Christianity in Jamestown

Ken Curtis, Ph.D.

Christianity in Jamestown

In the century following Columbus' famous voyage, Spain had built up an empire in America. Vast amounts of gold were found, and Spain became the wealthiest nation of its day. England wanted some of that wealth; establishing colonies in America seemed the way to get it. Yet, many also saw important Christian reasons for establishing colonies in the newly found lands across the sea.

Mixed motives
Twice Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to sponsor the establishment of a colony in American land he had named Virginia in honor of England's virgin queen. Twice his colonizing venture failed. When Queen Elizabeth died, her successor, King James I (who later sponsored the translation known as the King James Bible), furthered England's colonial dreams by granting a charter for colonial settlement to a group of businessmen who had organized themselves into the Virginia Company. Numerous economic, political, and patriotic reasons for establishing the colony were given in the charter, but also stated as important was the goal of propagating the Christian religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of true knowledge and worship of God. A Christian witness to the native Americans was one of the reasons for establishing Jamestown, England's first permanent American colony.

Hard scrabble beginnings
Among the first settlers to begin the Jamestown settlement in 1607 was the Reverend Robert Hunt. As the first colonists landed on Virginia soil, one of their first acts was to join Rev. Hunt in a communion service, yet the lives of these earliest colonists lacked a strong Christian commitment. Their squabbling, pride, arrogance, and greediness almost wrecked the settlement. The earliest colonists had no room for God in their personal lives and certainly had no concern for evangelizing the Indians. Disease, famine, and later, Indians, began to take their toll. In the earliest years of the settlement, nine out of every ten colonists died. As more colonists arrived from England, the problems multiplied, and the death count mounted.

Divine mandate?
Yet there were those in England who persisted in thinking God had a purpose and plan for the English on those Virginia shores. In 1609 William Symonds preached a sermon to the Virginia Company in England comparing Virginia to the biblical land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey. As Caleb and Joshua encouraged Israel to go and possess the land of Canaan, so Symonds encouraged his English countrymen to go and take possession of the colony in Virginia, a fruitful land also full of "plenty of Fish and Fowl."

Providential provision averts defeat
In 1609, a third supply of settlers set out for Jamestown on the Sea Venture. The ship was caught in a hurricane and shipwrecked off the coast of Bermuda, yet all the passengers made it safely to shore (William Shakespeare used the accounts of the storm and shipwreck as the basis for his play, The Tempest ). The people were able to reconstruct two ships from the wreck, which they christened Patience and Deliverance, and in 1610 they finally reached Jamestown. The Jamestown they reached, however, was more like the ruins of a fort than anything people lived in. There seemed nothing to do but reboard the ships and try to sail to England along with whatever colonists still remained. Just as they were preparing to leave, however, Lord de La Warr arrived from England with a fresh supply of colonists and generous provisions.

Among the passengers of the Sea Venture who had survived hurricane and shipwreck to land in a despairing colony was John Rolfe. Unlike the earliest settlers, Rolfe was a hardworking man whose Christian faith was very important to him. Calvin's Institutes was one of the works he had carefully studied. He believed there was a Christian purpose for Jamestown, and he sought to "advance the Honor of God, and to propagate his Gospel." He believed there was "no small hope by piety, clemency, courtesy and civil demeanor to convert and bring to the knowledge and true worship of Jesus Christ 1000s of poor wretched and misbelieving people: on whose faces a good Christian cannot look, without sorrow, pity and commiseration; seeing they bear the Image of our heavenly Creator, and we and they come from one and the same mold. . ."

Mixed marriage snubbed
One native who particularly touched Rolfe's heart was Pocahontas, daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan. Rolfe loved the young woman but was unsure whether marriage with her would be in God's will. He wrestled with himself -- wondering if marrying a heathen woman wouldn't be like the Israelites of old marrying the Canaanites, something the Lord had definitely forbidden. He finally thought that as a laborer in the Lord's vineyard, he should plant the seed of the gospel so she could become a Christian. With her conversion, Pocahontas took the Christian name of Rebecca, and she became John Rolfe's wife. Their marriage brought a temporary peace between the English colonists and the Indians. Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe later went to England where the queen received the Indian princess -- King James, however, refused to see the Rolfes. He was angered that Rolfe would marry a person of royal position without asking his permission!

Hardships, sufferings, difficulties, and disappointments continued in the Virginia settlements throughout the early years. Alexander Whitaker, minister at Henrico, Virginia in 1612 reminded the settlers that the problems were indicative of the great spiritual struggle in the new land.

The Lord to the rescue?
De La Warr's arrival just at that moment seemed providential to the bedraggled colonists. God had come to their aid, and the colony would be preserved. One of the first things the new colonial governor Lord de La Warr did was organize a worship service as a biblical call for sacrifice and industry.

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