Reverend Adam Empie became William & Mary's twelfth president following the unexpected death of Rev. William Holland Wilmer. Born in 1785 in Schenectady, New York, he attended Union College in his hometown. Prior to his presidency, Empie was a chaplain and professor at the United States Military Academy, and rector at parishes in New York and North Carolina. He served as president of William & Mary from 1827 until his 1836 resignation to become rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond.
Empie became president through the efforts of Bishop of Virginia, Richard Channing Moore, who hoped to replace Rev. Wilmer with another clergyman. The Board of Visitors hoped for a quick replacement, and elected Empie despite knowing very little about the man beyond Bishop Moore's descriptions. The College continued to experience difficulty during Empie's nine year tenure, particularly in retaining faculty members during the first few years. To curb continuing discipline problems, the Board of Visitors passed a new code of behavior. The most pressing issue, however, continued to be low enrollment. After a cholera epidemic, only eighteen students matriculated in 1833, so only a bare quorum of staff and students supported the institution. To raise enrollment and update antiquated practices, the Board of Visitors offered testimonials to students who worked hard, behaved themselves, but did not achieve the degree. Additionally, the Board created from the ancient languages requirement a Classics Department. By the end of the 1830s, despite panics, enrollment rose to the all time high of 140, which would not be exceeded until 1889.
As president, however, Empie never fully adjusted to life in Williamsburg. Records indicate that as head of his large family, Empie struggled to make ends meet, often borrowing small sums from friends, colleagues, and even $800 from the College. His family, moreover, was plagued by illnesses. His Rectorship of Bruton Parish Church was also not fully successful in the eyes of parishioners, for Empie ministered to blacks as well as to whites. His reports to the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Virginia cite his involving blacks in the congregation (see Francis L. Hawks, "A Narrative of Events Connected with the Rise and Progress of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia," in Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States, 2 vols [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836], I): in 1829, he reported that six of the eight marriages he officiated at were of "coloured persons" and that one of nine new communicants was "an African" (p. 235); in 1833, he reported blacks were three of the four he baptized as were five of eight couples he married; two of 63 communicants were black (p. 294); in 1834 two of 63 communicants were again black, four of 11 baptisms were black, as were two of six weddings (p. 306); in 1835, two "coloured persons" were among 61 communicants, 3 of ten baptisms were of blacks, and two of 11 funerals were for blacks (p. 329).
In 1834, a committee Empie chaired to report on the state of the church urged more attention to the religious education of Blacks, "that portion of 'the degraded race of man' with which an inscrutable Providence has been pleased to afflict our country"; "the souls of his [God's] servants as well as of his children are intrusted to his care" (p. 312). Empie was a member of the American Colonization Society (African Repository and Colonial Journal, 12:8 [August 1836], 264; 12:11 [October 1836], 328).
According to Susan Taylor Block (Temple of Our Fathers: St. James Church, 1729-2004 [Wilmington NC: Artspeaks, 2004], p. 56), Empie and the Bruton congregation clashed over his ideas on slavery, but the Virginia State Legislature backed Empie in his dispute when members of the church protested his actions bitterly.
When St. James Church in Richmond offered him the rectorship, he resigned the presidency. President Empie left William & Mary in much the same financial and material straits as before: deficits, unpaid salaries, dwindling landholdings, and deteriorating buildings. In terms of enrollment and quality of faculty, Empie left a better institution. His presidency was followed by a man well known far beyond Virginia, and distinctly more enthusiastic about slavery, Thomas Roderick Dew.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- Adam Empie in SCRC Database
- Adam Empie in SCRC Rare Books Collection
- Journal of Adam Empie, 1829-1831 in SCRC Digital Archive