The wardens of today’s church is a shortened title from churchwardens. In 1643, the Virginia General Assembly decreed there would be two churchwardens in each parish. In many respects the basic functionality is the same – to act in the name of the Vestry in administering the parish’s affairs on a day to day basis. The colonial churchwarden would feel right at home with the present wardens keeping the church in decent repair for small projects or acting for the vestry in large.
Once you get into the specifics one realizes that had many more real functions then. The concept of commission didn’t exist. For instance they directed what staff they had, for instance to make sure salaries were paid and reimbursements made and that other officians such as sextons did their job. They made sure there was sufficient bread and wine for services since there was no altar guild.
In three respects the churchwarden was in another league with a number of civil functions.
First, they collected fees and taxes which paid the minister and covered the expenses of the parish. They certified the levy payment and accuracy of the tithables, the number of families to pay the tithe.
Secondly, they were the eyes and ears of the court and responsible for wrongdoers reported to the court. This is the origin of the concept of “warden”. Robert Carter of Nomini Hall provided a summary of the functions of the warden. One included “making formal legal complaint against all who swear, are drunk, “deny a God, Trinity or monotheism, willfully absent from Church."
A 1643 law defined misdemeanors – “swearing, profaning God’s name and his holy Sabbaths, abusing His holy word and commendments.” Other crimes included “adultery, whorecome or fornicaiton..the loathesome sin of drunkeness.” By 1705, the following laws and punishments were in place:
Finally, they were part of the welfare system of the county –feeding the hungry and making sure the poor and abused had housing. In 1662 parish vestries were assigned the task of providing for the indigent in general. The concept of the “poor” was broad. Poor included any and all unable to care for themselves, momentarily or permanently. English law and custom deemed local community obligated to assist those too young or old to provide for themselves, the unemployed and those incapacitated by sickness injury or mental handicap and those who were deprived of the normal family basis of support The church budge tfinanced by the yearly levy handled these items. In Lynnhaven Parish in Princess Anne 12% to 43% of total expenses went to the poor with an average of 28%. At that level there were definite strains.
The Church provided for the poor initially by farming them out to parishioners. It was a humane but financially burdensome solution to the problem. People were reimbursed for their expenses which may include doctor’s fees, burials, boarding the incompetent In time many unemployed and landless simply wandered and became vagabonds denying the county a taxing source.
In 1723 the Assembly authorized churchwardens to send vagrants back to their home parishes, where they could be bound out and made self-supporting. If a vagabond were "of such ill repute that no one will receive him or her into Service," then "thirty-nine lashes well laid on" could be administered for each offense of vagrancy. In 1727 the colony’s poor laws were updated. Vagabonds, or rogues, and orphaned or neglected children could be bound out as apprentice. In addition due to the increase in the poor all Virginia parishes to build, purchase, or rent houses for the lodging, maintenance, and employment of the poor. Neighboring but sparsely populated parishes were allowed to operate workhouses jointly, although no more than one hundred acres of land could be used as a poor farm. The children who resided in almshouses were to be educated until they were old enough to be apprenticed. Adult inmates could be hired out as laborers, and churchwardens could apply their earnings toward their keep. Vestries could purchase raw materials, tools, and implements that could be used to produce marketable goods or items for poorhouse inmates’ consumption. County sheriffs were responsible for rounding up beggars and transporting them to the nearest parish poorhouse, where they could be put to work for up to twenty days.
The system was deemed a failure. After the church was disestablished at the time of the revolution the General Assembly created county overseers of the poor in 1780, who were authorized to see that orphans and the children of the poor were trained. Poor farms also were established to provide institutional care.