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America's Beginnings

God's Plantation - Chapter 5

by Phyllis Mackall

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"…by keeping the fear of God, the planters in short time, by the blessing of God, may grown into a nation formidable to all the enemies of Christ, and be the praise of all that part of the world." -- William Symonds' sermon, Virginia, preached at White Hall, April 25, 1609.

God was bringing all the pieces together: the virgin land with its heathen Indians, the greatest English translation of His Word, and colonists who were strongly motivated to spread the Gospel.

By the pivotal year 1606, the English were almost a century behind Spain and Portugal in establishing a world empire. The gold and other treasures these countries had brought back to Europe were famous.

Englishmen were suffering from "the Virginia fever." Many dreamed of the gold, silver, and gems they would find without effort in the New World. Rev. Hakluyt, on the other hand, dreamed of preaching the Gospel to countless thousands of Indians who had never heard the name of Christ. Raleigh stated, "I dream of a new English nation in Virginia." Other Englishmen simply wanted an opportunity to better themselves.

The rigid medieval social order was bursting at the seams with an ambitious, growing population that was basking in the light of Renaissance knowledge and Reformation freedom. The invention of the printing press had unleashed a flood of books on every subject -- and Bibles.

It was an optimistic age. Thousands of villagers flocked to London each year to seek their fortunes and to enjoy a more cosmopolitan lifestyle in the world seaport. Numerous laws were passed to stop the growth of London, but all were in vain. By 1606, the population of London and its suburbs was estimated at 200,000-300,000 persons, including foreigners. The homeless milled about in the narrow, filthy streets. The unsanitary living conditions contributed to sporadic outbreaks of the plague.

At the end of the 16th century, an aspiring actor by the name of William Shakespeare left his home in Stratford to seek a career on the London stage. Some said his wife, Anne, and their children remained in Stratford because Anne came from a Puritan family that was aghast at Shakespeare's working on the sinful stage. When Anne died, her daughter Susanna put an inscription on her tombstone stating that she prayed that Christ would come quickly and her mother would then rise again and seek the stars.

Younger sons of wealthy families did not inherit land; they were expected to make their own way in the world. Land was relatively difficult to buy; however, a middle class did develop, and merchants had money to invest in colonization and trading companies. England's mushrooming overseas trade was sponsored by such privately supported companies as the Muscovy Company (1555), the Levant Company (1581), the Venice Company (1583), and the East India Company (1600). Shakespeare invested in land in Stratford.

Not everyone was prosperous. There was a high rate of inflation. Now that peace had been made with Spain, mercenaries and sailors were out of work, and local parishes were hardpressed to care for their poor. Colonization offered an attractive solution to this dilemma.

In addition, Englishmen were restless. They enjoyed more freedom than most people, yet they chaffed under many laws and restrictions they considered unjust. Change was definitely in the wind. Perhaps the playwrights Ben Johnson, George Chapman, and John Marston best captured the longings of the common people in their successful comedy, Eastward Ho, which enjoyed four printings in 1605.

The character Seeagull, after promising gold, diamonds, and rubies aplenty in the New World, told his friends:

"…you shall live freely there, without sergeants, or courtiers, or lawyers, or intelligencers [spies] … Then for your means to advancement, there it is simple, and not preposterously mixed. You may be an alderman there, and never be scavenger; you may be any other officer, and never be a slave. You may come to preferment enough, and never be a pander; to riches and fortune enough, and have never the more villany nor the less wit. Besides, there we shall have no more law then conscience and not too much of either; serve God enough, eat and drink enough, and 'enough is as good as a feast.'"

For all this enthusiasm, there still was no English settlement anywhere in the world: no colonies, no empire. England, in fact, had lost the last of its traditional holdings in France during the last year of Mary Tudor's reign, 1558.

Englishmen had visited the New World countless times, and had brought back Indians {natives}, exotic souvenirs, sketches, maps, and live animals for King James' zoo. But every attempt at a permanent English colony had ended in failure.

English expeditions had mined for gold along Hudson's Bay, had planted summer gardens and explored the coast of what was later known as New England, and had even strolled through California meadows. Raleigh had lost most of his fortune in his unsuccessful attempts to colonize Roanoke Island.

Now, however, God was about to reward Rev. Hakluyt's patience and zeal by bringing to pass the great dream He had implanted in him as a youngster. God was about to open a land He had seemingly reserved for English settlement.

On April 10, 1606, King James granted a royal charter to the Virginia Company of London, which was composed of Rev. Hakluyt and some of his friends, mostly well-to-do merchants.

During the time preparations were made for the journey to Virginia, Londoners were suffering the effects of another bout with the plague. Raleigh was languishing in the Tower of London, placed there by a distrustful King James. Gentle, gracious Anne of Denmark, James' wife, was expecting their seventh and last child, Sophia, who was born and died the following year, and who was buried in a poignant, cradle-shaped tomb in Westminster Abbey. James dearly loved his children.

His teen-aged son, Henry, the beloved, athletic Prince of Wales, was extremely interested in the colonization venture, which was headed by Sir Thomas Smyth, the leading businessman of London. (Smythe and Rev. Hakluyt were among the men to whom Raleigh had deeded his interest in the Roanoke Colony when he ran into financial difficulties in 1589).

Stock in the Virginia Company was purchased by noblemen, merchants, clergymen, and 50 of London's city companies, remnants of her powerful medieval guilds. It has been suggested that some prominent men may have invested out of a sense of patriotism and public responsibility. Previous colonization attempts, such as the Raleigh brothers', had been private money-making ventures. The Virginia Company was the first chartered company for colonization, and as such was not entirely a commercial venture. The English wanted to settle permanently in the New World, not plunder and return to Europe.

Modern secular man has difficulty understanding the missionary zeal that is clearly expressed in the charters and instructions for the Virginia Company of London. Modern believers, however, rejoice that the Virginia planters sought to spread "the Christian Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God."

In 1610, the leaders of the company published in London A True and Sincere Declaration of the Purpose and Ends of the Plantation Begun in Virginia, stating:

The principal and main ends … were first to preach and baptize into Christian religion, and by propagation of 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, and to endeavor the fulfilling, and accomplishment of the number of the elect, which shall be gathered from out {of} all corners of the earth; and to add our mite to the treasury of heaven, that as we pray for the coming of the Kingdom of Glory to so express in our actions, the same desire, if God, have pleased, to use so weak instruments, to the ripening and consummation thereof.

A Princeton University professor who wrestled with this subject in recent years finally conceded that when one realizes that religious matters were uppermost in the minds of men in Jacobean England, it is not so difficult to understand the religious overtones of the colonization after all.

In 1908, Rev. Corbin Bryan wrote in Colonial Churches:

…in the celebration of … the beginning of English civil and religious life in America, it should be borne distinctly in mind that this work from which our national life began was no mere private or commercial venture. For years life and treasure were poured out in Virginia without stint and without reward. To accuse the founders of Virginia of making money their first aim is to accuse them of the greatest folly. Such a man as Sir Thomas Smith, the Treasurer, and the most influential man in the practical management of the Colony, who was also Governor of the East India Company, and one of the most successful merchant princes of his age, would never have persevered in such a bootless venture as was the Colony in Virginia, if money had been his chief aim.

Not money, but the planting of the English race in the New World, and with it the seeds of civil and religious truth … this they aimed at, and this they accomplished.

Experienced captains and seamen were hired by the Virginia Company. The 100-ton flagship, Susan Constant (76 feet from bow to stern), and the 40-ton Godspeed (50 feet in length) were leased from the Muscovy Company, which had been using them to transport coal from the British Isles to Russia. The 20-ton pinnace Discovery (which measured only 38 feet) also was used for the voyage to the New World.

At the Blackwall docks on the Thames, the holds of these tiny ships were crammed with the necessities of 17th century life: food, ale, and wine; seed oats, barley, and wheat; muskets, gunpowder, helmets, and breastplate; beads and baubles for Indian trade; building tools and farm implements; altar vessels, prayer books, and Bibles.

A motley assortment of 105 prospective colonists were accepted for the voyage. Ironically, the two men who probably most wanted to go -- Raleigh and Rev. Hakluyt -- were prevented, one by imprisonment and one by age.

As the year drew to a close, public prayers for the success of the Virginia Company were said in the churches, and special sermons were preached. Poet Laureate Michael Drayton waxed eloquent in The Virginia Voyage, terming Virginia "earth's only paradise." He exhorted the adventurers, "Such heroes bring ye forth, as those from whom we came, and plant our name, under that star, not known unto our North." This stanza was prophetical, for the Commonwealth of Virginia became the mother of many other states, Presidents, and statesmen.

Drayton concluded by praising Rev. Hakluyt, whose books, he said, "inflame men to seek fame." By now Rev. Hakluyt was the Archdeacon of Westminster. In 1589, his 825-page best seller, The Principall Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, had been published. It has been called one of the most influential books in English history.

Another writer also was busy. Shakespeare had achieved fame as an actor, and wrote popular plays when he wasn't acting. Late 1606 found him polishing a new version of King Lear to open the Christmas season at court. King James enjoyed Shakespeare's plays and was a generous patron of the theatre (one of his few personal extravagances except for hunting).

The Spanish ambassador sent dark reports home to King Philip III, for Spain had claimed this Virginia that the English were preparing to colonize. On Spanish maps, the region was called Jactan, and Chesapeake Bay, the colonists' destination, was known as Bahia Santa Maria. Spanish colonization parties had been sent from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay in 1566 and 1570, but both had failed.

Father Juan Bautista Segura, Jesuit vice-provincial, led the latter expedition of eight Jesuits. They sought to convert the Indians {natives} and to hold the region for Spain as a northern St. Augustine. One member of the group, a converted Chesapeake Bay Indian renamed Luis Velasco, defected. On February 14, 1571, with a band of fellow Indians, he massacred all but one converted Indian boy, Alonso.

Prospects for the 105 English colonists were bleak. No other group had been able to survive the hostile Indians and the constant threat of starvation in the Virginia wilderness. Added to these perils was the very real possibility that Spanish ships cruising along the coast might locate and destroy the fledgling colony as they had two French colonies in what is now Florida. And if the colonists survived all these threats, would their supply ships arrive safely from the motherland?

Within their group lay a threat that was realized, perhaps, by only one man, the experienced, colorful soldier of fortune Captain John Smith: half the prospective colonists were "gentlemen," probably younger sons who had never done a hard day's work in their lives. They were spectacularly unsuited to tame a wilderness -- or survive.

The 105 settlers and 39 seamen sailed December 20th, 1606, as Raleigh watched from his comfortable suite in the Tower. Would these men be the first to plant a permanent English settlement in North America?

His Majesty's Council for Virginia may have been echoing the king's own sentiments in its last solemn advice to the "adventurers":

"…the way to prosper and achieve 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."

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