Virtual Jamestown

Laws and Documents relating to religion in early Virginia, 1606-1660

[When historians write about the earliest days of English settlement in North America, it is common for them to portray Puritan New England as being fundamentally different from Virginia. The religious zeal of the New Englanders, it is believed, was far greater than that of the settlers of Virginia. This is un doubtedly true to a certain extent. Most people emigrated to Virginia to make money or seek a fresh start, not to find religious freedom. But it would be a mistake to conclude that because Virginia was more secular than New England that it was without significant religious influences and institutions. From its earliest days, religion played a vital role in the colony of Virginia. Its first charters enjoined the colonists to spread the Chr istian religion to the native inhabitants of the land and to remain faithful to it themselves, on threat of imprisonment. Ministers came with the first boatloads of Englishmen, and based on their writings and actions, it is difficult to question the piet y of the first settlers. After some years, the first Virginia Assembly, writing that "men’s affairs doe little prosper where God’s service is neglected," enacted a number of laws mandating observance of the Sabbath, weekly church attendance, an d taxes for the support of church and clergy.]

April 10, 1606 [In a preamble to letters patent for Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, and others, for establishing colonies in Virginia, a year before the Jamestown settlement was founded, King James I made clear the religious importance of such a c olonizing effort. The opportunity to bring the Christian religion, and thereby "civility," to the native inhabitants was considered especially valuable.]

We greatly commending , and graciously accepting of, their desires for the furtherance of so noble a work, which may, by the providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the glory of his divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian religion to such peo ple, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages, living in those parts, to human civility, and to a settled and quiet government…. Hening, I, 58.

November 20, 1606

And wee doe especially ordaine, charge, and require, the said presidents and councells, and the ministers of the said several colonies respectively, within their several limits and precincts, that they, with all diligence, care, and respect, doe provide, that the true word, and service of God and Christian faith be preached, planted, and used, not only within every of the said several colonies, and plantations, but alsoe as much as they may amongst the salvage people which doe or shall adjoine unto them, or border upon them, according to the doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within our realme of England…. Hening, I, 68-69.


[The representatives who gathered for the initial meetings of the first representative assembly in the New World dealt extensively with religion. The very first order of business for this group of leading Virginians was a prayer. Later in this ses sion, legislation was passed relating to religious expression that makes clear the extensive ties between church and state in the early years of settlement. According to historian Perry Miller, the assembly "enacted a series of religious laws that a re a match for anything to be found in Puritan societies." Perry Miller, "Religion and Society in the Early Literature of Virginia," Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), 105.]

July 30, 1619

But forasmuche as men’s affaires doe little prosper where God’s service is neglected, all the Burgesses took their places in the Quire till a prayer was said by Mr. Bucke, the Minister, that it would please God to guide and sanctifie all our proceeding s to his owne glory and the good of this Plantation. Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia, 251.

August 4, 1619

All ministers shall duely read divine service, and exercise their ministerial function according to the Ecclesiastical lawes and orders of the churche of Englande, and every Sunday in the afternoon shall Catechize suche as are not yet ripe to come to t he Com[munion]. And whosoever of them shalbe found negligent or faulty in this kinde shalbe subject to the censure of the Governor and Counsell of Estate.

The Ministers and Churchwardens shall seeke to present all ungodly disorders, the comitters wherofe if, upon goode amontions and milde reprooff, they will not forbeare the said skandalous offenses, as suspicions of whordomes, dishonest company keep ing with weomen and suche like, they are to be presented and punished accordingly.

If any person after two warnings, doe not amende his or her life in point of evident suspicion of Incontincy or of the commision of any other enormous sinnes, that then he or shee be presented by the Churchwardens and suspended for a time from the churche by the minister. In which Interim if the same person doe not amende and humbly submit him or herself to the churche, he is then fully to be excommunicate and soon after a writt or warrant to be sent from the Governor for the apprehending of his p erson ande seizing on all his goods….

All persons whatsoever upon the Sabaoth daye shall frequente divine service and sermons both forenoon and afternoon, and all suche as beare armes shall bring their pieces, swordes, poulder and shotte. And every one that shall transgresse this lawe shall forfaicte three shillings a time to the use of the churche, all lawful and necessary impediments excepted. But if a servante in this case shall wilfully neglecte his Mr’s commande he shall suffer bodily punishmente. Tyler, Narratives of Ear ly Virginia, 271-272, 273.

[Throughout the first half of the seventeeth century, many laws relating to religion, some quite severe, were passed by the Jamestown assembly. All show clearly the extent to which religion played a central role in the government of Virginia.]

March 5, 1624

  1. That there shall be in every plantation, where the people use to meete for the worship of God, a house or room sequestred for that purpose, and not to be for any temporal use whatsoever, and a place empaled in, sequestred only to the buryal of the dea d.
  2. That whosover shall absent himselfe from divine service any Sunday without an allowable excuse shall forfeite a pound of tobacco, and he that absenteth himselfe a month shall forfeit 50lb. of tobacco.
  3. That there be an uniformity in our church as neere as may be to the canons in England; both in substance and circumstance, and that all persons yeild readie obedience unto them under paine of censure.
  4. That the 22d of March [in commemoration of the Anglo-Indian conflict of 1622] be yeerly solemnized as holliday, and all other hollidays (except when they fall two together) betwixt the feast of the annuntiation of the blessed virgin and St. Michael th e archangell, then only the first to be observed by reason of our necessities.
  5. That no minister be absent from his church above two months in all the yeare upon penalty of forfeiting halfe his means, and whosoever shall absent above fowre months in the year shall forfeit his whole means and cure.
  6. That whosoever shall disparage a minister without bringing sufficient proofe to justify his reports whereby the mindes of his parishioners may be alienated from him, and his ministry prove less effectual by their prejudication, shall not only pay 500l b. waight of tobacco but also aske the minister so wronged forgiveness publickly in the congregation.
  7. That no man dispose of any of his tobacco before the minister be satisfied, upon paine of forfeiture double his part of the minister’s means, and one man of every plantation to collect his means out of the first and best tobacco and corn. Hening, I, 122-124.

October 16, 1629

It is ordered that there bee an especiall care taken by all commanders and others that the people doe repaire to theire churches on the Saboth day, and to see that the penalty of one pound of tobacco for every time of absence and 50 pound for every mon ths absence sett downe in the act of the General Assembly 1623, be levyed and the delinquents to pay the same, as alsoe to see that the Saboth day be not ordinarily profaned by workeing in any imployments or by iourneying from place to place.

It is thought fitt that all those that worke in the ground of what qualitie or condition soever, shall pay tithes to the ministers. Hening, I, 144.

February 24, 1632

It is ordered, That theire bee a uniformitie throughout this colony both in substance and circumstance to the cannons and constitution of the church of England as neere as may bee and that every person yeald readie obedience unto them uppon penaltie of the paynes and forfeitures in that case appoynted.

That the statutes for comming to church every Sonday and holydays be duly executed. That is to say; that the church wardens doe levy one shilling for every tyme of any person’s absence from the church havinge no lawfull or reasonable excuse to bee abs ent. And for due execution hereof the Governor and Councell togeather with the burgisses of this grand assembly doe in Gods name earnestlie require and chardge all commanders, captaynes and church-wardens that they shall endeavor themselves to the utterm ost of theire knowledge that the due and true execution hereof may be done and had through this colony, as they will answere before God for such evills and plagues wherewith Almighty God may iustlie punish his people for neglectinge this good and wholesom e lawe.

And it is further ordered and thought expedient, according to a former order made, by the governor and councell that all church-wardens shall take this oath and that it bee admynistered before those that are of the commission for mounthlie corts, viz.< /P>

"YOU shall sweare that you shall make presentments of all such persons as shall lead a prophayne or ungodlie life, of such as shall be common swearers, drunkards and blasphemers, that shall ordinarilie profame the saboth dayes or contemne Gods hol y word or sacraments. You shall also present all adulterers or fornicators, or such as shall abuse theire neighbors by slanderinge tale carryinge or back bitinge, or that shall not behave themselves orderlie and soberlie in the church duringe devyne serv ise. Likewise they shall present such maysters and mistrisses as shall be delinquent in the catechisinge the youth and ignorant persons. So helpe yow God!"

Noe man shall disparage a mynister whereby the myndes of his parishioners may be alienated from him and his mynistrie prove less effectuall upon payne of sever censure of the governor and councell. Hening, I, 155-156.

[In the following piece of legislation, the ministers of the colony are bound to "examine, catechise, and instruct the youth" based on the Book of Common Prayer, a collection of prayers for use in Anglican ceremonies. Of course, Puritans a nd other dissenters in Virginia were unwilling to consent to such a regulation. Puritans in the early seventeenth century wished to rid the Church of England of such things as its episcopal structure and its formal prayers and litanies, such as the Book of Common Prayer. Their refusal to obey this and similar laws resulted in numerous religious conflicts in the 1640s.]

It is also thought fit, That upon every Sunday the mynister shall halfe an hower or more before evenenge prayer examine, catechise, and instruct the youth and ignorant persons of his parrish, in the ten commandments the articles of the beliefe and in t he Lord’s prayer; and shall diligentlie heere, instruct and teach the catechisme, sett forth in booke of common prayer And all fathers, mothers, maysters and mistrisses shall cause theire children, servants or appretizes which have not learned the catechi sme to come to the church at the time appoynted , obedientlie to heare, and to be ordered by the minister until they have learned the same: And yf any of the sayd ffathers, mothers, maysters and mistrisses, children, servants or apprentises, shall neglect theire duties as the one sorte in not causinge them to come and the other in refusinge to learne as aforesayd, they shall be censured by the corts in those places holden. And this act to take beginninge at Easter next. Hening, I, 157.

Mynisters shall not give themselves to excesse in drinkinge, or riott, spending theire tyme idellye by day or night, playinge at dice, cards, or any other unlawfull game; but at all tymes convenient they shall heare or reade somewhat of the holy script ures, or shall occupie themselves with some other honest study or exercise, alwayes doinge the thinges which shall appertayne to honesty, and endeavour to profitt the church of God, alwayes haveinge in mynd that they ought to excell all others in puritie of life, and should be examples to the people to live well and christianlie. Hening, I, 158.

[There were numerous laws enacted by the General Assembly in Jamestown relating to the establishment of the Anglican church. In many cases, adherents to other religions were explicitly prohibited from worshipping. Catholics were among the first to be singled out by the Jamestown government.]

March 2, 1643

Whereas it was enacted at an Asembly in January 1641, that according to a statute made in the third year of the reigne of our sovereign Lord King James of blessed memory, and that no popish recusants should at any time hereafter exercize the place or p laces of secret councellors, register or comiss: surveyors or sheriffe, or any other publique place, but be vtterly disabled for the same….And it is further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid that the statute in force against the popish recusants be duel y executed in this government, And that it should not be lawfull vnder the penaltie aforesaid for any popish priest that shall hereafter arrive to remaine above five days after warning given for his departure by the Governour or comander of the place wher e he or they shall bee, if wind and weather hinder not his departure….


[In 1643, after Sir William Berkeley became governor of the colony, a group of Puritan settlers in Nansemond County petitioned the New England Puritans, then led by Governor John Winthrop, for pastors to minister to them. The Puritans arrived in 1 643, but the Jamestown government was unwilling to tolerate any divergence from the practices of the Church of England. The following law was passed in an attempt to expel the dissenting pastors from Virginia.]


Ffor the preservation of the puritie of doctrine and unitie of the church, It is enacted that all ministers whatsoever which shall reside in the collony are to be conformable to the orders and constitutions of the church of England, and the laws therei n established, and not otherwise be admitted to teach or preach publickly or privatly, And that the Gov. and Counsel do take care that all nonconformists upon notice of them shall be compelled to depart the collony with all conveniencie. Hening, I, 2 77.


[By 1647, the pastors from New England had been forced to leave, but the Puritan residents of Nansemond and Lower Norfolk Counties were still worshipping as they saw fit, and thereby not abiding by the canons of the Church of England. Characterist ic of their practices, the Book of Common Prayer was not used in religious services, a direct violation of Virginia law. Interestingly, by this time, the Book of Common Prayer had been banned in England by the Puritans in Parliament. The following law w as passed as a means of tightening the legal restrictions on the dissenters.]

November 3, 1647

Upon divers informations presented to this Assembly against severall ministers for theire neglects and refractory refuseinge after warning given them to read common prayer or divine service upon the Sabboth dayes contrary to the cannons of the church a nd acts of parliament therein established, for future remedie hereof: Be it enacted by the Gov’r. Council and Burgesses of this Grand Assembly, That all ministers…upon every Sabboth day read such prayers as are appointed and prescribed unto them by the sa ide booke of common prayer, And be it further enacted as a penaltie to such as have neglected or shall neglect their duty herein, That no parishioner shall be compelled either by distresse or otherwise to pay any manner of tythes or dutyes to any unconfor mist as aforesaid. Hening, I, 341-342.


[Throughout the seventeenth century, there was a shortage of ministers in the Chesapeake region. According to both contemporaries and historians, probably only about one in five parishes was supplied with a minister in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1656, a law was passed establishing a financial reward for bringing a man of God into the colony.]

December 1, 1656

WHEREAS many congregations in this collony are destitute of ministers whereby religion and devotion cannot but suffer much impairment and decay, which want of the destitute congregations ought to be supplied by all meanes possible to be vsed, As also t o invite and encourage ministers to repaire hither and merchants to bring them in, Bee it therefore hereby enacted for the reasons aforesaid, that what person or persons soever shall at his or their proper cost and charge transport a sufficient minister i nto this collony without agreement made with him shall receive for satisfaction of his or their said charges of him the said minister or that they shall entertaine him for their minister, twenty pound sterling by bill of exchange or two thousand pounds of tobacco, and also for what money shall be disbursed for them besides their transportation to be allowed for. Hening, I, 418.


[In 1660, Sir William Berkeley regained his position at the head of the Jamestown government, having retired from political life during the rule of Virginia by the Commonwealth government appointed from England. After the Restoration, Berkeley was reinstated. Immediately the government began to take steps to eliminate the latest threat to its established church, the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers.]

March 13, 1660

WHEREAS there is an vnreasonable and turbulent sort of people, commonly called Quakers, who contrary to the law do dayly gather vnto them vnlaw’ll Assemblies and congregations of people teaching and publishing, lies, miracles, false visions, prophecies and doctrines, which have influence vpon the comunities of men both ecclesiasticall and civil endeavoring and attempting thereby to destroy religion, lawes, comunities and all bonds of civil societie, leaving it arbitrarie to everie vaine and vitious per son whether men shall be safe, lawes established, offenders punished, and Governours rule, hereby disturbing the publique peace and just interest, to prevent and restraine which mischiefe, It is enacted, That no master or comander of any shipp or other ve ssell do bring into this collonie any person or persons called Quakers, vnder the penalty of one hundred pounds sterling to be leavied vpon him and his estate by order from the Governour and Council or the comissioners in the several counties where such s hips shall arrive, That all such Quakers as have been questioned or shall hereafter arrive shall be apprehended wheresoever thay shall be found and they be imprisoned without baile or mainprize till they do adjure this country or putt in security with all speed to depart the collonie and not to return again : And if any should dare to presume to returne hither after such departure to be proceeded against as contemners of the lawes and magistracy and punished accordingly, and caused again to depart the cou ntry, And if they should the third time be so audacious and impudent as to returne hither to be proceeded against as ffelons. That noe person shall enter[t]ain any of the Quakers that have heretofore been questioned by the Governour and Council, or which shall hereafter be questioned, nor permit in or near his house any Assemblies of Quakers in the like penalty of one hundred pound sterling, That comissioners and officers are hereby required and authorized as they will answer the contrary at their perill to take notice of this act to see it fully effected and executed, And that no person do presume on their peril to dispose or publish their bookes, pamphlets or libells bearing the title of their tenents and opinions. Hening, I, 532-533.

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