When You’re Teaching Edmund Morgan’s *American Slavery, American Freedom* and a Student Brings Some Tobacco Leaves to Class…

Tobacco was life in seventeenth-century Virginia.  It defined everything about Chesapeake society–race, class, gender, labor patterns, family life, marriage, religion, economy, and politics.  So far I am having a great time teaching Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (I hope my Colonial America students are enjoying it as well).

Today one of my more inspired students showed-up with some tobacco leaves.  He got them from an Amish tobacco grower here in south-central Pennsylvania.

Morgan Tobacco

William & Mary Will Honor Black Americans Enslaved by the School

William and Mary

William & Mary is the latest college to face-up to its legacy of slavery.  Here is a taste of Joe Heim’s article at The Washington Post:

The College of William & Mary is seeking ideas for a memorial to black Americans who were enslaved by the school or whose work as slaves enriched it.

The public university in Williamsburg, Va., 150 miles south of Washington, announced an open competition for memorial concepts as part of the school’s ongoing effort to address its historical reliance on slavery.

“This memorial is such an important project for our community,” President Katherine A. Rowe said in a statement. “African-Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African-Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it.”

Founded in 1693, William & Mary is the country’s second-oldest university — only Harvard is older — and for more than half of its existence, it relied on slave labor and participated in the buying and selling of enslaved people, according to university documents.

The memorial project continues work that began in 2007 when a student assembly resolution called on the university to research its history of slavery and make the information public, said Jody L. Allen, an assistant professor of history at the university and director of the Lemon Project, which explores William & Mary’s role as a slaveholder and, later, a supporter of Jim Crow laws.

Read the rest here.

The “First Africans Tour” at Historic Jamestowne

jamestown

2019 is the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in the Jamestown colony.  The Historic Jamestowne historical site is commemorating the arrival of these Africans and the legacy of slavery in the settlement with its “First Africans” tour.  Learn more in this Associated Press article.

A taste:

On a recent afternoon, tour guide Justin Bates pointed to the spot where historic Jamestown’s legislature first convened in July 1619. He then gestured toward a spot nearby where some of the first slaves in English North America arrived a few weeks later.

“Freedom over there,” Bates told visitors near the banks of Virginia’s James River. “Slavery over here.”

Jamestown has long been associated with the legend of Pocahontas and more recently as a place where a harsh winter turned some colonists into cannibals. But the historic site is now offering a regular tour that encourages visitors to consider the beginnings of American slavery.

The “First Africans” tour is the first of its kind at Historic Jamestowne, a heritage site at the location of the 1607 James Fort. But it’s part of a much larger reckoning over slavery, an institution that took root in England’s first permanent colony 12 years after its founding.

In January, President Donald Trump signed into a law the “400 Years of African-American History Commission Act.” It requires a commission to develop programs that acknowledge the Africans arrival in 1619 and slavery’s impact.

Meanwhile, Virginia has launched its 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution. It recognizes the first English-style legislature in North America in Jamestown and other historical milestones from four centuries ago, including the Africans’ arrival.

In 1619, the Africans came on two ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, that had recently raided what’s believed to have been a Spanish slave vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay to what is now Hampton, Virginia, the ships traded more than 30 Africans for food and supplies.

Read the rest here.

Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

The First Leg of the *Believe Me* Book Tour Ends in Winchester, Virginia

Winchester 1

Thanks to the Winchester Book Gallery for hosting our Winchester, Virginia stop on the Believe Me book tour.  We had a small, but very engaged group last night that included a college president, a local pastor, and one of my former students!

Winchester 2

Awaiting the crowd to arrive!

In case you missed us in Harrisburg, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Columbus, Louisville, Charleston, Lynchburg, Raleigh, and Winchester, we have more dates coming-up and are going to be announcing some new ones soon.  Read about the previous stops on the tour here.

July 28, 2018
Chop Suey Books. Richmond, VA.  7:00pm
Book Talk: Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

July 28, 2018
Chop Suey Books. Richmond, VA.  7:00pm
Book Talk: Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

August 10, 2018
Hearts & Minds Bookstore, Dallastown, PA. 7:00pm
Book Talk: Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

September 24, 2018
University of Chicago Seminary Co-Op Bookstore. Chicago, IL, 6pm
Book Talk: Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

September 25, 2018
Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN 6:30pm
Lecture: “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”

October 2, 2018
Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids, MI, 11:30am
Lecture on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

October 2, 2018
Taylor University, Upland, IN, 7:30pm
Lecture on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

October 3, 2018
Hope College, Holland, MI, 7:00pm
Lecture on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

October 11, 2018
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
Public lecture on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

October 17-18, 2018
John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas
Public lecture on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

November 13-15, 2018
Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO
Session on Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

March 21, 2018
Ward Lecture, Greensboro College, Greensboro, NC
The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”

Trump and the Court Evangelicals Love Corey Stewart

I am just getting up to speed with this whole Corey Stewart story.  Here is Chris Cuomo’s CNN interview with Corey Stewart:

Here is Trump:

I can’t believe this guy won the GOP primary in Virginia.   Get up to speed here:

How Corey Stewart Could Endanger Other Virginia Republicans

How Corey Stewart is dividing Republicans already

Virginia Republicans Are Rallying Behund a True Bigot: Corey Stewart

Esquire calls him “an unapologetic public racist, and damned proud of it, who goes out of his way to associate with other unapologetic public racists, who are damned proud of it, too.”

And for readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Stewart has the support of a prominent court evangelical.

This is from December 2017:

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Junior is endorsing Corey Stewart for U.S. Senate, that announcement today from the Stewart campaign. Both Falwell and Stewart were early Donald Trump supporters. Stewart is seeking the Republican nomination to face Democratic Senator Tim Kaine next November, and he is campaigning heavily on his support for President Trump’s agenda.

From the Corey Stewart fort Senate campaign: Republican Senatorial candidate Corey Stewart announced today he received the endorsement of Dr. Jerry Falwell, Jr.

“Corey Stewart is a fighter who will be a staunch defender of our rights and liberties in Washington.  I’m proud to announce my endorsement of Corey Stewart for U.S. Senate in Virginia,” Dr. Falwell said. “Corey is a proven vote-getter who will win back Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat for conservatives. President Trump needs a fighter like Corey in the U.S. Senate to help clean up the swamp in Washington,” Falwell asserted.

“It is vital that we turn the tide in Virginia so that President Trump’s agenda can succeed. With that in mind, I urge Virginians to back Corey Stewart for U.S. Senate,” he concluded.

Stewart responded to Falwell’s endorsement saying the following:

“Jerry Falwell has spent his life making our state and nation a better place through strong education centered first on faith, and he was instrumental in electing Donald Trump president, ” Stewart said, “Virginia’s awakening is happening, and Dr. Falwell’s endorsement is proof positive conservative Republicans will take back Virginia,” Stewart said.

Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump

Bacon's

We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

The Great Dismal Swamp and Fugitive Slaves

Washington_ditch_trail_great_dismal_swamp_nwr

Check out writer Richard Grant’s piece on the Great Dismal Swamp:

Here is a taste from Smithsonian.com:

The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.

Read the entire piece here.

Charlottesville Tweets

This morning I return to blogging after about a week of rest.  While I was gone, of course, a lot of things happened.  Though I wasn’t writing here, I was commenting on recent events in Charlottesville via my Twitter feed. Here are some of my tweets with additional commentary.

There are still serious questions here about history and how we remember it, but this past weekend was not the time to have these debates.  Remember, monuments often say more about the time they were erected than the historical event they commemorate.  If the defense of the Confederacy and the white supremacy that came with it is driving the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville, then the Lee monument should come down:

The next couple of tweets represent a small attempt to provide some historical context:

I was off the grid on Friday night and did not know what had happened with the white supremacist march at the University of Virginia.  I think this was my first tweet on Saturday morning when I finally realized what was going on in Charlottesville:

My tweets during Trump’s response:

“Bringing people together” on what terms?  What are the moral principles that define the community Trump wants to create here?  Remember, Lincoln condemned slavery, discussed our collective sins, and then talked about a new birth of freedom and a way forward.  Communities–even national communities–have clear boundaries.  Trump did not draw them on Saturday.  His call for “bringing people together” is meaningless:

Trump does not read.  He does not understand American history or the role of race within it:

I try to teach my students how to read historically.  Granted, we can never get inside Trump’s mind to know what he really meant when he spoke on Saturday.  So we must interpret what he said in context.  The context of Trump’s campaign and presidency (so far) must be considered if we want to come close to understanding Trump’s mind.  This is how future historians and students of history will approach these remarks when they read them as primary sources.  Context, of course, does not give us a definitive answer to what Trump was thinking, but it should be our starting point in trying to make sense of what he said:

I think this one does not need any further elaboration:

I think it’s fair to say that if Trump comes out tomorrow and gets specific, most Americans will think it is too late.  The window may have closed:

So far, none of the court evangelicals have condemned Trump for failing to condemn white supremacy:

Brinkley gets it right:

Robert Jeffress eventually did tweet that racism is sin.  I hope he called Trump to rebuke him.  That is what Christian leaders with “unprecedented access” do in times like this:

Yes–historians will get the last word:

Very proud of my pastor Sunday morning:

More Charlottesville civil rights history:

These guys lost their friends fighting the Nazis:

On the Mission of Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial_Williamsburg_(2463494327)

The Editorial Board of The Virginian-Pilot has something to say about this:

A taste:

If that core mission is some variation on being a “tourist attraction,” an entity that helps support the local Williamsburg economy, that touts “a preserved Colonial neighborhood with musket echoes, horse carriage rides and actors playing the roles of early settlers,” as recounted in The Pilot last week, then it probably will slowly die.

And should. This was never the idea.

It only became the idea, in part, when so many people began showing up in the post-World War II era. That’s when much of the commercial growth occurred in areas surrounding Williamsburg. That’s when the collective mentality began to shift toward making money.

 

Now that the crowds have thinned and appear unlikely to return in grand numbers, this may be an opportunity to restore the purposes of the restoration, which was, in the words of John D. Rockefeller, Colonial Williamsburg’s great benefactor, so that “the future may learn from the past.”

What does that mean?

It means a style and approach to public and civic education unique to Colonial Williamsburg, that involves — first and foremost — seriousness of intent and technique.

It means providing a safe haven for scholars and professionals, ensuring that the passing whims of the foundation’s leadership do not come at the expense of the people who have given their careers to the study of early American Colonial life, meaning the ones who do the research, the writing and the instruction that effectively sets the foundation apart from some half-baked tourist draw.

It means less fixation on the needs of the local Williamsburg economy and vastly more on the civic needs of America and the extension of democratic ideals throughout the world.

It means that nothing — virtually nothing — occurs within the historic area of Williamsburg that has the effect of trivializing or diminishing the values that long distinguished the foundation’s work.

It means making Colonial Williamsburg “important” once again, by drawing to its historic venues authors and public figures who reflect the same civic excellence and commitment of those who first inhabited Williamsburg, brought it international fame and locked it into history.

Does that mean engaging and illuminating the American Revolution as both an historic and political event? You bet.

Read the rest here.  Sounds good to me.

What is Going on at Colonial Williamsburg?

Colonial_Williamsburg_(2463494327)

Don’t forget the hatchet-throwing site, Jim!

Colonial Williamsburg appears to be in trouble.  The mecca of American history tourism is laying off workers and outsourcing its operations.  Last year it lost $148,000 a day.

Here is a taste of the AP report that American Historical Association Director Jim Grossman references in the tweet above.

The foundation that operates the eastern Virginia attraction is in final negotiations with four companies that will manage its golf operations, retail stores, much of its maintenance and facilities operations and its commercial real estate, President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said.

“For a variety of reasons – business decisions made in years past, less American history being taught in schools, changing times and tastes that cause us to attract half the visitors we did 30 years ago – the Foundation loses significant amounts of money every year,” he wrote in a letter shared publicly.

The foundation’s operating losses last year totaled $54 million, or $148,000 per day. It also borrowed heavily to improve its hospitality facilities and visitors center and ended 2016 with more than $300 million in debt, Reiss said.

Combined, those factors put pressure on the foundation’s endowment, with withdrawals reaching as high as 12 percent per year. At that rate, the approximately $684 million endowment could be exhausted in just eight years or perhaps sooner.

Reiss said in an interview that the foundation’s financial straits meant its mission of historic preservation “was at risk, quite frankly.”

Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum, with costumed interpreters who re-enact 18th century life amid more than 600 restored or reconstructed original buildings.

Read the entire piece here.  We asked this same question back in October.

I am not expecting a search for Philip Vickers Fithian anytime soon.

 

A Virginia United Methodist Church Restores a Slave Cabin and Opens it to the Public

slavecabinA

It may be the oldest building in Manassas, Virginia.  Grace United Methodist Church has restored it and opened it to the public.

Here is a taste of a Washington Post story on this restored slave cabin:

Grace United Methodist in Manassas combined two historical matters in one event June 11.

One was the unveiling of a city historical marker for the church, which has ministered to Manassas-area residents for 150 years. That was a cause for celebration, the Rev. Rudy Tucker said.

The other, the public opening of a restored slave cabin on the church property, was more solemn. But while refurbishing the building meant researching one of the most gruesome times in American history, Grace United Methodist and local historic preservation volunteers considered it an important task.

“With nooses showing up on public school grounds, college campuses, and even national museums, and Klan rallies occurring with alarming frequency, we are reminded as we stand before this 19th-century building which once housed slaves that racism remains an issue we are still dealing with in this country,” Tucker said in remarks prepared for the June 11 ceremony, attended by a crowd of at least 150.

Grace United Methodist took over ownership of the slave cabin in 1987. The Johnson family, which owned and operated the last farm in Manassas, donated eight acres of land on Wellington Road to the congregation so it could build a new church building. But the family stipulated that a cemetery on the tract be preserved, along with the 1½-story structure that housed slaves who worked on the property, known as Clover Hill Farm.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

Virginia’s House Resolution 297 and the “Christian Heritage” of the Commonwealth

christian-american-photoA lot of Christian nation stuff has been coming across my screen in the last few days.  I have some time today to address it, so stay tuned.

First, we have the Virginia General Assembly’s House Resolution 297.  Here it is:

WHEREAS, on April 26, 1607, a chartered expedition, subsidized by the Virginia Company to establish colonies on the coast of North America, disembarked upon the banks of Cape Henry, now Virginia Beach; and 

WHEREAS, the Reverend Robert Hunt, the expedition’s official cleric, and the members of the expedition erected a wooden cross in symbolic reference to the Christian faith, invoked a public prayer of dedication, and pledged that the Gospel message would be spread throughout the region and, from that region, abroad; and

WHEREAS, the ensuing Jamestown settlement was the site of the first public communion ceremony in Virginia, in the tradition of the Lord’s Supper of the New Testament; and

WHEREAS, the Jamestown settlement was the first permanent English colony in North America and included a recognized church wherein Christian worship, teachings, and baptisms were conducted in accordance with the Gospel message, as exemplified by the baptism of Pocahontas, a member of the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans in the region; and

WHEREAS, the Judeo-Christian principles, as established in the Law of Moses and set forth from the earliest days of recorded history, of equality, human dignity, and equal protection under the law have provided an incalculable influence on law and thought throughout history, and in particular to our shared English common law tradition and Western civilization; and

WHEREAS, these same principles of equality, human dignity, and equal protection rooted in Mosaic law influenced America’s foremost Civil Rights leaders, including the esteemed Virginia Civil Rights attorney and leader Oliver White Hill, Sr., whose own paternal grandfather founded Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Richmond, which the Hill family attended and where Oliver Hill attended Sunday School; he worked diligently, influenced by his Christian faith, to end racial discrimination and helped end the doctrine of separate but equal; and

WHEREAS, according to the Pew Research Center, millions of Virginians, representing various denominations, identify as Christians, carrying on the faith traditions brought to North America by its first settlers; and

WHEREAS, thousands of churches in the Commonwealth continue to provide spiritual leadership and education; care for the poor, indigent, and homeless as commanded by the Gospel message; and conduct generous outreach in their communities; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, That the enormous influence of Christian heritage and faith throughout the Commonwealth’s 400-year history be recognized; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates transmit copies of this resolution to Rodney Walker and First-Landing Festivals, requesting that they further disseminate copies of this resolution to their respective constituents so that they may be apprised of the sense of the Virginia House of Delegates in this matter.

As Brooke Newman points out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the real problem with this Resolution is not that its sponsors got their facts wrong.  (Although some do appear to be wrong).  It is how the facts are interpreted and explained.  This is an important point. Christian nationalists like David Barton and others often have their facts straight. Most of us can read from historical documents and quote them.  But this is not history.  History requires that we put those facts in context and avoid manipulating them for the purpose of making political points in the present.  As I have said a hundred times, both the left and the right are guilty here.  I have written a short primer on how think historically titled Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  It is a quick read.  Some of you may find it helpful.

The authors of this resolution are not interested in providing a full picture of the Jamestown experience.  They are politicians.  And although the resolution does not make any direct demands in terms of public policy, the very fact that these Virginia politicians feel the need to pass such a resolution implies that they are trying to lay a foundation for their view that America was somehow founded as a Christian nation and should somehow return to being one.

Anyone who has studied colonial Virginia and Jamestown cannot deny that religion played a role in its founding.  But to suggest, as this resolution does, that religious motivations were more important than economic self-interest is not fair to the historical record. (I just spent the last week with my U.S. History Survey students discussing these very points).

In addition to Newman’s op-ed, I would encourage you to read my fuller take on these matters in chapter 5 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. The chapter titled “Were the British-American Colonies Christian Societies.”

History is Relevant

ibaconn001p1

Bacon

As I was preparing for class today I was hit once again with the relevance of the past.

Today in my U.S. History to 1865 survey course I will be lecturing on Bacon’s Rebellion.  In a timely e-mail, my friend Ben Wetzel of Notre Dame reminded me just what Bacon’s Rebellion was all about.  I have been teaching the rebellion for years, but Ben’s e-mail infused my preparation with even more relevance than usual.

Bacon’s Rebellion is the story of a rich, landed white guy named Nathaniel Bacon who gathered a group of disgruntled, poor, white frontier settlers to rebel against Virginia’s colonial government. His rebels burned the Virginia colonial capitol of Jamestown on September 19, 1676.  Bacon’s troops did not appreciate the fact that the colonial government was not protecting them against Indian raids on the Virginia frontier.  They opposed what they believed to be unfair taxes. They were sick and tired of living under a colonial government controlled by a few elites.  (There were a lot of swamps in colonial Virginia, but I am not sure if Bacon wanted to “drain” them).   I should also add that their hatred of Indians was heavily motivated by race.

Later in the day, in my Pennsylvania History course, I will be teaching about William Penn and religious freedom.  Pennsylvania was the second British-American colony (behind Rhode Island) to offer religious freedom to its inhabitants.  Eighteenth-century religious freedom often had its limits, but in Penn’s era it was a radical concept.

I don’t preach politics in my history classes, although I will bring up the subject if something a politician says or does provides an illustration of good or bad historical thinking.  Tomorrow I probably won’t mention Donald Trump, the 21st-century white working class, our present-day race problems, or the vetting of Muslim refugees. But one cannot ignore the fact that history can offer perspective on contemporary events.

It’s always a great time to study history!