JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Archaeologists at Jamestown say they've discovered the original 1608 church building that was built at James Fort - a place that serves as powerful evidence of America's Christian heritage.
It is the church where the legendary Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, was married. She is best known for saving the life of Captain John Smith, who helped establish Jamestown in 1607.
Smith claimed Pocahontas came to his rescue after he'd been taken prisoner by her father's men.
This Native American heroine would later marry another Jamestown colonist named John -- John Rolfe, the Virginia colony's first successful tobacco planter.
Exactly where that marriage took place had been a mystery. That is, until now, nearly 400 years after that historic wedding.
First Protestant Church
Jamestown archaeologist Bill Kelso said he's now 100 percent sure he and his team have discovered the first substantial Protestant church in America -- the 1608 church.
He described the find as a "goose bump" moment.
"This fort was supposed to have been lost to the river, to erosion," Kelso told CBN News. "No one could find it. I came out here 18 years ago, and I thought, 'Well, I want to give this a shot in this area because nobody looked that seriously here,'"
"And sure enough the whole fort's been found -- all the buildings, now the church," he said.
The secretary of the Jamestown colony had recorded the church dimensions as 60-feet long by 24-feet wide.
"We can go back and look at the historic record and see how that matches up to the empirical evidence -- what we see in the ground," explained David Givens, another archaeologist at Jamestown.
The walls and thatch roof are long gone, but archaeologists uncovered deep postholes that held heavy timber columns to support the church.
Kelso said he believes the columns probably would have been two stories high.
"This would then support the superstructure of a very large building, which would have a cathedral ceiling," Kelso exclaimed. "(It's) way off the charts for any kind of post building we've ever found before."
Other evidence includes several graves found in what Kelso said would have been the church's chancel. That's an area near the altar where prominent Anglicans were usually buried.
It's possible the Rev. Robert Hunt is buried there. Hunt accompanied the first English settlers in 1607 and planted a cross on the shore, claiming the New World for Jesus Christ.
A spokesperson for Historic Jamestowne told CBN News that an expert from the Smithsonian Institution is planning to examine the burials next spring.
Archaeologists are digging near the center of the fort, in an area matching the earliest known diagram of Jamestown, which was on a map presented to the king of Spain in 1608.
On that map, an "x," or perhaps a cross, is located near the center, which scholars believe marks the church.
More than Silver or Gold
Historians and archaeologists believe the church's central location and size demonstrated the importance of Christianity to the settlers, and that their long trip was not just about riches.
"The directions from the Virginia Company is, 'Look, you can find gold, find silver, do all these things that we want to make money with. But if you forget about religion, this is all going to be for naught,'" Kelso explained.
The 1608 church was important to the colonists for many reasons, including playing a key part in the very survival of Jamestown.
It was there in June of 1610 that Virginia's first resident governor, Sir Thomas West, addressed the colonists, arriving at just the right time in the New World to motivate them to not abandon the fort.
"It would have been another lost colony had he not shown up," Kelso said.
The colonists forged ahead with the church at the heart of the fort.
"What we take away from these stories is our birthplace, our nation, our story," Givens explained.
The 1608 church lasted about ten years. In 1617, Gov. Samuel Argall called for a new church located probably where the current reconstructed brick church stands and greets visitors today.
"It was replaced, always replaced," Kelso said.
The continual replacements testify that Christianity served not only as a foundation of America, but continued to thrive in a harsh new world of uncertainty.
--Originally aired November 16, 2011.