Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Virginia Articles

by Jeff Polet

Scholars have long debated the role of religion in the founding of America. Most will acknowledge its primal role in the early settlements, but some scholars argue that by the time we reach the Constitutional Convention, we have created a “Godless” or religiously neutral document. We may set aside that argument for now, but even for modern-day Christians the forms of incorporation sound severe to our ears.

Consider, for example, The Articles from 1610 that established the new settlement in Virginia. In many ways, the underlying theme of these articles is survival; survival not only against scarcity, disease, bad weather, and native tribes, but also in a deeper spiritual sense that the purpose of communal life is found in its relationship to God. Cult is at the center of culture, and the early settlers saw no contradiction between their desire for religious freedom and the imposing of compulsory religious practice because religious freedom attended primarily to communities and churches rather than individuals.

The requirements were strict and demanding and the punishments severe. Blasphemy was punishable by death, as was sedition. Every person was expected to attend service twice daily. Note that in many ways the orders follow the proscriptions of the 10 commandments, but do not simply take it as a matter between a person and God. The life of the whole community is at stake in each individual’s conduct. I think one of the reasons the Articles seem foreign to us is because we have such a heightened sense of individual freedom and such an attenuated sense of the importance or nature of community. Given the tenuousness of their existence, the leaders of the colony couldn’t afford to let internal dissent and disagreement tear the community apart. The mutual dependence dedicated to survival required that everyone do their job and everyone play by the rules. In that sense, we can see that at the core of social life is an almost military model of comradeship, setting aside self-interest, adherence to a code, and dedication to duty. One of the reasons why I find these Articles interesting is because they strike me as a concentrated form of political life: what do you get when you boil off consumerism, luxury, mass entertainment, and so forth? You get human beings in their natural habitat, and the Articles are a fascinating look at a center that gets obscured by historical accretions.

Granted, there are elements that make perfect sense but for which the punishment seems overly severe: slander punished by having head and feet tied together (14); price-gouging punishable by death (20); public whipping for sanitation violations (22); whipping for losing a shovel or axe (23); severe punishments for showing up late to work (28); and no cheating anyone out of their daily allowance of food (37). All these are related to what they considered to be the fundamental principles of a well-ordered community: everyone doing his job, the central importance of religion, maintaining order, and giving everyone their fair share. It may not strike us as the most merciful society, but it is quite Platonic in its notion of justice.

Two final thoughts: in a world where religion often gets reduced to a consumer good or “what one does with one’s solitude,” it is hard for us to appreciate the role religion played in their lives. For many of the early settlers, life on this earth was not simply a precursor to eternal life, it was already part of eternal life. We had to live accordingly. My students often struggled with this reading, and with my attendant question: if there is a God, and we are grateful to this God both for our existence and salvation, why wouldn’t you do everything to his glory? Maybe reading the Virginia Articles is an invitation to some serious introspection.

The second thought involves section 25, which has long perplexed me. I think the command “Every man shall have an especiall and due care, to keepe his house sweete and cleane, as also so much of the streete, as lieth before his door” makes sense from a hygiene standpoint as well as a neighborly one. Most of us, for example, regard keeping our yard in trim and in good repair to be an act of neighborliness. I’ve been able to discern the reason behind all these orders, except for “especially he shall so provide, and set his bedstead whereon he lieth, that it may stand three foote at least from the ground, as will answere the contrarie at a martiall Court.” I invite the reader to explain that one to me.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can a political community long survive without some sort of religious grounding? Is a purely secular state possible? Desirable?
  2. Why do beds have to be three feet off the ground?
  3. Assuming you agree with many of the prohibitions, how might you change the punishments, and how would you justify the punishment you give?
  4. Why do you think that they seemed to think whipping was preferable to incarceration?

Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: