Follow the Clues of the First Builders
Yesterday was the National Day of Prayer. Like the celebration of Thanksgiving, these moments are reminders that the United States of America was founded around the cornerstone of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Whether we are talking about a nation, a business, an education system, a family or one’s personal life, there are fundamentally two ways to build: according to God’s blueprint or to according to man’s blueprint. To build according to human-centered blueprints is to reject the fundamental design of Jesus as the principle and only starting point for construction.
In my last post, I asked for reflection on today’s builders. Are the current leaders of our country building according to the divine blueprint or the human blueprint? From the earliest days, the people who pioneered this great nation sought to build according to the divine blueprint with worship of Jesus Christ as the Chief Cornerstone.
Consider the founding of the Jamestown Colony and the oldest remains of a Protestant church building ever discovered in the New World. For many years the site of the first fort at Jamestown
was believed to have been lost to water erosion by the meandering banks of the James River. However historian and archeologist, William Kelso did not believe the prevailing theory:
Almost all the archaeologists and historians told me it couldn’t be done: find the site of the 1607 James Fort on Jamestown Island. No way. Clearly, they said, the fort site—the place of England’s first permanent New World settlement—was long lost, washed away by James River shoreline erosion. The lost theory made perfect sense. After all, the first settlers chose the island to seat the Virginia Company of London colony because the river channel was close enough to the shore to moor their ships to the trees. Since the area near the channel had long eroded away, the conclusion that the fort site went with it was hardly illogical. (William Kelso, James Fort, Lost and Found)
Using the earliest maps and common sense understanding of the core values and commitments of the earliest settlers, Kelso explored a theory which began with the Church as the starting point. In his thinking, the colonists would have placed the church in the center of the fort.
Like any archaeological venture, digging had to start where there appeared to be the best chance for success. Where was that? The one remaining above-ground relic of seventeenth-century Jamestown is a brick church tower. Early records made it clear that the original church was “in the midst” of the fort. It followed that if that tower in any way marked the midst of the fort, then digging between it and the river shore might just intersect the remnants of a fort wall. It would take a dedicated group of experienced archaeologists and field school students that first summer season to prove it.
For hundreds of years, the ruins of a brick church building have been standing on James Island as a big “X” marking the exact location of James Fort. Prior to William Kelso, no other archeologist or historian ever thought to consider that the James Fort could actually be surrounding that very church structure. Just let that sink in, prevailing archeological wisdom could not find the remains of the old fort because they never thought to locate the church in the center of the colonial community–but not William Kelso!
The Jerusalem of the New World
By using the church as the key point of reference, Kelso has uncovered “Ground Zero” for the founding of the United States of America. The brick church structure was an newer, bigger and stronger version of the older wooden church building that was built in 1608 when the fort and colony were first established. As such, the brick tower was acctually not the center of the fort, but it provided direction and the needed starting point to find the once lost James Fort. There was an earlier church building that was the central structure of the fort complex. In 2010, the Jamestown Rediscovery team uncovered its most important find as they excavated the first church structure ever built in colonial America.
Then in 2010 excavations uncovered remains of Jamestown’s substantially built church, the first Protestant church in America, and the church where Pocahontas, chief Powhatan’s favored daughter, married tobacco planter John Rolfe. Remains of the church included enormous postholes with impressions of upright timber columns exactly twelve feet apart found near, but slightly southeast of, the center of the fort. The holes defined a rectangular pattern suggesting an overall twenty-four-foot building width and a probable sixty-foot length.
The Jamestown church, built in the spring of 1608, was described as “a pretty chapel,” with dimensions matching the archaeology. The discovery of four perfectly aligned graves at the east end of the post pattern left no doubt about the building’s identity. These have to be the church’s chancel burials, traditionally the place reserved for very high status people. (James Fort, Lost and Found)
As the first Protestant church, this 1608 church could rightly be called the first pioneer mission outpost of Protestant Christianity in the New World. As William Kelso says, “This place is hallowed ground to the history of the United States and is in a sense the Jerusalem of the New World.” Exactly 400 years ago this past month in April of 1614, the history books tell us that John Rolfe and an Indian princess named Pocahontas were joined in Christian Marriage at that altar. A visitor to historic Jamestown can stand in the very spot where Pocahontas would have been baptized and married. I know this because my wife, Brooke and I have stood there! It is quite likely that my 9th Great-Grandfather, Randall Holt, and his young bride, Mary Bailey, were married on that very spot around the Christmas season of 1626.
Jamestown is the crucible of the American system of governance and common life. On July 30, 1619, the first representative legislative assembly and government of the New World would be established with the founding of the House of Burgess—they assembled in the choir of the James Fort church! That day twenty-two representatives were chosen to represent the voice of the people of the colony. During their six day session, they passed several new laws including prohibitions against gambling, drunkenness, and idleness, and a measure that made Sabbath observance mandatory. Oh my, how our contemporary society’s priorities have changed!
A Modern Day Tragedy
The whole story of the rediscovery of James Fort illustrates the modern day tragedy of contemporary American life. So many of the current leaders and builders of our nation simply do not see, believe or comprehend the clear signs posts pointing the way. As a body, our nation cannot seem to find its way because we do not believe the markers that point to the central reference point—the worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. Without centering community life on the Chief Cornerstone, we have no bearings or point of common reference upon which to build a common life together in true peace, justice and freedom.
The assembled body of Christ no longer stands as the central unifying structure in American cultural life. As such, we have forgotten our history and our roots and are in grave danger of repeating many of the disastrous errors of human history. Like many self-focused false builders of the past, we will stumble and fall over the rock of Christ to our own detriment.
They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,
Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. –Romans 9:32-33
We will either build with Jesus Christ as the Chief Cornerstone, or we will stumble and fall over him. God has established him as primary. It is for us to get with the program and align our lives properly around him. The founders and Ancient Planters of Jamestown, understood this simple fact of reality. For all of their own faults and failings, trials and tribulations, their own legacy in building remains clearly unearthed for all of us to see.
I am grateful for the good work and passion of William Kelso who has literally rediscovered for the people of this nation to see with their own eyes the foundational building stone of our country. Out of the ground, we can clearly see that the founders and pioneers of our nation put the worship of God through Jesus Christ as first order priority and central to their common community life.
William Kelso writes of his personal satisfaction in discovering the lost fort of Jamestown,
In fact, that rather crude and fragile English fort site is really my most treasured favorite artifact. From that place eventually grew the British Empire, spreading lasting traditions of democracy, rule of law, private enterprise, and the global English language. Life on a good part of the earth has never been the same. (James Fort, Lost and Found)
My history professor at the University of Florida, William Woodruff repeatedly taught our World History class that:
“The two most significant and pivotal events in all of world human history are the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the founding of the New World.”
Indeed, we see that these two key events of world history are intricately connected. The founders of the New World had Jesus Christ as their first principle. Faith in the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ is what primarily made the first Adventurers of the New World the men and women that they were.
Today, the current builders of our national common life have lost sight and memory of the foundation of God upon which our nation found its early strength and character. Even when they look for direction in the history of the nation they often miss its the central foundation stone. The general population carries on with daily life with only 15% attending church on any given Sunday. We would do well to dig deeper following the reference points and markers that will lead us to unearth the core and central foundation stone of life.
While the dynamism and success of the Virginia Colony can be attributed to a lot of different factors and contingencies of history, the central component of the colony’s common life is now indisputable as simple matter of fact. At the center of it all, the Ancient planters and founders of the most exceptional nation the world has ever known set the worship of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone of their lives and community. How can we reform and renew our communities and common life around the same Chief Cornerstone?
What does that knowledge of our nation’s foundational stone evoke in you? Leave your reflections and comments here.