Tag Archives: slavery

Jamestown: 1619 Remembered

Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, I pretty much took nearby Jamestown Island, the 1607 site of the first successful English settlement in North America, for granted. Yet sadly, I still meet people who know very little about Jamestown, and its historical importance. So, it is very exciting to remember Jamestown on this day, when many of the world’s eyes are upon this island.

On July 30, 1619, a very hot day indeed, the very first democratic English assembly was held, in the “New World,” known as the House of Burgesses, the forerunner to today’s Virginia General Assembly.

Aerial look over Jamestown, Virginia, in the 1950s, showing the beginning of modern archaeological work being performed on the island. 20-years later, as a middle school kid, I worked on one of those archaeological projects (taken from the book, New Discoveries at Jamestown, by archaeologist J. Paul Hudson and co-author John L. Cotter).

1619 was a big year in Jamestown for other reasons. The small colony established at Jamestown was starting to stabilize, but with very few women around, a lot of the men wanted to leave (for understandable reasons). In response, the Virginia Company of London ordered that “…a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable….” By 1620-1621, women started to show up at Jamestown.

It was a tough sell to get women to come live in an area, centered in a mosquito-infested, swampy island. Some women were secretly kidnapped to bring them to Virginia, but a more voluntary arrangement was needed for the colony to survive. What effectively was a “mail-order” bride system, to provide incentives for impoverished English women to make the journey across the Atlantic, saved the day for the young Virginia colony.

Barely a month after the first House of Burgesses meeting, in July, 1619, the first Africans arrived at Jamestown. What is particularly notable was that among this first boatload of Africans, were actually prisoners taken from a Portuguese slave ship. These Africans were originally treated as indentured servants. In principle, these Africans could purchase their freedom.

But over the following decades, the rules gradually changed. What started out as customs, here and there, eventually became Virgina colony law, as the indentured servanthood status of dark-skinned persons was transformed to make them slaves for life.

There was some resistance to these legal changes. For example, it was not considered proper for a Christian to enslave a fellow Christian. So, if an African person was baptized, they could claim a right to their freedom. Yet as regretted now, in our day, even that exemption was eventually eradicated. Even racial intermarriage was outlawed in 1691.

I wonder what would have happened if those slavery laws were never passed in the Virginia colony. I wonder what it might have been like, if Christians in Virginia would have studied their Bibles a bit more closely, to learn that racism has no actual basis in the Scriptures. Perhaps they might have rethought the whole slavery business, and the inherent racism that undergirded it.

It is worth thinking about… and remembering.

Other posts about Jamestown: (a) Musings about the parallels between Jamestown’s Captain John Smith and the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, (b) Jamestown and the first Thanksgiving, and (c) Veracity co-blogger, John Paine, takes us on a YouTube video trip to Jamestown, to help us learn some lessons about the historicity of Jesus.


Nat Turner’s Virginia Slave Rebellion, Hollywood, and How We Read the Bible

In August, 1831, a literate slave and Bible preacher, Nat Turner, led a rebellion against his white masters, in rural Southampton County, about a one hour drive south of where I live in Williamsburg, Virginia. After the 48-hour mass killing of 55 whites ended, Turner’s insurrection was eventually crushed, and tougher laws were enacted to try to prevent such slave uprisings in the future.

Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation, is a fictionalized retelling of this tragic and violent story (deserving of the R-rating)…and just to think, the events depicted only happened less than two hundred years ago, practically in my own backyard. The film’s director is enveloped in controversy, and early reviews of the film are mixed. Intended to subplant the legacy of the 1915 silent film of the same name, a cinematic apology for the Ku Klux Klan, Parker raises a number of important issues, but one wonders what the film will actually accomplish.

Gospel Coalition blogger, Justin Taylor, summarizes some of the most significant elements regarding the history behind the film’s story. For more details on the history, you can start with the Nat Turner Project. Some historians are disappointed with the inaccuracies of the film, which frustrates me, as I am more interested in the actual history than I am in Hollywood’s fantasies. Does the film tell us about what really happened, or does it tell us more about the mind and state of contemporary pop-culture? How much of the film is about Nat Turner, and how much of it is about the film’s director, Nate Parker?

In the film trailer below, the Nat Turner character recites 1 Peter 2:18, in an effort to encourage his fellow slaves to keep in line. I confess that I, as do so many other evangelicals, tend to water this passage down:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Peter 2:18 ESV).

I have euphemistically tried to replace “servants” with “workers,” and “masters” with “supervisors,” but does that really get at the original context? I am afraid not.

Slavery during the New Testament period is difficult to comprehend in modern terms, and it was very different from how many Americans viewed slavery prior to the Civil War. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), many of my southern, Virginia evangelical forefathers did not properly understand passages like this either. Instead, they read things into the Bible that were not there.

If any Veracity readers end up seeing the film, I would like to know your thoughts.

 


The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter's Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter’s Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

Does the American national tragedy over the Civil War have something to teach us about how we are to read the Bible?

As a kid, I grew up near the remains of an oft-forgotten, Civil War battlefield. Whenever I ran among the dugout, redoubt embankments, I always kept in mind the warnings of neighbors to be careful, as there was likely to be found unexploded ordinance somewhere underneath my feet.

On the same day, hundreds of miles away, when Mexico was resisting the French on May 5, 1862, remembered now as Cinco de Mayo, Federal forces met Confederate forces just east of my town, for the Battle of Williamsburg, with nearly 4,000 casualties among both sides. Within a couple of years, the significance of that battle faded, displaced in memory by placenames like Antietam and Gettysburg.

Efforts to preserve the battlefield from being run over by suburban housing developments have been somewhat, moderately successful, though the land, as well as the intellectual debates that the led up to the war, have sometimes been forgotten. I often wonder myself, if such a national crisis could have been averted, without such terrible bloodshed.
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Noah’s Curse

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but for thousands of Christians in the American South from at least the 19th century to recent times, thought Ham had black skin.

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but thousands of Christians in the American South, from at least the 19th century to even fairly recent times, thought Ham had black skin (photo credit: Wikipedia).

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.” (Genesis 9:24-27 ESV)

It was my first Christian retreat in college. I met another student just a few years older than me the first night of the weekend, and we struck up a friendship. But the next day, we had a conversation that has stuck with me for years. I have no idea how it got started, but it was about whether or not the Bible allows interracial marriage. My new friend, growing up in a rural part of southern Virginia, insisted that God absolutely forbids white people from marrying black people.

Where is that in the Bible?,” I asked with curiosity and amazement. I had only recently started reading  the Bible, so perhaps there was something in there that I had not seen yet. His response bothered me:

Well, I am not exactly sure where it is. But I know it is in there.”

Later that weekend, I asked him again if he could show me the verse.

He never was able to find it.

Let me rewind a few more years. I was a mere toddler when the famous Loving v. Virginia case was resolved in 1967, overturning Virginia’s statute forbidding “miscegenation.”  The Lovings, a black and white couple, from Caroline County, about an hour away from where I grew up, had driven up to Washington, D.C., to get a marriage license, where interracial unions were permitted. Upon returning to Caroline County, Virginia police raided their home, but the couple responded to their arrest by going all the way to the Supreme Court to defend their case … and they won.

Such action to change the law that had been embedded in the culture of the so-called “Bible Belt” was not a concern to my new college Christian friend in the early 1980s. In his mind, the Bible still forbade mixed marriages between people of different skin colors, and that was all he needed to know. He had no animosity towards African-Americans. He was really a nice guy, and a devout believer. It was simply and clearly taught in the Bible that God does not allow interracial marriage, according to him.

The problem was… and still is…. he had no verse from the Bible to back up his belief.

So, where did this whole thing about the Bible forbidding interracial marriage come from?
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