What Were The Religious Practices Of The Ancient Planters?

Although traditional historical understanding of early American settlers is pretty clear that they crossed the sea to escape persecution back home, their beliefs were fairly traditional and had been well established by the Anglican Church (or Church of England) for a long time. It shouldn’t be very surprising; after all, the first settlers would have wanted to seek comfort in familiarity, especially during the cold, harsh winters the New World had to offer.

What might be a bit more surprising are the agnostic bits of Virginia culture. Many residents of Jamestown and other early settlements in Virginia, men especially, were none too happy about the amount of authority that the church held over the direction of society. In order to counteract this centralized power, the settlers were more likely to integrate into vestries and courts to transfer power in another direction.

Church attendance in Jamestown resulted from the need for socialization, and not from a devout belief in God or obligation. The residents may have had a strong faith to lean on during the hard times, but it was a private belief shared with close family members more than anyone else. 

That said, the aristocracy and those on lower social rungs seemed to integrate with a dulled acceptance when enjoying church activities. The ruling elite did, however, establish its own control over matters of religion (perhaps that’s why so many residents kept faith within the family). There was no bishop when the settlement was established, which is why control fell to them.

There were members of other religions living side by side with Jamestown residents, but they were legally restricted in how they could practice. Many members of Protestant sects lived there, and for the most part they were tolerated if not accepted.

The same could not be said of Native American rituals and beliefs. When slaves were eventually brought over from Africa, residents of Jamestown failed to recognize or accept them either. Although attempts were made to assimilate the outsiders into the Anglican Church, they were half-hearted at best and most always resulted in failure. 

The church was protected by law. Conformity was key to living the high life; one could not hold office if one were not Anglican. Laws also determined how much ministers were paid and how new parishes were constructed. Separation of church and state was certainly not a core tenet of Virginia law or Anglican faith.