Puritans and Religious Strife in the Early Chesapeake

By Butterfield, Kevin | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Puritans and Religious Strife in the Early Chesapeake


Butterfield, Kevin, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


And who knowes, but the wildernesse and solitary place may be glad, the parched ground may become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water. I am sure it is the earnest prayer of some poore soules in Virginia ....

William Durand, 1642

SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY Virginia was not a likely wellspring of Puritanism. Profit was the primary driving force in the growth of the colony, not religion. Foreign investors and bureaucratic corporations had more interest and influence in Virginia than did any church or religious sect. When juxtaposed with the solemn way of life in New England, Virginia appears to have few of the qualities that one commonly associates with Puritanism. And yet, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Puritans were an influential component of Virginia society. They formed their own parish churches, actively ministered to the populace, elected and dispatched delegates to the House of Burgesses, and made every effort to create and preserve a community of like-minded individuals. Their attempt failed only when the colonial government in Jamestown cracked down on those not conforming to the dictates of the Church of England, and by 1650 almost all Puritans had fled Virginia. Examining the history of Puritanism in Virginia by focusing on those counties south of the James River, particularly Nansemond and Lower Norfolk counties, where Puritans settled in the greatest numbers and where their influence was strongest, one finds a story of religious growth and decline in the face of legal persecution. Incorporating these beleaguered congregations of Puritans into the history of the Chesapeake reveals the leading Anglicans of Virginia to have become increasingly intolerant and helps to show the complex web of connections that linked Virginia, New England, and England. The history of what some participants undoubtedly saw as a struggle for the soul of the colony sheds light on the religious environment and sociopolitical realities of Virginia and the seventeenth-century Atlantic world.

It would be a mistake to conclude that because Virginia had a more secular orientation than New England it was without significant religious influences and institutions. From its earliest days, religion played a vital role in the colony's existence. Virginia's first charters enjoined its colonists to spread the Christian religion to the native inhabitants of the land and, on threat of imprisonment, to remain faithful to it themselves. Ministers accompanied the first shiploads of Englishmen, and, from their writings and actions, it is difficult to question the piety of the earliest settlers. In 1619, the first Virginia General Assembly, believing that "`men's affaires doe little prosper where God's service is neglected,"' enacted laws mandating "observance of the Sabbath," weekly church attendance, and the collection of "taxes for the support of church and clergy."1

The church and clergy supported by these measures was exclusively Anglican. The original charters mandated the propagation of the religion "now professed and established within our realme of England." The Church of England was to be the established church of the colony of Virginia. Officially, at least, this status would not change until the American Revolution. The rigidity with which Anglicanism was to be enforced, however, relaxed almost immediately. Backers of the early colonization efforts, such as Sir Edwin Sandys, expressed their inclination toward taking "colonists from every source," including Catholics and dissenting Anglicans, to ensure that there were enough people to make the Virginia settlement permanent. From the start, leaders in the colony realized that the exigencies of life in the New World required a certain amount of flexibility. Although each governor was instructed by his superiors in London to preserve the Church of England in Virginia, as early as 1621 Governor Francis Wyatt received modified orders to "keep up religion of the church of England as near as may be.

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