As this issue of Congregations went to press, many in this country marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first “permanent” English colonial settlement in North America. Marking anniversaries is such a routine part of life that we often miss the great opportunities to stop and reflect on the great stories that they represent. This time I was ready. The day after Queen Elizabeth visited to mark the occasion, I walked the historic site and sampled the museums that seek to reconstruct and interpret what happened there.
I stood at the place where, in 1607, three small ships tied up to a bank on the James River and unloaded the 104 men (women arrived later) who would set in motion a story that is still unfolding today. As I walked along the riverbank, looked at the archaeological traces, and viewed the historical exhibits, I marveled at the enormous and very mixed legacy left by a group no larger than what today we would call a small congregation.
Parts of the story seem familiar and perhaps even quaint to us. Most Americans hear about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas in grade school years, and the story we remember does not do justice to the collision between a great Native American civilization, the Powhatan, and the English interlopers. Within two weeks of their disembarking, the Proto-Virginians and the Powhatan had exchanged cannon fire and arrows. One exhibit compared two maps, one that showed scores of blue dots along the many rivers and inlets that flow from Virginia into the Chesapeake Bay—each blue dot representing where a Powhatan tribal compound existed in 1607—and another from 1675, which showed hundreds of red dots marking English settlements. Less than a dozen blue dots remained. In less than 70 years, the Native Americans had been forced from their lands and set on what would one day be called the Trail of Tears that is the story of the long tragedy experienced by the original American settlers.
The tragic story of conflict and oppression that unfolded from those first encounters was not intended by the first settlers. They hoped for peaceful relations and even included ministry to the Native Americans as one of their first objectives. But, as in many other parts of this venture, good intentions gave way to very different realities. In addition to the unintended Native American story set in motion on the soil along the James River, are others. The only clergyman who accompanied this odd assortment of adventurers, the Reverend Robert Hunt, is believed by many to have been the carrier of typhoid from England to the New World. Hunt and 49 others of the first settlers died rapidly in the first months after settlement. Typhoid, along with other diseases carried by the new settlers, may have taken more Native American lives than the bullets the new immigrants fired.
Congregational life was an important part of the founding vision of this community. The most impressive structure built inside the small stockade on the beach was a church, one where worship attendance was mandatory for all settlers, and the site where, in 1619, the first general assembly—the democratic prototype for all the legislative assemblies that make our political system work—gathered.
When this congregation was not worshiping or burying its dead, it was scrambling to eke out a living—and some profit for the investors back home in London. The first plan was to find gold. That did not pan out, so they tried fur trading, fishing, and glassmaking. Failures again. John Rolfe, the other man in the Pocahontas story, hit upon the solution. In 1612 he imported Nicotiana tabacum seeds and soon tobacco farming was the boom economy of Virginia. By 1670 the settlers in Virginia and Maryland had sent more than 15 million pounds of the exotic weed back home. They could not have harvested all that by themselves. When the privateer, the White Lion, docked in Jamestown in 1619 with 20 captives from Angola, a new source of labor—and America’s sad legacy of slavery—began, putting in place great social, racial, and economic inequities that profoundly shaped our nation’s history.
There is much more drama, irony, tragedy, and possibility in these inauspicious beginnings than we can fathom. Today we still live with the consequences of that early settlement, which in some ways was our first congregation. What began on this piece of earth set in motion an American experiment which has irrevocably altered human history—for better and for worse. We are still trying to repair the great damage done to Native and African Americans that began in Jamestown. We are still paying the hospital bills and dealing with the addictions that are the long-term harvest of those first tobacco plantings. The democratic processes unleashed in this place continue to ripple and struggle around the world, being viewed by many at home and abroad as both a source of great human hope and an increasingly mixed blessing. The unbridled pursuit of wealth, so powerfully transplanted at Jamestown, remains part of our national DNA, giving us unprecedented material blessings and an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. And the local congregation—represented by that first church at the center of the stockade—continues to sit uneasily in the middle of all these dynamics, trying to proclaim a better way. Like the first Jamestown church that was rebuilt many times, American congregations are often overwhelmed by the strong forces swirling around and within them. But they refuse to go away, giving us, among other things, a special place to stop and think about all that we are a part of.