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Jamestown: The Natives

This my third post this week on the Jamestown settlement. I’m not quite done with it. Next week, I’ll finish this portion of American history with some commentary on why Jamestown is significant. Today, I want to shed some light on the natives who crossed paths with those early settlers. What type of society did these Englishmen find when they arrived?

First, let’s dispense with unrealistic romanticism. All humans are sinful. They have a propensity to treat others badly. This certainly was evident in the New World. The rosy picture of natives living in perfect harmony with nature and then having all that disturbed by Europeans is not very accurate. When the Spanish saw how the Aztecs carried out human sacrifices, they were horrified. That’s not meant to absolve the Spanish from their share of the blame for how things turned out, but we need to have a balanced picture of the past.

PowhatansThe natives in the Jamestown area were part of a broader grouping called the Algonquin. The Powhatan Confederacy that the English came upon was one portion of that larger grouping. They had no written language, so we have no primary documents from them personally. What we have is the English explanation of what they saw and experienced. A one-sided view can be skewed, to be sure, but further research and archaeology have substantiated much of what they told us.

The Algonquin worldview was dark. Only the chiefs and priests had any hope of a kind of life after death; they supposedly were reincarnated. The common people had this life only—no hope of an eternity in the presence of a loving God. The culture was polytheistic, featuring many gods for many different purposes. The one they dreaded the most was Okeus, who had to be appeased continually. Throughout the Algonquin tribes, child sacrifice for that purpose was practiced.

Warfare was a staple of life. Tribes had shifting alliances over time, all for the sake of self-preservation. The natives did not view themselves as one big happy family suddenly interrupted by the English. Their perception of these new settlers was that of just another tribe in the region to be dealt with.

If you were caught in a war by the enemy, you could expect to be tortured in the most cruel ways. They had developed a rather sophisticated method of skinning people alive and cutting off body parts while the victim was still conscious, and even eating those parts while he watched.

If you were a young boy entering manhood, the practice was to give you a powerful drug to erase the memory of boyhood. This was how you transitioned into becoming a man.

Powhatan Receiving TributeChief Powhatan (a title, not his actual name) was already advanced in age when the Jamestown people first encountered him, but he was still vital and strong. He had to be. His confederacy was held together by force and intimidation. Powhatan ruled over thirty conquered tribes: note the word “conquered” here; they didn’t apply for membership. Once in the confederacy, they owed him a tribute of 80% of their crops—in other words, he had an 80% tax rate. So how did they survive? It appears that Powhatan mastered the age-old system of redistribution of wealth. As long as you were trustworthy and obedient, he would, from his bounty, send some of it back to you.

Sound familiar? Sound rather contemporary?

Powhatan also had approximately one hundred wives, taken from the various tribes under his authority. He would then have one child with each, solidifying the connection with each tribe. One can say without too much exaggeration that he was the “father of his country.” Summary: Powhatan was an absolute despot who ruled with an iron hand.

Neither was Powhatan going to share power. When one of his priests came forth with a prophecy that a tribe coming out of the Chesapeake region was going to topple his empire, he immediately decided to kill off the Chesapeake tribe. He was efficient; they were slaughtered that day. Only when the English showed up, coming from that same region, did he wonder if they were the “tribe” destined to remove him. We have no evidence, though, of any remorse for his “mistake.”

When the Starving Time hit Jamestown in 1609-1610, Powhatan did all he could to withhold any aid, hoping they would all die out. Later, when his daughter Pocahontas married a settler, relations between the cultures relaxed for a time, only to destroyed by the massacre of 1622 that I described in an earlier post.

From the Christian point of view, what I see is a culture devoid of the light of the Gospel. It was a culture desperately in need of hope, that lacked the understanding that the Son of God—the only God—had reached out to His creation through His own sacrifice, which would take the place of human sacrifice. Pocahontas and Chanco, among others, gained that understanding and realized that hope. Most rejected it. In a previous post, I highlighted some of the true Christians who sought to minister to the natives. If there had been more of those type of men, this part of our history would have been more praiseworthy.

Jamestown: The Balance

Yesterday, I wrote about the founding of Jamestown and pointed out that it wasn’t exactly an evangelical enterprise. Most of those involved were nominally Christian—born Anglican—and never had committed their lives to the Lord. I left you with some hope, though. I said there was another part of the story. That’s where I’m going today.

First, the Virginia Company that sent out the Jamestown settlers did have in its ranks some genuine Christians who wanted the new colony to help convert the natives to the faith. The Company also gave some instructions to the settlers that stemmed from a concern for Christian conduct. If you go to historic Jamestown today, the large monument that was dedicated back in 1907, with President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance, sports a comment from the Company. I’ve posted a picture of it here; since it is a little hard to read, I’ll transcribe it below:

Jamestown--Advice of London Council

It says, “Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper and achieve good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own, and to serve and fear God, the giver of all goodness. For every plantation which our heavenly father hath not planted shall be rooted out.” This was not only an instruction, but a warning.

The minister who came on those first ships was Robert Hunt, by all accounts a truly godly man respected by everyone. He is credited with helping to save John Smith’s life on the voyage over when others wanted to hang him. Upon landing at what is now Virginia Beach, Hunt erected a cross and held a service of thanksgiving. Smith writes fondly of him and mourns his early death in 1608. At the historic site today is a memorial to Hunt, depicting him officiating the Lord’s Supper.

Robert Hunt Memorial

Other dedicated ministers followed Hunt—Alexander Whitaker and Richard Buck. Whitaker became the primary teacher for Pocahontas as he led her to the Christian faith. A famous painting of the baptism of Pocahontas can be found in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.

Baptism of Pocahontas

Sadly, Whitaker drowned trying to save the life of another. All indications are he was a genuine Christian. As for Pocahontas, her conversion wasn’t just a show. She took her new faith seriously, changed her name to Rebecca, and married John Rolfe, one of the settlers. She then went to England. Unfortunately, she died there, probably from pneumonia, but the testimony of her death shows she was calm and peaceful, accepting it from God’s hand.

When she arrived in England, Pocahontas had an entourage of natives with her, one of whom, a young teenage boy, was adopted into the family or George Thorpe. The boy died soon after, victim of some disease for which he had no immunity apparently, but his new “father,” Thorpe, took that as his cue to do God’s will by going to America and helping establish a college for native youths, teaching them not only the English language but seeking to lead them to the Christian faith.

Thorpe (for whom no portrait exists) dedicated himself to befriending the natives for the gospel’s sake. He was kind to them, reached out to the chief, Opechancanough, and shared the faith. All seemed to be going well, but Opechancanough deceived the settlers by staging a surprise uprising in 1622, hoping to wipe out all English settlers:

Massacre of 1622

George Thorpe, tragically, was one of the victims that day. Opechanacanough, though, did not achieve his objective for one reason. A plaque on the wall in the Jamestown church tells the story:


One of the natives, his life changed by the Christian faith, was the hero of the day. This shows also that the real divide in this world is not between races or ethnicities, but between those who have submitted themselves to the Lord and those who have not.

So, even though Jamestown was not primarily a Christian settlement in the way I would view a Christian endeavor, nevertheless some of the individuals involved were decidedly Christian and helped pave the way for the gospel message in a new land.

Jamestown: A Christian Settlement?

Today I begin that journey through American history I wrote about yesterday. Skipping over Columbus and other non-U.S.-related events, I go straight to the settlement at Jamestown. We often call this the first permanent English settlement in the New World, a correct name if you take into consideration it eventually developed into the colony of Virginia, yet no one lives in Jamestown today. It’s a historic site, but not a permanent residence for anyone.

What lay behind the founding of this settlement? Was there a Christian character to it or was it purely secular in nature? Since this is the first place Englishmen set foot to stay, it is tempting to want to romanticize the event and say it was primarily a Christian endeavor. It would be satisfying to tell the advocates of secularism that a vibrant Christian faith inspired the initial voyage and the society that came about afterward. Satisfying, yes, but not altogether accurate.

Jamestown FortThe Virginia Company’s foremost goal was to establish a trading post in the New World. The first three ships that arrived in 1607 were conspicuous for their complete absence of women and young children. This wasn’t a family affair. While most of the men struggled to erect a fort and find a way to survive in this unknown wilderness, the main task of the captain of the ships, Christopher Newport, was to find a passage to the west so Asia would be more accessible. Others, whose station in life as gentlemen didn’t require manual labor, were more content to search for riches than put their hands to a plow. Research has indicated they weren’t all necessarily lazy, but their status in society did contribute to a certain hierarchy of labor that wasn’t helpful when starting a colony from scratch.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to find a passage to Asia for trade; neither is there anything inherently sinful about wanting to enrich oneself. That all depends on the motive of the heart. But another criticism of these settlers is one we will come across constantly in our travels through our history: they sought to annihilate the natives.

If genocide really was a goal of this expedition, why did they not uncrate their weapons upon arrival? Why did they not immediately set to work on a fortress for self-protection? Actually, the Company had given explicit instructions to be friendly with the natives for the purpose of trade and for the propagation of the Gospel. I believe that latter purpose was in the hearts of some on the Company’s board, but not so much on the minds of the first settlers.  Yet if they were dead set on genocide, what would be the rationale for a trading post? If you killed all potential trading partners, with whom would you trade?

In fact, as the leaders attempted to carry out the instructions they were given, they were set upon by some of those natives they sought to befriend. The attack was swift, brutal, and would have conceivably wiped out the colony before it even had a foothold. The only thing that saved them was the shooting off of the cannons on the ships, thereby scaring the natives and leading to their retreat. It was only after this incident that the colonists decided they needed to haul out the rest of their guns and quickly build a fort for protection.

John SmithInternally, the leadership was a mess, fighting continually amongst themselves. No true leader emerged until Capt. John Smith was allowed to be the president of the council. He did a lot of things right—forcing the gentlemen to work, maintaining military drill, storing food for the winter, forcefully trading with the natives, developing a worthwhile friendship with Pocahontas—yet making a lot of those under his authority angry with his no-nonsense approach. His commitment to solid principles to save the colony from disaster could be called Christian, but he was no more than a typical Englishman who considered himself a Christian due to the good fortune of being born in a “Christian” country.

Jamestown CrossWhen the real test came, in the Starving Time during the winter of 1609-1610, Christian virtue and behavior seemed to be in short supply. Eating the corpses of recently deceased neighbors is hardly the spiritual thing to do. One man was executed for killing his pregnant wife and eating her. This descent into cannibalism was only one indication among many that the veneer of Christianity that most of the men possessed was exactly that—a veneer.

So does this mean that Jamestown was an utter failure and that Christians should view it as such? Or is there another side to the story? Can anything be said to offer some balance to the account? I’ll come back with additional information on this important American beginning tomorrow.

Interpreting American History

My time off from blogging during June was most welcome. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing this; I certainly do. A break, though, can be helpful at times. As I contemplated how to proceed with this blog, I realized that even though, as a historian, I have delved time and again into American history on this site, I haven’t done so systematically.

Here’s what I propose to do.

I want to go through American history from the beginning and offer my take/interpretation of people and events. This will be a long process because there’s so much to comment on. I propose to intersperse these interpretations of our past with commentary on current events, as I’ve always done, and as developments require. So for those of you who are more inclined to read about the present than the past, be assured that won’t change. However, I will have more posts dealing with the past than I’ve had previously. Perhaps I’ll do a couple per week, as events allow.

What I hope to do with these historical posts is provide a basic Christian framework for understanding our history. As regular readers know, I consider myself a conservative who believes the roots of our nation do lie within the Christian faith, to a great extent. I will differ, though, with some conservative Christians on certain points. For instance, I cannot, with integrity, try to make non-Christians into Christians, nor can I wink at those aspects of our history that violated Biblical principles. I must be honest with my sources. As a practicing historian who has read extensively on American history, I believe I have greater depth of knowledge than those who dabble in it, yet I seek to remain humble about my knowledge, always staying open to new information.

I can be wrong.

American History SymbolsYet I want to share the conclusions I’ve reached on a wide variety of subjects. Did Jamestown begin with a Christian worldview? Were the Pilgrims and Puritans people to be admired unconditionally? How great was the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century? Was there a proper Biblical basis for the American Revolution and how Christian was it? Were key individuals in our Founding grounded Biblically? Is the Constitution a document with Biblical origins? What about western expansion? Was it carried out in a Christian manner? How do we deal with the treatment of the natives? Naturally, I’ll have to tackle slavery and the Civil War. How should a dedicated Christian understand those?

After the Civil War, did the rise of big business push us in a positive direction as a nation or negative? Was immigration beneficial or harmful? How did progressivism affect our view of government? Along the way, I’ll need to offer my evaluation of key presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Wilson, Coolidge, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and others. Which ones remained tied to our Founding principles and which did not? What about their policies? Cultural changes are just as important as political programs. In fact, the culture may have more of an impact on the policies than vice versa.

I was planning to do this anyway, yet I received another confirmation of the importance of this series when I watched the new Dinesh D’Souza film America on July 4. It was an appropriate day to view it.

America Poster

I loved virtually everything about this documentary—the visuals, the quick pace, the thoughtfulness, the music. What’s more, D’Souza’s approach was excellent. He allowed detractors of America to have their say and proclaim their critiques first; then he answered those critiques most effectively in the last half of the film.

I will do the same, in one sense. I will tell you what others think about these various people and events in American history, then give my response. I hope to be fair; I hope to make you think. I will start tomorrow.

Margaret Thatcher & C. S. Lewis

Path to PowerWhile I was in New Zealand, I happened across a book sale at one site. I’m naturally drawn to such things, so I spent a few minutes perusing the offerings. To my delight, I saw Margaret Thatcher’s The Path to Power on the table. It’s the second volume of her autobiography, following after The Downing Street Years. In The Path to Power, she explains her early years and how she eventually worked her way to the prime ministership.

I’ve been a fan of Thatcher since the 1980s, but had never read one of her books. Here was this one for the paltry sum of $1 in New Zealand currency, which meant it cost even less in American money. How could I pass it by? Well, I didn’t.

Reading the opening chapters on the plane back to the U.S., I was reminded that she attended Oxford during WWII. Suddenly, I realized that she was at Oxford at the same time that C. S. Lewis was coming to prominence there. Naturally, I wondered if she had been influenced by him at all. I didn’t have to go too far into that chapter to find the following commentary from the woman who was raised a Methodist:

Generally speaking . . . I did not go to Anglican churches. But oddly enough—or perhaps not so oddly when one considers the great impact he had on so many of my generation—it was the religious writing of that High Anglican C. S. Lewis which had most impact upon my intellectual religious formation.

C. S. Lewis 5The power of his broadcasts, sermons and essays came from a combination of simple language with theological depth. Who has ever portrayed more wittily and convincingly the way in which Evil works on our human weaknesses than he did in The Screwtape Letters? Who has ever made more accessible the profound concepts of Natural Law than he did in The Abolition of Man and in the opening passages of Mere Christianity?

I remember most clearly the impact on me of Christian Behaviour (republished in Mere Christianity, but originally appearing as radio talks). This went to the heart of the appalling disparity between the way in which we Christians behave and the ideals we profess.

What an excellent passage and an insight into the thinking of Margaret Thatcher. How encouraging to know that C. S. Lewis touched her life in this way.

Reaffirming a Right and Proper Independence

Declaration of Independence Read in BostonJuly 2, 1776—The Continental Congress declares the independence of the United States of America.

July 4, 1776—The final wording of the Declaration of Independence is agreed upon by the Congress.

July 8, 1776—The newly printed Declaration of Independence is read publicly in cities and towns across the new nation.

It took another seven years of toil and agony to realize that Declaration’s premise: the United States, with inalienable rights given by God, took its place among the other nations of the world without British disagreement.

Some of our first steps were stumbling—the Articles of Confederation, making the new government work under the Constitution, setting precedents for the future—yet we managed to establish that government and even make the first transition to the predominance of a different political party in 1800 without bloodshed. We were on our way.

I’ve always been an apologist for America in what I hope is the right and proper way, not ignoring the blemishes and sins, yet seeing the overall picture as positive. I attribute most of that success to a basic Biblical worldview that continued to hold sway even until the onset of the twentieth century. After that, we began to suffer from some serious theological/philosophical drift, and we’ve paid the penalty for doing so. Yet, despite that drift, there remains a Biblical thread running through our culture. Some would like to erase it; others have taken up the gauntlet to protect and advance it. Our future hangs in the balance.

Unfortunately, our once sturdy sense of independence (from government, not God) has reversed itself to an alarming degree:

In Dependence

Let’s take this day to contemplate what the Founders sought to achieve and dedicate ourselves to the re-establishment of the right and proper kind of independence that depends on God alone.

Declaration of Independence-Color

Lewis : Willing Slaves of the Welfare State

C. S. Lewis didn’t write a lot specifically about civil government because that wasn’t his priority. Yet when he did write on the subject, he was lucid and devastating with respect to how government can become a terror to individuals. One of his essays in God in the Dock is entitled “Is Progress Possible?” but the subtitle really gets to the point of the essay: “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” He knew whereof he spoke, writing this in 1958 Britain, which was fast becoming a deadening welfare state at that point.

There’s so much in this essay that I’m going to divide it into two posts. This first one concentrates on the problem of what Lewis calls the “changed relationship between Government and subjects.” He begins with a dissection of our new attitude to crime:

C. S. Lewis 2I will mention the trainloads of Jews delivered at the German gas-chambers. It seems shocking to suggest a common element, but I think one exists. On the humanitarian view all crime is pathological; it demands not retributive punishment but cure. This separates the criminal’s treatment from the concepts of justice and desert; a “just cure” is meaningless. . . .

If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners.

Note the clear insight that Lewis draws here: society is beginning to take away the idea of sin and personal responsibility—and punishment for evil actions—and replace it with the concept that all “evil” is just some kind of aberration that can be “treated.” And who is responsible for the treatment? Why, the government, of course. It will decide how to remake you in its own image.

Lewis continues:

Observe how the “humane” attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease?

One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory “cure.”? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, “What have I done to deserve this?” The Straighteners will reply: “But, my dear fellow, no one’s blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We’re healing you.”

How contemporary as I survey the scene in America today, where Biblical morality is under attack as “hateful,” and where those who adhere to God’s standard are becoming subject to “re-education” directed by government fiat. Lewis saw this coming and shuddered at the loss of liberty attached to the new attitude:

This would be no more than an extreme application of the political philosophy implicit in most modern communities. It has stolen on us unawares. Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains.

The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. Our intellectuals have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to linguistic analysis.

As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something.

Hence the new name “leaders” for those who were once “rulers.” We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.

I challenge you to reread these excerpts again and see if a chill doesn’t rise up your spine at Lewis’s description of the modern state. We see his prophetic utterance coming to fruition in our day.

More on this tomorrow.