Faith & Freedom

Benjamin Hart

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God and the Tobacco Society

Virginia was the other major early British attempt to colonize North America. The expedition was generally promoted as an opportunity to share in the work of God. There was a widespread worry in English ruling circles that the natives in the New World risked conversion to the Catholic Church by the Spanish and the French. Thus, a founding principle of the colony was stated in the company charter, which was the ". . . propagating of the Christian religion to such a people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages living in these parts to human civility and to a settled and quiet government." And, according to an official statement published by the Virginia Company, entitled A True and Sincere Declaration, the "principal and main ends," of the settlers, " . . . were first to preach and baptize into the Christian religion, and by propagation of the Gospel, to recover out of the arms of the Devil, a number of poor and miserable souls, wrapt up unto death in almost invincible ignorance; to endeavor the fulfilling an accomplishment of the number of the elect which shall be gathered from all corners of the earth; and to add our mite to the treasury of Heaven." Keep in mind that Virginia was among the most religiously lax of the English colonies in North America. Such statements of purpose were taken for granted, and caused no division in 17th-century Anglo-American culture.

Though the spreading of the Gospel was one reason the English government granted a charter to the Virginia Company in May 1607, there were also other goals: 1) to get the poor of England off the streets; 2) to create new markets for British wool products; 3) to obtain raw materials such as gold and lumber inexpensively; and 4) to find a shortcut to the Indies and thereby cut costs on Oriental spices, herbs, and oils.

The New Englanders had one overarching reason for coming to the New World, the establishment of a pure Christian community; everything was subordinate to that one goal. The Christian mission for the Virginians, however, was but one aim among others, an important one being to turn a profit for them-selves and the stockholders of the corporation. Thus, the community of early Virginia would not be homogenous, or "knit together as one body," as John Winthrop put it. The expedition attracted a wide range of personalities, from diverse back-grounds with different motives. There was no sense of the covenantal community as there was in New England. Some were English gentlemen, while others were artisans, debtors, adventurers, mercenaries, and even criminals. Hence, we see division and quarreling among the sojourners almost from the start, and few wanted to work. The New England sense of Christian love and holy endeavor was noticeably absent in early Jamestown, which is why it was not as resilent as the New England communities during times of hardship.

The initial Jamestown colony, established in 1607, was a disaster, decimated during its first six months by disease, starvation, desertion, and internal strife. The governing council could not get along with each other or the settlers. Many suspected that council President Edward Maria Wingileld was a secret papist or an atheist since he carried no Bible and prohibited preaching. So difficult were conditions that it wasn't long before all the council members had fled back to England - at which point Captain John Smith proclaimed himself President of Virginia. Smith had actually arrived in Virginia as a prisoner, under arrest for suspicion of hatching a plot to usurp control of the colony. He was almost hanged en route by his rivals, who had constructed gallows for him during their stop at Nevis Island.

Captain Smith is one of the most colorful characters in American history. He had fought against the fearsome Turks on the eastern frontier of Europe. After one especially bloody conflict, he was discovered by pillagers half-dead among the corpses. He was then sold into slavery to the Crimean Tartars. He escaped by beating his master to death with a club, and then traveled back across Europe, through Spain to North America, where he joined a band of pirates under the command of a Frenchman. But Smith was actually less interested in plunder than in knight-errantry, quests for glory, and encounters with enchanting brown-skinned women.

Smith got along very well with the Indians and would exchange food for assorted trinkets. These red men were a fearsome sight. The right sides of their heads were shaved (with shells), while the hair on their left sides grew long. What clothing they had was made from skins and leaves. Both men and women, according to Smith's account, had "three great holes" in each ear, in which some warriors inserted live snakes or dead animals. A bird's feather, or the dried hand of an enemy, might provide the head-dress. They took scalps, and malefactors were sometimes boiled to death. An enemy would be quartered, flayed live, and then burnt. These Indians had a remarkable leader named Powhattan, who had built for himself an empire of some 9,000 people. It is thought that Powhattan was responsible for the eradication of several Spanish expeditions, and perhaps of Sir Walter Raleigh's "lost colony."

Smith was captured on one of his solo expeditions into the forest, surrounded by some 200 "grim" warriors, and taken to see Powhattan. The chief seemed to admire the fearlessness of the bearded white man, and gave him an Indian-style banquet. Following the meal, however, two boulders were rolled out. Smith's head was seized and placed on the rocks; he was certain he was about to be executed in some horrible fashion. But, according to Smith, the beautiful "Pocahontas, the King's dearest daughter, when no entreaty would prevail, got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death: whereat the emperor was contented he should live." Smith described Pocahontas as "next under God . . . the instrument to preserve this colony from death, famine and utter confusion."

Another instrumental figure in the early settlement of Virginia was the Reverend Robert Hunt. The corporate planners had wanted the famous chaplain Richard Hakluyt to "watch and perform the ministry and preaching of God's word in those parts." But Hakluyt could not be persuaded; so the assignment fell to Hunt, who proved himself to be a major unifying agent in the initial settlement. Hunt was a powerful preacher and often called the idle settlers to repent: "We are all laborers in a common vineyard..." He even put Captain Smith to work at building a house of worship. As Smith himself wrote: "When I first went to Virginia, I well remember we did hang an awning (which is an old sail) to three or four trees to shadow us from the sun. Our walls were rails of wood, our seats unhewn trees till we cut planks, our pulpit a bar of wood nailed to two neighboring trees. In foul weather, we shifted into an old rotten tent, for we had few better. . . This was our church, till we built a homely thing like a barn." This was hardly Westminster Abbey, and is evidence of how America's wilderness conditions had a purifying effect on Virginia's Anglican Church, weeding out the ecclesiastical extravagances to which the Puritans objected. William Bradford and John Winthrop would not have felt terribly out of place in the church of the Reverend Hunt. For, as another settler noted, "One cannot observe strictly all the usual formalities in making a beginning under such circumstances."

Hunt's church services were mandatory. He took care of the sick, and took to heart Christ's invocation: "To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me" (Matt. 25:40). He spent much of his time hearing confessions and administering the last rites over typhoid and malaria victims. Even the swashbuckling Smith marveled at the way Hunt conducted himself, "that honest, religious, courageous divine," who during the course of the journey and living in the forest, lost "all but the clothes on his back, [but] none did ever hear him repine his loss." Hunt also tried to set a good example for others by taking on difficult physical tasks. He built Virginia's first grist mill for grinding corn. He knew that the colony's prospects for survival depended on the settlers ability to sustain themselves.

But Hunt's example was to little avail. Most of the settlers were content to pan for gold in the hopes of getting rich quick, and relied on the generosity of the Indians for sustenance. That the natives bothered was puzzling, since they were often treated poorly by the settlers. It would be 20 years before Virginia would plant a crop capable of feeding its inhabitants. At one point, the settlers had accumulated enough yellow ore to fill a ship, only to discover later that it was pyrite, "fools gold." The effort had been a waste and had distracted them from planting a crop, vital to their survival. These men did not have the Puritan virtues of thrift and industry - demonstrating that these virtues are not just godly, they're immensely practical. What a contrast in character between the settlers of Virginia and the settlers of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, death in the colony was so frequent that burials were done secretly and with no ceremony. By the fall of 1607, only 30 settlers remained of the initial 104 who had arrived only six months before. By any objective measure, the colony had been a disaster.

In 1609, the Virginia company was reorganized, with the prominent British merchant Thomas Smythe as treasurer and Lord De La Warr (Delaware) appointed governor. Smythe, a brilliant businessman, launched a massive advertising campaign for "subscriptions" to the colony. He saw that the quest for profits alone could not sustain the enterprise, and so began to rely more on religious rather than strictly commercial appeals. He saw that faith, patriotism, and commercial success were all intertwined and vital factors in Virginia's prospects for survival. "The eyes of all Europe are looking upon our endeavors to spread the Gospel among the heathen people of Virginia, to plant an English nation there, and to settle a trade in those parts, which may be peculiar to our nation, to the end we may thereby be secured from being eaten out of all profits of trade by our more industrious neighbors [the Dutch]," said one circular letter. The craze for Virginia began.

So successful was Smythe's promotional scheme that an alarmed Spanish ambassador wrote to Philip III that "there is no poor little man nor woman who is not willing to subscribe something for this enterprise." Fifty-six companies and more than 650 individuals invested in the colony. Hundreds of people, including women, children, clergymen, craftsmen, soldiers, and prisoners volunteered for the voyage for various reasons, ranging from religion and patriotism to adventure and economic opportunity. A fleet of nine ships set sail in June 1609 with 800 pas sengers. The expedition's leaders were on the Sea Adventure, which a storm separated from the other ships and carried to Bermuda Island, marooning them for 10 months. The episode inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest.

Meanwhile, the rest of the fleet had arrived in the summer of 1609, and the colony faced its first constitutional crisis. Captain Smith refused to relinquish his presidency, pointing out that the appointed governor had been lost at sea. Chaos resumed. The new settlers refused to acknowledge Smith, and Smith's followers refused to submit to the new settlers. But it wasn't long before a disgusted Smith, having suffered a gunpowder wound to his leg that needed attention badly, and seeing his inevitable deposal, decided he had seen enough of Virginia and sailed home.

The death rate continued to increase. For every 10 new settlers who arrived, nine died, including the Reverend Robert Hunt who was their main source of spiritual and moral inspiration. On his memorial was written: "He preferred the service of God to every thought of ease at home. He endured every privation, yet none ever heard him repine . . . He planted the first Protestant church in America, and laid down his life in the foun dation of Virginia."

Without the elevating sermons of Hunt, conditions in Jamestown grew even more desperate and, as the winter of 1609 approached, more bodies turned up frozen to death in their beds. The specter of starvation pervaded the colony. According to one account, corpses were dug from their graves and eaten: "And amongst the rest, this most lamentable, that one of our colony murdered his wife, ripped the child out of the womb and threw it into the river, and after chopped the mother into pieces and salted her for food." Governor De La Warr eventually arrived; he concluded that a better sense of community was needed, and stricter discipline. As one company official observed, the settlement was "full of mutiny and treasonable inhabitants." But De La Warr, too, was soon stricken with fever; he sailed back to England after only a 10-month stay, during which disease and starvation killed 150 more colonists.

De La Warr's successor was Sir Thomas Dale, a tough veteran of the Netherlands War. He promised to bring order and discipline to Jamestown with "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall." Dale, no doubt, went beyond the pale in policing the religious lives of the people, who were required to worship twice on Sunday under military escort and fill their days with prayer. Anyone who took the Lord's name in vain could expect a bodkin to be thrust through his tongue. A third blasphemous remark earned the death penalty. To demonstrate his seriousness, Dale executed eight offenders. He also employed the settlers in a strict work regime, under military escort. These were extreme measures, but then again the situation in Jamestown was desperate and the settlers had proven they were incapable of policing themselves. The price for liberty is responsibility; the colonists, by not planting crops when they should have, had abdicated their responsibilities, and as a result also lost their liber ties. Dale's regime was severe, but he was alarmed at the disastrous condition of the colony and sought to bring some order to the chaos. He wanted Virginia to survive.

But Dale did not rely solely on the stick to encourage thrift and industry among the colonists; he also employed the carrot. He abolished the original system of indentured servitude, under which settlers would be expected to work for seven years, receiving only the bare necessities of life for their labor, in exchange for being included on the expedition. At the end of seven years of hard labor, one might receive a small plot of land, if anything at all. So there was no incentive to produce. Instead of working for the benefit of the company, many workers shirked their responsibilities and spent their time panning for gold and cheating the Indians. Jamestown was a great example of how socialism undermines the moral fiber of a community. Virginia, under Dale, restored the right to private property, and awarded those who finished out their seven-year contracts with 50 acres of land. By 1617, after six years of Dale's reign, Virginia numbered about 1,000 European settlers eagerly building homes and new lives for themselves.

In the meantime, Dale had become enamored with the Indian princess Pocahontas. He had devoted much effort trying to persuade her to convert to Christianity. Dale wanted to marry her. He was then informed by newcomer John Rolfe that he, too, was hopelessly in love with the beautiful 18-year-old. Rolfe was nervous about how the stern Thomas Dale might react to the news that he had competition for the hand of the brown-skinned lady. So Rolfe approached the situation delicately. He sat down and carefully crafted a letter to Dale asking for permission to wed Pocahontas. Rolfe assured Dale that his affection for her "was in no way led" by "the unbridled desire of carnal affection," but by "striving for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the glory of God and Jesus Christ, of an unbelieving creature, namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have for a long time been so entangled and enthralled in so delicate a labyrinth..."

It was a testimony to the selflessness of Dale's character that he acquiesced to Rolfe's plea. In a ceremony presided over by the Reverend Richard Buck, Rolfe married her, renamed her Rebecca, and had her baptized into the Christian faith amid much fanfare and feasting between the Indians and the white men. This relationship turned out to be a significant landmark in the history of Virginia, for it was Pocahontas who introduced Rolfe to tobacco. She showed him the pipe, the cigar, and the cigarette. Tobacco swept Europe by storm, and was even hailed as a cure for all kinds of ailments. As early as 1618, Virginia exported 50,000 pounds (weight) of tobacco to England. Dale eased the martial law restrictions, and gradually Virginia changed from a trading post run along military lines to a culture that began to resemble the more familiar plantation aristocracy.

Sir Edwin Sandys, a feisty visionary, was made treasurer of the Virginia Company in 1619. Sandys was a vocal Puritan leader in the House of Commons. He advocated abolishing the single corporate colony in favor of a settlement by individuals and easy acquisition of land. In addition, he helped bring greater religious tolerance to America. Being a Puritan himself, he understood what it was like to be part of a persecuted religious sect. The year before Sandys became treasurer, Sir George Yeardley had taken over the governorship of Virginia and promptly awarded 50 acres of land to each settler. The company, under the influence of Sandys and Yeardley, also abolished Dale's martial law style of rule, and created a General Assembly and a House of Burgess, which was elected by all the "free men" (male inhabitants) and had the power to pass local laws. This assembly met in a church, and its laws could be vetoed only by the company's directors in London. In 1619, 90 women arrived, giving the men of Virginia the opportunity of starting families and ensuring the future of the colony. By 1621, Virginia's population had reached 4,000.

But then catastrophe struck. Three thousand Virginian settlers suddenly disappeared, according to the records of the colony. Because the local government had neglected the defense of the community, the settlement was massacred in a series of bloody Indian attacks beginning in 1622. Jamestown was virtually wiped out, and John Rolfe was among the dead. The colonists had relied too heavily on the good relations they had established with Powhattan and on the marriage between Rolfe and Pocahontas to keep the peace. They did not know that Powhattan's successor, Opechancanough, resented British encroachment on his cornfields. On Good Friday, the Indians arrived as usual to trade furs and meat with the settlers. Suddenly, they turned on the colonists, killing them in their fields and homes, beginning a long history of perpetual war between the red and white men.

The disaster caused the company to come under political attack in England. It was thought that both the board of directors and the local colonial assembly had ignored its most basic responsibility: the protection of its citizenry against potential aggressors. The corporate charter was revoked, and the colony fell under the Crown's direct control. This did not affect political conditions much, as the Crown maintained its elective assembly. But it took many years for Virginia to rebuild.


Virginia has sometimes been called the Anglican colony -also the Crown colony. The image passed down to us regarding colonial Virginia is one of wealthy High Church gentlemen managing their estates-of England transplanted. It is true that Virginia was not born out of dissent, as was Massachusetts. Virginia was seen by many as something of a patriotic endeavor, and most Virginians were openly hostile to the new "Christian Zion" being built in Massachusetts Bay. It is also true that the Anglican Church was the official church of the land, established by law in 1624 and supported by tax revenue.

But on closer examination, we see that the religious tradition that grew up in Virginia during the course of the next century and a half did not much resemble the High Church Anglicanism of the home country, and actually looked far more like the Puritanism of the Northeast than these early Virginians would have liked to admit. This is important because it helps explain why many of America's most illustrious revolutionary leaders were Virginians: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. It also helps explain why these men were not more hesitant in throwing off the shell of Anglican orthodoxy. Over time, Vir ginians, though many were Anglican in name, had developed an uncomfortable relationship with the home church and had adopted many Puritan habits and modes of thought. Though the Anglican Church in Virginia was not founded as a pilgrimage of dissent, it took on distinctly American Protestant characteristics over time and eventually became non-conformist in substance-even while it retained the Anglican label.

The Anglican Church in England was very definitely episcopal in structure - hierarchical and lavish. Not so in Virginia, which did not even have a bishop until 1783, after the American War of Independence. Church authority in colonial Virginia was diffused through the local church vestries, which in essence were boards of elders governing the affairs of the local parish. Theoretically, each member of the clergy was supposed to travel to England to be ordained. But the expense and distance made this procedure impractical, and so ministers were simply appointed by the vestry. By law, positions in the local vestry were elected by the laity. Generally a minister held a one-year contract, which was renewed by the vestry if he proved satisfactory. Thus, the Anglican Church in Virginia was very nearly congregational in structure, federal rather than monarchical. The parishes were also independent from each other, mainly because the vast distances between churches in Virginia made Catholic-style organization unworkable.

The Anglican Church in England was remote from the common man, and the English clergy was prone to absenteeism, dereliction of duty, and some were notoriously corrupt. This was not true of the Anglican Church in Virginia, where the local parish was central to community life. Virginians guarded their local churches jealously, kept a tight reign on their ministers through the vestries, and demanded preachers whose sermons could inspire and elevate the spiritual lives of the people. This system, according to American historian Daniel Boorstin, produced ministers "decidedly superior to their English contemporaries." As in New England, Virginians learned politics in their churches (Episcopal in name only), which were laboratories in representative democracy. All but three of the more than 100 delegates to the Virginia constitutional convention in 1776 were vestrymen in their local church. For Virginians, self-government in religious matters was just as important as self-government in political affairs.

To ascribe Virginia's decentralized church structure solely to the pressures of the geography, however, would be a mistake. On close examination we find that exactly the same class of people settled Virginia as settled New England. This has been pointed out in Thomas C. Hall's book The Religious Background of American Culture, in which he says "‘Cavalier Virginia' is a myth." Virginia was not settled predominantly by English gentlemen, as we have so often heard, but by tradesmen, artisans, and farmers. The Virginia aristocracy that developed was almost completely self-made, and was a natural product of the rural plantation economy. The great majority of the people were lower class in origin, and came from precisely the segment of the English population that was overwhelmingly Puritan in their religious views.

Puritan notions flourished in Virginia's sermons, and Alexander Whitaker's Good News from Virginia (1613) is indistinguishable in its tone and thesis from the diaries of William Bradford and John Winthrop. That Virginia survived those terrible early years, wrote Whitaker, proved "that the finger of God hath been the only true worker here; that God first showed us the place, God called us hither, and here God by His special Providence hath maintained us." Such a tract would have been an embarrassment to English High Churchmen, but not Anglicans in America.

The church buildings in colonial Virginia were every bit as austere as the churches of New England; the traditional Anglo-Catholic symbols were wholly absent; many congregations would sit while singing but stand when praying; and instead of kneeling, Virginians grew accustomed to taking communion in their seats - all characteristics of Puritanism and anathema to the Church of England. As in Massachusetts, there were laws in Virginia against Sabbath-breaking, missing church services, fornication, adultery, blasphemy, profanity, and drunkenness. There was even a law stating that "no man shall disparage a minister whereby the minds of his parishioners may be alienated from him and his ministry prove less effectual, upon pain of severe censure of the governor and council"-thus further italicizing the spirit of New England pervading Virginia life. It should be noted that these laws were not imposed on the people of Virginia by the government in London, but were enacted by Virginia's elected representative assemblies. Such laws were not in any way considered oppressive by the general population. Most Virginians were not only eager to submit to such religious strictures, but would have considered their absence evidence of alarming moral decay. Virginians, in other words, took their Christianity seriously.

Moreover, the Puritan strain in Virginian Christianity, apparent from the beginning, grew more pronounced as time passed. The Scotch-Irish, persecuted in their native land by both the Anglican and Catholic Churches for their strict Calvinist beliefs, found a home in Virginia. Then came the Baptists, with their Separatist creed, and the "New Light" preachers who lambasted the Anglican establishment for complacency and spiritual laxity. Thomas Jefferson reported in his Autobiography that by the time of the American Revolution three quarters of Virginia's population was dissenting Protestant. At least half of the members of the official Anglican Church were sympathetic to Puritan beliefs. For evidence of this, we need only recall Patrick Henry's celebrated attacks against Virginia's Anglican establishment and the taxes that supported it. Moreover, his assault on the "spiritual tyranny" made him one of the most popular politicians in Virginia, so rampant was the hostility toward the "Romish" church - especially when word came that London was planning to send a "dreaded bishop." For by the time of the American Revolution, the established English Church with all its pomp had become an exotic anachronism in American life, as the culture of dissent had cut across all denominational boundaries. Though no one, to my knowledge, said them, these words would have been an appropriate American refrain: "We are all Puritan-Separatists now!"


There were, however, some significant differences between New England and Virginia. Virginia's major industries, tobacco, indigo, rice, and later cotton, did not compete with British manufacturers; in fact, they enhanced British commerce by providing raw materials at rock bottom prices. Thus, London always looked upon Virginia favorably - in contrast with New England, where the colonists deliberately thwarted the protectionist Navigation Acts and undercut British manufacturers by building better ships at far less cost.

In religion, Virginians stressed tradition more than dogma. Sentiment moved them more than precise intellectual distinctions; habit more than philosophy. Virginians did not begin as self-consciously hostile to the Anglican Church. Virginians were perfectly content to call themselves Anglicans if it made London happy - and so long as the English episcopacy did not intrude excessively into Virginia's religious practices. Virginia's eventual rebellion against the Anglican establishment was spurred less by theological differences than by the Crown's attempt to use the church to consolidate its grip over the colony and uproot habits and customs long established. There was no intellectual equivalent of Thomas Hooker or Cotton Mather in early Virginia. Whereas New England was passionate and urgent in its Christian mission, Virginia was content to be steadfast.

The lazy character of Virginia's Christianity was further enhanced by the plantation culture. Communities in New England were tightly-knit homogenous units; but in Virginia they were spread out. Twenty miles often separated churches. Whereas government in New England revolved around the town meeting, in Virginia we see the development of county government, which required a more extensive administrative apparatus and tended to place political authority in the hands of the large planter families, sometimes called the "Tobacco Aristocracy." As a result, Virginia tended to cultivate an upper class of skilled leaders; while New England, with its direct participatory democracy, reared a population more generally educated in political alfairs. This helps explain why the rank and file of New England would be far more active than the rank and file of Virginia in the War for Independence. New Englanders, as a group, had a better and more precise understanding of the issues involved in the collision with Britain; while Virginia contributed more serene and circumspect statesmen, the archetype of which was George Washington.

Without the almost relentless Puritan mind of New England, always dividing the world into good and evil, there probably could have been no American Revolution. But without Virginia's virtues of loyalty, sobriety, and its general bias in favor of traditionalism acting as a brake on New England's ideological purity, the American Revolution might have gone too far. While Boston was yelling "Charge!" Virginia was counseling caution. The two tendencies balanced each other very well; thus the colonies were able to avoid the sometimes excessive Puritan zealotry that drove Cromwell's revolution in England, while at the same time steering clear of the excessive docility that characterized so much of America's South.

It was the lack of ideological (and theological) rigor in Virginia, however, that permitted the perpetuation of the abominable institution of slavery. The "Tobacco Aristocracy" was more attached to their habits and the expediencies of plantation farming than the letter of Scripture. It is ironic, in a way, that Virginia was saved by the very weed that would later seduce them away from the "golden rule" of their religious creed and the principles of liberty for which they would later fight. They were able to tolerate slavery because Virginians, unlike New Englanders, generally avoided thinking things through to their logical conclusion. Thus, George Washington owned slaves until it was pointed out to him that this was a contradiction of all he and America stood for and had them freed. Virginians tended to accept life as it was rather than remake it into something it should be. This was Virginia's weakness as well as its strength.

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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart