Morality and Sin of Clergy in the West Indies Colonies in the 18th Century: The View of a Chinese Atheist

"Chinese", "Atheist", "The history of Anglican clergy in the West Indian colonies in the 18th century"?!?  I think it must be very difficult for you to connect these things together now, and you may think it is ridiculous. But please, believe me, this is not a spoof. As the first Chinese student who is about to finish a degree in the UNB Department of History in recent years, my working experience in UNB Archives & Special Collections this summer gave me the opportunity to dig up historical truths, integrate these seemingly unrelated topics, and then have a brand-new way of thinking and understanding of that history.

Wenxin Xue
Picture of myself (diligently) working. (Credit: Wenxin Xue)

The charm of history is that people can see the macro from the micro. From a historical macro point of view, the 18th century was a turning point in history, such as the Industrial Revolution, the Anglo-French War, the American War of Independence, the Abolition Movement and so on. These important historical events promoted the initial formation of the whole modern, secular world pattern. The historical upheaval caused by the great changes of the times and society is also reflected in the individuals in the society at that time. As an atheist from China, when I had the opportunity to understand this period of history, some letters between Anglican clergymen, bishops and government officials in the 18th century West Indies colonies attracted my attention. In the process of exploring the truth, my concern was not the so-called religious policy and personal life of the clergy, but the subtle connection between the clergy in the British colony and the drastic changes in world history at that time.

Microfilm documents used in this post: Bishop, Diocese of London, Church of England, The Fulham Papers at Lambeth Palace Library: 1626 – 1822.

The life of Anglican clergy in the West Indies colonies in the 18th century was not as sacred as might be imagined, but of the secular, miserable and even sinful according to their religious dogma.  Wage arrears, shortage of staff, financial crisis, broken churches, and chaotic personal lives were commonplace, events that appeared to have nothing to do with clergy became a part of their daily lives. From the letters, we can see that due to financial crisis, the local clergy kept communicating with the bishops and demanding unpaid wages, the dilapidated churches could not be repaired, and there was no new clergy to replace the priests who were about to retire. As well, due to the social unrest caused by the war and the new ideas brought by the Industrial Revolution, the power and influence of the colonial church were weakened, and the power of the secular government began to increase, and to some extent, it clashed with the church. The management of the Anglican church began to become chaotic, and the professional qualifications of some clergy could not be guaranteed. More and more clergy were accused of having immoral or even sinful private lives, such as committing adultery, lying, and drinking. In addition, the interpretation and standardization of the jurisdiction of bishops or churches had also become the focus of attention, and the fuzzy boundary between secular society and sacred society had gradually formed. Some clergy had begun to try to promote Black education and the abolishment of slavery, and some churches had also begun to implement an electoral system to decide candidates for certain positions. 

aldultery document
Thomas Curphey (clergyman) was suspected of adultery with Samuel Lawford's wife. (The Fulham Papers, Volume XV, Bahamas, p.56, originals Lambeth Palace Library.)

There are three main reasons why the Anglican clergy lost their power in the West Indies colonies. First of all, the colonial land was sparsely populated, and the communication and transportation between them was extremely inconvenient, which was not conducive to the establishment of a centralized church of authority like in Europe. More often, bishops would delegate their power to local areas, and local priests would gain more autonomy, which is why we can see many arguments about the jurisdiction of bishops or churches in letters. At the same time, the poor environment and living conditions of the colony made the number and quality of full-time clergy from Europe insufficient, and the misconduct of clergy further weakened the church's ability to establish authoritarian management and also increased the dissatisfaction of local secular forces to a certain extent. Secondly, the religious diversity of the colonial immigrant society also decreased the church's ability to control the place. Protestantism, the Anglican Church, and even other religions mixed together, which made the population and sectarian environment change, and then transform into new political forces, forcing the state governments to gradually abandon the original Anglican religious policies and give citizens of various sects the same civil rights. Last but not least, the change of social environment and the establishment of individualism fundamentally broke the authority of clergy and established the religious and political importance of individualism. Due to lack of experienced candidates, even unqualified clergy were permitted in the colonial church. Although the scale of the church was expanding, it also caused the ossification and corruption of the church system at that time, including the insufficient understanding of religious books such as the Bible, excessive luxury and corruption of traditional clergy (including adultery, alcoholism, gambling, etc.), the church ceremony tended to be superficial, and the church believers lost a lot. The people at the bottom of society gradually became afraid or even disgusted with religion. At the same time, the ongoing Industrial Revolution and the rapid development of capitalism on the European continent also brought new ideas to the colonies. The ideas of equality, freedom and tolerance began to spread in all social strata, and some clergy began to carry out religious education among the lower and middle classes, even among the Black enslaved population and gave them certain social rights. Of course, this can also be understood as the beginning of the abolitionist movement and the Black Rights movement.

Petition document
Colonial people wanted to limit the authority of churches and clergymen in this petition. (The Fulham Papers, Volume XV, Barbados, pp.139-140, originals Lambeth Palace Library.)

Generally speaking, the Anglican clergy of the 18th century West Indies epitomized what was happening on a global scale. Chaos in the church and among the clergy represented the end of a theocratic social system. Secular society questioned the jurisdiction of churches and bishops, and some clergy advocated Black religious education, which were all part of the social secularization movement. Individualism brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the development of capitalism also influenced religion. Individualism broke the authority of clergy and the management system of the church and raised personal choice above religion. Special religious individualism also laid a solid theological and operational foundation for the political and religious freedom that the American Revolution represented.


Wenxin Xue works as a student assistant at UNB Libraries. He is currently in fourth year of his Bachelor of Arts degree at UNB and majoring in History and minoring in Sociology.


For more on the Fulham Papers, see The Fulham Papers in the Lambeth Palace Library; American Colonial Section, Calendar and Indexes (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1965).


SUBJECTS: West Indies, Caribbean, religion, clergy, colonialism

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An interesting article and perspective. The Anglican clergy in the American colonies generally sided with the the British during the American Revolution and many came north to Nova Scotia (including what is now New Brunswick). Drinking among the clergy was not limited to Anglicans. My 3 x gr-grandfather Rev Seth Noble was the first settled Protestant Minister on the St. John River at the Maugerville Congregational Church. He and most of his congregation (originally from Rowley, MA), supported the American Revolution. He was forced to flee to Maine with a price on his head in 1777. In 1790 he named the town of Bangor allegedly while under the influence of the "demon rum" and his partiality to rum has been well documented. While in Maugerville he married 16 year old Hannah Barker, when he was 32! That may not have been scandalous in 1775 but it would be illegal today. One of the greatest challenges for historians is to make sure they write through the lens of the times they are writing about rather than through today's lens. Keep up the good work!

Thanks for your comment. You mentioned a very interesting point. Indeed, for historians or history students, it is very critical whether they can put themselves in the historical background and social environment of that era when analyzing historical events, which also proves the importance of primary resources from the side. On the other hand, adding some rational analysis from the perspective of modern historical view to the historical analysis can also make the whole article more realistic to a certain extent. Just like a Chinese proverb, history is like a mirror of reality.

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