A Clash of Classes, by Molly Steele

John Smith

John Smith of Jamestown

Early last summer, a reliquary was found buried with one of the bodies that was unearthed behind the chancel. This discovery led to many interesting questions: were there more dissenters than originally thought in early Jamestown? Were dissenters given some sort of autonomy? The latter seems less likely for Catholics, as being Catholic was essentially synonymous with being Spanish – an enemy of England.  Corporal punishment for religious dissent wasn’t abnormal or outlandish in early Jamestown, which makes this new discovery even more remarkable. Mark Summers (Manager of Public and Educational Programs at Jamestown Settlement) will be giving a presentation to take place at HSL in late April,  ‘Dissenters Inside James Fort’.  He will work through a few of these questions, as well as propose an interesting theory – that John Smith was himself a dissenter.  

John Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, which at the time, was known for its considerable Puritan population.  Whether or not he was Puritan, this belief system definitely influenced his governing of the Jamestown Settlement.  An issue Smith was confronted with was that of entitlement.  Many that came to Jamestown were wealthy Englishman who wanted to make a quick profit before returning to England. Being an English settlement, the English way of life naturally came with the territory.  (No pun intended.) However, Smith quickly realized that a hierarchical system was more than irrelevant, but detrimental to the survival of the colony, and thus established his famous order, “He that shall not work shall not eat.”  This idea was quite congruent with Puritan teachings of that time (which were heavily influenced by men like Martin Luther & John Calvin) and has since been labeled the ‘Protestant work ethic’.  However, this notion would have been revolutionary to the class-ranking system so commonly accepted at that time.

Mark Summers of Historic Jamestowne

Mark Summers of Historic Jamestowne

How does the Protestant work ethic – introduced to the Virginia Colony by potential dissenter out of necessity – influence culture today?  The biggest effect was largely capitalism, which is essentially the Biblical idea that ‘you reap what you sow’.   As seen when implemented at Jamestown, people suddenly have a ‘will’ to work, compete, create, invent, etc., when they realize that they/their actions determine their future.  As our nation moves forward, this issue is still a hot topic for debates.  Should hardworking individuals be allowed to invest their earnings into society as determined by them, or should the government redistribute the income of these hardworking citizens, thus lessening the ‘drive’ to work?  The American Dream – the ability to control one’s own destiny – is unique to Americans because everyone has an equal chance of becoming great – making something of ourselves. Our situation is a result of our efforts.  Could it be that such a revolutionary idea was   who rejected the teachings of his time to subscribe to a fairer goal? Could it be that this idea which would forever shape the course of America – was pioneered by a dissenter?

  1. Summers, Mark. “Historic Jamestown Rediscovery, February 2016.”  http://historicjamestowne.org/february-2016/Blog article. 4 April 2016
  2. Bennett, William J. “America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I): From the Age of Discovery to a World at War.” 4 April 2016