Thursday, July 21, 2016

Jamestown - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to History

Restored Remains of the 1639 Jamestown Church of England
Bell Tower.  Photo by Russ McCullough, June 2016

 "Emphasizing the worship of God and moral behavior over any particular religious view minimized conflicts.  Faith became a private matter at Jamestown."
So reads a National Park Service display board at modern day Jamestown in a museum pictured on your left.  One would assume that the colonists were tolerant of all religions, had no particular religious convictions, were synchronistic in their world view and that religion played no major role in our Founding.  
One would be wrong.
Above, you are looking at a picture of structural remains of the very first brick church building built in English speaking America.  It replaced previous temporary church buildings built both inside and out of the original fort.  One can still see the excavated site of the first temporary church building(s) at the site.
Religious conviction did play an important part in the establishment of the Jamestown colony.  Anglicanism was the singular driving force that made it possible.  It was the most important aspect, by far, of life in early Virginia.  To deny such is to deny history.  With this display, the National Park Service is in historical denial.
Faith in early Virginia was neither pragmatic or private.  It was, instead, convicted and very public.  How can we see this through the fog of 409 years?  Of course we can read extant letters, documents and diaries.  We can better understand their priorities by way of how they invested their time, treasure and resources.  In other words, what did they construct?  In the years between 1607 - 1639 time, treasure and resources were in short supply.  The one thing that stands out is the emphasis they placed on their church buildings.  In short is was obsessive and nothing mattered more.  Here's what history and archaeology tell us about the Jamestown colony and their convicted dedication to their church buildings:

  1. Right off the boat, as it were, the colonists in 1607 immediately built a church building.  Capt. John Smith records that it was a rail structure with sails from the three ships (Susan Constant, Godspeed & Discovery) used as a roof.  An altar was constructed of a wooden plank set between the trunks of two trees.  The very first Anglican parish in America was organized this same year, James City Parish.
  2. Also that same year a more permanent church building was constructed inside the triangular shaped fort.  
  3. In 1608 the original permanent church building burned and a replica was erected in it's place.
  4. In 1617 the new deputy governor of the colony, Capt. Samuel Argall, constructed the first permanent church building outside the walls of the original fort.  Jamestown had expanded outside of those walls and a newer and larger structure was needed.  (Capt. Argall, by the way, mandated that it was a crime to neglect worship on Sundays and on holidays.  He was a man that very much supported piety and even a parish [Argall's Gift] was named for him in 1618.)  The original cobble stone foundation of his church building is extant and visible under glass in today's memorial church.  The Memorial Chapel was built in 1907 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the settlement.  Argall's building was of timber construction.  What is not known is whether it was a "frame" structure or of the traditional Jamestown "wattle and daub" design, the latter being a sort of mud-stucco exterior wall design.  Regardless, this is the church building in which the very first representative legislative assembly in America met on 30 July 1619.
  5. As the colony continued to grow, the Church of England organized parishes so that no one would have to ride more than 6 miles to attend Sunday worship.  Many parishes were formed underlying the premise that faith was the singular most important factor of life in early Virginia.(1)  Jamestown, being the capital of Virginia at the time, needed a yet larger and more permanent church building worthy of it's setting.  In 1639 work began on the first all brick church building in Virginia. The work was completed about 1644.  During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 the building suffered major fire damage and had to undergo extensive repairs.  In 1699 the capital was moved 8 miles further inland to Middle Plantation, known later as Williamsburg.   The 1639 church continued to serve James City Parish until 1750 when the building was abandoned for a new structure 3 miles away for by then Jamestown had long ceased being a town.
Not only does the history and the archaeology of Jamestown continually point to it's faith based foundations, the role of convicted faith in the colony begins before they sailed from England! Here's what the London Council advised the colonists before their departure in 1606:
"Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper and achieve good success is to  make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own, and to serve and fear God the Giver of all goodness, for every plantation which our Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out." - Advise of the London Council for Virginia to the Colony, 1606
No fewer than 5 Scripture references are made here in the above statement.  No projects of the Jamestown colony took more time, energy and treasure than did the building and maintenance of the church buildings of the Anglican Faith.  Parishes were formed regardless of perilous circumstances.  Leaders from John Smith to Samuel Argall spent great efforts and energy to protect, defend and promote their faith.  Faith was anything but pragmatic and private as our modern day curators of this sacred place would have us believe.  So deep were their convictions and so passionate was their faith that Anglicanism remained the state religion by law and statute until the end of the War for Independence 169 years later.  

Right, wrong or indifferent, the Jamestown Founders emphasized, taught and mandated the Anglican religion exclusively.  They believed what they believed and lived out their beliefs to the best of their abilities.  Their faith was not manipulated pragmatically to generate a "favorable outcome" from among the people.  Other faiths and other forms of Protestantism were not tolerated.  According to the laws of the colony those who possessed Roman Catholic beads and trinkets were considered spies of Spain!  No, faith was not a "private matter" at was very public indeed.  Were these settlers flawed?  Yes they were.  Are we flawed?  Yes we are.  Do we share the same flaws?  No we don't.  Were they better people than us?  No they were not.  Are we better people than they?  No we are not.  They were and we are flawed and fallen.

Historians and curators must never judge the past by the standards of the present.   


(1) James City Parish, James City County - 1607; Kecoughtan Parish, Elizabeth City County - 1610; Charles City Parish, Charles City County - 1613; West and Shirley Parish, Charles City County - 1613; Smith's 100 Parish, Charles City County - 1617;  Argall's Gift Parish, James City County - 1618; Weyanoke Parish, Charles City County - 1618 were the earliest parishes established.  Eight more would be established by 1635.  Parishes continued to be established even during war, starvation and pestilence.  Source:  "Parishes of Virginia."

All pictures taken by Russ McCullough in June, 2016 


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