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Faith of our Fathers: Spirituality in Jamestown

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As the first rays of sunlight peaked through the Virginia forest surrounding the Jamestown settlement, colonists walked quietly through the morning mist to join their chaplain in prayer. Under an old, tattered sail, Rev. Robert Hunt led the settlers in intercession twice a day -- every day -- as they sought God for wisdom, provision, and protection.

In fact, the first official act by the English in the New World was a corporate prayer. Devotion to God would remain a central element of everyday life in the Virginia colony for years to come.

Years before Rev. Hunt landed in Virginia, the driving force behind the founding of Jamestown was an Anglican priest named Richard Hakluyt -- who was also one of the world’s leading authorities in navigation and seafaring. For nearly fifty years, Hakluyt had advocated for an English colony in the New World. As an advisor of Queen Elizabeth, he conducted in-depth research on global exploration and wrote and lectured often on the subject.

From his extensive research he also wrote his famous “Discourse on Western Planting” in which he presented 21 reasons why England should pursue the colonization of North America.

The primary reason, in Hakluyt’s view, was evangelism. In an effort to see the fulfillment of his dream for an English settlement in the New World, Hakluyt gathered like-minded businessmen who worked together to form the Virginia Company.

A pamphlet published by the Virginia Company called “A True Declaration of the State of Virginia” announced the purposes of the new colony.

…our primarie end is to plant religion, our secondary and subalternate ends are for the honour and profit of our nation.

Another tract published by the Virginia Company was called a “True and Sincere Declaration of the Purposes and Ends of the Plantation.” In this document the leaders of the company state that a motivating purpose of the endeavor was,

First to preach and baptize into Christian religion and by the propagation the Gospel, to recover out of the arms of the devil a number of poor and miserable souls wrapped up unto death in almost invincible ignorance; to endeavor the fulfilling and accomplishments of the number of the elect which shall be gathered from out of all corners of the earth; and add to our myte the treasury of heaven.

King James ascended to the throne with the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. As he did with Queen Elizabeth, Rev. Hakluyt had favor with the new king. It was King James who granted a charter to the Virginia Company and asked Hakluyt to help in the writing of the document. Parson Hakluyt carried his missionary zeal into the task and was able to convince the king and his colleagues in the Virginia Company to make world evangelism a key objective of this new colony.

King James shared the vision for a colony that would carry British civilization and Christianity to the New World. In the Virginia Charter he declared:

We greatly commend and graciously accept their desires for the furtherance of so noble a work, which may, by the providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the glory of His Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God and may in time bring the infidels and savages living in those parts to human civility and a settled, quiet government.

On December 20, 1606, 105 colonists and 40 seamen set sail from England to plant this new settlement to the glory of God. Hakluyt, who was now an old man, was forbidden by the crown to make the dangerous crossing. Instead, he chose his secretary, friend, and fellow Anglican priest, Robert Hunt, to be the chaplain of the colony.

The settlers landed on the shores of Virginia on April 26, 1607. Before permitting the colonists to continue inland, Rev. Hunt required that every person wait before God in a time of personal examination and cleansing.

Rev. Robert HuntThree days later, on April 29, 1607, the expedition, led by Parson Hunt, went ashore to dedicate the continent to the glory of God. They carried one item with them from England for the purpose of giving glory to God in the endeavor – a rough-hewn wooden cross. As the party landed on the wind-swept shore they erected the seven-foot oak cross in the sand.

The colonists and sailors gathered around the cross, holding the first formal prayer service in Virginia to give thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace. As they knelt in the Virginia sand, Hunt reminded them of the admonition of the British Royal Council, taken from the Holy Scripture: “Every plantation, which my Heavenly Father hath not planted, shall e rooted up.”

Raising his hands to heaven, Rev. Robert Hunt claimed the land for country and king and consecrated the continent to the glory of God. In covenantal language he declared, “…from these very shores the Gospel shall go forth to not only this New World, but the entire world.”

With this, the settlers returned to their ships anchored in the Chesapeake Bay and sailed inland, eventually choosing an island 40 miles from the river’s mouth for the site of their new colony. They named the settlement Jamestown in honor of their king.

When they arrived in Jamestown the Captain of the voyage, Christopher Newport, opened the instructions given by the Virginia Company leadership. This document named the new Council in Virginia. These councilors were to elect a president who would serve for one year, have two votes on the council, and govern with a majority.

At the end of this list of practical instructions, the Virginia Company leaders declared:

Lastly and chiefly, the way to prosper and obtain good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own, and to serve and fear God the giver of all goodness. For every plantation which our Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out.

Virginia would be settled for the glory of God, for the honor of the King, for the welfare of England, and for the advancement of the Company and its individual members. The settlers brought with them the Church of England, trial by jury, the rights of free men, and in time, representative government.

Once settled in the fort at Jamestown, the whole company, except those who were on guard, attended regular prayer services twice a day, led by Rev. Hunt under the cover of a tattered old sail until a permanent church could be erected. They built the church in the center of town, where they gathered to lift up prayers twice a day.

One of the best accounts of the religious life in early Jamestown was written by Captain John Smith, who had tremendous admiration for Chaplain Hunt:

Now because I have spoke so much of the body, give me leave to say something of the soul, and the rather because I have been often demanded by so many how we began to preach the Gospel in Virginia, and by what authority, what churches we had, our order of service, and maintenance of our ministers, therefore I think it not amiss to satisfy their demands, it being the mother of all our plantations…

When I first went to Virginia, I well remember, we did hang an awning (which is an old sail) to three or four trees to shadow us from the sun, our walls were rails of wood, our seats unhewed trees till we cut planks; our pulpit a bar of wood nailed to two neighboring trees; in foul weather we shifted into an old rotten tent, for we had few better…

This was our church, till we built a homely thing like a barn, set upon cratchets, covered with rafts, sedge and earth; so was also the walls; the best of our houses (were) of the like curiosity, but the most part far much worse workmanship, that neither could well defend wind nor rain, yet we had daily Common Prayer morning and evening, every Sunday two sermons, and every three months the holy Communion, till our minister died. But our prayers daily with an homily on Sundays, we continued two or three years after, till more preachers came.

An early tract published by the Virginia Company called the "Home Guard Prayer" gave instructions for, “A praier duly said morning and evening upon the Court of Guard, either by the Captain of the Watch himselfe, or by some one of his principall officers.”

The Prayer Book used by the Anglican ministers at Jamestown specified a twice-daily service including the singing of the day’s Psalms, corporate prayer, and the daily Bible reading.

Part of the daily prayer included this petition to God:

And our desires now are to serve and please thee, and our purpose is to endeavour it more faithfully, we pray thee therefore, for the Lord Jesus sake seale up in our consciences thy gracious pardon of all our sinnes past, and give us to feele the consolation of this grace shed abroad in our hearts for our eternall comfort and salvation.

The Prayer Book’s selections were organized so that the colonist would read through the entire Bible in a year.

The ‘Home Guard’ prayer or chapel lasted approximately 20 minutes. In a typical day the colonist would rise early, beginning the day at sunrise with worship, singing, Bible reading, and prayer. The colonists worked 12 hours a day, with time taken for meals and a mid-day rest.

From the beginning of the Virginia expedition, the English worked to build bridges of trust with the natives. Though he distrusted the natives in their current condition, colonist Gabriel Archer had hope for their future. He judged them ready to be civilized and introduced to the Christian faith, “apt both to understand and speake our language.”

Another settler, William Strachey wrote of the natives, “We are taught to acknowledge every man that beareth the impression of God’s stamp to be not only our neighbor but to be our brother.”

The English believed they were merely passing on to the native Americans the civilization and religion that was given to them by the Romans centuries earlier. “Why, what injury can it be to people of any nation for Christians to come unto their ports, havens, or territories,” Strachey wondered, “when the law of nations, which is the law of God and man, doth privilege all men to do so?”

“Had not this violence and injury been offer’d unto us by the Romans, we might yet have lived overgrown Satyrs, rude and untutor’d, wand’ring in the woods…”

Fellow Englishman, Robert Johnson wrote at the time, “Their children, when they come to be saved, will blesse the day when first their fathers saw your faces.”

Captain John Smith developed a close friendship with Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, ruler of the nation that occupied coastal Virginia. Pocahontas is believed to be the first convert to be baptized as a Protestant Christian in the New World.

Pocahontas later married the Englishman John Rolfe and traveled with him to England where she met King James and many of Britain’s leading citizens. This journey did much to win the hearts of the British people, opening the doors for further evangelization among the Indians.

Years later, under the leadership of Rev. Alexander Whitaker, known to historians as the “Apostle of Virginia,” the evangelization of the natives was begun in earnest.

The Rev. Williams Crashaw, writing in the introduction to Whitaker’s 1612 published sermon, “Good News from Virginia,” declared,

This work is of God and will therefore stand… It may be hindered, but it can not be overthrown. If we, then, were so base as to betray and forsake it, God’s, whose it was, will stir up our children after us and give them that good land to enjoy … that men shall say, God hath made His ways known upon the earth and His saving health among the nations.

This "plantation of the Lord" was not rooted up, but grew to become the "Old Dominion" of Virginia, from which sprang the United States of America, a bastion of freedom and democracy in the world. From this nation, hundreds of thousands of missionaries have been sent around the world, fulfilling the prophetic prayer of Rev. Robert Hunt that, " "…these godly Christian generations [will] take the Kingdom of God to all the earth.”

Download and print this commemorative article -- Cape Henry: Spiritual Roots of a Nation

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von Buseck

Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and popular speaker. He is also a contributing writer for,, MTL Magazine, Charisma Magazine, and The Write Conversation blog. He holds a Doctor of Ministry and an MA in Religious Journalism from Regent University. Craig’s recent book, 'I Am Cyrus: Harry S. Truman and the Rebirth of Israel' won the prestigious Selah Award for Christian nonfiction and was nominated for The Truman Award by The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. His book, 'Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant' was named Nonfiction Book of the