This weekend we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the landing at Cape Henry, the first enduring landfall of English settlers in the New World. On 29 April 1607, a group from the Virginia Company landed and, led by their Anglican chaplain Robert Hunt, prayed for the establishment and propagation of the Christian religion in the land they had just landed in.
But wait a minute. Didn’t the Pilgrims come to Plymouth thirteen years later for that purpose? And what about the Puritans further up the coast in Massachusetts Bay Colony? How did the Anglicans get the drop on this? Why, in less than two centuries, did the colonies that made the Church of England the state religion dump it in favour of a state without any kind of official church? What happened to the Puritans’ vision of a "shining city on a hill" built on their own Calvinistic theology and theonomy?
Too much knowledge leads to too many questions. The basic problem is that Hunt’s Anglicans in Virginia and the Puritans up the coast didn’t come to establish one country, or one colony for that matter. Their differences reflected the religious struggle that would consume the "old country" during the seventeenth century, and would affect the English colonies in the New World, both when they were colonies and when then went "from many to one" (E Pluribus Unum) as the United States of America.
As we’ve remarked before, the "Elizabethan Settlement" that set the Church of England on a stable course was meant to provide England with a Christian religion that was broad-based in many senses. To accomplish this, church and state felt it necessary to exclude two extremes: Roman Catholicism and extreme Calvinism, such as the Scots practiced. The former were fairly easy to keep out, for a while at least. The latter weren’t, especially when James I became King and the Scots became part of the realm. Some of them couldn’t wait for the Church of England to get around to "reforming" itself, thus Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they could put their various visions of a pure Christian state into practice.
Before that, however, English businessmen looked to the New World for profit, just as the Spanish had done for more than a century. They formed various companies to carry out their business plan, packing along chaplains like Robert Hunt, who proved invaluable in keeping the travellers on an even keel. This pattern–or variations on it–was repeated for the rest of the Southern colonies. The biggest blight on the whole enterprise was the importation of African slaves, one which they did because they understood the nature of the usual labour force.
From here, things went in different directions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Back home, the conflict between Roundhead Puritan and Cavalier ended in the English Civil War, with both Charles I and William Laud losing their heads. But Cromwell and the Roundheads couldn’t sustain their victory, something modern theonomists should take note of. The Church of England became the guardian of religious stability through the enforcement of religious mediocrity, a state interrupted occasionally by movements such as Methodism, the Evangelical movement and even the Oxford Movement.
In the colonies, both Virginia and Massachusetts visions were diluted by the formation of alternative refuges for religious dissenters such as Pennsylvania (Quakers) and Maryland (Roman Catholics.) This was assisted by the English policy of exporting their malcontents to their overseas possessions, be they religious dissenters, debtors or criminals. (The French and Spanish would not allow theirs to do the same in their own empires, be they Jansensist, Huguenot or Jew.)
But the biggest upsetter of the "apple cart" of religions in the colonies were the Celtic rowdies who emptied the fringes of the British Isles and settled along the spine of the Appalachians, challenging the Church of England (and everybody else) on its new "home turf" in the New World. It was they who made the most direct challenge to an established religion, which led to the First Amendment and a level playing field for all religious beliefs to thrive in the new nation.
But it was also they who helped to change the nature of Christianity itself, and to do what the Anabaptists in Europe couldn’t: make it a voluntary association of believers rather than an expression of the sovereign’s belief or national culture. Such was a break both from the Anglicanism of the Southern colonies but in reality was also a break from the "Geneva on the Charles" that the Puritans aimed to establish. That voluntary aspect is the reason why Christianity in the U.S. has taken such deep roots, roots that have had to withstand a secular onslaught from on high the last half century or so.
Today, everyone talks freedom but aims for coercion. Liberals talk of "diversity" but insist on quotas and litmus tests, unleashing the politics of personal destruction on those who disagree. Conservatives talk of our freedoms as Americans but dabble in theonomy or wartime "neo-con" authoritarianism, ignoring what would happen if they have the misfortune to lose power altogether. Such are the ways of boomers and, as we’ve said before, the Republic’s #1 priority is to survive this generation.
So what can we make of the Cape Henry landing? For Americans in general, it is a reminder that our country was founded with a religious people (and the personal discipline that goes with that) in mind. The exercise of freedom goes hand in hand with the assumption of responsibility and the accountability that goes with it. What better accountability is there than an eternal one to God Himself? Those who belittle that role say in effect that they would rather manipulate a mob than lead a nation, and the results are entirely different.
For Anglicans, it is a reminder of an important truth that is being rediscovered: that Anglicanism, rather than being a simple "middle of the road" or place for prayer of the overmoneyed, was and can be a positive way in its own right. They should not allow us to forget that, when Robert Hunt celebrated the Holy Communion, he did so using the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, with all of its liturgical flourishes. Anglicanism paved the way towards liberating American Christianity from the rigid Augustinianism that plagued Europe, certainly more so than the Calvinistic Puritanism further up the coast. That liberation has altered the course of Christianity–and the eternities of many along the way–in ways that few fathom even today. It is the "Plan C" that neither Anglican nor Puritan could foresee.
So it’s time to celebrate. Although we’ve had echoes of the English Civil War in our own, the country that came out of these settlements is the absolute triumph of none of them but the synergistic triumph of all of them and those who came after to make "one nation under God." Will it remain that? If it doesn’t, it won’t remain at all.