Secret Catholics at Jamestown?

A reliquary discovered in the grave of Gabriel Archer, a founding member of Jamestown has raised the possibility that there were crypto-Catholics among these early settlers. David Collins, S.J., associate professor and director of doctoral studies in the history department at Georgetown University wrote in a blog post on America Media’s website: “Given the Anglican identification of the early settlement and the animosity of the Anglican establishment toward Catholicism, a secret Catholic among the settlement’s leadership would be historically significant—a seeming contradiction to conventional historical understanding of the British Empire in general and the 13 colonies in particular as Protestant, in contrast to Catholic New France to the north and Catholic New Spain to the south.” He added: “Captain Archer’s Catholicism, if it is ultimately proved, is exciting because of who he was in Jamestown. But rather than teaching us something new about Catholicism in British colonial North America, a best hope is that it will help popularize a growing scholarly insight into the significant Catholic presence in British colonial North America. These Catholics included English gentry, Jesuit priests, Irish field hands and maids and African slaves, among others.”

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Kurt Hill
2 years 11 months ago
I am very skeptical of this “secret Roman Catholic” hypothesis that some have floated to explain the presence of certain religious items at Jamestown. During the past few decades a growing number of academics have acquired an appreciation of the Catholic Revival that was taking place within Anglicanism throughout the early years of the settlement of Virginia. Many more scholars are now aware of the range of devotional practices of Anglicans, particularly of High Church Anglicans/Episcopalians, during this era. They nowadays do not automatically attribute to Roman Catholics the exclusive use of certain religious artifacts and customs such as crucifixes and rosaries, statues and paintings, incense and vestments, etc. This is certainly appears to be true of the folks participating in the Jamestown Rediscovery project who are very careful in their formulations. Indeed, many of the old, comfortable narratives of British and American Anglicanism have been challenged by the new research. For those interested in the subject, I recommend that readers of your journal become more familiar with the writings of scholars such as Edward L. Bond, Charles D. Cashdollar, Kenneth Fincham, Clare Haynes, Louis P. Nelson, Graham Parry, Julie Spraggon, Nicholas Tyacke, Dell Upton, Lauren F. Winner, J. Robert Wright, and Nigel Yates. Kurt Hill Brooklyn, NY
Vincent Varnas
2 years 11 months ago
What Mr. Hill says about the Anglican traditions during this period is largely correct. It must be remembered; however, that there has been a swing between the more Protestant and the more Catholic Anglicans over the centuries in the Church of England. This has been reflected in the many iterations of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the "39 Articles of Faith" presently contained therein from Thomas Cranmer's time (1549) to the present 1979 BCP of the Episcopal Church in America (the Church of England continuing to follow the 1662 BCP to this day). In 1607-8, in Jamestown, the colonists would have followed the 1604 Book of Common Prayer containing the 39 Articles. Article XXII entitled, "Of Purgatory" specifically mentions "The Romish Doctrine" of "Images as of Relics" being, "... a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God." Thus, it is unlikely that an Anglican who strictly adhered to the "39 Articles of Faith" would have possessed a reliquary containing the bones of a saint. However, it is also possible that an Anglican who was afraid to make his disagreement with Article XXII known to his fellow colonists, but still not "Catholic", might have secretly possessed such a reliquary. The Rev. Father Vincent Varnas, Anglican Province of America
Kurt Hill
2 years 11 months ago
Fr. Vincent makes a good point, though in the northern parts of England (e.g., Chester, Lincoln, York) where High Church sentiments were strong, many may have disagreed with the Article XXII, or understood it as honoring a "representer of virtue and good example" who might not necessarily be "officially" a saint. As such, the reliquary may have contained bones of his mother Mary (perhaps the "M" on the lid) and/or other close relatives. My biggest peeve, however, is the automatic assumption of many Roman Catholics that if crucifixes or rosary beads have been found at Jamestown it means that only Roman Catholics would have owned and used them. There is a stack of literature filled with Puritan and Separatist complaints from 1560-1640 of High Church Anglicans setting up crucifixes and praying the rosary, using incense, holy water, making the sign of the cross (with the thumb on the forehead, lips, breast, etc.), bowing to altars, etc.Yes, one can agree that High Church Episcopalianism of the period was a minority point of view, but it was a fairly large minority, and fairly widespread. Kurt Hill Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Brooklyn, NY

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