May 16, 2007

Jamestown: Christ or commerce?

Posted in History, Religion, Wingnuts at 4:44 pm by The Lizard Queen

Via Pam, this evening I came across an article on WorldNetDaily that complains that President Bush spoke at an event commemorating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Jamestown settlement, and he didn’t mention the real reason for the settlement’s foundation: “the spread of [the Christian faith] was the primary purpose for creation of the settlement.” My favorite excerpt:

“I am just floored with the president’s behavior,” said one WND reader, who was anxious to see if Bush would mention the Christian heritage.

The article sparked my curiosity; my understanding from my memories of high school history is that while the Plymouth colony was indeed founded for reasons relating to religion, the Jamestown colony was founded for more commercial reasons. By and large what I found on the internet supported that understanding:

From Historic Jamestowne:

In June of 1606, King James I granted a charter to a group of London entrepreneurs, the Virginia Company, to establish a satellite English settlement in the Chesapeake region of North America. By December, 108 settlers sailed from London instructed to settle Virginia, find gold and a water route to the Orient.

From Jamestown Settlement:

In 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, a group of 104 English men and boys began a settlement on the banks of Virginia’s James River. They were sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, whose stockholders hoped to make a profit from the resources of the New World.

From Jamestown 1607 (the introduction to which made me suspect the site has a conservative bias, if anything):

…these settlers were commissioned by the Virginia Company of London to establish the first permanent settlement in the new world. They came in search of gold and other treasure…

From the Wikipedia entry on the Virginia Company of London:

The London Company (also called the Charter of the Virginia Company of London) was an English joint stock company established by royal charter by James I on April 10, 1606 with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America. It was one of two such companies, along with the Plymouth Company, that was granted an identical charter as part of the Virginia Company. The London Company was responsible for establishing the Jamestown Settlement, the first permanent English settlement in the present United States in 1607…

From Conservapedia’s entry on Jamestown (hey, I’m nothing if not thorough!):

They came to Virginia to establish a trading post and to search for gold and silver.

My curiosity as to where WND got their info was still piqued, though. The article contains a link to an earlier WND article that discusses the 1606 charter mentioned in a couple of the quotes above. That earlier article states that “[t]he first goal of the Jamestown settlers who arrived in Virginia in 1607 to create a nation was to spread the Gospel,” and cites the following paragraph from the charter:

Wee, greately commending and graciously accepting of theire desires to the furtherance of soe noble a worke which may, by the providence of Almightie God, hereafter tende to the glorie of His Divine Majestie in propagating of Christian religion to suche people as yet live in darkenesse and miserable ignorance of the true knoweledge and worshippe of God and may in tyme bring the infidels and salvages living in those parts to humane civilitie and to a setled and quiet govermente, doe by theise our lettres patents graciously accepte of and agree to theire humble and well intended desires…

[Incidentally, WND cuts the paragraph off after “govermente;” the whole charter can be read here.] What I understand from this paragraph is that King James I is acknowledging the idea that certain British subjects have expressed a desire to bring Christianity to the pagans of the New World, and is giving them leave to do so. After that paragraph, the charter seems more concerned with establishing the boundaries of the colonies — and furthermore, the charter establishes the Plymouth colony as well as the Jamestown colony, so I’m not sure the charter actually goes against my earlier understanding of the differences between the two colonies. (And I suspect the above paragraph had more to do with politics than with a firm religious belief on James’s part, but I don’t have any concrete information to base that on, just a gut feeling.)

Also, I found another document on the website where I read the charter, entitled “Instructions for the Virginia Colony,” also dated 1606. The instructions are largely practical (e.g. “First, erect a little stoure at the mouth of the river that may lodge some ten men; with whom you shall leave a light boat, that when any fleet shall be in sight, they may come with speed to give you warning”), but they also include advice about dealing with the natives (“naturals”). That advice deals with establishing trade (“imploy some few of your company to trade with them for corn and all other . . . victuals if you have any; and this you must do before that they perceive you mean to plant among them”) and establishing and maintaining superiority over them (“how weary soever your soldiers be, let them never trust the country people with the carriage of their weapons; for if they run from you with your shott, which they only fear, they will easily kill them all with their arrows”). If the primary reason for the establishment of the Jamestown colony was spreading the Gospel, wouldn’t it have been mentioned at least in passing in those instructions?

Ultimately, I think WND is reading what they want to read into the historical documents they discuss in the earlier article. Why does it seem so difficult for wingnuts to accept the idea that the U.S. was not, in fact, founded as a Christian nation? I’d say that we could call it a draw, that they could claim the Plymouth colony for Christ (as it were), while those of us with more secular interests insofar as American history and government are concerned can call Jamestown a colony based on commerce, but then they’d have to face the idea that the Pilgrims came to the new world with hopes for religious freedom (of course, they became hypocritical in that respect right quick, but that’s another issue), which is an ideal they don’t seem terribly fond of.

On a tangential note, one of the books on my summer to-read list is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I’m looking forward to it, and it might turn out that I’ll have more to say on this subject after I’ve read it.



  1. Evil Bender said,

    WND does the same thing as the DI: they reinterpret history to meet their needs of the moment, even when that contradicts other claims they’ve made.

    Also, it seems Conservapedia has cleaned up a little bit; they no longer claim Jamestown was founded by Pilgrims, for one thing.

  2. Taylor said,

    I’ve always been really harassed by these groups claiming that the Southern colonies (ironically) were absolutely NOT founded for any missionary reasons. Jamestown, Charles Town (Charleston), the entirety of the Carolina and Virginia colonies, were founded to make money. ONLY. Carolina didn’t even have religious requirements! Charleston (and later Savannah) had huge, vibrant Jewish populations, which certainly shows how concerned the colonists were with spreading the Christian faith.

    You will frequently see the name of god invoked on these early charters for 2 reasons
    1. It was the freaking 16th/17th century. That was pretty much obligatory
    2. To drum up support (and therefore LOTS of money) from the people who were screaming about religion and spreading the gospel to the native populations. (Hey! This sounds familiar. Like how republicans talk about Jesus, because then evangelicals stop paying attention to what they are actually doing and support them BECAUSE of their religious rhetoric and nothing else. Turns out we didn’t invent that!)

    People who claim, therefore, that these colonists were founding the country to be Christian are terrible students of history (what a shock…) or desperately trying to force their own agenda onto a historical event.

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