Will This Relic Change Our Whole View of Early American History?

It’s a news story that contains the ingredients of a paperback thriller, the sort of thing that reminds readers what they find so evocative about archeology. Researchers sifting through the ground at America’s first permanent English colony at Jamestown Virginia discovered, atop the coffin of one of its prominent members, a green-patina-covered box mysteriously emblazoned with the letter “M.”

An electron microscope revealed that the still unopened box contains several shards of bone—seemingly evidence that Captain Gabriel Archer was entombed around 1609 with some sort of relic. Evidence of crypto-Catholicism here in what was presumed to be a uniformly Protestant colony.

In the religious origin-myth of America, Protestantism has played a central role. Since John Winthrop declared the American errand into the wilderness as being a “city upon a hill,” to current debates, Protestantism is a central feature in most conceptions of America. The recent archeological discovery at Jamestown Virginia would seem to complicate that popular view.

Archer, along with several others whose bodies were recently recovered, were among the first English settlers who came to America during an era the poet John Donne described in a sermon to the Virginia Company in London as marked by “a flood, a flood of blood.” Indeed, accounts such as John Smith’s held that the desperate colonists in the settlement had turned to cannibalism, something verified by archeologists in 2012. This latest news is the biggest story about Jamestown since that grim announcement three years ago.

The Atlantic asserts that, “The finding is a historical bombshell,” while James Horn, the director of Jamestown Rediscovery, told the Washington Post that, “It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years…. It’s a huge deal.” Describing the box as a “sacred object of great significance,” Horn believes that it’s clear evidence of Archer’s crypto-Catholic allegiances in Protestant England’s first American colony. The Post conjectures that Archer may have been the leader of a secret Catholic cell, and the Atlantic wonders whether disagreements between Archer and Smith were fundamentally based on sectarianism and not simple politics, as has been widely assumed.

This kind of speculation makes for a good story, but it’s important to be cautious. If the object found with Captain Archer is indeed a Catholic reliquary, and if indeed it was buried with him because of recusant beliefs, then this certainly is interesting and important news. But even should that prove to be the case, claims that it “could rewrite our understanding of the intersection of religious and cultural identities in colonial America” should be viewed with skepticism.

To depart from a solely Protestant conception of early American religious identity doesn’t require the discovery of crypto-Catholicism in Jamestown—interesting though it would be. Secondary education in the U.S. may still emphasize a Protestant triumphalist version of early American history focusing on the mythopoetic significance of Plymouth Rock and the pilgrims to the exclusion of others, but academics working across disciplines, such as Alan Taylor, David Fischer, and Peter Silver, have emphasized the religious, ideological, and ethnic diversity of early America for decades.

The possibility that a secret Mass may have been celebrated at Jamestown is indeed interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that the very first American masses were celebrated by Spanish colonists more than a century before, and that indeed the first Protestant services were not held by the English but by French Huguenots in 1564 at Fort Caroline (today St. Augustine Florida).

In understanding the complexity of early American religion one also needs to take into account the presence of Yoruba and Igbo believers, as well as Muslims, first brought into the English speaking colonies as African slaves a decade after Archer died. One should also consider the intricacies in New England religion (which didn’t just contain monolithic Puritanism), with disagreements among Calvinists and the presence of High Church Cavalier Anglicanism in Merrymount, not to speak of the varied denominations in the middle colonies of New York and Pennsylvania.

And there is always the possibility, which both articles do consider, that the supposed reliquary may not be evidence of Catholicism at all. The Elizabethan settlements of religion, though often oppressive, were more tolerant of crypto-Catholic practices among Protestants than later regimes, as long as allegiance to the sovereign was maintained. This often involved appropriation of Catholic paraphernalia towards nationalist ends (such as Elizabeth’s use of Marian imagery).

During the Jacobean and into the Caroline era there was often no inconsistency between some variation of seeming Catholic devotion and a Protestant conscience.

So while the discovery could be interesting and meaningful, calling it a paradigm shift in understanding betrays an outmoded, Protestant-centric framework refuted by a great deal more (and a great deal more compelling) evidence. In any case, that shift has been occurring in scholarship for a half century. To paraphrase John 14:2, in America’s City on a Hill there have always been many mansions.

  • Steve B.

    The headline editor makes a question out of what could not be a valid statement, the Atlantic is happy to capitalize on any perceived Christian controversy, and Mr. Horn and the Post elevate a burial reliquary to the level of extra-terrestrial contact. Yet Mr. Simon writes a well researched, reasoned, and perceptive essay on this intriguing historical find. Good historical perspectives, too. The primary purpose of Jamestown was profit, not religion, and many of its members can be viewed as somewhat mercenary in their participation. Take the life and exploits of John Smith as an example. Now, if the relic had been found in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that would be grounds for much supposing!

  • Judith Maxfield

    There may be a misunderstanding here as to the significance of the Jamestown relic in history. I think its an error to assume its crypto catholic meaning. The era of rligious change in England was ne of struggle in queen elizabeth’s reign 1556 – 1603. From her ruling in th Elizabethnan Settlement, 1558/9 to the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the ensuing civil war led by Oliver Crowmwell, that struggle was not over. It is completely plausible for one to be “catholic” and high church, or even Protestant “low church, and still within the COE”.However, I believe claiming Roman Catholicism was illegal. However, the strugle continued. Which belief system might gain sole pocession of the church, becoming the norm for a national church? Her choice was the “Elizabethan Settlement” of 1588/9, decided on the concept of a middle way, known as “via media”. However the struggle still continued and culminated later with the execution of King Charles I and the ensuing Civil War led by Oliver Cromwell after 1649.

    What I am thinking is this: Given this background and that the Virginia Company of London, a secular company under the grant from James I, founded the colony. Religion was not the prime concern, but profit. My first paragraph described the religious background for this era of 1556 – 1649. The struggle for the direction of the English church was still ongoing. Thus, to find a seemingly Jamestown relic as “cryto catholic” would have been perfectly acceptable to the owner, wether or not it was hidden from others, (but seen by someone as the owner was buried). So I don’t see any preceived shock or hugh surprise in this finding. Religious views were still in flux for England, both under the maybe shakey church system. The Protestant shape for religion was not firmly in place, and frankly never would be in the highly respected tradition of the Elizabethan Settlement. The COE is not wholy Protestant or Catholic but via media in its praxis.

    Feel free to correct me. I am facinated with Western history in general, but also the Anglican Church history since I am now a part of it in the sister American Episcopal Church.

  • nightgaunt

    Yes cannibalism in James Town, now a cryptic religious civil war in the midst of it? Things were a bit more in horror and intrigue than what was previously thought. The Crucible may not be the same ever again.

  • nightgaunt

    It shows again that nothing is pure nor simple if humans are involved.

  • Clay Crouch

    Fort Caroline is thought to have been located fifty miles north of St. Augustine in present day Jacksonville, FL.