Editor’s note – Trip Wiggins is St. George’s archivist
Rev. Edward Charles McGuire. What do we know about him?
Longest serving Rector of St. George’s (45+ years)
Only Rector buried in our churchyard
McGuire Hall named after him
We have a nice portrait of him and his wife in McGuire Hall
Was Rector when current church was built
But WHO was he? What were the social/religious issues of his day? Word of warning. I’m not a minister, nor a retired college professor. I am a retired Naval officer who enjoys studying history and doing genealogy – so this may have my particular bent to it.
Why did I first get interested with Rev. McGuire? RECORDS. St. George’s has NO baptism/marriage/burial records before 1858. They were taken to Richmond during the Civil War for safe keeping and were lost when the town was torched in 1865 by the retreating Confederate army. So for the past several years I have been trying to rebuild the lost records, starting with McGuire as there are many court and newspaper records during his tenure. Thus far I have documented about 250 marriages he performed – but there are many more still to find. Enough of records, what of the man?
According to the published McGuire family history, Edward’s grandfather was born in Ireland and immigrated to the colonies. His son, William, Edward’s father, was born in Winchester, Virginia in 1765 yet served in the revolutionary war (yes, he was young). Coming from Ireland, the family was Roman Catholic. Yet, 3 of William’s sons became Episcopal priests! (I don’t know if William’s wife, Mary Little had an influence or not – but the fact remains they were no longer Catholics.)
What little we know of Edward, comes from his diaries kept between 1819 and 1831 (only the portion of 1819-1823 is available to us), his obituary, numerous newspaper articles, census records, tax and land records, hundreds of local marriage licenses, and the entries in the “Journal for the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia” where he faithfully submitted his annual parochial reports. Oh yes, and a 31-page sketch of his life by the Bishop of Virginia, John Johns written a few months after his death. That last one tells me a lot of how he was viewed by the diocese. How many other parish priests can you think of who had a bishop write a story of his life?
We start in 1793. Edward was the first child born to William and Mary McGuire in Winchester, VA on 26 July. There would be at least 7 more children born to the couple in Winchester. William, following the Rev War, graduated from William & Mary with a law degree and practiced law for many years. He later switched to running the armory at Harpers Ferry for the Army. That is where he died in 1820.
Young Edward was trying to find his way in the world. He freely discussed his finding many pleasures before he found his calling. In 1809, when 16, he wrote in his diary, “I was again more powerfully impressed with religious sentiments. I was led to pray earnestly and did so for several months. I was then overcome by temptation and relapsed into a sinful course of life.” He tried law for a while but that didn’t quite sit with him. In October, 1811, he settled on his career as he writes “…it pleased a gracious God to visit me again with the powerful influence of his Holy Spirit. The first operation of the Spirit at this period, was to direct my thoughts once more to the Gospel ministry. I again, thus attested, firmly resolved to devote myself to God in this way. The last visitation of the savior was instantaneous and sudden as a flash of lightning from the clouds. It was unsought the free and unmerited gift of a gracious God.” (Pretty powerful for an 18-year old.) He sought out a mentor in the form of Rev. Mr. Meade at Christ Church in Alexandria (later Bishop Meade), who began his education in the ministry. (There isn’t a seminary yet.) When Mead transferred churches, McGuire found Rev. Wm Wilmer also in Alexandria and later went to Baltimore for study with Rev. Mr. George Dashiell. Total study: 2 years (1811-1813). In September 1813, St. George’s asked him to come initially as a lay reader. Why? He was only 20 and could not be ordained until he reached 21!
And what was going on at St. George’s when the vestry chose Mr. McGuire to preach? Plenty. Just a few years earlier, 1808, the Presbyterian Church opened its doors and a small exodus occurred at St. George’s as many of the Scotsmen left! (It didn’t help matters any that from 1806 to 1808 we had NO rector! Post-Rev War was a tough time for the Episcopal Church. We were no longer the only church in town and no longer state-supported.) From 1808 to 1813 we had two rectors. The first, Rev. Samuel Low was at first “just what the vestry ordered.” Articulate, knowledgeable, compassionate and a great preacher. He only had one thing in his “baggage” that came to light after his arrival. Seems when he divorced his first wife (he wasn’t yet a minister) in New York, he married his second wife BEFORE the divorce was FINAL. When that hit Fredericksburg, it rocked the small congregation and Mr. Low was soon looking for work elsewhere. The vestry must have liked him, though, as he obtained a rector position in King George and still preached in Fredericksburg once every three weeks. That went on for about a year before all ties were cut and we obtained a new rector – the Rev. Mr. George Strebeck. He came in in 1811, was initially well liked, but by 1813 he was gone from St. George’s and Virginia for parts unknown. He did put together a committee to look at replacing the ancient church building – but he left before anything came out of it. The committee included the congregation’s and town’s notables: Hugh Mercer, son and namesake of the town’s long-dead physician/general; Benjamin Day, Mr. Bernard and Mr. Stone.
So here it is Oct 1813. The vestry has asked a 20-year-old non-ordained person to lead us in the new 19th century in a dilapidated church that has just lost many members by the new churches popping up all over town. The “learning curve” for the new minister would be steep for sure if he was going to succeed. But they chose well (or dumb luck, perhaps), for they got a great minister who did wonders for the church.
On his arrival, he was treated cordially but not warmly by the congregation – but considering what they had gone through they were probably still a bit gun shy of ANY new minister. Edward brought a youthful exuberance to his task and an undying love of his creator. Within his first year he turned 21 and was ordained by Virginia’s new bishop – Chaning Moore. In fact, McGuire would be Moore’s FIRST ordination. McGuire also got the church moving toward building that new church and he began preaching. Preaching with a new spirit that captivated many people and the ranks of the pews grew weekly. His parochial reports are full of new members who came and STAYED. We were growing again, something St. George’s hadn’t seen since before the war. Quenzel’s History of St. George’s states that when he took over, McGuire found a congregation of 12 people. That’s probably not quite right, at least literally, for in 1813 there were at least 12 members on the vestry (and they all had families) so we know that it never actually dropped to 12, but is was LOW.
His honest piety and indefatigable exertions were seen everywhere. Preaching (not just on Sundays), house visitations, preaching in other churches, and getting visiting preachers to preach in Fredericksburg. We were in the middle of the great 19th century evangelistic movement and McGuire was a part of it.
But he wasn’t just preaching. In his first confirmation class that he taught he met and fell head over heels over Judith Carter Lewis. Her father, Robert, was big in the church and the town and would become an 8-year Fredericksburg mayor in 1821. Her grandparents were Fielding and Betty (Washington) Lewis.
Judith and Edward were married in 1816 by his old mentor, Rev. Wilmer, who came down to St. George’s for the ceremony. They would find time to have a family and raised either 7 or 8 children. (Several did not make it to adulthood, but 3 became Episcopal priests and one daughter married an Episcopal priest.)
Curiously, his diary is all but silent on his family. There is a mention of his wedding and first child being born, Edward Brown. The second was just noted as “my second was born in a thunderstorm as I arrived back from preaching in Falmouth.” He didn’t even name the child (it was Mary). No other children are mentioned in the diary. Of course the portion for 1823 to 1831 is unlocated, so perhaps there are more family entries.
By this I mean to show that he was DRIVEN as a member of the clergy. It was as if every fiber in his being was shaped to the work of the ministry. Reading the diary you are struck by it often. 1 Feb 1819: My mind anxious for the salvation of the souls around me – Lord pour thy spirit out and glorify thyself. Or Apr 1822: “Our meetings still greatly crowded, many crying out, ‘What shall we do to be saved?’ My heart is enlarged; praise God, O my soul.” Or from 29 Aug 1825: “The work of the ministry, I can truly say, is my chief joy. May the Lord continue to me this spirit of entire devotion to the interests of his church.” March 21, 1819: “My soul engaged in shaking off prejudices and bigotry, and in endeavouring to promote harmony and unanimity among Christians. Oh! That the spirit of love would descend upon the church, and bind our hearts in a perpetual union! Lord, help thy poor servant to please Thee in this respect.” Do you write like that?
Among his many endeavors was the creation of “The Society for the Education of pious young men for the ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Churches of Virginia and Maryland.” This he took up in 1819 and never let it go. Its fruit would be called the Virginia Theological Seminary located in Alexandria where he remained a trustee until his death. Read the local papers of the times and you’ll see notices of this here in Fredericksburg. He was also key in the creation of Episcopal High School in Alexandria. He also got quite a few Bible Study groups going and boosted Sunday school attendance through the ceiling. He found that Bible study groups in people’s homes were very effective. 26 Jun 1821: “Prayer meeting this evening at Mr. J. P____’s, a comfortable meeting, much liberty in speaking on the 51st Psalm. Find great advantage arising to the church from this method of promoting the cause of Jesus. It admits of so much familiar and plain exposition of the word, with such pointed and direct application to the conscience of men, as can not be practiced with equal success at larger and more mixed assemblages. It is also more social and operates through our sympathy to produce a more powerful and active influence upon our affections.” McGuire never stopped!
And he never gave up on the vices of his own parishioners. July 1, 1825: “Iniquity seems to abound in our town to a greater extent than usual. New sources of moral pollution are coming in among us. Horse-racing, attended as usual with excessive gambling, has been brought back, after having been unknown to us for several years. A great and overwhelming flood of iniquity has been introduced by this vile amusement, and vice stalks abroad with more than its wanted effrontery. May the Lord help me to be faithful in warning and crying aloud.” July 15, 1825: “The play-house is about to be opened – that synagogue of Satan – that porch of Hell. We have reason to mourn and weep for the desolation of the enemy. This fountain of corruption will pour its bitter waters among us, to the contamination and ruin of many, especially of the young. May the Lord lift up a standard against the enemy.” You know how he felt! He was always watching out for his flock even when they “knew not what they were doing.”
Let’s look at the big issue of his day and what he and the church had to say about – SLAVERY. It was part of who Virginians were. Even our own venerated 18th century Rev. James Marye, jr. had 29 slaves when he died in 1780. Did he FREE them? No, he willed them to his children. It was that “peculiar institution” that the church loathed but lived with.
And Mr. McGuire?
In 1816 the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded. Its purpose was to send free blacks back to Africa (to the new country of Liberia – purchased by Americans for the blacks to colonize). The founder of the ACS was a person born in Fredericksburg – Charles Fenton Mercer. He was the son of James Mercer and Nelly Dick, so was probably a member of St. George’s in his youth – IF we had records that far back to check!!! He grew up in the St James’s House on Charles St. As a member of Congress he advocated for the return of blacks to Africa. Soon the ACS was spreading around the country. Here in Fredericksburg, the meeting to establish a chapter here was held at St. George’s in 1819 with many of the congregation present (along with the Presbyterians and Methodists). They wanted to DO something about the blacks in America.
Alas, the ACS did some good work. They colonized over 13,000 blacks back to Liberia – but that was really a drop in the slavery bucket.
Did these people become abolitionists and speak out to FREE the slaves. In a word, no. Rev. McGuire’s diary is almost silent on the whole subject but he called the work of the ACS “a great and magnificent dream.” But, as they say, actions speak louder than words. Although he hosted the formation meeting and extolled its principles, the 1820 census shows the McGuire household owning FIVE slaves. By the time of his death, he still owned one and that one he did not offer freedom. Yes, slavery was even a “tar baby” to upright men of God. After all, the Bible has MANY slaves throughout so a rational man could come up with just as many reasons to have slavery as to abolish it. The rise of abolitionism won’t really take place until the eve of the Civil War – after Mr. McGuire has gone to his Heavenly reward.
All that said, by the time of his death, St. George’s had 5 active Sunday Schools – TWO of which were exclusively for slaves. As Fielding Lewis and the vestry had tried in the 1770s, McGuire and St. George’s were again reaching out to educate the slaves in the region. The task never ends until slavery ends. So he was doing his small piece to end the terrible plague that befell the south.
Can we judge his action based on today’s knowledge? Not really. His time was his; our time is ours. The two just don’t mix.
What should we remember of McGuire? He was a good man, a good priest who did his best to make St. Gorge’s a great place to come to God. Based on the numbers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, burials and congregants he did that. (Would you believe 88 joined the church in ONE day in 1831. Talk about revival meetings – McGuire knew how to grab – and KEEP the people.
He was a great builder and a true man of the cloth for his or any age.
Now, we’ll try to take questions or start a group conversation as I am NOT the expert here. (We have his Bible – with sermon notes, his prayer book and his Rector’s Library which he willed to the church.)