Thomas Jefferson and the Office of Vestryman
President, scholar, architect, historian, farmer, author, statesman, governor, founding father...the list seems almost endless. To call Thomas Jefferson a "Renaissance Man" seems a bit understated. He certainly has one of the longest resume’s in the august group of men known as the “Founding Fathers”.
But, when talking about Jefferson's many occupations and offices, there is one that seems to be passed over quickly and without a lot of fanfare: Vestryman. It sounds pretty regal and definitely of a church or religious nature. Yet, it's not that regal at all but it certainly deserves more ink than it's given in many biographies.
I do touch on it briefly in my own book, Thomas Jefferson From Boy to Man. On pages 174-175, I quote from an 1802 letter by Jefferson where he regrets having to resign the office at the Middle Church so he can be more involved with his family businesses, the local politics and to design and build Monticello.
So then, what exactly is a "vestryman"? First, let's talk about the "vestry". A "vestry" is a room directly attached to the church worship area. Typically, in Colonial times, church committees would meet there to discuss business, property and other church business. Vestrys also were used for clergy and choir members to hang their robes and to store sacred items used in the worship service such as collection plates. Many vestrys were also storage places for official marriage records.
Second, "vestry" could also mean a body of lay members who are elected by the congregation or parish to negotiate, arrange and maintain the secular activities and business of the church. Some vestrys met annually others met on a monthly basis.
Jefferson service as a dedicated vestryman, should come as no surprise. Henry Stevens Randall in his book, "The Life of Thomas Jefferson", stated that Jefferson regularly "attended church...sometimes going alone on horseback, when his family remained at home. He carried his prayer-book, and joined in the responses and prayers of the congregation. He was baptized into the Episcopal Church in his infancy; he was married by one of its clergymen; his wife lived and died a member of it; his children were baptized into it, and when married were married according to it rites; its burial services were read over those of them who preceded him to the grave, over his wife, and finally himself."
His church service, while not considered as romantic as his many other accomplishments, certainly deserves more scholarship and credit. Perhaps, one day it will.
If you would like to learn more about Thomas Jefferson, please read my latest book, Thomas Jefferson From Boy to Man, (Tate Publishing, 2013). You can order the book from my website, www.jaynedalessandrocox.com and it’s also available at www.tatepublishing.com, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major book retailers.