Anglicans on the Frontier: The Great Commission and the Exploration and Colonization of North America

By Lawson, Russell M. | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Anglicans on the Frontier: The Great Commission and the Exploration and Colonization of North America


Lawson, Russell M., Anglican and Episcopal History


Captain John Smith was arguably the greatest of the English explorers, discoverers, and colonists of America. He was as well the first American historian. His human and natural histories include: A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Collony, published in 1608; A Map of Virginia, published in 1612; the Description of New England, published in 1616; New Englands Trials, published in 1620; The True Travels, published in 1629; the Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, published in 1631; and his most ambitious effort, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, published in 1624. The General History has quite a story to tell, of journeys and battles, of harrowing escapes from enemies intent on torturing their captives, of explorers penetrating lands and waters hitherto unseen by Europeans, of dramatic episodes involving the American Indians. With so many possible themes-of adventure, romance, discovery-with which to open his book, it is instructive to see how Smith chose to open his General History. The first paragraph reads:

"This plaine History humbly sheweth the truth; that our most royall King James hath place and opportunitie to inlarge his ancient Dominions without wronging any; (which is a condition most agreeable to his most just and pious resolutions:) and the Prince his Highness may see where to plant new Colonies. The gaining Provinces addeth to the Kings Crown: but the reducing Heathen people to civiline and true Religion, bringeth honour to the King of Heaven."1

Contained in this first paragraph of the General History are the three fundamental assumptions that guided the life and activities of John Smith, and indeed of all the English explorers who journeyed to America in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, during the Elizabeth and Jacobean ages. Smith identified himself-as well as the English-as conqueror, colonizer, and commissioner: a conqueror who will "reduce heathen people," a colonizer who will "plant new colonies," and a commissioner who will "bringeth honour to the King of Heaven."

To use civilization and conversion as the ultimate ends to justify conquest and colonization seems disingenuous to say the least, a crass example of an expedient moral system that defends evil because it results in an ultimate good. Forcing others to convert to Christianity was not Smith's style, and English discoverers anyway tended not to force religion down the throats of disbelieving Indians. Even so, it often appears that, of the three apparent reasons for European colonization, God, Glory, and Gold, God was least important, mere window-dressing, something that sounded good in theory but was in reality little practiced.

If, however, the words of the English are allowed to explain their motives and assumptions, it appears that the narratives of English colonization repeatedly cite the Great Commission as the ultimate end for the means of conquest and colonization.

Captain Smith was not, of course, ordained and commissioned by the Anglican or any other Church to spread the Gospel according to the tenets of the Great Commission. But Smith did believe that Jesus's commandment to his disciples to go, and spread the Gospel to all nations, applied to English colonizing efforts. Smith was an ad hoc commissioner who, because of his Anglican beliefs, felt compelled not only to journey to America and colonize the land, but to do so because the Great Commission commanded it, and, as a consequence, to bring knowledge of the teachings of Christ to the American Indians. Smith was joined in this endeavor by other explorers, colonizers, and scientists, such as the voyagers who founded Roanoke in the 1580s, and the men of the Martin Frobisher, Humfrey Gilbert, and George Waymouth voyages. Smith is the best known of the early American explorers, and a person that on the surface would not appear to be inclined toward the concerns of the missionary to spread the knowledge of Christianity to others. …

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