Saturday, August 12, 2023

Morris Reading Houses

See updated research here

"I was born Feb 15th, 1711, and born-again Octo 1741" - Nathan Cole, Middletown, Connecticut

The Great Awakening was a religious movement that swept through the thirteen American colonies in the mid-1700s that taught a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. George Whitefield, a Methodist missionary, and a circuit rider who visited all thirteen colonies, was one of the best-known religious leaders to many during this period. He drew large crowds and influenced great change in Colonial religious life. When Whitefield preached in Middletown, Connecticut, Nathan Cole, a carpenter, and farmer, was so greatly impacted by Whitefield's sermon that he wrote of his experience in his diary, that has fortunately survived history and has been transcribed.

"I really saw the gate of heaven by an Eye of faith, and the way for Sinners to Get to heaven by Jesus Christ; I saw what free Grace was; I saw it was nothing but accepting of Christ’s Righteousness and the match was made; I was saved by Christ" Nathan Cole (excerpt from The Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole)

I am continuing my research on the YDNA matches in Morris Group M29 at Family Tree DNA in hopes of finding where my third great grandfather, John Jacky Morris, fits in. So far, I have found no mention of John Jacky Morris in any of the documents I have read. I have, however, been able to put together the genealogy of everyone else in the group and it has been such an honor to learn and write about the lives of these Morris families.

Previous research blogs on the Morris family in FTDNA Group M29

John Jacky Morris 1780 - 1874

William Harvey Morris 1777-1853

John Matthew Morris 1845 - 1913

Blount Morris 1811 - 1878

John Morris Sr 1745 - 1815

In this blog post, I will cover Samuel Morris born 1710, probably in New Kent County, Virginia and died 1801 in Campbell County, Virginia. I contacted the owner of this YDNA kit back in 2019 and received the following information for their ancestor, Samuel Morris.

“regarding Samuel Morris, he and his wife Mary Lewis Oliver settled and had their children in Hanover, Virginia, then moved to Lynchburg, Virginia in the 1760's or so. I accessed these materials at the Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg and the archives in Richmond. Samuel's first-born son was named John, however he settled in Campbell Co, VA. I have hit a wall on getting further records on Samuel or Mary due to Parish fire. It's only because Samuel was famous for his reading room and his role in the Great Awakening that I found what I did. His will was written in 1800 in Campbell County VA”

Samuel Morris has a fascinating story that tells of a way of life that most Americans cannot relate to; the religious struggle in Colonial America that started even before the Great Awaking and ended with Article 1 of the Bill of Rights. From Jamestown to the American Revolution, there was but one officially recognized religion in the colonies, the Anglican Church of England. The churches and the clergy were supported by taxes, paid by the citizens. Those who did not conform, were arrested, taken to court, and mostly harassed or fined. Samuel Morris did not conform. He was one of many religious dissenters who sought a more satisfying religious life for himself and his fellowman. 

Google image

Samuel lived in Hanover County, Virginia, created in 1719 from the area of New Kent County called St. Peter's Parish. In the records, New Kent County and Hanover County Road Orders 1706-1743 Transcribed from the Vestry Book of St. Paul’s Parish by Ann Brush Miller is found the area where Samuel Morris lived.

In Obedience to the within Order we the subscribers has seen the Lines of all the land peaceably processioned, from the Road crossing Chickahominy at the three Runs Bridge, down said Swamp, to Beaver dam Swamp, which includes the lands of Samuel Morris...

Jefferson map

In the 1740s, Samuel began inviting his neighbors and friends to his home to read the Bible and other religious literature. Soon, Samuel, and others, were called to Williamsburg to defend their actions in court. Samuel and the other dissenters declared themselves Presbyterians and they were granted permission to worship under the Act of Toleration. As the groups grew too large for his home to accommodate, Samuel, and his fellow dissenters, built reading houses where people could meet in their own neighborhoods to pray and read the Bible together.

By 1743, four dissenter reading houses were licensed by the Governor's Council in Williamsburg. Three were in Hanover County and one was in Henrico. All were named Morris Reading Houses. The reading house that was built on Samuel Morris' land was named for a previous land grant recipient, George Polegreen.

Polegreen exists today as a National Landmark and is located on land once owned by Samuel Morris. The site can be visited at 6411 Heatherwood Drive Mechanicsville, Virginia 23116. The Mission Statement at the website states: “Historic Polegreen Church Foundation’s mission is to interpret, preserve, and commemorate the struggle for civil and religious freedom in Colonial Virginia initiated by the Rev. Samuel Davies and the Hanover Dissenters. To what end: By accomplishing this mission, we preserve the memory of Hanover Dissenters who struggled courageously and successfully for civil and religious freedom in Virginia and in so doing increase appreciation for the liberties that we enjoy today in the United States.”

Polegreen National Landmark

Archibald Alexander (1772–1851) was an American Presbyterian theologian and professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He served for 9 years as the President of Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia and for 39 years as Princeton Theological Seminary's first professor from 1812 to 1851.

In the biography of Archibald Alexander, originally published in 1854 and written by his son James Alexander using firsthand experiences, the diary of his father, Archibald Alexander, and correspondences of Alexander, is found on pages 48-51, covering years 1789-1790, that Samuel Morris "had removed from Hanover, and was now residing in the lower end of Campbell County. It was he who was instrumental in the revival of gospel truth, by the reading of evangelical books in the Reading-House of Hanover County, long before the arrival of any Presbyterian missionary." 

The Life of Archibald Alexander

It is here, in Campbell County, Virginia, that I pick up the remainder of Samuel Morris’s incredible story. Campbell County, Virginia was formed in 1782 from the eastern portion of Bedford County. I found Samuel Morris listed on the Virginia early Census Index for 1779, Bedford County.

Samuel Morris purchased land in Bedford County, VA from John Hardeman. This deed shows that Samuel Morris migrated from Hanover County, VA to Bedford County, VA in (or about) 1768 and remained in the same place when Campbell County, VA was created from Bedford County, VA in 1782. 

In 1796, Samuel, nearing 90 years of age, deeds to his son, John, a tract of land in Campbell County, Virginia on both sides of Dutchman's Creek and on both sides of Little Falling River containing six hundred and sixty acres. Witnesses were Robert Armistead, Woodson Jordan, and Matthew Jordan.

Family Search Campbell County, VA

On 15 Sep 1797, Samuel Morris of Campbell County, Virginia emancipates a slave named Hannah that he “has in his possession” and declares that, after his death, she, her increase, and her property that she may acquire, are free. Samuel’s desire is that Hannah will enjoy her freedom peaceably and quietly. Witnessed by Robert Armistead, Harrison Ratliff, and Francis Armistead.

The deed of Emancipation was proved in open court on 12 Feb 1798 by the oaths of Robert Armistead, and Francis Armistead and ordered recorded. 

Family Search Campbell County, VA

On 18 Dec 1800, Samuel Morris of Campbell County, Virginia executes two deeds. One to Robert Armistead of Campbell County for two hundred pounds, three slaves, named Tom, Sarah, and Esther, a cart and steers, a feather bed and furniture. Witnesses were Frank Armistead and Betsey Armistead.

The second deed to Francis Armistead for the sum of one hundred pounds a slave boy named Harvey. Witness Robert Armistead.

On 23 Jan 1800 Samuel executes another deed for the love and affection that he has for his son in law Robert Armistead and for five pounds, a slave named Fanny and her offspring.

Family Search Campbell County, VA

On 15 Dec 1800 in Campbell County, Virginia, Samuel Morris writes his will. He must have known the end was near. He was around 90 years of age and what a life he had lived! He asks that all his household and kitchen furniture be sold, his stock, except a cow that gives milk, unto Hannah (the slave he freed) and three barrels of corn. He appoints his beloved son, John Morris, and Robert Armistead his executors. Witnesses Benjamin Turner and Richard Farthing.

At a Court held for Campbell County on 12 Jan 1801, the last will and testament of Samuel Morris Deceased was proved by the oath of Benjamin Turner and John Morris.

A month later, on 1 Feb 1801 Mary Morris of the state of North Carolina and the county of ‘Warrington’ (note: Warrenton is the county seat of Warren County, North Carolina) freely and voluntarily sold unto John Morris her right, title, claim to both the real and personal estate of Samuel Morris deceased late of Campbell County, Virginia for value received. Witness Dennis Kelley, John Reid, and Jesse Hughes.

This deed may pull together the Morris family of Granville | Bute | Warren | Franklin counties, North Carolina, and the Morris family in Hanover | Charlotte | Campbell counties, Virginia.

Note: more to come on the Charlotte County, Virginia connection. I am still researching a couple named Joshua Morris and his wife, Sabra Hicks (Hix) in that county. There is a connection to the Morris’s in Campbell County.

Family Search

Mary ‘Polly’ Ward Best Morris is the widow of both Kedar Best and an unidentified Morris male who obviously was the son of Samuel Morris and brother of John Morris in Campbell County, Virginia. Mary is the daughter of Benjamin Ward and Martha Lyles.

Kedar Best died about 1775 in Bute (now Warren) County, North Carolina. His will names his son, David Rice, and his brother John Best as executors of that part of the will only respecting son David Rice. This indicates that David may have been a son by a first marriage. He names his wife, Mary, and his other brother Richard as executors of the other part of his will. Mary, wife, shall raise and maintain and educate his children John Ward, Martha, and Mary. He asked that his son be taught the art of carpenter and joiner. Witnesses were Joseph Ward (brother of Mary), Henry Ward, and Nathaniel Henderson.

Benjamin Ward, Mary’s father, died in 1788 in Warren County, North Carolina. He names his daughter as Mary Morris and his grandchildren, John Best and Kedar Best, to receive land on the north and south sides of Sandy Creek. Kedar Best Sr did not name a son Kedar Jr in his will, so it is likely that Mary was pregnant with him when her husband, Kedar Sr, died. However, father, Benjamin Ward does name Kedar Best Jr in his will, so we know he is a son of Kedar Sr and Mary. Benjamin does not name any Morris children in his will.

Mary wrote her will in 1832. She named her deceased daughter Mary (Best) McRorie, sons Kedar Best, Edward Morris, and daughter Martha Best, Nancy (Morris) Dowtin, and Elizabeth (Morris) Bennett.

Edward Morris and Kedar Best Jr married sisters, Mary and Elizabeth Waddy, the daughters of Spence Waddy who died in 1826, Franklin County, North Carolina. Nancy married Samuel Dowtin whose father, John had served in the Revolutionary War.  

Edward Morris died 1858 Franklin County, North Carolina.

Other notes on Samuel Morris:

From Sketches of Virginia: historical and biographical by Foote, William Henry, 1794-1869

“Mr. Samuel Morris, in his statement made to Rev. Samuel Davies, says-" In the year 1740 Mr. Whitefield had preached at Williamsburg, at the invitation of Mr. Blair, our Commissary. But we being sixty miles distant from Williamsburg, he left the colony before we had an opportunity of hearing him. But, in the year 1743, a young gentleman from Scotland had got a book of his sermons preached in Glasgow, taken from his'mouth, in short hand, which after I had read with great benefit, I invited my neighbours to come and hear it; and the plainness and fervency of these discourses being attended with the power of the Lord, many were convinced of their undone situation, and constrained to seek deliverance with the greatest solicitude. A considerable number met to hear these sermons every Sabbath, and frequently on week days. The concern of some was so passionate and violent, that they could not avoid crying out, weeping bitterly, &c. And that, when such indications of religious concern were so strange and ridiculous that they could not be occasioned by example or sympathy, and the affectation of them would be so unprofitable an instance of hypocrisy, that none could be tempted to it." 

Providence Presbyterian Church website has a perfect description of the incredible story of the “Meeting Houses” and some lovely photos too.

Providence Presbyterian Church, a unique historic site within the Presbytery of the James, has also been one of its best-kept secrets. Very few know that this building has the distinction of being the oldest Presbyterian Church in continual use in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is also the only remaining example of the seven “Meeting Houses” built by dissenters of Hanover and Louisa when the Church of England was the established church. In the early 1740’s, Samuel Morris invited a group of people to read the Bible and worship in his home. As this group grew, he began to build “Meeting Houses” for Bible study. Upon being called to Williamsburg to defend his actions before Governor Gooch, Morris and other dissenters declared themselves “Presbyterians.” Governor Gooch granted them permission to worship in this denomination under the “Act of Toleration.”  

At the website The Polegreen Story is told the tragic tale of “The Last Days of Polegreen” and how it was destroyed during the Civil War. 


  1. Pleased to learn about the reading houses.

  2. It is always a good thing to be able to update research. I recently found proof that Samuel Morris had moved to Bedford County, Virginia prior to Nov 1766.

    Colonial Williamsburg

    Samuel Morris account with Purdie and Dixon(1766–1771)

    MS 2011.16
    1 item

    Statement of account of Samuel Morris with Purdie and Dixon. The statement includes charges for advertising houses and lots, a subscription to the Virginia Gazette from August 29, 1766 to December 31, 1767 and the binding of “Davis’s Sermons.” The sermons are probably those of Samuel Davies. The statement was sworn to one of the Justices of the Peace for James City County by John Dixon, June 10, 1771. The verso is docketed “Mr. Saml. Morris, Hanover Bedford.”