As a Christian, I believe that God does intervene in the lives of men and nations. Scripture points to this continually. The most significant intervention was the incarnation of Jesus—God taking on human form. Therefore, I have no problem believing He still does this in our day.
Nevertheless, as a historian, I have to be cautious about declaring something in history is absolutely an example of God’s intervention. I always tell my students to be cautious as well, and not jump to that conclusion too readily. The divine revelation of Scripture tells me when God has done so in the past with Israel and the early church; I don’t have any divine revelation to confirm His direct actions in American history. I can speculate, though, based on the evidence that we do have.
Take Jamestown, for instance. I made a case last week that most of those involved with this new settlement did not arrive with a Gospel mission. Their primary goal was trade and commerce, with the hope of getting rich. Some even thought they could achieve it quickly by finding gold or other valuable commodities. I also pointed out the faithful settlers who did have God’s heart in seeking to minister to others, but they seemed to be in the minority.
In passing, I mentioned the awful Starving Time of 1609-1610, in which the inhabitants were reduced to eating shoe leather and other inedible items. They finally resorted to eating the corpses of former neighbors, with one man actually killing his wife for the purpose of eating her. This descent into cannibalism was only the most obvious incident revealing the lack of real Christian faith in operation during that time.
When a new ship arrived in the spring of 1610, only about 60 settlers remained from the approximately 500 who began the winter. This ship itself had been newly constructed from the wreckage of the previous ship that had been stranded on Bermuda after a storm.
The situation was so bad that everyone was packed into that one ship for the desperate attempt to get back to England, even though they weren’t sure how they were going to get enough food to survive the trip. Jamestown was now such a despised place that those who were still left on their feet after the winter wanted to torch the entire settlement. They were kept from doing so by the ship’s captain. It was to be abandoned, though. It was another failed experiment.
Yet, as they were about to leave the James River and embark on their ocean journey, they happened to meet new ships arriving just at that moment, complete with a new governor and instructions to reverse course and restart the colony. When news of this fortunate meeting of the ships going in opposite directions got back to England, the Virginia Company used this auspicious event to trumpet God’s providence. It was God, they proclaimed, who engineered the chance meeting and saved the struggling colony.
Was it God who did this? Why would He even be interested in salvaging a colony that didn’t put Him first and that had succumbed to such abhorrent behavior as cannibalism? Why would He care, especially when the Virginia Company used this primarily for propaganda to get more funding?
Why indeed? I’m not saying for sure this was a result of divine intervention, but a case can be made for why God might have been interested in this colony’s continuance. If Jamestown had failed, it might have been the final straw for English colonization. History was not on their side. Sir Walter Raleigh had failed 20-plus years earlier at Roanoke Island—the famous Lost Colony. Those who had contributed financially to the Jamestown expedition would have lost everything they put into it. How successful would another company be trying to convince investors to do it again?
If England had dropped out of the colonization race, who would have stepped into the vacuum? The obvious answer is Spain. What would the Spanish have established in North America? All we have to do is look at what the Spanish did in South and Central America to answer that. There would have been no Protestantism in the New World. Anyone attempting to bring Reformation ideas would have been persecuted. Neither would there have been any form of representative government. Spain’s model for government was top-down authoritarianism.
This means the entire history of the New World would have been different. No eventual freedom of conscience in religion. No legislative assemblies based on representation. No United States of America as we have known it. To me, that would have been a tragic history. I’m still one who believes that, despite its flaws, the United States has been a source of good to the world.
So, did God intervene to save Jamestown? I offer a possible alternative history here with Spain as the dominant nation in all of the Western Hemisphere. If that’s not something God desired, and if He had plans for a new empire with a more substantial Biblical foundation, and from which missionaries would then take His message around the world, it could very well be argued that He ensured the survival of Jamestown to fulfill His ultimate purposes.
But I can’t make that declaration absolutely. I can only weigh the possibility and come to my own conclusion. You can do the same.