Brice Stump: 300-year-old church history uncovered

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The Rev. Michael Lokey never knew a long-lost church treasure was hidden in a box just a few feet from his office at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near Marion Station. Inside were three one of a kind church record books of Coventry Parish with previously unknown information going back 300 years. Birth records were found dated to 1702.

“It was something we accidentally stumbled on,” said Martin Atkins, church business manager.

“This carpet is the reason we found the box,” Lokey said, pointing to the grayish-blue carpet installed last summer.

“The carpet fellow looked inside the closet under the stairs and said, ‘Do you also want carpet all the way in there?’ and we said, ‘Whatever carpet you got with you, lay it,’ ” Atkins said.

After a desk was removed, the worker made a discovery.

“He pulled the box out and pushed it here across the floor,” Lokey said.

The key, still in the lock, moved easily to release the metal lid.

Inside, three thick leather bound books, with more information about generations of Coventry Parish residents than historians knew existed. There were records of birth and death dates, marriages and proceedings against sinners and those who failed to follow the law.

It was pure genealogical gold.

“Apparently they were kept in this safe deposit box in the Bank Of Marion  until it closed decades ago and Rev. Percy Reese, the priest here at the time, was told to come and get them,” Lokey explained as he pointed to the 1930s-era metal deposit box on a shelf.

“I think he brought the box here to the church and shoved it under the stairway in the closet and shoved them all the way to the back for safekeeping. Then a desk was put in front of the box.”

Even in 1968, members of the church reported that the earliest records of Coventry Parish were lost. Church members apparently did not know of the records placed in the deposit box perhaps 50 years earlier.

Coventry Parish, in Somerset County, once included St. John’s Episcopal Church in Crisfield, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church near Pocomoke City, and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fairmount. Only St. Paul’s retains an active congregation of about 65 members. Lokey has been serving the congregation since 2005.

Initially, Lokey contacted Ray Thompson, director of the Nabb Research Center at Salisbury University. “The university wanted to take ownership of the records, but we couldn’t do that because they belong to the Episcopal Diocese in Easton,” Lokey said. The diocese archivist suggested Lokey have the documents reviewed by the Maryland State Archives staff to see if they could be transcribed or digitized.

“Archivist Maria Day came in September 2015, took the books to Annapolis and had them digitized. They were returned just a few days ago,” Lokey said.

For Thompson, the discovery of the records is “fantastic.”

“This is a wonderful collection, the information not only goes back 300 years but the details about families and the social and economic welfare of the period is simply fantastic,” Thompson said. “I think these records might be the oldest known on the Eastern Shore and certainly among the most complete. The information within their pages can be found nowhere else. I’m just astounded about the information they contain on early families. A remarkable find for historians and researchers.”

There are hundreds of entries of family names long associated with the earliest families of the settling of the lower Eastern Shore, Broughtons, Bozmans, Beauchamps, Coulboune and Coston, Lawson, Riggin, Fleming, King and Gunby.

The deaths are recorded matter of factly, for example, “Ephraim Stevens Departed this life on Monday the 23rd of October 1786 at half after Four in the morning.” Out of the hundreds of deaths noted, precious few remains were marked with tombstones.

“I have to admit, some of the entries are amusing by today’s standards,” Lokey said,  “such as who was living with who, who was being called before the vestry for punitive action. At the time the vestry was the law in the county (which then included present day Wicomico and Worcester counties). Coventry Parish was the law of the land.”

In October 1772, it was “Ordered by the vestry that summons be ‘eshurd’ out against Spencer Harris and Grace Boston for unlawful cohabitation together.” Like dozens of others, the two were required to appear before a hearing at the church.

Lokey said the books were probably kept at Rehoboth Town Church or Coventry Parish Church. Only the brick walls of the legendary church — said to have seated 1,000 worshipers — remains in Rehobeth.

The records indicate that thee were once damaged by water. Lokey theorizes that the books may have been in the Rehobeth church when it burned and were partially drenched when water was thrown on the fire.

It may have been that the records were saved during fires at the homes of those serving as registers.

“Vestry meeting at Annamessex Chapple July 22, 1784.” It contains numerous entries regarding the history of the church and routine business by the vestry, including a payment of two pounds sterling “To Capt. Henry Schoolfield for keeping Rehobeth Town Church … and some repairs to the church and putting of a lock to the Door.”

Historian now know the identity of at least one man who wrote some of the church records. Purnell Outten was paid “one pound five shilling it being for the keeping of the Register one year.”

Outten was notified to appear before the vestry in August of 1779 “and also have the register and other books belonging to this Parish that is in his house.”

There is the discovery of the particulars outlying the plans of the vestry to “Build a Church at Rehoboth on the land belonging to the Vestry of Coventry …” in 1785-86.

According to the specifications, it was to be “A brick house 72 feet long and 46 feet wide from inside to inside, with a wall of 20 feet in height …” and the door frames and “Cills to be of good mulberry or Cedar …. or the hart of good pine…”

The records also mentions work done by slaves as well as the building of a gallery where slaves may have been seated.

Vestry minutes of 1786 note that Elijah Broughton was hired to make “31 window frames” and “with Robert Lankford to make bricks, he being furnished with sufficient hands to attend him.”

The vestry found a novel way to raise money for the expenses of construction. “In respect to ways and means for raising money for to finish the church (it was) agreed unanimously that the sale of the pews is the Best and most Equal mode to raise the said money …”

The information contained in the records about the pews will help determine to number of worshipers able to gather within the church for services.

To benefit St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the vestry is selling a compact disc containing every page in the three books. It is available for $15, through Lokey, by emailing him at mplokey@dmv.com.

Contact Brice Stump at myshorehistory@gmail.com.

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