4 minute read

Lawes Divine

Foreshadowing The "lawes"

The first permanent English settlers, approximately one hundred men, arrived on the Virginia shore in April 1607 and began settling a marshy peninsula they named Jamestown. Instead of allowing themselves time to recuperate from the difficult four-month journey across the Atlantic, the men immediately started clearing trees, building shelters, and recklessly devouring the food and ale brought from England. Later, with little food and after drinking the salty marsh water, the settlers began to sicken and die.

Even though wildlife and fish were abundant, few settlers had any idea how to hunt or fish. To make matters worse, their leaders constantly bickered and quarreled among themselves over how to improve their dire situation. By January 1608 when more settlers and supplies arrived from England only thirty-eight men were still alive. One of the survivors was Captain John Smith (1580–1631) who took over leadership of Jamestown in September 1608 when other men proved incapable of the task.

Twenty-eight-year-old Smith demanded the Virginia Company not send him gentlemen but rather individuals who were carpenters, farmers, fishermen, and those with strong backs capable of the arduous work needed to build a settlement. Smith instituted strict military-like discipline and reverence of the Almighty from which he, like all Anglicans, believed all power and success came. After resorting to these measures, the Virginia settlement got back on track. Smith's organizational approach foreshadowed the severe regulations of "Lawes Divine."

John Smith took leadership of Jamestown in 1608 and instituted strict military-like discipline. (The Library of Congress)

Quoted in Philip Alexander Bruce's 1910 book Institutional History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, the gallant persevering Smith attributed the Jamestown settlement's preservation "to the direct intervention of the almighty [God], whose providence [divine guidance] however dark the hour, never failed them." Yet after being injured in a gunpowder explosion in the summer of 1609, Smith left for England in October and never returned.

The settlers left behind, including four hundred more who arrived in August, were left without Smith's leadership through the harsh winter of 1609–10. So many starved to death that winter it became known as the "starving time." Of five hundred settlers alive in the fall, only sixty survived until spring. Just as the Jamestown settlers were strongly considering a return to England, a new governor, Thomas West (1577–1618), and ships laden with supplies arrived in late spring 1610.

West, known as Lord De la Warr, immediately gave orders to repair the Jamestown church and stabilize the settlement. During his administration prayers were read daily at ten o'clock in the morning and four o'clock in the afternoon. Two sermons continued to be preached on Sunday plus one on Thursday. Surviving records of early Jamestown clearly illustrate how loyalty to the familiar religious observances back home in England had become a required part of the settlers' daily life.

In early 1611 Lord De la Warr fell deathly ill and hastily returned to England. He reported to the Virginia Company that settlement troubles continued, including the death of more colonists, difficulties with neighboring Indians, and few if any prospects for profitable operations to make the colony pay off. Nevertheless, the Virginia Company refused to give up on its struggling venture.

The company sent Sir Thomas Gates and Sir Thomas Dale to Virginia in May 1611. Gates was appointed governor to replace Lord De la Warr and Dale served in a new position called marshal. Marshals maintained discipline in English armies under rules of martial law—discipline maintained by military authority. Dale was charged with maintaining discipline in Virginia but had no real military force, just various appointed officers. Instead the Virginia Company armed Dale with the "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall."

Both Gates and Dale demanded strict adherence to the lawes. Dale considered his work at Jamestown as laying a solid foundation of morality and piety that would allow the colony to prosper. He thought the "Lawes Divine" were absolutely necessary to repress all disorder, wrongdoing, and to assure respect for religion and the church's rules. Every leader or "officer" in the colony was ordered to set an example by attending daily prayers, both Sunday sermons and one weekday sermon.

Dale required punctuality (being on time). Together with input from four religious and dependable settlers of their choosing, church officials (known as clergy) observed and reported to Dale any colonist who failed to attend services. As set in the "Lawes Divine," punishment for not following the rules was severe—loss of pay and food for a specified period, whipping, loss of one's ears, and even death.

The following excerpt contains only "lawes" directed toward the colonists. Following those thirty-seven or so laws were extensively detailed instructions to the colony officials comprising the "Martiall" part of the "Lawes."

Despite the death and chaos, new settlers continued to arrive in America. Eventually due to the strict laws order was restored and the colonies flourished. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawLawes Divine - Foreshadowing The "lawes", Things To Remember While Reading Excerpts From "lawes Divine, Morall And Martiall":