The Puritan Beginnings of the Church in virginia ---Its Decline Almost to Extinction.
THERE is sufficient evidence that the three little vessels which on the 13th of May, 1607, were moored to the trees on the bank of the James River brought to the soil of America the germ of a Christian church. We may feel constrained to accept only at a large discount the pious official professions of King James I., and critically to scrutinize many of the statements of that brilliant and fascinating adventurer, Captain John Smith, whether concerning his friends or concerning his enemies or concerning himself. But the beauty and dignity of the Christian character shine unmistakable in the life of the chaplain to the expedition, the Rev. Robert Hunt, and all the more radiantly for the dark and discouraging surroundings in which his ministry was to be exercised.

For the company which Captain Smith and that famous mariner, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, had by many months of labor and "many a forgotten pound" of expense succeeded in recruiting for the enterprise was made up of most unhopeful material for the founding of a Christian colony. Those were the years of ignoble peace with which the reign of James began; and the glittering hopes of gold might well attract some of the brave men who had served by sea or land in the wars of Elizabeth. But the last thirty years had furnished no instance of success, and many of disastrous and sometimes tragical failure, in like attempts -- the enterprises of Humphrey Gilbert, of Raleigh, of John White, of Gosnold himself, and of Popham and Gorges. Even brave men might hesitate to volunteer for the forlorn hope of another experiment at colonizing.

The little squadron had hardly set sail when the unfitness of the emigrants for their work began to discover itself. Lying weather-bound within sight of home, "some few, little better than atheists, of the greatest rank among them," were busying themselves with scandalous imputations upon the chaplain, then lying dangerously ill in his berth. All through the four months' passage by way of the Canaries and the West India Islands discontents and dissensions prevailed. Wingfield, who had been named president of the colony, had Smith in irons, and at the island of Nevis had the gallows set up for his execution on a charge of conspiracy, when milder counsels prevailed, and he was brought to Virginia, where he was tried and acquitted and his adversary mulcted in damages.

Arrived at the place of settlement, the colonists set about the work of building their houses, but found that their total number of one hundred and five was made up in the proportion of four carpenters to forty-eight "gentlemen." Not inadequately provisioned for their work, they came repeatedly almost to perishing through their sheer incapacity and unthrift, and their needless quarrels with one another and with the Indians. In five months one half of, the company were dead. In January, 1608, eight months from the landing, when the second expedition arrived with reinforcements and supplies, only thirty-eight were surviving out of the one hundred and five, and of these the strongest were conspiring to seize the pinnace and desert the settlement.

The newcomers were no better than the first. They were chiefly "gentlemen" again, and goldsmiths, whose duty was to discover and refine the quantities of gold that the stockholders in the enterprise were resolved should be found in Virginia, whether it was there or not. The ship took back on her return trip a full cargo of worthless dirt.

Reinforcements continued to arrive every few months, the quality of which it might be unfair to judge simply from the disgusted complaints of Captain Smith. He begs the Company to send but thirty honest laborers and artisans, "rather than a thousand such as we have," and reports the next ship-load as "fitter to breed a riot than to found a colony." The wretched settlement became an object of derision to the wits of London, and of sympathetic interest to serious minds. The Company, reorganized under a new charter, was strengthened by the accession of some of the foremost men in England, including four bishops, the Earl of Southampton, and Sir Francis Bacon. Appeals were made to the Christian public in behalf of an enterprise so full of promise of the furtherance of the gospel. A fleet of nine ships was fitted out, carrying more than five hundred emigrants, with ample supplies. Captain Smith, representing what there was of civil authority in the colony, had a brief struggle with their turbulence, and recognized them as of the same sort with the former companies, for the most part "poor gentlemen, tradesmen, serving-men, libertines, and such like, ten times more fit to spoil a commonwealth than either begin one or help to maintain one." When only part of this expedition had arrived, Captain Smith departed for England, disabled by an accidental wound, leaving a settlement of nearly five hundred men, abundantly provisioned. "It was not the will of God that the new state should be formed of these materials." [23] In six months the number of the colonists was reduced to sixty, and when relief arrived it was reckoned that in ten days' longer delay they would have perished to the last man. With one accord the wretched remnant of the colony, together with the latest corners, deserted, without a tear of regret, the scene of their misery. But their retreating vessels were met and turned back from the mouth of the river by the approaching ships of Lord de la Warr with emigrants and supplies. Such were the first three unhappy and unhonored years of the first Christian colony on the soil of the United States.

One almost shrinks from being assured that this worthless crew, through all these years of suicidal crime and folly, had been assiduous in religious duties. First under an awning made of an old sail, seated upon logs, with a rail nailed to two trees for a pulpit, afterward in a poor shanty of a church, "that could neither well defend wind nor rain," they "had daily common prayer morning and evening, every Sunday two sermons, and every three months the holy communion, till their minister died"; and after that "prayers daily, with an homily on Sundays, two or three years, till more preachers came." The sturdy and terrible resolution of Captain Smith, who in his marches through the wilderness was wont to begin the day with prayer and psalm, and was not unequal to the duty, when it was laid on him, of giving Christian exhortation as well as righteous punishment, and the gentle Christian influence of the Rev. Robert Hunt, were the salt that saved the colony from utterly perishing of its vices. It was not many months before the frail body of the chaplain sank under the hardships of pioneer life; he is commemorated by his comrade, the captain, as "an honest, religious, and courageous divine, during whose life our factions were oft qualified, our wants and greatest extremities so comforted that they seemed easy in comparison of what we endured after his memorable death." When, in 1609, in a nobler spirit than that of mere commercial enterprise, the reorganized Company, under the new charter, was preparing the great reinforcement of five hundred to go out under Lord de la Warr as governor of the colony, counsel was taken with Abbot, the Puritan Bishop of London, himself a member of the Virginia Company, and Richard Buck was selected as a worthy successor to Robert Hunt in the office of chaplain. Such he proved himself. Sailing in advance of the governor, in the ship with Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers, and wrecked with them off the Bermudas, he did not forget his duty in the "plenty, peace, and ease" of that paradise. The ship's bell was rescued from the wreck to ring for morning and evening prayer, and for the two sermons every Sunday. There were births and funerals and a marriage in the shipwrecked company, and at length, when their makeshift vessel was ready, they embarked for their desired haven, there to find only the starving threescore survivors of the colony. They gathered together, a pitiable remnant, in the church, where Master Buck "made a zealous and sorrowful prayer"; and at once, without losing a day, they embarked for a last departure from Virginia, but were met at the mouth of the river by the tardy ships of Lord de la Warr. The next morning, Sunday, June 10, 1610, Lord de la Warr landed at the fort, where Gates had drawn up his forlorn platoon of starving men to receive him. The governor fell on his knees in prayer, then led the way to the church, and, after service and a sermon from the chaplain, made an address, assuming command of the colony.

Armed, under the new charter, with adequate authority, the new governor was not slow in putting on the state of a viceroy. Among his first cares was to provide for the external dignity of worship. The church, a building sixty feet by twenty-four, built long enough before to be now in need of repairs, was put into good condition, and a brave sight it was on Sundays to see the Governor, with the Privy Council and the Lieutenant-General and the Admiral and the Vice-Admiral and the Master of the Horse, together with the body-guard of fifty halberdiers in fair red cloaks, commanded by Captain Edward Brewster, assembled for worship, the governor seated in the choir in a green velvet chair, with a velvet cushion on a table before him. Few things could have been better adapted to convince the peculiar public of Jamestown that divine worship was indeed a serious matter. There was something more than the parade of government manifested by his lordship in the few months of his reign; but the inauguration of strong and effective control over the lazy, disorderly, and seditious crowd to be dealt with at Jamestown was reserved for his successor, Sir Thomas Dale, who arrived in May, 1611, in company with the Rev. Alexander Whitaker, the "apostle of Virginia."

It will not be possible for any to understand the relations of this colony to the state of parties in England without distinctly recognizing that the Puritans were not a party against the Church of England, but a party in the Church of England. The Puritan party was the party of reform, and was strong in a deep fervor of religious conviction widely diffused among people and clergy, and extending to the highest places of the nobility and the episcopate. The anti-Puritan party was the conservative or reactionary party, strong in the vis inertiae, and in the king's pig-headed prejudices and his monstrous conceit of theological ability and supremacy in the church; strong also in a considerable adhesion and zealous coöeration from among his nominees, the bishops. The religious division was also a political one, the Puritans being known as the party of the people, their antagonists as the court party. The struggle of the Puritans (as distinguished from the inconsiderable number of the Separatists) was for the maintenance of their rights within the church; the effort of their adversaries, with the aid of the king's prerogative, was to drive or harry them out of the church. It is not to be understood that the two parties were as yet organized as such and distinctly bounded; but the two tendencies were plainly recognized, and the sympathies of leading men in church or state were no secret.

The Virginia Company was a Puritan corporation. [24] As such, its meetings and debates were the object of popular interest and of the royal jealousy. Among its corporators were the brothers Sandys, sons of the Puritan Archbishop of York, one of whom held the manor of Scrooby. Others of the corporation were William Brewster, of Scrooby, and his son Edward. In the fleet of Sir Thomas Gates, May, 1609, were noted Puritans, one of whom, Stephen Hopkins, "who had much knowledge in the Scriptures and could reason well therein," was clerk to that "painful preacher," but not strict conformist, Master Richard Buck. The intimate and sometimes official relations of the Virginia Company not only with leading representatives of the Puritan party, but with the Pilgrims of Leyden, whom they would gladly have received into their own colony, are matter of history and of record. It admits of proof that there was a steady purpose in the Company, so far as it was not thwarted by the king and the bishops of the court party, to hold their unruly and ill-assorted colony under Puritan influences both of church and government. [25] The fact throws light on the remoter as well as the nearer history of Virginia. Especially it throws light on the memorable administration of Sir Thomas Dale, which followed hard upon the departure Of Lord de la Warr and his body-guard in red cloaks.

The Company had picked their man with care -- "a man of good conscience and knowledge in divinity," and a soldier and disciplinarian proved in the wars of the Low Countries -- a very prototype of the great Cromwell. He understood what manner of task he had undertaken, and executed it without flinching. As a matter of course -- it was the way in that colony -- there was a conspiracy against his authority. There was no second conspiracy under him. Punishment was inflicted on the ringleaders so swift, so terrible, as to paralyze all future sedition. He put in force, in the name of the Company, a code of "Laws, Divine, Moral, and Martial," to which no parallel can be found in the severest legislation of New England. An invaluable service to the colony was the abolition of that demoralizing socialism that had been enforced on the colonists, by which all their labor was to be devoted to the common stock. He gave out land in severalty, and the laborer enjoyed the. fruits of his own industry and thrift, or suffered the consequences of his laziness. The culture of tobacco gave the colony a currency and a staple of export.

With Dale was associated as chaplain Alexander Whitaker, son of the author of the Calvinistic Lambeth Articles, and brother of a Separatist preacher of London. What was his position in relation to church parties is shown by his letter to his cousin, the "arch-Puritan," William Gouge, written after three years' residence in Virginia, urging that nonconformist clergymen should come over to Virginia, where no question would be raised on the subject of subscription or the surplice. What manner of man and minister he was is proved by a noble record of faithful work. He found a true workfellow in Dale. When this statesmanlike and soldierly governor founded his new city of Henrico up the river, and laid out across the stream the suburb of Hope-in-Faith, defended by Fort Charity and Fort Patience, he built there in sight from his official residence the parsonage of the "apostle of Virginia." The course of Whitaker's ministry is described by himself in a letter to a friend: "Every Sabbath day we preach in the forenoon and catechise in the afternoon. Every Saturday, at night, I exercise in Sir Thomas Dale's house." But he and his fellow-clergymen did not labor without aid, even in word and doctrine. When Mr. John Rolfe was perplexed with questions of duty touching his love for Pocahontas, it was to the old soldier, Dale, that he brought his burden, seeking spiritual counsel. And it was this "religious and valiant governor," as Whitaker calls him, this "man of great knowledge in divinity, and of a good conscience in all things," that "labored long to ground the faith of Jesus Christ" in the Indian maiden, and wrote concerning her, "Were it but for the gaining of this one soul, I will think my time, toils, and present stay well spent."

The progress of the gospel in reclaiming the unhappy colony to Christian civilization varies with the varying fortunes of contending parties in England. Energetic efforts were made by the Company under Sandys, the friend of Brewster, to send out worthy colonists; and the delicate task of finding young women of good character to be shipped as wives to the settlers was undertaken conscientiously and successfully. Generous gifts of money and land were contributed (although little came from them) for the endowment of schools and a college for the promotion of Christ's work among the white people and the red. But the course of events on both sides of the sea may be best illustrated by a narrative of personal incidents.

In the year 1621, an East India Company's chaplain, the Rev. Patrick Copland, who perhaps deserves the title of the first English missionary in India, on his way back from India met, probably at the Canaries, with ships bound for Virginia with emigrants. Learning from these something of the needs of the plantation, he stirred up his fellow-passengers on the "Royal James," and raised the sum of seventy pounds, which was paid to the treasurer of the Virginia Company; and, being increased by other gifts to one hundred and twenty-five pounds, was, in consultation with Mr. Copland, appropriated for a free school to be called the "East India School."

The affairs of the colony were most promising. It was growing in population and in wealth and in the institutions of a Christian commonwealth. The territory was divided into parishes for the work of church and clergy. The stupid obstinacy of the king, against the remonstrances of the Company, perpetrated the crime of sending out a hundred convicts into the young community, extorting from Captain Smith the protest that this act "hath laid one of the finest countries of America under the just scandal of being a mere hell upon earth." The sweepings of the London and Bristol streets were exported for servants. Of darker portent, though men perceived it not, was the landing of the first cargo of slaves. But so grateful was the Company for the general prosperity of the colony that it appointed a thanksgiving sermon to be preached at Bow Church, April 17, 1622, by Mr. Copland, which was printed under the title, "Virginia's God Be Thanked." In July, 1622, the Company, proceeding to the execution of a long-cherished plan, chose Mr. Copland rector of the college to be built at Henrico from the endowments already provided, when news arrived of the massacre which, in March of that year, swept away one half of the four thousand colonists. All such enterprises were at once arrested.

In 1624 the long contest of the king and the court party against the Virginia Company was ended by a violent exercise of the prerogative dissolving the Company, but not until it had established free representative government in the colony. The revocation of the charter was one of the last acts of James's ignoble reign. In 1625 he died, and Charles I. became king. In 1628 "the most hotheaded and hard-hearted of prelates," William Laud, became Bishop of London, and in 1633 Archbishop of Canterbury. But the Puritan principles of duty and liberty already planted in Virginia were not destined to be eradicated.

From the year 1619, a settlement at Nansemond, near Norfolk, had prospered, and had been in relations of trade with New England. In 1642 Philip Bennett, of Nansemond, visiting Boston in his coasting vessel, bore with him a letter to the Boston church, signed by seventy-four names, stating the needs of their great county, now without a pastor, and offering a maintenance to three good ministers if they could be found. A little later William Durand, of the same county, wrote for himself and his neighbors to John Davenport, of New Haven, to whom some of them had listened gladly in London (perhaps it was when he preached the first annual sermon before the Virginia Company in 1621), speaking of "a revival of piety among them, and urging the request that had been sent to the church in Boston. As result of this correspondence, three eminently learned and faithful ministers of New England came to Virginia, bringing letters of commendation from Governor Winthrop. But they found that Virginia, now become a royal colony, had no welcome for them. The newly arrived royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, a man after Laud's own heart, forbade their preaching; but the Catholic governor of Maryland sent them a free invitation, and one of them, removing to Annapolis with some of the Virginia Puritans, so labored in the gospel as to draw forth the public thanks of the legislative assembly.

The sequel of this story is a strange one. There must have been somewhat in the character and bearing of these silenced and banished ministers that touched the heart of Thomas Harrison, the governor's chaplain. He made a confession of his insincere dealings toward them: that while he had been showing them "a fair face" he had privately used his influence to have them silenced. He himself began to preach in that earnest way of righteousness, temperance, and judgment, which is fitted to make governors tremble, until Berkeley cast him out as a Puritan, saying that he did not wish so grave a chaplain whereupon Harrison crossed the river to Nansemond, became pastor of the church, and mightily built up the cause which he had sought to destroy.

A few months later the Nansemond people had the opportunity of giving succor and hospitality to a shipwrecked company of nine people, who had been cast away, with loss of all their goods, in sailing from the Bermudas to found a new settlement on one of the Bahamas. Among the party was an aged and venerable man, that same Patrick Copland who twenty-five years before had interested himself in the passing party of emigrants. This was indeed entertaining an angel. Mr. Copland had long been a nonconformist minister at the Bermudas, and he listened to the complaints that were made to him of the persecution to which the people were subjected by the malignant Berkeley. A free invitation was given to the Nansemond church to go with their guests to the new settlement of Eleuthera, in which freedom of conscience and non-interference of the magistrate with the church were secured by charter. [26] Mr. Harrison proceeded to Boston to take counsel of the churches over this proposition. The people were advised by their Boston brethren to remain in their lot until their case should become intolerable. Mr. Harrison went on to London, where a number of things had happened since Berkeley's appointment. The king had ceased to be; but an order from the Council of State Was sent to Berkeley, sharply reprimanding him for his course, and directing him to restore Mr. Harrison to his parish. But Mr. Harrison did not return. He fulfilled an honorable career as incumbent of a London parish, as chaplain to Henry Cromwell, viceroy of Ireland, and as a hunted and persecuted preacher in the evil days after the Restoration. But the "poetic justice" with which this curious dramatic episode should conclude is not reached until Berkeley is compelled to surrender his jurisdiction to the Commonwealth, and Richard Bennett, one of the banished Puritans of Nansemond, is chosen by the Assembly of Burgesses to be governor in his stead. [27]

Of course this is a brief triumph. With the restoration of the Stuarts, Berkeley comes back into power as royal governor, and for many years afflicts the colony with his malignant Toryism. The last state is worse than the first; for during the days of the Commonwealth old soldiers of the king's army had come to Virginia in such numbers as to form an appreciable and not wholly admirable element in the population. Surrounded by such society, the governor was encouraged to indulge his natural disposition to bigotry and tyranny. Under such a nursing father the interests of the kingdom of Christ fared as might have been expected. Rigorous measures were instituted for the suppression of nonconformity, Quaker preachers were severely dealt with, and clergymen, such as they were, were imposed upon the more or less reluctant parishes. But though the governor held the right of presentation, the vestry of each parish asserted and maintained the right of induction or of refusing to induct. Without the consent of these representatives of the people the candidate could secure for himself no more than the people should from year to year consent to allow him. It was the only protection of the people from absolute spiritual despotism. The power might be used to repel a too faithful pastor, but if there was sometimes a temptation to this, the occasion was far more frequent for putting the people's reprobation upon the unfaithful and unfit. The colony, growing in wealth and population, soon became infested with a rabble of worthless and scandalous priests. In a report which has been often quoted, Governor Berkeley, after giving account of the material prosperity of the colony, sums up, under date of 1671, the results of his fostering care over its spiritual interests in these words: "There are forty-eight parishes, and the ministers well paid. The clergy by my consent would be better if they would pray oftener and preach less. But of all other commodities, so of this, the worst are sent us. But I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years."

The scandal of the Virginia clergy went on from bad to worse. Whatever could be done by the courage and earnestness of one man was done by Dr. Blair, who arrived in 1689 with limited powers as commissary of the Bishop of London, and for more than fifty years struggled against adverse influences to recover the church from its degradation. He succeeded in getting a charter for William and Mary College, but the generous endowments of the institution were wasted, and the college languished in doing the work of a grammar school. Something was accomplished in the way of discipline, though the cane of Governor Nicholson over the back of an insolent priest was doubtless more effective than the commissary's admonitions. But discipline, while it may do something toward abating scandals, cannot create life from the dead; and the church established in Virginia had hardly more than a name to live. Its best estate is described by Spotswood, the best of the royal governors, when, looking on the outward appearance, he reported: "This government is in perfect peace and tranquillity, under a due obedience to the royal authority and a gentlemanly conformity to the Church of England." The poor man was soon to find how uncertain is the peace and tranquillity that is founded on "a gentlemanly conformity." The most honorable page in his record is the story of his effort for the education of Indian children. His honest attempt at reformation in the church brought him into collision not only with the worthless among the clergy, but also on the one hand with the parish vestries, and on the other hand with Commissary Blair. But all along the "gentlemanly conformity" was undisturbed. A parish of French Huguenots was early established in Henrico County, and in 1713 a parish of German exiles on the Rappahannock, and these were expressly excepted from the Act of Uniformity. Aside from these, the chief departures from the enforced uniformity of worship throughout the colony in the early years of the eighteenth century were found in a few meetings of persecuted and vilified Quakers and Baptists. The government and clergy had little notion of the significance of a slender stream of Scotch-Irish emigration which, as early as 1720, began to flow into the valley of the Shenandoah. So cheap a defense against the perils that threatened from the western frontier it would have been folly to discourage by odious religious proscription. The reasonable anxiety of the clergy as to what might come of this invasion of a sturdy and uncompromising Puritanism struggled without permanent success against the obvious interest of the commonwealth. The addition of this new and potent element to the Christian population of the seaboard colonies was part of the unrecognized preparation for the Great Awakening.


[23] Bancroft, vol. i., p. 138.

[24] See the interesting demonstration of this point in articles by E. D. Neill in "Hours at Home," vol. vi., pp. 22, 201. Mr. Neil's various publications on the colonial, history of Virginia and Maryland are of the highest value and authority. They include: "The English Colonization of America During the Seventeenth Century"; "History of the Virginia Company"; "Virginia Vetusta"; "Virginia Carolorum"; "Terra Mariae; or, Threads of Maryland Colonial History"; "The Founders of Maryland"; "Life of Patrick Copland."

[25] It was customary for the Company, when a candidate was proposed for a chaplaincy in the colony, to select a text for him and appoint a Sunday and a church for a "trial sermon" from which they might judge of his qualifications.

[26] The project of Eleuthera is entitled to honorable mention in the history of religious liberty.

[27] For fuller details concerning the Puritan character of the Virginia Company and of the early ministers of Virginia, see the articles of E. D. Neill, above referred to, in Hours at Home," vol. vi.

chapter iv antecedents of permanent
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