Last month, the Virginia General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of House Resolution 297 . The resolution, introduced by Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) and Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), offers official state recognition of “the enormous influence of Christian heritage and faith throughout the Commonwealth’s 400-year history.”
While such a resolution may seem fairly innocent at first glance, its claims to legitimacy are based on dubious history. HR 297 begins with a preamble that asserts the preeminence of Christianity in the commonwealth. In 1607, it alleges, an expedition subsidized by the Virginia Company landed on the shores of what is now Virginia Beach and “erected a wooden cross in symbolic reference to the Christian faith, invoked a public prayer of dedication, and pledged that the Gospel message would be spread throughout the region and, from that region, abroad.”
Shortly after this transformative moment, the Jamestown settlement was born and, the authors of the resolution declare, “Judeo-Christian principles, as established in the Law of Moses and set forth from the earliest days of recorded history,” became the law of the land.
It’s important to pause here for a moment to examine this initial assertion. The Virginia Company, chartered by King James I in 1606, was a joint-stock enterprise backed by wealthy Londoners seeking to profit from New World colonization.
The company’s primary goal was to mine North America for precious metals and other raw materials such as timber, iron, minerals and medicinal plants from which they and their shareholders could reap enormous financial profit. Secondary goals included locating the famed and elusive Northwest passage to the East Indies; establishing a convenient base from which to attack Spanish treasure ships; planting English civilization in the New World; and laying the foundation for the future industries that would enrich the Mother Country, including pitch and tar manufacture, silk and wine industries and wood processing.
Although calls to spread Protestantism overseas in order to combat the growing dominance of Catholic Spain had served as a motivating factor for English New World colonization since the era of Queen Elizabeth I, religion was of little interest to company shareholders and the first wave of Jamestown settlers. The promise of material riches drove them more than anything else.
However, things did not go according to plan. The Jamestown settlers failed to find precious gems, their meager food and water supplies proved inadequate, the mortality rate spiked dramatically, and droves of men (and, later, women) dropped dead. The surviving settlers sought help from the Powhatan Indians, upon whose land they had planted their struggling colony, and traded various trinkets with them for food. For a time, Matoaka (also known as Pocahontas), the daughter of Chief Powhatan, acted as a go-between, aiding the desperate settlers in their attempts to trade with her people in order to survive.
Now, here is where HR 297 really takes liberty with the historical record. Jamestown, the authors of the resolution assert, “included a recognized church wherein Christian worship, teachings, and baptisms were conducted in accordance with the Gospel message, as exemplified by the baptism of Pocahontas, a member of the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans in the region.”
That is not the full story. Pocahontas was abducted during a visit and held captive by the Jamestown settlers, whose leaders had abandoned Christian civility in favor of more aggressive tactics as a result of food shortages. During her long captivity, the English converted Pocahontas to Christianity, renamed her Rebecca and married her to Englishman John Rolfe. At the time, Pocahontas was widely celebrated in England as the first Native American heathen woman to give up her “savage” way of life and convert to the true faith. But should modern-day legislators celebrate Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity given the violent circumstances surrounding her captivity?
Like so many before them, Virginia legislators seek to appropriate the first English settlers and Pocahontas for their own ends, with little regard for historical facts. It is their intention to link what they characterize as the “faith traditions brought to North America by its first settlers” to the “millions of Virginians” who now identify as Christian. Yet there are far-reaching implications. Only Christians, the Virginia Assembly insinuates, are “true” to the founding principles of the first English settlers and thus “real Americans.”
Whether one is a Christian or not is beside the point, however. HR 297 does a disservice to the rich and complex history of Virginia, early Anglo-Indian interactions, and the nation as a whole and, in the process, denigrates the heritage of Christians, non-Christians and native peoples alike.
The writer is a historian of the British Atlantic at Virginia Commonwealth University.