Religion and Ministry in the Virginia Colony

Dateline: Virginia, 1619-1663. Were the Virginia colonists secular and anti-religious? Here are their values and ideas about the Christian religion and doing ministry. Primary sources!

These are modernized transcriptions.

August 2, 1619

Here the colonists intend to educate native children and then send them out as missionaries. In those days doing mission work was more than just conversion. It also included education.

Be it enacted by this present Assembly, that for laying a surer foundation of the conversion of the Indians to Christian Religion, each town, city, borrough, & particular plantation do obtain unto themselves by just means a certain number of the natives’ children to be educated by them in true Religion & civil course of life. Of which children the most toward boys in wit & graces of nature to be brought up by them in the first elements of literature, so as to be fitted for the College intended for them; that from thence [there] they may be sent to that work of conversion. (p. 10)

August 4, 1619

A third sort of laws as may issue out of every man’s private concept.

Go here for the first set of laws:

Laws in the Earliest Colony of Virginia

….

All ministers in the Colony shall once a year, namely in the month of March, bring to the Secretary of State a true account of all christenings, burials and marriages upon pain, if they fail, to be censured for the negligence by the Governor and Council; likewise where there be no ministers that the commanders of the place do supply the same ….

All ministers shall duly read divine service and exercise their ministerial function according to the Ecclesiastical laws and orders of the Church of England and every Sunday in the afternoon shall catechize such as are not yet ripe to come to the Communion. And whosoever of them shall be found negligent or faulty in this kind shall be subject to the censure of the Governor and Council of state.

The ministers and churchwardens shall seek to prevent all ungodly disorders, the committers whereof, if upon good admonitions and mild reproof they will not forbear the said scandalous offenses, as suspicions of whoredoms, dishonest company, keeping with women and such like, they are to be presented and punished accordingly.

If any person after two warning do not amend his or her life in point of evident suspicion of incontinency or of the commission of any other enormous sins that then he or she be presented by the Churchwardens and suspended for a time from the church by the minister. In which interim if the same person do not amend and humbly submit him or herself to the church, he is then fully to be excommunicate and soon after a writ or warrant to be sent from the Governor for the apprehending of his person and seizing all his goods. Provided always that all the ministers do meet in quarter, namely at the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, of the nativity of our Saviour, of the Annunciation of the blessed Virgin and about midsummer at James City [Jamestowne] or any other place where the Governor shall reside, to determine whom it is fit to excommunicate; and that they first present their opinion to the Governor ere [before] they proceed to the act of excommunication.

For reformation of swearing, every freeman and master of a family after thrice admonition  shall give 5 shillings or the value upon present demands, to the use of the church where he dwells; and every servant after the like admonition, except his master discharge the fine, shall be subject to whipping. Provided, that the payment of the fine notwithstanding, the said servant shall acknowledge the fault publicly in the church. (pp. 13-14)

March 23, 1660/1 (1661 by our dating)

For the supply of an able and orthodox ministry in such parishes of Virginia which are destitute of ministers:

It is ordered by this present Grand Assembly that the vestries of the several parishes so destitute do subscribe and procure from several other inhabitants such subscriptions as they shall be willing to make towards the support and maintenance of such ministers in their several parishes.

Whereas for the advancement of learning, promoting piety and provision of an able and successive ministry in this country, it has been thought fit that a college of students of the liberal arts and sciences be erected and maintained in pursuance whereof the Right Honourable his Majesty’s Governor, Council of State and Burgesses of the present Grand Assembly have severally subscribed several considerable sums of money and quantities of tobacco (out of their charity and devotion) to be paid to the honourable Grand Assembly or such treasurer or treasurers as they shall now or their successors hereafter at any time appoint upon demand after a place is provided and built upon for that intent and purpose:

It is ordered that the commissioners of the several county courts do at the next following court in their several counties subscribe such sums of money and tobacco towards the furthering and promoting the said persons and necessary work to be paid by them or their heirs, as they shall think fit, and that they also take the subscriptions of such persons at the said courts who shall be willing to contribute towards the same; and that after such subscriptions taken they send orders to the vestries of the several parishes in their several counties for the subscriptions of such inhabitants and others who have not already subscribed and that the same be returned to Francis Morrison, Esquire.

September 10, 1663

Whereas there was presented to the Grand Assembly by the jury of inquest in Nansemond County a list of several persons, who contrary to the laws of this country, some had totally absented themselves from the Church, and hearing of divine service; some only neglecters to come to church, some Quakers, some that under pretence of marriage lived unlawfully together in fornication, the court itself for not ordering the several vestries to divide the parishes into precincts, for bounding land and the vestry of Chuckatuck for not swearing churchwardens:

It is therefore ordered that the several persons, court and vestry be fined so much as the particular acts against breach is by them made do impose upon them; and that the court of Nansemond do ascertain and issue out warrants to the sheriff to collect the same this present year; and that the grand jury, sheriff, clerk of the said county be paid their reasonable penny worth out of those fines and that the rest be employed at the discretion of the court for pious uses in the same county.

No, the Virginia colony was not secular, while the pilgrims up in New England were Christian.

RELATED

Laws in the Earliest Colony of Virginia

SOURCES

Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/59, ed. H. R. McIlwaine (Richmond: 1915)

Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1659/60-1693, ed. H. R. McIlwaine (Richmond: 1914).

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