On May 17, 1607, English settlers landed on Jamestown Island in Virginia and created what would be the first permanent British colony. An Anglican clergyman led them in prayers of thanksgiving and in constructing the first permanent Protestant church in the Western hemisphere.
In two months, the 400th anniversary of this event will be celebrated. The Episcopal Church, as the spiritual descendants of the original Jamestown colony, is participating, although perhaps with some hesitation. Fifteen years ago, the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to America was marred by controversy, with groups such as the National Council of Churches denouncing the celebration of "genocide" against the native peoples of America.
The Episcopal Church often embodies religious liberal chic, but it's still also capable of tasteful reflection. A series of Episcopal Church bulletin inserts about the Jamestown commemoration provided to local Episcopal congregations have provided a mostly straightforward history. They recount that the church at Jamestown "helped to form American Episcopalians' commitment to common prayer and Anglican 'comprehensive' theology--and a resilience of faith and mission that has been strengthened by the challenges of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the civil rights achievements of more recent years."
A brick church tower at Jamestown, dating to 1647, is the only original structure of the village still standing. Captain John Smith, organizational savior of the earliest colonists, worshipped in the first church built in 1608. Pocahontas, the Indian princess who reputedly saved Smith from execution by her father's warriors, married colonist John Rolfe in a later structure in 1614. And the first English-speaking legislature in the New World met at a still later church in 1619. The building to which the current tower belonged was burned in 1676 during the rebellion against the colonial governor led by Nathaniel Bacon. A replica of what the 1647 church probably looked like was built onto the tower in 1906.
Episcopalians from throughout the dioceses of Virginia and West Virginia will meet there for a "large liturgical gathering" in May as part of the festivities. "Central to these liturgies will be expressions of Native American history and spirituality," the church bulletin promises. A Cherokee female bishop will "assure [that] the perspectives of First Nation Episcopalians and their contemporary concerns are accentuated."
Another church bulletin makes further promises: "Priority has also been placed upon anti-racism training, designed to eradicate the residual effects of the seeds of cultural injustice planed early on at Jamestown, where the first African American slaves were brought to American soil by Dutch explorers in 1619."
In January, the Episcopal Church's annual retreat for indigenous people, called "Winter Talk," met outside Jamestown. The Episcopal Church is an overwhelmingly white and Anglo denomination, but about 70 participants gathered. According to Episcopal News Service, "Winter Talk is a place and time for native Episcopalians and Anglicans to laugh and cry and pray--and laugh some more. For despite 400 years of struggle against displacement, poverty, and attempted cultural genocide, no gathering of native peoples is without abundant laughter."
Dr. Hone T. Kaa journeyed all the way from New Zealand to be with Winter Talk. He explained: "We are struggling to find our identity in the midst of a majority culture, but it doesn't have to be gruesome. It is what you make of it." Although a Maori, Kaa said he could understand the predicament of native peoples in America: "I think we all suffered from the same colonizer." According to the Episcopal News Service account, the Winter Talk crowd recognized "that the Gospel message of salvation came with an unnecessary and cruel price attached: the destruction of human cultures and lives."
An altar was built at Winter Talk retreat, with each participant contributing a cherished item and a story. One item was an icon of the young Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy that ruled eastern Virginia when the Jamestown colonists arrived. Her baptism at the church in Jamestown is an iconic event in American history, prominently portrayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. At Winter Talk, the icon was wrapped in a Mexican serape and walked to the foot of a cross on the James River for a blessing ceremony, punctuated by an eagle-bone whistle and white sage smoke.
"For her to have died alone in a foreign country is not our way," mournfully commented one participant about Pocahontas' death at age 22 in England. But the young princess was not, in fact, alone. She was with her husband, John Rolfe, and their 2-year-old child. She had been disowned by her father the chief back in Virginia because of her association with the English. But she was received rapturously by English royalty and society in London.
Winter Talk participants also recounted an atrocity from 1610, when English forces, countenanced by then-Governor Lord De la Ware, massacred a native village in a reprisal raid. "The atrocity shocked the Powhatans, for whom the killing of women and children in war was unacceptable," the Episcopal News Service report asserted. But in fact, atrocities were not first introduced into the New World by the English. The Powhatan Confederacy, led by Pocahontas' father, was not a democratic union, but an empire in which subservient tribes either submitted or were annihilated. The early English colonists and their native neighbors alternated for years between cordial interaction and brutal savagery.
Winter Talk met at the retreat center of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, named "Chanco on the James." The Episcopal News Service did not describe Chanco, who was a young native boy central to the history of Jamestown. On the morning of Good Friday, 1622, after years of peace between the English and the Powhatans, native warriors, in a synchronized attack, walked into unsuspecting villages and plantations throughout Virginia and killed one fourth of the entire English population in the colony.
The death toll would have been much higher. But Chanco, a convert to Christianity, warned the English family with whom he lived rather than participate in their murder the following morning. Jamestown and surrounding settlements were alerted in time, even as outlying areas were left defenseless against the attack.
Although he is, with Pocahontas, one of the earliest native Anglicans in history, Chanco is not likely to get much mention from Episcopal Church commemorations of the Jamestown anniversary. But the true story of Jamestown is properly not about modern ideology, but an account of thousands of individuals, each of whom made decisions that ranged from dastardly, to mediocre, to heroic. The Episcopal Church's own ancestors, both English and native, were central to that drama, and they should be commemorated.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.