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Bishop James Madison

A Biographical Sketch of Bishop James Madison

by Emma L. Powers

Bishop James Madison (27 August 1749-6 March 1812), president of the College of William and Mary and the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia.

Born near Staunton, Bishop Madison was the son of John and Agatha (nYe Strother) Madison and a cousin of United States President James Madison. In his youth Madison was educated at home and at a private school in Maryland and later entered the College of William and Mary, from which he graduated in 1771 with high honors. Afterwards Madison read law with George Wythe and was admitted to the bar but did not practice law.

In 1773 when he was only twenty-four years old Madison became professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College. Two years later he went to England for further study and ordination to the ministry of the Church of England. In 1777 Madison was back at his professorship at William and Mary and was elected president despite the fact that he was two years younger than the thirty years stipulated by the institution’s rules. Madison remained president of the college for thirty-five years, that is, until his death in 1812. Like many other clergy men in the colonies, Madison was clearly a Patriot. He served as chaplain of the House of Delegates in 1777 and organized a militia company composed of students. After the Revolution, Madison played a prominent role in the reorganization of the Episcopal Church in Virginia and in the formation of the Diocese of Virginia. He was president of the first convention of the church in 1785. On 19 September 1790 in Lambeth Chapel, Canterbury, England, Madison was consecrated bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of London and Rochester. He was the third of the three bishops through whom the episcopate of the Church of England was brough to the United States. 1

In some circles, Madison was reputed to be a freethinker. His slightly younger contemporary, Bishop William Meade, though this estimation inaccurate. Bishop Meade wrote:

It has been asserted that Bishop Madison became an unbeliever in the latter part of his life, and I have often been asked if it was not so. I am confident that the imputation is unjust. His political principles… may have subjected him to such suspicion. His secular studies, and occupations as President of the College and Professor of Natural Philosophy, may have led him to philosophize too much on the subject of religion, and of this I thought I saw some evidence in the course of my examination; but that he, either secretly, or to his most intimate friends, renounced the Christian faith, I do not believe, but am confident of the contrary.2

As the first Bishop of Virginia, Madison faced tremendous difficulties: the colony’s established church had never been allowed to have a resident leader or to legislate for its own affairs. At the end of the Revolution, the church consisted of a group of disestablished parishes with no training in government, no certain funding, and constant threats to its control of glebe lands and endowments. Despite Bishop James Madison’s valiant attempts to solve the church’s problems under new conditions, the results were a gradual weakening, nearly to the point of extinction. At the 1811 General Convention of the Church, there was neither representation nor report from Virginia, but the following appeared in the journal: “the Church in Virginia is from various causes so depressed, that there is danger of her total ruin, unless great exertions, favoured by the blessing of Providence, are employed to raise her.”3

Endnotes

1Dictionary of American Biography. The other two were Bishop White of Pennsylvania and Bishop Provoost of New York.

2Bishop William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1966; originally published Philadelphia, 1857), I:29.

3Ibid., I:18. (Incidentally, the full text of Bishop Madison’s prayer at the Jamestown Centennial appears in the second volume of Meade’s book, 99. 422-425.)