Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 109 / Number 4 - Review
Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia..
By Edward L. Bond. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000. xii, 330 pp. $35.00.
Readers familiar with Edward Bond's articles in this journal will welcome his fine, much-needed study of the religious life of
colonial Virginians. Three broad themes emerge in Bond's narrative. First, the English who settled Virginia believed that they were
God's friends and viewed their imperial design as expressive of God's will. God's plan of salvation, however, would only work
itself out in this wilderness if their behavior conformed to Christian standards. Though they brought the Book of Common
Prayer in their baggage and public worship generally conformed to the established Church of England, morality rather than
doctrine determined their identify. It also set them apart from the native Americans and life-style fixed their superiority.
Hence faith was private; but illicit sexual behavior or failure to attend church services brought down the magistrates' wrath.
Secondly, this emphasis on conduct rather than creed produced a broad toleration that historians have overlooked. As
England's government increasingly demanded religious conformity at home and moved toward civil war, Virginia's leaders
tolerated all manner of church folk, from Puritans to Catholics and everyone in between. Even Quakers, after they quieted
down, were welcome to remain. Sporadic efforts by Governor William Berkeley to force uniformity failed, and Virginia settled
into a pattern of religious inclusively that would not be challenged until the religious awakenings before the Revolution.
Bond's study becomes especially valuable when he takes up his third theme: the religious life of Virginia's established
church. Increasingly the faith experience of Virginians diverged from that of their co-religionists at home. Acquiring ministers
to preach and administer the church's sacraments proved a major headache. A measure of the hardships clergymen faced
is the fact that within five years of arriving, a majority either died or returned to England. London's rulers could care less.
They concentrated on the financial profits to be reaped in this rich tobacco colony, not the souls of its settlers. Hence Bond's
startling title. Attempts to secure a resident bishop to ordain ministers and supervise the clergy failed. Instead, in striking
divergence from English practice, lay vestries managed the ministers as well as church property. The situation improved
somewhat after Bishop Henry Compton of London assumed responsibility for the colonial church and appointed a commissary
as his representative. But James Blair's success in that position depended on the working relationships he developed with the
lay elites who ran both church and state in Virginia.
Meanwhile, the laity grumbled over the lack of pastoral care. But how could a clergyman attend to a parish as large
as a county? Most ministers rotated services in parish churches and chapels of ease scattered across the countryside. The
laity turned to spiritual reading--the Bible, books of sermons, and especially the Book of Common Prayer--and private
prayer and family devotions to nourish their religious lives. As Anglicans, they worked out their salvation not by faith alone,
but by striving to live moral lives. Rejecting Calvinist doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace, along with the Pelagian
notion of meriting heaven by human initiative, they argued for the necessity of responding to God's grace, of personal
repentance as evidenced by a holy life. Religious transformation was a gradual process, not the result of evangelical conversion.
Though Bond does not draw this conclusion, Anglican dependence on reading for spiritual sustenance may help explain the
religious vulnerability of the illiterate lower classes when revivalist preachers arrived on the scene.
Based upon exhaustive research in primary and secondary sources, Damned Souls makes a significant contribution to
our understanding of religion in Virginia during the first century of settlement.
Thomas E. Buckley, S.J.
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley