The Saints Split – Trinity Episcopal is created from St. George’s, 1877

Trinity Episcopal split from St. George’s in 1877. This article explores what happened and some reasons why it occurred at this time

When a split takes place within a church, we need to separate undisputable facts from speculation. 

What happened – the facts

Magruder Maury had begun services at St. George’s in Dec., 1864 as a temporary rector and then appointed Aug, 1865 as rector.   The church met in the basement (“Sydnor”) due to damage. The church had not held services since Nov. 1862 with the onset of the battle of Fredericksburg

He served just over 6 years and resigned on Easter Monday, 1871 over the failure of the Vestry to increase his salary from $1,250 to the level he wanted, $1,600. He felt that “general dissatisfaction in the congregation” had caused the Vestry not to give him what he wanted. In the end they gave him a gift which made his salary $1,600 for year ending Easter Sunday, 1871.

In July, 1871 Rev. Edward C. Murdaugh was called to St. George’s at an annual salary of $1,800. Murdaugh was a Virginian but had served in Alabama and Maryaland.

Murdaugh had health problems early onand sent his resignation to the Vestry in 1872. The Vestry rejected it.  He was granted employing an assistant . By July 1874, however assistant was gone – he had to pay him out of his own pocket but the Vestry voted $250 to help  him out

1. April 6, 1877 – Rector Edward Murdaugh sends a letter of resignation

“The tolerance was more than I deserved and of the support I regret to have made so little use”

Vestry accepted 6 to 3.  The  Virginia Star wrote he was “greatly beloved and admired by his congregation “

2. April 11, 1877 – Vestry met again and received a letter from St. George’s  Chapel in Spotsylvania- “He has so entwined himself around our affections, that we fear a stagnation may visit us for a season… His popularity is such that he has the largest and most attentive congregations in the neighborhood ” – C. A. Robey, Secretary and treasurer

There was a letter from  R.C.L. Moncure urging the Vestry to reinstate

Judge William Barton moved that Murdaugh be relected rector.  Vestry defeated this motion 7 to 4

3. April 24, 1877 – Vestry resolution –  Vestry recognized the loss of a “Faithful minister, whose labors for a series of years past have been crowned by with the full measure of success.”

This was by a committee of A. K. Phillips, John J. Young, J. H. Ficklen. They had voted not to reinstate Murdaugh on April 11.

Murdaugh  response included this statement –  “the resolutions which you transmit to me testify to greater faithfulness I dare admit”

4. July 7, 1877 – a new congregation gathered together. Quenzel writes that “more than fifty communicants” August 7, organization finalized. They worshipped 2 year  rent free in a building know as the “Hanover Church.”

There was an irony noted by S. J. Quinn in his history of Fredericksburg “When the members of St. George’s church were building their present house, in 1849. they occupied the Methodist church, back of the park, which had been vacated for the new house on Hanover street. More than thirty years afterwards, when Trinity Episcopal church was organized, they occupied the Methodist church on Hanover street, the Methodists having moved to their new house on George street.”

5. In July, 1877, new rector J. J. McBride was called for St. George’s

6. August 12, 1877 – First Sunday service for Trinity

St. George’s in 1877 had 348 communicants but in 1878 the year of the creation of Trinity had 195. It declined by 43%. The common wisdom is that 2/3’s stayed at St. George’s and 1/3 left.  Considering deaths , that may not be far off.

It did not reach 348 until 1946 when it reached 371. At that point discussions  had been made with Trinity to reunite but did not continue.

Behind the facts

It appears that both ministers had problems.  Trinity’s historian commented on the lack of strong leadership.  However, conditions within congregation need to be considered

Here is where we get into speculation.

The minutes are not clear on the discords within St. George’s. However, a split in the Vestry was obvious in the Vestry in 1877 that was not present in 1872. A majority of those who had been with Rev. Murdaugh were no longer with him.

What are the possible “discords” ? This is at best speculation:

  1. St. George’s was bound up in the pew system which did not favor those who didn’t own a pew. The selling of the pews allowed the church to be built without debt. Pew rents and other gifts paid the minister’s salary and not the general collection plate. Those who rented the pews chose the Vestry  Some kept calling for the establishment of a “free church” where all would have a say

10 years after the establishment of Trinity a sermon by J. Green Shackelford, rector 1887-1890 printed in the Free Lance , Oct 25, 1887 talked about conviction . “The conviction of the necessity and value of a free church in Fredericksburg had become so strong.”  He noted “convictions were the basis  of all successful motives.”

  1. There were economics that could have angered those that had a pew. The church took 5 years from the end of the Civil War until 1870 to recover from the damage.   The ministers had been paid by pew rents and separate donations outside the normal services. In April 1866, the church began a $20 pew tax for the minister’s salary and incidental expenses. There was to be a collection every 3rd Sunday for debt on the rectory.  In 1867, there was a 8% assessment on the original cost of the pews for church expenses

Note that #1 and #2 would affect different groups of people

  1. Murdaugh failed to bind the congregation together when the discords were developing. He had no experience in a “city church”.  He was ahead of some St. Georgians on some of his ideas.

Murdaugh was 49 when he became rector, born in 1823.  He first served in Alabama and then in Virginia at Brandon Parish in 1854.  He was an “active Confederate” and not just a chaplain in the Civil War. In 1868 he served in St. James Church, Herring Creek in Ann Arundel County before being called to St. George’s

He took some controversial stands.  

  • A. In 1872, he wanted to more fully utilize the Laity. He formed a male and female church aid society to identify leadership and to minister “to the spiritual and temporal wants of all who need”. It was called a “Church Aid Society”. We may recognize some of these concepts in our current commission system
  • B. Murdaugh was a proponent of the “social gospel” which looked closely at the ills of society caused in part by the industrial age. Quenzel has written that Murdaugh idea of the social gospel was possibly ahead of St. George’s. Although the Benevolent Society created from a gift of the Peck family had been in existence he obtained a charter from the legislature for it. Again Murdaugh was at the beginning phases of this doctrine. It would become a significant force in the progressive age at the curn of the century
  • Earlier in his ministry in Alabama he was a proponent of using the weekly offering for the minister’s support. We don’t know how this played out at St. George’s

    Murdaugh would probably feel at home in the Episcopal church today in the emphasis of welcoming all and working to help social conditions.  We do pay the minister’s salary out of the collection plate

    In the end Murdaugh however you review his time was divisive. He tended to work the congregation and not the complete vestry.  Quenzel writes about his “ differences in temperament” – he had no experience working with  a city church The historian of Trinity called Murdaugh a “charismatic leader”.  This tends to create groups within groups

    1. The discords may have  to do with the style of worship

    The 1870’s was a traumatic decade with the gradual end of military rule part of reconstruction. 

    In the religious arena the protestant character of the Protestant Episcopal Church was emphasized more than the Episcopal. Until the 1870’s, Bishop Meade kept the Episcopal Church thoroughly in the protestant camp

    However, in 1830’s the Oxford Movement grew up in England over the next 50 years spread to America which emphasize the catholic influenced. It would be a re-emphasis of both Catholic teachings  and rituals.

    The movement emphasized three teachings – Apostolic succession (ministry derived in direct line from the Apostles), Baptismal regeneration (salvation impossible without baptism ), and the Real Presence in the bread and wine  (Jesus is really or substantially present in the Eucharist, not merely symbolically or metaphorically.)

    The second phase was called ritualism and was influential after the Civil War which was the Catholic influence. It emphasize the role of Eucharist over Morning Prayer and those items surrounding it- candles, “smells and bells”   as well as body language by the priests and congregations, such as bowing before the cross.

    Murdaugh was in the ritualistic camp.  The struggle played out in the General  Conventions at the time.

    At St. George’s  we don’t’ have records of discussions of these influences.

    There is a letter quoted in Trinity’s History from Mrs. Murray Forbes in 1877 about the changes in worship:

    “I do not blame Dr. Murdaugh for resigning if he could not control his vestry nor his congregation but not to get in a pet and not to leave the rest of his people because Mr. T[homas] Knox and many others who did not approve of his singing on their knees the “nunc Dimittis” which is in the old Episcopal Prayer Book and not in the American book of Common Prayer”

    The outward sign of “something new” came within changes in the worship space

    The 1870’s witness physical changes in the church. Barbara Willis in her work “Three Churches of St. George’s writes about these

    “At this time, there was a general reaction against Bishop Meade’s and Bishop Whittle’s Calvinistic chancel arrangement. Their influence lasted roughly from 1839 to 1874. The people and the clergy wanted to return to what they considered the proper Anglican set-up with the Holy Table surrounded by a rail and placed against the east wall and the pulpit and font outside of the chancel. This movement back to a more Anglican form included the use of the cross, candles and flowers on the Holy Table and vested choir and clergy. None of these were allowed during Bishop Meade’s or Whittle’s time.”

    “In 1876, St. George’s changed the original Meade influenced chancel area. A partition floor to ceiling was placed across half of the original 22′ x 23′ vestry room and three stained glass windows were placed in the partition. These were the first of fifteen stained glass windows installed in the church. These three windows in the partition were the same size and same relative location as the rear wall windows. The commit­tee apparently wanted to retain the original design of the church. This did make it possible for the stained glass windows later to be placed in the rear wall windows. The original screen with door was placed as a reredos against the partition and its door was used as the entrance way to the reduced Vestry room. The Holy Table was placed against the partition and the pulpit was placed to the right in the orig­inal chancel area.”

    At some point the original high pulpit disappeared the catholic-influenced reredos came to St. George’s.

            5.  The group under Barton overplayed their hand and couldn’t recover

    Years later Rev. Tom  Faulkner had a conversation with the minister at New Site who told him Joseph Walker’s version . Walker was butler to Judge W. A. Barton.  The notes recognize unspecified discords in the congregation.   According to this Barton urged Murdaugh  to resign expecting as in 1872 the Vestry to refuse the resignation . Barton misjudged the Vestry in 1877 and couldn’t recover


    There are usually both people issues and doctrinal issues as well as issues involving “the times” that contribute to splits. All of the above contributed to the split

    The 1870’s was a contentious time. Besides the end to military government in the south , changes were a part of the church. There were enough changes in how church’s operations to upset a set of people plus with the Oxford movement and related ideas coming to the forefront there was bound to be a clash.  Sometimes clashes can work their way within the church and can be resolved internally.

    However,  in 1877 there was a leader who resigned. The reasons weren’t clear or at least we don’t have them.   Those  disaffected at St. George’s could find a leader in Rev. Murdaugh and walk out with him .

    He became the first rector at Trinity.  We can see the dissatisfactions with what they created. Trinity did away with the pew system and  was closer to the ritualistic camp . The historian for Trinity has written “The Trinity Congregation enjoyed taking control of their own worship in a time so many other phases of their life were out of their control in the aftermath of the War Between the States  and the oppression of reconstruction.”  

    Shackelford’s sermon in 1887 said that in 1877 they were looking for “ a house of  worship to be consecrated for their continuous use  in worshipping God, according to the dictates of their own conscience.”


    In 1881, they erected the first Trinity church on the corner of Hanover and Prince Edward with property purchased from J. G. Hurkamp

    Murdaugh served as their first rector until the fall of 1885 and died Nov. 7, 1886. He is buried at City Cemetery.

    This article was researched from Quenzel’s history on St. George’s, St. George’s Vestry minutes of the period, A History of Trinity Episcopal Church 1877-2001 by Pattie Cooke, and articles from the Free Lance 10/25/1887 and 02/14/1890.

    Further research needs to be done on the individuals who split vs. those who stayed. How many of those who left did not have a pew ? What was their age ? Are there economic motives ? A possible look into Trinity’s archives may be helpful