Virginia’s role in Thanksgiving

Published 5:50 pm Tuesday, November 26, 2019

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We Virginians have been struggling with our religious image ever since Jamestown, and it comes back to trouble us every Thanksgiving.

Every decent student of American history knows that the Jamestown settlement was the first successful English community in the New World. But we also know Jamestown was a commercial venture put together by a bunch of London investors who created the Virginia Company to pursue riches in this virgin land.

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That lack of religious origin has always been a little troubling for Virginians when we compare our roots with the next colony to be founded after Virginia — Massachusetts Bay. There, colonization was the result of a group of religiously motivated people looking for a place where they could worship as they pleased.

And then, there’s the business of Thanksgiving. Thanks to good publicity, the Pilgrims have always gotten credit for establishing Thanksgiving.

We Virginians know that the first recorded Thanksgiving in the New World took place at Berkeley Plantation on the James River in 1619, a couple years ahead of the settling of Plymouth. Yet we didn’t learn that as students, even in Virginia schools. Berkeley may occasionally be mentioned by a teacher who is also a Virginia history buff, but the Plymouth Thanksgiving is so entrenched in national mythology that when school children celebrate the holiday, it’s with Pilgrim hats, not the colonial garb of Virginia.

It all goes back to the Pilgrim thing — the idea that a group of religious purists were looking heavenward while they were stepping ashore on a little rock and for generations thereafter, while Virginians were mired in commercialism. Even Virginia’s official church during colonial times gets a black eye, largely because of our determination not to have an “established” church once independence was declared. The Anglican priests were booted out of the state when the Revolution broke out, and everything they had been and meant to be was thus somehow tainted.

I’m not buying it. I’ll stake Virginia’s religious history against anybody’s. The Anglican Church was state supported, and that indeed led to corruption, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t well-intentioned Anglican priests as well as communicants. Virginians just decided very early — and correctly — that they weren’t going to be taxed by anybody’s church.

But Virginia’s heritage runs much deeper than the Anglican officialdom. In colonial times, Isle of Wight and other backwoods counties were home to numerous dissenting churches, including the Quakers, Methodists, Baptist and Presbyterians. Here and elsewhere some of them were zealous in promoting freedom. Some even made inroads briefly into slavery, demanding during the late colonial era that their congregants free their slaves. A number of emancipations are recorded from that era at Isle of Wight Courthouse, and they are a direct result of the religious pressure applied by the dissenters, particularly the Quakers and earliest Methodists.

Maybe most Virginians weren’t as single minded in their religious fervor as the Massachusetts Bay Colony inhabitants, but that’s not necessarily bad either. When religious extremism took hold in the little community of Salem, Mass., a lot of people died because their neighbors thought they were witches.

In Virginia, however, a more mature attitude toward religious diversity was taking root. The sentiments that led to the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clauses were Virginian, pure and simple. They were embodied in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and more fully articulated in Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant Statute for Religious Freedom.

Those sentiments grew not only out of an enlightenment philosophy, but also from more than a century of dealing with dissenting churches in Virginia, of trying to accommodate the widely varying beliefs and worship practices that were reflected in communities from Tidewater to the frontier reaches of the Shenandoah and beyond. In short, most Virginians weren’t too narrow minded about religion and as a result were able to lead the creation of the first nation to seriously practice freedom of religion. That freedom remains one of our country’s greatest strengths.

No, Virginia’s religious heritage is not insignificant. And yes, we did have the first Thanksgiving, no matter what the good folks of Massachusetts might claim.