Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 109 / Number 1
Puritans and Religious Strife in the Early Chesapeake
- By Kevin Butterfield, pp. 5–36
Puritanism played an important role in seventeenth-century Virginia. Not limited to New England, Puritans
settled in various locales in the New World, including Virginia, mostly south of the James River. Their
history in Virginia is short -- most people of Puritan sentiments were gone by 1650 -- but by examining
their plight, particularly in the 1640s, one gains a fuller appreciation of the complexities of early society
in the Old Dominion.
This essay, by studying the means used to attempt to bring the Puritan settlers into stricter conformity
with the Church of England, reveals the methods used to govern the rapidly expanding colony. Those efforts
peaked with the arrival of Sir William Berkeley and his attempts to remove the nonconformists. But the
governor was not entirely successful until additional power was given to the counties and parishes. Then
a battle in the court of Lower Norfolk County led to the "voluntary" removal of the Puritan settlers to the
more tolerant colony of Maryland.
The history of the Virginia Puritans also reveals a greater amount of interaction between Virginia and
New England than historians usually appreciate. Further, the divisions caused by the religious struggles
among the English in Virginia help explain the timing of the Anglo-Indian conflict of 1644. And the
political and numerical strength of the Puritan settlements in the Chesapeake offers some insight into
the quick surrender of Virginia to the representatives of the Commonwealth in 1652. Most important,
though, is the story of a large number of settlers who left England for a new start and faced in Virginia
an intolerant government. The very existence of a large, thriving, Puritan settlement in Virginia shows that
Puritanism was not just a feature of New England but an important feature of many English settlements
in the New World.