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Excerpt: 'Founding Faith'

Cover, 'Founding Faith'

Note: Author's footnotes have been omitted.

Virginia's Lawes Divine

The twin goals of converting Indians and defeating Catholics provided a strong rallying cry for Virginia's settlers. Prospective settlers were instructed to bring "no traitors, nor Papists that depend on the Great Whore." An Anglican promotional booklet argued that if the Spanish had so much luck pressing their corrupt religion, imagine how successful the English could be with their noble goals of saving "those wretched people," drawing them from "darkness to light, from falsehood to truth, from dumb idols to the living God, from the deep pit of hell to the highest heaven." King James's charter for Virginia in 1606 made it official: The mission was to promote Christianity to those living "in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God."

The faiths of the settlers were tested even before they landed in Virginia. One-third of the immigrants on the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant in 1607 died en route. Once in America, their goal of converting Indians soon took a backseat to survival. In 1609 and 1610, the period known as "the starving time," the colony almost perished. Settlers ate dogs, cats, rats, and one another in order to survive. One man was executed for killing his wife for food.

To try to salvage the colony, the Virginia Company in May 1611 sent Lord Thomas de la Warr and Thomas Dale, who swiftly issued a new set of laws to bring order, in part through forced religiosity. The laws declared that the job of the king is "principal care of true Religion and reverence to God" and that the settlers themselves were "especial souldiers in this sacred cause." The new "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall" required worship twice each Sunday. Those who failed to do so would lose their daily allowance; a second infraction would draw a whipping, and the third offense would put them in the galleys at sea for six months. Settlers who failed to observe the Sabbath lost provisions for a week (first offense), received a whipping (second offense), or were executed (third offense). Women convicted of sexual misdeeds were required to wear white gowns, hold white wands, and "stand on chairs or stools during public worship." Blasphemy—the use of "unlawful oaths" and "taking the name of God in vain"—was a serious crime, sometimes punishable by having a hot iron plunged through the tongue, and sometimes by execution. Eight settlers were put to death in Jamestown for violations of Dale's laws' Though alien to us, the idea behind forced worship was practical: Pervasive worship would secure God's favor and give settlers the strength and moral wherewithal to cope with the crushing burdens of disease, Indian attacks, and internal squabbling.

As in England, clergy were to be supported by taxes and public funds, or, to be more precise, ten pounds of tobacco and a bushel of corn per settler. A special patch of farmland, a glebe, was also set aside for the parson. Despite these provisions, there was a severe shortage of clergy. By 1662, there were only ten ministers serving forty-five different parishes. Since there was no ecclesiastic church structure to monitor religious matters and manage clergy, the state accepted that role, even disciplining clergy who hadn't preached at least one sermon each Sunday.

The settlers did survive, in part because of their strong faith. This alone prompted wonder. John Rolfe, an early Jamestown resident credited with the introduction of tobacco, wrote that the settlers were "chosen by the finger of God."

In surviving, they prevented encroachment from French and Spanish Catholics who settled west and south of Virginia. At that moment in history, the Catholic Church was viewed in England not as a competing form of Christianity but as a fraudulent faith. It was called "the Whore" because it had prostituted itself by selling indulgences (the promise that for a fee, the church would make sure that the soul of a loved one wouldn't be stuck in purgatory). Protestants believed Catholics should be called papists, not Christians, because they had substituted worship of the pope for devotion to Christ. And only the Antichrist, it was thought, would use the trappings of faith to so distort the message of Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Virginia government attempted to squelch Catholicism within the colony. In 1640, it prohibited Catholics from holding public office unless they "had taken the oath of allegiance and supremacy" to the Church of England. It decreed that any "popish priests" who "rived in Virginia "should"be deported forthwith."

The settlers' other religious goal—that of pulling the Indians from the deep pit of hell—proved harder to meet. Pocahontas's conversion to Christianity was much celebrated and, indeed, is depicted in a painting in the US Capitol to this day. But mostly the settlers just viewed the Indians as untamable savages, and vice versa. Moreover, Virginia certainly didn't limit itself to punishing just Catholics and Indians. In 1660, it forbade ship captains from importing Quakers; Puritan clergy were banished; and Jews were kept out entirely for two generations.

As the economy developed and the population grew, the Church of England became more powerful throughout Virginia. By the 1740s, the church had become a place of social and spiritual nourishment for the gentlemen farmers who came to run the colony. Though it became more genteel and less coercive, Anglicanism remained the legally established, official religion of the colony. Taxpayers financed the salaries of the Anglican ministers in their area, as well as the construction of new Anglican churches. During some of this time, other religious bodies were simply not allowed to erect churches at all. Up through the 1740s, it was clear in Virginia that there was one church, one spiritual style, one faith—not just by custom but by law.

Excerpted from Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman with permission from the publisher, Random House. Copyright (c) 2008 Steven Waldman.

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Steven Waldman