Colonial Origins and Growth: The Church of England Adapts to North America, 1607-1760

By Bond, Edward L.; Gundersen, Joan R. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Colonial Origins and Growth: The Church of England Adapts to North America, 1607-1760


Bond, Edward L., Gundersen, Joan R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Writing in 1631, Captain John Smith described one of the Virginia colonists' earliest worship spaces: "wee did hang an awning (which is an olde saile) to three or foure trees to shadow us from the Sunne, our walls were rales of wood, our seats unhewed trees, till we cut plankes, our Pulpit a bar of wood nailed to two neighbouring trees, in foule weather we shifted into an old rotten tent, for we had few better . . . this was our Church. . . . wee had daily Common Prayer morning and evening, every Sunday two Sermons, and every three moneths the Holy Communion."1 Here the settlers heard the Word preached; here they confessed their sins and received absolution; here they partook in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; here they added their "Amens" in assent to the various petitions found in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer. Smiths focus was not on the grand historical drama taking place but on a humble spot and the English Christians who gathered there to worship God in what passed for a church. Alone on the edge of a continent, worried about their survival, their chances of making it back to England, their next meal, thankful they were once again on solid land, Jamestown's first settlers found solace, meaning, hope, and strength in their reformed religion. Generations of Anglicans and Episcopalians would do the same, turning to the church in times of sadness and in times of joy. This history will trace the church's accomplishments, failures, and conflicts throughout its four centuries of life in Virginia. Beneath what historians tend to see as those larger stories, however, are the millions of men and women, clergy and laypeople, who found in the church a meaningful way to worship God and a place to work out their salvation.

The church Smith wrote of had emerged out of two great movements in the history of the western world: the Protestant Reformation and European efforts to colonize the New World. Martin Luther's rebellion against the Church of Rome shattered western Christendom. In place of a Europe loosely united by the Roman Catholic Church, a number of state church systems-some loyal to Rome, others loyal to the Calvinism associated with Geneva-emerged. The religion of a nation's ruler determined the religion of the nation's people, and in theory and in law everyone was a member of the state church. The English theologian and political theorist Richard Hooker may have explained most clearly the relationship between church and state in the post-Reformation world:

So albeit properties and actions of one kind do cause the name of a Commonwealth, qualities and functions of another sort the name of a Church to be given unto a multitude, yet one and the selfsame multitude may in such sort be both and is so with us, that no person appertaining to the one can be denied to be also of the other.2

The English Reformation did not begin in the sixteenth century; its roots reach back to Europe's medieval past. While the medieval church in England officially followed the traditional theology and practices of Roman Catholic Christianity, the English church, like the church in France, nonetheless enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy. And when a series of crises between the years of 1305 and 1449 (the Avignon papacy, the Great Schism, and the concilliar movement) weakened the authority and prestige of the papacy, English bishops more and more looked to their monarch rather than the pope as the final authority on ecclesiastical matters, thus setting the context for institutional change when the Reformation formally came to England in the 153Os. England's Henry VIII at first showed little interest in bringing the movement to his nation, even publishing a tract in opposition to Luther's understanding of the sacraments that earned him the title "Defender of the Faith" from Pope Leo X. Henry went so far as to persecute members of the Cambridge Protestants, a group of English theologians sympathetic to reform.

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