Surveying the smoking ruins of their settlements and the freshly dug graves of family members, the people of South Carolina pleaded with England for protection from the Indians. Staring at the stone walls of debtors' prisons, Englishmen pleaded for a chance at a new start.
It would hardly seem that a corporation charter, bristling with legal terms would have much to do with Christian history. But the charter signed by King George II of England on this day, June 9, 1732, did. It created the colony of Georgia.
Religious reasons for creating the colony did not top the charter. The government's main concern was to get debtors off its hands and show an English presence between the Carolinas and Florida.
But religious considerations were high in the mind of the man who did more than anyone else to promote the Georgia scheme. James Oglethorpe wrote: "In America there are fertile lands sufficient to support all the useless poor in England, and distressed Protestants in Europe; yet thousands starve for want of mere sustenance." [Our quotes are given in modern English.]
"Christianity will be extended by carrying out this design; since, the good discipline established by the society, will reform the manners of those miserable people, who shall be helped by it; and the example of a whole colony, which shall behave in a just, moral, and religious manner, will contribute greatly towards the conversion of the Indians, and remove the prejudices received from the wicked lives of such who have scarce any thing of Christianity but the name." In writing this, Oglethorpe had William Penn's noble experiment, Pennsylvania, in mind.
And so Georgia began as a charitable venture. It is an odd company that forbids management to make a personal profit, but that is exactly how the Georgia corporation was set up. Realizing that poor people had no way to pay their passage, the company paid their fares for them. What is more, it provided them with tools and food until the colony could get on its feet.
Were the goals of the charter met? None of the first settlers was from debtors' prison. Farmers and traders were sent instead. Debtors came later. In its first ten years of existence, the company shipped over 1,800 people to Georgia. More than a third of these were displaced Europeans. Georgia's military objectives were more clearly successful. It's forts helped tame the region and Oglethorpe defeated a Spanish force from Florida double the size of his own.
Unlike some colonies, Georgia did not established a religion. Any Protestant settler could worship as he or she pleased. King George spelled that out in the charter. "...All such persons except Papists [Catholics] shall have a free exercise of their religion so [long as] they be contented with the quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same not giving offense or scandal to the government."
Oglethorpe was concerned with morals as well as religious freedom. He fought hard to make slavery illegal and to keep rum out of the colony. The settlers fought just as hard to allow both. The result was that Oglethorpe was recalled to England and the settlers got their way. In England he fought for his king. He remained interested in America as long as he lived.
- "Charter of Georgia, 1732." The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/ga01.htm.
- "James Edward Oglethorpe." http://www.ourgeorgiahistory.com/people/oglethorpe.html
- Meadows, Denis. Five remarkable Englishmen; a new look at the lives and times of Walter Ralegh, Captain John Smith, John Winthrop, William Penn, James Oglethorpe. New York, Devin-Adair, 1961.
- Northrop, Henry Davenport. New Century History of Our Country and its Island Possessions. Chicago, Ill: American Educatinal League, 1900; source of the portrait.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles on Oglethorpe and Georgia.