dashiell met with Howell and three of his Zion Union ministers for more than an hour. In the afternoon Dashiell accepted a request from, and met with, a Zion Union minister from North Carolina and his nephew. The Rev. Macklin Russell and his nephew, James Solomon Russell, had traveled 45 miles to meet with Bishop Whittle’s envoy. James Solomon Russell, 21, wanted to express his desire to enter Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. At the time James Solomon Russell was secretary to the Annual Conference of the Zion Unions.

Dashiell already knew of Russell’s desire but wanted to meet with him personally. Dashiell advised Russell to discuss the matter with Bishop Howell and asked that he and Howell meet with him and Miss Pattie early Sunday morning. Howell gave his consent for Russell to enter Holy Orders and he requested that the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia consider merging with the Zion Unions. That proposed merger never came to fruition, but James Solomon Russell entered a new Episcopal seminary in October of the same year.

Dashiell guided Russell through the process that made him the first student at the Branch Divinity School. The school, a branch of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, was created for African American seminarians. Dashiell, in meetings and conversations with Bishop Whittle and the Diocesan Missionary Society, made sure that Russell’s education was fully funded by the diocese. Dashiell saw in Russell a bright person who had a wonderful ministry in his future.

In May 1883, the Bishop of Mississippi called a meeting of Southern bishops to be held at Sewanee, Tennessee, in July of that year. No African Americans were invited to or attended the gathering. Several (white) presbyters and laymen were invited and attended. Thirteen (white) bishops attended representing 12 Southern dioceses and the Diocese of Liberia. Bishop Whittle of Virginia had been ill in 1883 and was in Europe “recruiting” his health. He returned to Virginia in the spring unable to attend to his episcopal visitations or to attend the conference in Sewanee. Bishop George Peterkin of West Virginia, who did attend the conference, voluntarily took on Whittle’s appointments for that summer. Whittle sent Dashiell and the Rev. Pike Powers to the conference to represent the diocese.

The Southern bishops wanted to find a solution to the “negro problem” in their dioceses. They settled on separate black convocations within each diocese named “Canon of Missionary Organizations within Constituted Episcopal Jurisdictions.” In other words, they proposed a color line. With the exception of the sole dissent by the Bishop of Alabama, Richard Hooker Wilmer, the bishops passed the resolution. Wilmer, a Virginian and the only Southern bishop elected and consecrated during the Civil War, considered the proposal “class legislation.” The resolution was presented to the 1883 General Convention held at Philadelphia in October. It failed in the House of Deputies, so it failed overall.

But it was during the July meeting in Sewanee when a group of colored clergy led by the Rev. Alexander Crummell decided to convene in New York City in September to organize opposition to the Southern bishops’ proposal. Dashiell, upon hearing there was to be a meeting in September, proposed resolutions at the Southern bishops’ conference offering to meet with and assist the colored clergy, believing that they too were looking for a common solution. Dashiell’s proposal passed. It stated, in part, that “the object of this meeting [in New York City] is, like our own, to agree upon some plan whereby the work among the colored people may be more vigorously and intelligently prosecuted under the auspices of the General Convention.” Dashiell figured, most likely, that any discussion between the Southern bishops and the black clergy could find a common resolution. But the two groups never met.

George Freeman Bragg, Jr., reflecting on the actions of the Episcopal Church in the years between 1865 and 1900, wrote in 1922 that of all the white churches in the South, the Episcopal Church in Virginia acted nobly and in the best interest of black men in the years immediately following the end of the war. But after a few passing years political circumstances in the South and the mindset of Southern white men changed. Disfranchisement of black men in Southern society was subsequently mirrored in the Episcopal dioceses of the South. Dashiell’s resolution at the bishops’ conference provides evidence of his attempt to seek amity or cohesion among the different races in the church.

Dashiell is not well known to most Episcopalians today. Researchers who study the journals of the Diocese of Virginia from Civil War days to the two decades before the 20th century certainly know his name and know of his service. In many ways Dashiell was the glue that held Virginia together by his mere presence at meetings, his communications skills, and his managerial acuity. In the 1879 journal of the Virginia Annual Council, Dashiell’s name was tagged for the first time with the letters D.D., indicating the bestowal of the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Dashiell should be mostly remembered as a faithful churchman, a servant of his church, a preacher of the gospel, rector of a parish church, an envoy, a reconciler of races, an interlocutor, and yes, a secretary.

The Rev. Worth E. “Woody” Norman, Jr., is a native of Norfolk, Virginia, and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. McFarland & Company will publish his biography of James Solomon Russell this year.

T Grayson Dashiell


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