Jamestown: A Christian Settlement?

Today I begin a journey through American history. 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.