Edward L. Bond. Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2000. xi + 330pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-86554-708-7.
Reviewed by Scott M. Langston (Department of Biblical Studies, Southwest Baptist University, Bolivar, MO)
Published on H-South (September, 2001)
The Economic and Political Elements of Religious Identity
The Economic and Political Elements of Religious Identity
Edward L. Bond has made an important contribution to the study of both southern and colonial religion. The importance of his book arises from its treatment of a relatively neglected time period in the study of southern religion. Seventeenth-century southern religion has not received the same consideration by scholars as has that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Admittedly, the latter two centuries have produced more source material for scholars to explore. Bond, however, has demonstrated the rich potential of the seventeenth century. Furthermore, while seventeenth-century religion among the northern colonies has garnered tremendous attention, the same topic among southern colonies needs much more work.
Bond, therefore, has helped fill in some of the chronological and regional gaps in the field of American religion. In doing so, he constructs a picture of Virginians who undoubtedly understood themselves as English citizens, but who almost immediately began to carve out a religious identity distinct from their mother country. The intertwining of religion with the economic and political structures of the colony furthered the creation and transformation of English citizens living in Virginia into Virginians.
Emphasizing religion as "a relationship with the divine," Bond describes the seventeenth-century Christian's goal as relating to a personal deity with the hopes of attaining eternal salvation (p. viii). This understanding made the institutional church a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It also contributed to the construction of a broad understanding of the English as God's friends. Those in England who favored colonization, therefore, contended that God desired England to colonize North America. In order to cooperate with God, Virginia's colonial leaders sought to design a polity that would please him and simultaneously establish an English presence in North America.
Suggestions regarding how this might be accomplished highlighted belief and behavior as important factors. One faction argued for a shared faith, while a second contended for a shared behavior as the organizing principle for Virginia's polity. Unifying the population through a shared belief would be difficult, but a common behavioral norm proved more promising. Contrary to the traditional European model that bound belief systems to state identity, Virginia's leaders based their polity on behavior as expressed in the Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall. True Virginians, therefore, valued labor, worship, and Christian morality more than Christian doctrine.
Not only did Virginians create a polity foundationally different from that in England, but the geography of North America, as well as the colony's economy, played important roles in shaping Virginia's religious identity. Contrary to English settlement patterns centered in compact urban areas, colonists spread out by obtaining readily available land in order to raise tobacco. This further weakened the influence of the institutional church because people often would have to travel great distances to attend services. The shortage of clergy also contributed to the church's weakness. All of these factors, as well as the threat posed by Native Americans and their culture, combined to make the theological controversies raging in Europe during the mid-1600s of little interest to most Virginians.
Instead, they developed what Bond has termed an infant religious toleration; it was not complete religious toleration or freedom, but a small move towards it. This polity minimized religious strife by making faith primarily a private matter. Common economic interests (primarily the cultivation and marketing of tobacco) united the colony and lessened the potential threat of religious disagreements. By the end of the century, Virginians distinguished between people who were Christians and those who were not, rather than between those who professed true or false doctrine. Christian behavior and economic concerns, therefore, became more important than Christian belief.
Many issues raised in the book warrant further consideration. Bond's contention that economic interests proved more important in unifying the colony than religion raises a question regarding the role and nature of religion in the personal and public lives of Virginians. Crassly stated, were Virginians wanting to please God out of a sense of devotion to him or did they attempt to use (manipulate) God in order to achieve their objectives? Discussing the union of Puritan and Anglican Virginians against Charles I's efforts to prevent Virginia's trade with his Roundhead and Cavalier enemies, Bond noted, "Virginians were happy to avoid divisive religious questions and trade their tobacco with anyone willing to offer payment. Domestic tranquility made good business sense" (p. 176). Religious toleration, therefore, apparently reflected more a desire for economic prosperity than a wish to serve God according to personal preference. This implication calls for more investigation.
Virginians also used their religious identity to order their relationships with Native Americans and African slaves. While colonists as a whole probably served God for their own benefit, as well as that of the divine, this state of affairs highlights the complexity of understanding religion in its public and private roles. Bond demonstrates how the mingling of the religious, political, and economic spheres impacted Virginians' expression of religion. This line of analysis could have been pursued even further by noting how the non-religious factors influenced the biblical interpretations of Virginians. At the same time, it challenges students and teachers of religion, colonial America, political and economic history, or biblical studies to consider such issues from a broader perspective than that of their particular disciplines.
The book carries the subtitle, Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. A more apt description might be Christianity or Anglicanism in seventeenth-century Virginia. While Bond addresses native culture, as well as evangelicals, non-conformists, and Africans, the book is a thorough study of Anglicanism. This is understandable since the Anglican Church was the established church in Virginia. A study of the religious environment in Virginia, however, would warrant a more detailed analysis of these other groups. Such groups are described from the Anglican perspective, but viewing the religious situation from their viewpoint would provide a more comprehensive picture.
Bond makes a convincing case for the creation by Virginians of a different identity from that found in England. To fully appreciate this facet of Virginia, some comparison to other seventeenth-century British colonies could have been made. Bond comes closest to this when discussing the religious turmoil of the trans-Atlantic world during the period encompassing the 1630s through the 1660s. This, however, does not address the forging of religious identity. One wonders if other colonies developed religious identities markedly different from that of their mother country and, if so, how did these processes compare and contrast with Virginia's?
Despite these few suggestions, Edward L. Bond has written a helpful book that not only furthers the understanding of religious life in seventeenth-century Virginia, but also generates questions for further research and discussion (certainly one mark of a book's value). The book sits firmly on the foundation of extensive research in primary documents and interaction with secondary resources. Students and teachers of religion, colonial America, and biblical studies will find it useful and stimulating.
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Scott M. Langston. Review of Bond, Edward L., Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.
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