Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Women & Religion in 17C Virginia (1619)

Virginia was settled & controlled by businessmen--operating through the Virginia Company of London--who wanted to get rich. To keep a familiar order in the New World they wanted the Anglican Church to flourish in their colony kept well supplied with English ministers, all male. 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" & 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.

Most of what we know of religion in early Virginia Native society comes from Captain John Smith, who stated that all Indians had "religion, Deare, & Bow & Arrowes." Smith came to know the Powhatans of Tsenacomoco—an alliance of 28-32 small tribes along the James, Mattaponi, & Pamunkey rivers. The Powhatans worshiped a number of spirits including the Great Hare creator god, an unnamed female divinity, & the Sun god. The sole reference to the Native American female divinity comes in connection with the Great Hare. This anonymous goddess was believed to inhabit a halfway house on the road to the after-world, near where the Great Hare lives. Described as offering fine food & hospitality for travelers, she was thought to be a source of strength during the passage between the worlds of the living & the dead.

Like the other 17C British colonies, Virginia's settlers aspired to convert the native populations they encountered. 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.

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 & circumstance to the cannons & constitution of the Church of England."One of the handicaps faced by the Church of England in Virginia & 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.

See The Library of Congress.