I have been doing some reading today on religion in colonial Jamestown, the first successful British colony in America. When it comes to the influence of Christianity on colonial settlement, Jamestown is usually interpreted as the anti-New England. If New England was founded on the bedrock of Puritan theology and culture, Jamestown was a place where religion did not play a prominent role in colonization. Thousands of AP US history students and college freshmen have written essays contrasting Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay, an assignment that only feeds the common notion that religion was unimportant in early Virginia.
Yet, as I read some of the early laws from the Jamestown settlement I was struck not by the differences in religious development between Massachusetts Bay and Jamestown, but by their similarities. Both colonies were founded, at least on paper, to spread the Christian gospel to the native Americans. Both colonies had established churches–Anglican in Virginia; Puritan Congregational in Massachusetts. Both colonies understood their colonial experiments in terms of covenant theology. (Although the notion of “covenant” was certainly stronger in New England). If they were obedient to God’s commands, God would bless them. If they were not obedient, God would withhold his blessing. Both colonies tended to interpret natural disasters or Indian invasions as signs of God’s punishment.
Religion and the state were closely wed in both colonies. Both colonies mandated church attendance and punished sins such as adultery, fornication, and slander. Both colonial governments treated dissenters harshly. We are well aware of New England’s track record on this front. Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Baptists, and Quakers were all banished from the colony for their dissenting viewpoints. But the government of Jamestown could be just as harsh. Roman Catholic priests, for example, were not permitted to stay in the colony for more than five days. When Puritans from New England arrived in Virginia in the 1640s the House of Burgesses passed laws forbidding Puritan ministers from settling in the colony and forcing Puritan laypersons to conduct worship with the Book of Common Prayer. When Quakers arrived at the same time, a law was passed requiring them to be arrested without bail and held in prison until they agreed to leave the colony. When we think about religious dissenters in Virginia the eighteenth-century Baptists usually come to mind, but the persecution of dissenters in the colony started much earlier.
Though religion did not permeate the culture of colonial Virginia in the way that it did in New England, neither was Virginia an entirely secular place in the seventeenth century.
NOTE: Let me recommend two excellent sources on the culture and values of colonial Virginia. The first is Edward L. Bond’s Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (Mercer, 2000). Bond’s book has not received the attention it deserves. This is an excellent and well-crafted study of religion in Jamestown and beyond. The first chapter makes a compelling case that religious life in early Virginia was characterized more by government enforced behavior than personal belief. The other source is T.H. Breen’s essay “Looking Our for Number One: Conflicting Cultural Values in Early Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” It is the best thing I have ever read on the individualistic culture of early Jamestown Though it was published in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 1979, I still assign it to my students.