Religion in the Colonies

John Turner discusses how religious freedom contributed to the founding of our nation.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking John Turner, and at Colonial Williamsburg he is a manager of program development – a specialist for religion. How did you get into that?

John Turner: Well, people had known me here for a very long time, but in 1990, after a number of years of trying to get religion in to the regular interpretation in Colonial Williamsburg, we went to private donors, and they helped fund the startup of the religious studies program, which started in 1990. I was the original manager of religious studies and programs and have continued to be a sort of advocate for religious interpretation here since that time.

Lloyd: Okay, now that raises another question: What do you mean by “religious interpretation?”

John: Well, since the 1980s, scholars and fans of 17th- and 18th-century studies began to realize that if you really wanted to understand what was going on in the 17th and 18th century in this country and other countries as well – but particularly in studying 17th- and 18th-century Virginia – that you had to have an understanding of what role religion played in people’s lives, that you had to know basic things like the Church of England was the state church in Virginia, that having an established church changes community life, what it meant to be a dissenter, which was anyone besides the Church of England…

Lloyd: (Laughs)

John: … and so on. All those things had never been actively interpreted at Colonial Williamsburg since its inception. So, there was a growing desire in the 1980s for this to be something that did become part of the regular interpretation, and in 1990 we started that program.

Lloyd: Correct me if I’m wrong, and I may very well be, during that colonial period was not something called “The Great Awakening” taking place in the colonies?

John: Yes, the Great Awakening generally is thought to have started in the late 1720s and sort of continued almost all the way to the American Revolution, and yes, it was a time when a sort of evangelical spirit was abroad, both in England and Scotland and in this country. Jonathan Edwards was one of the leading figures; George Whitefield was the most famous traveling evangelist, who made seven transatlantic crossings to do evangelical tours of the East Coast of the United States, and he was very successful, speaking sometimes to crowds of 20,000 people, when the population of the place that he was speaking was less than that.

Lloyd: Nothing like being popular, I’ve always said…Do you find that visitors here learn things that they had not known through the religious programming, if you will?

John: Yes, we do, and one of the things that became obvious after a very short period of time, was that A) people really wanted us to deal with this subject; they were glad we were now dealing with religion on an active basis, and B) what you said was a precursor to saying that a lot of time, people… even people who are active in their own faith, are not really that well aware of their own faith’s religious tradition or history. And so yes, people were often learning things about their own tradition that they didn’t know by coming here.

Lloyd: Well, I was reading some history because I had to, and I’m interested in it, and it reminded me – even though I knew – that for the longest kind of time the Anglican Church was the only church you had, and when Baptists and Methodists started to come around, they were [thought of as] rabble rousers and trouble makers.

John: That’s right, of course, as I said earlier, the official word was “dissenters,” but you are quite right, also, and sometimes people did use the words like “rabble rousers,” and, in fact, one of the bad words for a dissenter used by the establishment in the 18th century was the word “enthusiast.” That was not a complement. If you were an enthusiast it meant that you…well one of the quotes is: “these enthusiasts screw people up to the height of religious frenzy, and then drop them with nothing to support them.” It was like they were teaching people that the relationship with God is a personal one, instead of a hierarchical one, and hierarchies were very important in 18th-century England and in 18th-centruy Virginia.

Lloyd: I read someplace that the Anglican service was quite – well I don’t want to use the word “staid” – but not very enthusiastic, and the Baptists and the Methodists were quite often very enthusiastic.

John: Yes, I mean again, the Anglican view, the tendency, the wrong tendency, is to sort of paint this as a black/white issue, or a white hat and black hat, good guys and bad guys [issue], and it wasn’t that. The Anglican Church was one of the most benevolent and understanding, sort of tolerant established churches that existed in the world at that time, and they did actually allow official dissenters in their midst, which some of the establish churches around the world did not. Yes, it’s true that the liturgy of the 18th-century Anglican service was set out, was written in the Book of Common Prayer, and it was the same, you could depend on the liturgy, and the form being followed the same week after week. For people who have decided, and people who have undergone this awakening that was talked about in the 18th century, that sort of got in the way between them and their personal relationship with God. These were people who thought (in some cases) education wasn’t necessary because God would speak directly to the people, and [God] would empower people he wanted to be preachers, without having any formal education. God would tell them what to say. So it was this direct kind of relationship instead of a top down relationship where you have a bishop and a king or queen who was the official head of the Church of England, and then the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishop, and so on down, and the minister, and it was very much a system, a religious system where people knew their place. Some scholars – and this tends to have a sort of cyclical life – 50 years ago or so, scholars were saying that the Great Awakening was one of the sort of seed beds, and could be thought of as a “nursery” of the American Revolution, that without the freedom that came with people being convinced that they could have direct relationships with God, that without that, you wouldn’t have had an American Revolution at the time and place that you did. Then that became a kind of unpopular view, and it’s kind of come around again, and scholars are saying similar things again today.

Lloyd: When you said that, I was thinking about, I think I’m correct, there was an African American Baptist Church – the first one in the colonies was here in Williamsburg – and one of the things that was considered was that maybe if you could have freedom in religion for slaves, you might have freedom in political terms, and that slaves began to think of freedom at least partially because of the big Baptist Church – does that make sense?

John: Yes, it does, and it’s a long history, and first of all, back to your first statement, we can’t prove that it’s the first, but we do believe that the one in Williamsburg is the first Baptist church that was entirely organized by African Americans. There are earlier black Baptist churches in the country, but as far as we know all of them were organized by white missionary efforts, and the one in Williamsburg was entirely organized by African Americans. And, the oral history, oral tradition puts their beginning in 1776, but we can’t place them on paper until the 1780s. We do have actor interpreters that portray both Gowan Pamphlet and William Moses, who were both the sort of founders of that congregation in the end of the 18th century. But, yes, the Baptist Church – I think it’s fair to say as a general statement – the Baptist Church was more appealing, and the Baptist faith, and the style of worship was more appealing to African Americans than the Anglican style of worship. In the Anglican Church, the African Americans were sometimes permitted to sit with the families to whom they belonged, or sometimes stand at the back of the church, or if the church was crowded, stand inside the windows, but depending on the master, slaves were sometimes encouraged to attend Anglican services, but the sort of stereotype of what they were hearing in those services was, again, part of the hierarchy, keeping your place, slaves be obedient to your masters, and so on. The Baptist Church, for a while, at the end of the 18th century, the Baptist Church managed a colorblind society. There were black preachers preaching to white congregations; there white preachers preaching to black congregations, and so on, and there were mixed congregations. This happened for almost two decades towards the end of the 18th century, but by the end of the 18th century, the groups had split, apparently on their own, not because they were forced to, but the African American groups pretty much decided they would rather worship by themselves, and the white groups started worshipping by themselves. But, yes, the African Americans certainly saw – and it’s still true in the black community today – the importance of the church, the importance of preachers and the religious community can be directly seen connected to political action in the African American community more so than – until relatively recently – it had been in the white community.

Lloyd: I wonder if anybody has ever studied that to see why, do you know?

John: Well, yes, I’m sure they have, and one of the black historians is Albert Raboteau, who has written about the importance of the church and the minister in the black community. I think part of it is because that early on, while slavery was still in existence, the realm of religion and preaching was really one of the only leadership roles that African Americans were allowed to have, so this sort of traditionally was a strong point of leadership for the African community.

Lloyd: Well, in the south in the [19]60s it was still true…

John: Of course…

Lloyd: You said that oral tradition was that the black Baptist Church here was founded in 1776, but you place them on paper in 1781. I think I’d rather take 1776; it’s a lot more meaningful date…Talking about what happened in religion in colonial Williamsburg and colonial Virginia, for that matter, what do you find is the hardest to tell people for them to accept? Is there anything that they just sort of rebel at? People can be highly peculiar about their religion, and if you tell them something they don’t want to hear, they don’t want to hear it…and if you’ve never had anything, that’s fine, maybe I’m crazy…

John: No, actually we have, but it’s sort of been a while ago. I’m sure five years ago, or maybe more than that, I could have answered that question very quickly…

Lloyd: You mean it’s gotten better?

John: (Laughs) Well, I guess it just hasn’t come up as much recently, but yes, in the past people would come up…there are things, and I’m trying to think quickly on my feet, because I just hadn’t thought of that issue for a while. One of the things that people would come with, particularly people who do believe they are strong, active members of a particular tradition sometimes would come here with misconceptions about their own tradition. I alluded to that earlier, but once in a while we would portray…since 1990 we’ve portrayed Methodist itinerant preachers; we’ve portrayed Anglican ministers; we’ve portrayed white Baptist, we’ve portrayed black Baptist; we are still portraying a Presbyterian, we’ve portrayed Quakers. Sometimes you get people that would come, and their tradition didn’t begin until sometime in the, let’s say 1830s or 1840s, and they were quite convinced that their tradition had been here since the beginning. So someone would say “Why aren’t you portraying …” I’ll just pick a church, “Why aren’t you portraying the Disciples of Christ?” Well, because they didn’t start until the 1820s, and we stop, at the latest, we stop at 1790, if not before that. So that kind of thing…For many, many years, we interpreted that the only person of Jewish descent that we knew of during the colonial period was Dr. John de Sequeyra, but the problem is we can’t prove that his contemporaries knew that he was Jewish. He didn’t leave behind any will or any indication that he was practicing Judaism or that anyone else even knew that he was of Jewish descent. We know that his mother was a Sephardic Jew because of the background, but we don’t know… no one ever made any comment…we don’t have any comments from his contemporaries that say that he was Jewish, they just say Dr. de Sequeyra. We do have, contemporary to his time period there’s a gentleman from Yorktown who left very clearly in his will that he was Jewish, and he left money in his will for Truro Synagogue to take care of his elderly mother, and so on. And there was a group of Jewish businessmen in Norfolk, and starting in the 1780s, there was a Sephardic congregation that came en masse and settled in Richmond, but Dr. de Sequeyra is the only person that we know had a Jewish background, as far as family, in Williamsburg, actually who lived in Williamsburg, but again, we don’t know whether his contemporaries knew that or not. Occasionally, the reason I brought that up, occasionally someone will come and say, “Well what about the Jewish presence?” and we have to say “Well, there wasn’t any, except for businessmen occasionally coming in and out.”

Lloyd: Wasn’t there a synagogue early on in New England?

John: Yes, well the Truro Synagogue. There were several synagogues in New England. There were also synagogues in Savannah and in South Carolina…

Lloyd: Charleston?

John: Yes, Charleston, but not here.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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