Religion at Colonial Williamsburg


It has been over thirty years since I last visited Colonial Williamsburg. (I have vivid memories of sitting on the edge of a hotel bed with my father watching Richard Nixon resign the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974). So when I was invited to do a book talk on Virginia's Northern Neck, I thought I would turn the trip into a little family excursion to this so-called "National Treasure."

I have been writing a bit about Williamsburg over at my blog, but I thought I would comment here on the role religion plays at America's premier living history museum. Here are a few random thoughts:

First, I noticed that the re-enactors (particularly George Washington) made a lot of references to "God" and "Providence" in their speeches. (I did not hear "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ" mentioned). This, I think, is an accurate reflection of how Washington would have spoken, but I wonder how much pressure the "powers that be" at CW have received from the large number of conservative evangelicals and "Christian America" types who may have petitioned for more religious language. While I can't verify this, I have heard that the administration at Williamsburg have tried to address this issue.

Second, the stock of colonial and revolutionary history at the Williamsburg Book Sellers (located in the CW Visitors Center) is quite impressive. They had a nice section on early American religion, which included both scholarly and popular treatments of the era. The closest thing they had to "Christian America" literature was Peter Lillback's George Washington's Sacred Fire, an extended argument for Washington's Christianity.

Third, the Jamestown National Park treats the role of religion in the colony, but they are careful to explain that it was not the driving force behind the settlement. There is a foundation of an Anglican Church dating back to 1639 located next to the newly discovered Jamestown fort. As the story goes, in 1994 archaeologist William Kelso started digging for the fort in the place he did because he believed that if the church had been previously found, then the fort could not have been far away. He, of course, was right.

Fourth, the National Park Service has a monument to Rev. Robert Hunt, the first Anglican who dedicated the settlement to the glory of God. There is also a huge cross behind the fort, a symbol of the original Anglican presence in Jamestown. Both of these religious displays played an important role in last year's 400th anniversary celebrations sponsored by Pat Robertson and a Christian America organization called Providence Forum. (I have blogged about these before).

Fifth, the African-American and Baptist experience in Virginia is vividly portrayed in a program that focuses on Gowan Pamphlet, a Black preacher, and James Ireland, a white Baptist preacher who was supposedly the most persecuted Baptist in the colony. This presentation was excellent and the characters were very clear about Virginia Baptist's early commitment to the separation of church and state.

Sixth, I stopped in at the historic Wren Building on the campus of William and Mary College. Those who follow religious news may remember the 2006 debate over whether or not a cross should be displayed in the Wren Building Chapel. (W&M religion professor David Holmes debated conservative think tanker Dinesh D'Souza on this issue. You can see the debate here.) What struck me about my visit to the Wren Chapel was the fact that this cross is actually quite small (about two feet in height). From what I understand, a compromise was reached in this case. The cross remains in the chapel, but it is now on display on the side of the room in a glass case rather than on the altar where it was originally located.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the way religion was integrated into everyday life at Colonial Williamsburg and the surrounding historical parks. It seems that one would be hard pressed to criticize the Foundation for failing to take notice of this essential aspect of early American life.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for this. I am headed out to visit W&M in a couple of weeks, and will now make it a point to stop by the Wren building, and time permitting, the other places you mention in the post. Thanks.

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