The Reverend James Horrocks (ca. 1734-1772)

Horrocks, James

A Church of England minister and President of the College of William & Mary who figured prominently in Virginia's debate over the creation of an American bishop, James Horrocks was born about 1734 in Wakefield, Yorkshire. He attended the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School at Wakefield and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1755 and a master's in 1758. In 1757, Horrocks was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and elected an usher at his old grammar school. As an usher (who, with the master, taught Latin and Greek), he was to be "a man truelie fearinge God, learned in good sorte, formerly knowne to have bene painefull in teachinge of youth, att the least painfull and industrious in his owne studies, moderate in his cariadge." While at Wakefield, Horrocks studied with and taught more than a dozen Virginians, some of whom would feature prominently in the American Revolution, including Richard Henry Lee, Robert Beverley, and Theodorick Bland. In 1758, Charles Goore, a Liverpool merchant, wrote to Theodorick Bland's father about Horrocks, informing him that "We have a very good opinion of this Gent[leman], a good Young Man and a good Scholar."

Horrocks was licensed to preach in Virginia in 1761, appointed minister of both Petsworth and Kingston parishes in 1762, appointed master of the Grammar School at the College of William & Mary in 1763, and — when he was 30 years old in 1764 — named president of the college. The choice was roundly criticized, among other reasons — because Horrocks won the appointment over a 20-year veteran of the college faculty, Richard Graham. He gained few admirers for the number prestigious posts that he rapidly collected within the next several years. Richard Bland (whose cousin, Theodorick, had been at Wakefield with Horrocks) carped in 1771 that Horrocks was a "tolerable Pedagogue in the Grammar School of our College … but unfortunately, for his Reputation, as well as for the College, he was removed from the only Place he had abilities to Fill, to be President of the College. This laid the Foundation, for his other Exaltations; and by a Sycophantic Behaviour, he had accumulated upon him, the rectorship of Bruton Parish, the office of Bishop's Commissary, of a Councillor, of a judge of General Court," and of chaplain to prisoners in the Public Gaol in Williamsburg.

Horrocks soon drew further ire over his heavy-handed tactics in the controversy over securing a bishop for the American colonies. The question of whether to create bishops for America had been a matter of transatlantic debate for decades, even though the British government remained steadfastly opposed to the idea. Ironically, it appears to have gained greatest currency in the colonies when discussion practically disappeared in Britain. Support for an American bishop gained strength in the northern colonies, especially New York and New Jersey, in the late 1760s. They sought support from Virginia where it was believed that the Church's establishment was strong and support for an Anglican bishop in America would therefore be pervasive.

Horrocks warmed to the cause and decided to use the Annual Meeting of the Clergy for Support of a Fund for the Relief of Clergymen's Widows and Orphans to discuss the matter of petitioning the King and Parliament for a bishop. Horrocks' plans were stifled, however, when only a fraction of Virginia's Anglican clergymen decided to attend the meeting. Horrocks tried again, issuing a more explicit call on May 9,, 1771 for a convention of the clergy on June 4, stating that they would discuss "the Expediency of an Application to proper Authority for an American episcopate" and expressing his earnest wish "that we may all then meet well disposed to embrace such sentiments, and enter upon such Resolutions, as shall be most becoming ourselves, and at the same Time give no Occasion of Dissatisfaction or Uneasiness to the candid, the dispassionate, and unprejudiced Part of the Laity."

Horrocks was undoubtedly disappointed when the response to his second attempt was no more enthusiastic than his first, as only 12 of the province's more than 100 Anglican ministers showed up for the meeting in Williamsburg on June 4, 1771. Eight agreed with Horrocks that a petition was in order. Four of the attendees — Thomas Gwatkin, Samuel Henley, William Bland, and Richard Hewitt — opposed the measure on the grounds that the convocation was entirely too unrepresentative of the Virginia clergy to presume to speak for the entire body on such a weighty issue. Moreover, there were serious political implications to be considered, Gwatkin and Henley argued, as the idea itself "may endanger the very existence of the British Empire in America" by continuing the "present unhappy disputes" between Britain and the colonies.

With or without the coveted petition, Horrocks and his wife left for England only several weeks later, "for the Recovery of their Healths." A report from London in September breathlessly suggested that he arrived in London "with a View of prosecuting the Scheme of an American Episcopate," which threatened "the Subversion both of our civil and religious Liberties," and Richard Bland asked a correspondent to pass along whatever he could learn about Horrocks' activities there. Consequently, he missed the ensuing debate that played out in the Williamsburg newspapers over the issue, as well as the unanimous vote by the House of Burgesses to thank the four ministers who opposed Horrocks' plan in the June convention. The burgesses declared the introduction of an American bishop "a Measure by which much Disturbance, great Anxiety, and Apprehension, would certainly take Place among his Majesty's faithful American Subjects." The House took up the issue again in May 1772, when it rejected the "expediency of an American Episcopate" after, according to George Washington, it "was long & warmly debated." A proposal for a substitute "Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction" in Virginia fell victim to an almost byzantine level of bureaucratic complexity, which could not be addressed before the close of the session. The plan was not taken up again.

Horrocks never returned to Virginia. He died at Oporto, Portugal, on March 23, 1772. The Virginia Gazette remembered him as "a Gentleman well versed in several Branches of sound Learning, particularly the Mathematicks, and eminently possessed of those Virtues which increase in Value as they are furthest from Ostentation."

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