by Susan Taylor Block
The Rev. Adam Empie, D. D., (1785-1860) was born in Schenectady, N.Y., on September 5, 1785. His father, John Empie, was the grandson of Johannes Empgie, who emigrated from Worms, Germany, during the reign of Queen Ann. Johannes Anglicized his surname soon after his arrival in America. The family of Adam Empie’s mother, Anna Quackenboss, came from Holland. Empie described his parents as “poor,” but strictly and devoutly pious.
Though well acquainted during childhood with Dutch Reform and Presbyterian Church beliefs, Adam warmed to the Protestant Episcopal Church while still a very young man. He worked his way through Union College, located conveniently in his hometown, and would graduate, with honors, in 1807. While at Union, he made warm friendships with famous professors Eliphalet Nott and Benjamin Allen, who both were drawn to his quick mind and unusual powers of interpretation. They encouraged him to enter the priesthood.
Following graduation, Empie lived in Rhinebeck and Hempstead, New York, while preparing for his career. During his post-graduate studies he became close to many high ranking church members such as The Rt. Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore and John Henry Hobart, rector of Trinity Church on Wall Street and a future bishop of New York. Empie was ordained Deacon in 1809, and then admitted into the priesthood. His ordination service was conducted by Bishop Moore, whose fame would one day be eclipsed by that of his son; Clement Clark Moore, a seminary professor who authored, “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”
Even as Empie’s connections, knowledge and scholarly reputation grew, so did “the thorn in his flesh.” Described as rheumatism, it hit him at a young age and periodically pierced his body with pain. Stoically, he bore the hurt from sometime during adolescence until his death at age 75.
Young Adam Empie’s first assignment was a good one: assistant rector at St. George’s, founded 1702, in Hempstead Long Island — the same church served many years later by the present rector of St. James Church in Wilmington, Ronald G. Abrams. Things went well for Empie at St. George’s, but his pain level increased along with his popularity. He came to believe that moving to a warmer place might bring relief. The timing was fortunate for Wilmington: Members of St. James Parish had begun advertising need of a new rector – and claims of Wilmington’s health giving qualities were part of the bait.
The parish offered $1200 a year; bonuses if the candidate was willing to teach at Wilmington’s Inness Academy, and a summer residence near the water. Most likely, the summer cottage belonged to Judge Joshua Grainger Wright who owned a 300-acre waterfront estate, Mount Lebanon, on breezy Wrightsville Sound. In those days, $1200 was generous pay for a rector. Members, as well as regular visitors like Jewish merchant Aaron Lazarus, sweetened the pot during a campaign to bring a true intellectual into the pulpit at St. James.
Word of job availability may have come through Wall Street’s Trinity Church. Empie’s bond was his sustained friendship with John Henry Hobart. Ties from St. James Parish to New York came mainly through the interrelated Winslow, Wright, and Wilkings families, some of who considered Trinity their second church. They made frequent business trips to New York and had other relatives who resided there. Judge Wright’s eldest son, Thomas, married Ann Winslow, the daughter of revered Anglican rector, Edward Winslow. A few members of all three families made their way early to Fayetteville where, in 1817, they became part of church life at St. John’s Parish.
Wilmingtonian William Wilkings, wrote from New York recommending Adam Empie for the job. “He is a young man of a liberal education and whose manners and moral character will no doubt give general satisfaction.” After months of discussion and at least one trip to Wilmington, Adam Empie began his new job in November of 1811. Comparing a good rector to the candlestick of a church, the new rector ended his inaugural sermon with the words, “(God) has again sent you a guide, an instructor, a comforter, a friend. In the person of his ambassador, He again invites you to his house and to his table, and promises all you can desire, on earth and in Heaven. Oh! That we may all have a realizing sense of the goodness of God!”
Though Empie’s sermons read well on paper, it is obvious that “in person” there was a power in their source and delivery that transcends words. He persuaded casual observers to be baptized: inspired men to become laypersons and ministers; and successfully encouraged so many people to lead lives of quiet devotion that some citizens blamed Empie for turning the town into a boring place. Handsome in his youth, Empie also attracted larger numbers females to services and led them to do charitable work for the city’s poor. Despite being an outspoken abolitionist in a white Southern church, the congregation for the most part delighted in his mental calisthenics and boasted of their bookish young rector.
Despite a grueling work schedule, Empie still had a social life, and if he was looking for a bride, he didn’t have to look far. Indeed, he married the girl next door. On March 24, 1814, when he was 28 years old, Adam Empie wed 15-year-old Ann Eliza Wright. The wedding took place at her family home, the Burgwin-Wright House, just across the street from the church. She was a daughter of Judge Wright and his wife, Susan Bradley Wright, who was raised in a devout Quaker home and who became a strong force for good at St. James Church. Adam and Ann Eliza had spent two summers as neighbors, too, living in close proximity on the Sound.
The announcement of their marriage must have made for interesting news considering the occupation, strident sermons, and courtly manners of the groom, and the tender age of Miss Wright, a genuine Southern belle. The bride’s dowry included several slaves. Empie freed them, but was so good to them that they refused to leave him.
Ann Eliza Empie’s relatives included brother, Dr. Thomas Henry Wright, a dedicated layman who built Mount Lebanon Chapel and co-chaired the building committee for the present St. James Church edifice; and niece, Caroline, who was the mother of Bishop Robert Strange.
Shortly after their wedding, the Empies moved to New York when the groom accepted a new job as first chaplain of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. Colonel Joseph Gardner Swift, who also married a St. James “girl”, Louisa Walker, was largely responsible for Empie’s appointment. Colonel Swift, soon to be General Swift, was one of the two first graduates of West Point. In addition to naming Empie chaplain, he named him treasurer and “professor of ethics.”
The Empies lost their first child, then had another while in New York. They lived with the Swifts in Brooklyn and both families worshipped together at St. Ann’s Church. Though Empie’s commission at West Point lasted until April 1817, he negotiated an early move back to Wilmington where his wife could be reunited with her large flock of relatives. During Empie’s absence, the Rev. Bethel Judd, D. D., of Connecticut served St. James Parish well, then moved to Fayetteville to shepherd St. John’s Church.
The Rev. Mr. Judd was a 1797 graduate of Yale University, and, like Empie, was “strictly evangelical in sentiment.” Dr. Judd spent only the eight cooler months each year in Wilmington. He too came South hoping warmth and sunshine would alleviate his ills, and it did. He soon learned, though, that summer could much too sunny in Wilmington, and so he spent the hotter months at his family home in Norwalk, CT, where he led services at St. Paul’s Parish.
Soon Empie was busy again with many responsibilities including St. James’s generous welfare program. Empie opened his arms to help people of all religions including a Roman Catholic priest, strangers of all sorts and races, the “shoeless,” the hungry, lonely sailors, the elderly who needed someone to chop wood for them, and the dead. During the whole span of Empie’s years as rector, burials in St. James Graveyard were allowed for many strangers, including at least one black, and a few “Romanists.”
Empie excelled at administration, and studied the organization of the Anglican Church in New York State. He pushed for the creation of a diocese, conducted his own census of N. C. Episcopalians, attempted to recruit other erudite ministers for eastern North Carolina, and fought to abolish the practice of creating vestries by public election. He also made changes within the old St. James church building that greatly improved its appearance and functionality. Former Gov. Benjamin Smith, owner of Orton Plantation, made his generous gift of communion silver to the church at this time too, perhaps at Empie’s suggestion.
In an effort to locate traces of old Anglican congregations in North Carolina, Dr. Empie logged many extra hours corresponding and traveling – usually on horseback. He also requested that his friends “up north” send missionaries to the province. “If a sufficient number could be found it is greatly to be wished that the Church could be organized and accede to the ecclesiastical Union that obtains in the other Sections of the U. States,” he said.
On April 24, 1817, Adam Empie realized his diocesan dream. With the assistance of the Rev. Mr. Bethel Judd and the Rev. Dr. Jehu Curtis Clay, he formed the Diocese of North Carolina. Dr. Clay, rector of Christ Church in New Bern, also would serve as rector of Gloria Dei Church in Philadelphia, and authored a book entitled, Annals of the Swedes on the Delaware from their first settlement in 1636. The trio of Empie, Judd, and Clay was a dynamic one in which spiritual zeal, intellect, and superior educations reigned. It is no wonder they could found a Diocese.
During the next ten years, Empie’s second term as rector of St. James, church membership grew so rapidly that side galleries had to be added to accommodate the crowds. Adam Empie created associations to educate the poor and to provide them with Bibles and other books. He added Sunday School and Bible classes to the church calendar and more music to the services. To benefit the entire town, he organized a drive to erect a parochial library.
Wilmington was a sort of happy little nest for Empie and his family, but in 1827, opportunity again trumped comfort. The Empies moved to Williamsburg where he served as rector of Bruton Parish, president of The College of William and Mary, and “professor of belles lettres, logic and ethics.” He was credited with many improvements at the college, but perhaps a friendship that developed there had more ramifications. Adam Empie had long decried the lack of quality technical education in America. His William and Mary protégé, a chemistry professor named William Barton Rogers, left Virginia at Empie’s bidding, to lead a fund raising campaign in Boston for the creation of a technical school. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the result.
While at Bruton Parish, Adam Empie’s ideas on slavery met with great resistance. Some of his parishioners protested bitterly when he invited slaves to be a part of the worship service and turned to the government for help in curbing Empie’s actions. Doggedly, Rev. Empie appealed to the Virginia State Legislature and his actions were upheld. However, his views greatly strained relations.
In 1836, Adam Empie moved to Raleigh where he taught for two years at Episcopal High School. That job ended when he discovered that the school, in his words, “was a speculation upon borrowed capital, and verging to its ruin.” After Empie’s departure, wealthy businessman Duncan Cameron purchased the struggling institution. It still survives: St. Mary’s School.
Dr. Empie’s last parish was in Richmond where he organized St. James Church, named after his beloved post in Wilmington. He created a “Classical School for young men ten years of age or older” that met in the church building. Though his students were usually privileged, Empie never lost sight of the disenfranchised. He encouraged the creation of slave galleries in the existing white churches in Richmond. He also founded a slave mission, on Broad Street, and taught Bible lessons there. His work during this period was rewarded years later when he was named “A Maker of Richmond,” in the 1940s. Today, Richmond’s St. James Church boasts over 2,000 members, and Adam Empie’s favorite Bible verse still graces the entrance and altar: “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.”
Adam Empie served in Richmond from 1837 until 1853. While there, he lost his wife, whom he sometimes identified simply as “the daughter of Judge Joshua G. Wright.” The widower came home to Wilmington in 1853 because of his health and to “seek repose in the society of his children.” His last years were so painful with “rheumatism” that his family reported that nothing but the power of religion could have sustained him. He spent most of his time in prayer and meditation. At the very end, he lost his ability to speak but could still write in a feeble hand. His last words, written shortly before his death on November 6, 1860, were “To die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
Though Dr. Empie left a large family who still keep the name alive; admirers also named their children Empie. Dr. Empie’s son, Adam. and wife, Virginia Gwathmey, named their first child, Swift Empie, after the warm friendship the rector and the general enjoyed for many years. Today the name, Empie, is most closely associated with a city park, land for which was donated by Dr. Empie’s grandson, Theodore Gwathmey Empie and his wife, Evelyn. Empie Park is a memorial to their only child, Virginia, who died young.
Schaffer Library, Union College; Special Collections, U.N.C.-W; Perkins Library, Duke University; Lower Cape Fear Historical Society; Southern and N.C. Collections, U.N.C.; Trinity College Library; New Hanover County Public Library; N. C. State Archives; Special Collections, U. S. Military Academy; Adam Empie Papers, Manuscripts and Rare Books Department, Swem Library, College of William and Mary; Bruton Parish, St. James Church (Richmond); The Valentine Museum, Richmond History Center; The South Caroliniana Library, U. S. C.; and Columbia University.
Catherine W. Bishir: North Carolina Architecture; E. C. Hicks: Hicks, Ward, Wright, Yonge and 7812 Descendants; James Sprunt: Chronicles of the Lower Cape Fear; Joseph Gardner Swift: The Memoirs of Joseph Gardner Swift; Leora Hiatt McEachern, assisted by Bill Reaves: History of St. James Church, 1729-1979 Wilmington, 1985; Lawrence London and Sarah McCulloh Lemmon: The Episcopal Church in N. C. (1701-1959), Robert Brent Drane: Sketch of St. James’s Parish, Wilmington, NC; and Ellen Davies-Rodgers: The Great Book: Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church, Memphis.
Photograph courtesy of the Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William and Mary.