Church Find Reveals America's Christian Past

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JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Archaeologists at Jamestown believe they've made a major discovery, one that could serve as powerful evidence of America's Christian heritage.

They're digging up what appears to be the remains of the original 1608 church at James Fort, where Pocahontas was married.

Pocahontas is legendary, best known for saving the life of Capt. John Smith, who helped establish Jamestown in 1607. Smith claimed the daughter of Chief Powhatan 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.

But just where that marriage took place has been a mystery. That is, until now, nearly 400 years after that historic wedding.

A 'Goose Bump' Moment

Jamestown archaeologist Bill Kelso said he's 99 percent sure he and his team have discovered the first substantial Protestant church in America -- the 1608 church. He describes 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,'" he said. "And sure enough the whole fort's been found -- all the buildings; now the church."

Colleague Danny Schmidt is even more convinced it's the 1608 church.

"I'd have to agree with him - maybe even up it to 99.9 percent. But, yeah, things are looking good," Schmidt said.

"We've excavated most of the fort here. We can rule out all the other structures we've seen," he continued. "This one is so far matching up precisely with the dimensions that they said it would (have)."

The secretary of the Jamestown colony recorded the church dimensions as 60 feet long and 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. 

A Thrilling Match

The walls and thatch roof are gone, but this year, archaeologists uncovered deep post holes dug to hold heavy timber columns to support the church. Kelso said he believes the columns probably would have been two stories high.

The holes unearthed so far are 12 feet apart, matching a 1610 description of the church.

"This would then support the super-structure 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 says would have been the church's chancel - an area near the altar where prominent Anglicans were usually buried.

Archaeologists are digging near the center of the fort, which matches the earliest known diagram of Jamestown - a map presented to the king of Spain in 1608. An "x" or perhaps a cross is located near the center of the map, which scholars believe marks the church.

Christianity's Central Role

Historians and archaeologists believe the church's central location and size showed the importance of Christianity to the settlers, and that their long trip was not just about riches.

"The directions from the Virginia Company is that, '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. He arrived 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," said Givens.

Thriving in a New World

The 1608 church lasted about ten years. In 1617, Governor Samuel Argall called for a new church located probably where the current brick reconstructed church stands and greets visitors today.

"It was replaced, always replaced," said Kelso.

Those 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 22, 2010.
 

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.