Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Church of England in early Virginia



Virginia was settled by businessmen--operating through a joint-stock company, the Virginia Company of London--who wanted to get rich.

They also wanted the Church to flourish in their colony and kept it well supplied with ministers. Some early governors sent by the Virginia Company acted in the spirit of crusaders. Sir Thomas Dale (d. 1619) considered himself engaged in "religious warfare" and expected no reward "but from him on whose vineyard I labor whose church with greedy appetite I desire to erect."

During Dale's tenure, religion was spread at the point of the sword. Everyone was required to attend church and be catechized by a minister. Those who refused could be executed or sent to the galleys.

Like the other seventeenth-century British colonies, Virginia aspired to convert the native populations. The Virginia Company's instructions to its governors required them to make conversion one of their objectives. The most famous early convert was Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, head of the Powhatan Confederacy. Pocahontas was baptized by the Reverend Alexander Whitaker before her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614.

When a popular assembly, the House of Burgesses, was established in 1619, it enacted religious laws that "were a match for anything to be found in the Puritan societies."

Unlike the colonies to the north, where the Church of England was regarded with suspicion throughout the colonial period, Virginia was a bastion of Anglicanism. Her House of Burgesses passed a law in 1632, requiring that there be a "uniformitie throughout this colony both in substance and circumstance to the cannons and constitution of the Church of England."

One of the handicaps faced by the Church of England in Virginia and the other American colonies was its lack of authority to ordain priests. To receive holy orders, candidates were obliged to travel to England. This was an obstacle some were unwilling to confront. As a result, the Church of England often experienced a shortage of priests in America.

The church in Virginia faced problems unlike those confronted in other colonies--such as enormous parishes, some sixty miles long, and the inability to ordain ministers locally--but it continued to command the loyalty and affection of the colonists.

In 1656, a prospective minister was advised that he "would find an assisting, an embracing, a comforting people" in the colony. At the end of the seventeenth century the church in Virginia, according to a recent authority, was prospering; it was "active and growing" and was "well attended by the young and old alike."

From The Library of Congress.


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