For God, King, and People

Forging Commonwealth Bonds in Renaissance Virginia

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Alexander B. Haskell
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , January
     2015.
     304 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469618029.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Almost seventy years ago, Perry Miller wrote a powerful essay on “The Religious Impulse in the Founding of Virginia” in the William and Mary Quarterly. In spite of periodic attempts since then to keep highlighting the religious ideals undergirding the founding of Virginia, it remains easy to caricature Virginia as a secular venture, as opposed to its religious counterpart in Massachusetts. With the publication of Alexander Haskell’s formidable For God, King, and People: Forging Commonwealth Bonds in Renaissance Virginia, sustaining that secular caricature should become even more difficult.

Haskell makes his comparison to Massachusetts explicit when he argues that Virginia’s Anglican planters, similar to Massachusetts founder John Winthrop, had a “sense that colonization itself was taking the form of a stage, an arena peculiarly sensitive to the providential question of who was or was not doing God’s will” (235). Virginia, in Haskell’s equation, also had a sense that it was a “city upon a hill,” although a city that was more comfortable with a healthy dash of worldliness.

From the earliest dreams of English colonization in the late 1500s, to the “end of Renaissance-era colonization” (as represented by the cataclysm of Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s), Haskell shows how deeply English colonization and Virginia’s founding were tied to concepts of providence, the state, the godly ruler, and the mutual bonds that united the ruler and the ruled. In one of his most original contributions, Haskell presents the rebel Nathaniel Bacon as a disciple of Thomas Hobbes. Bacon heralded profane calculations of force and protection as the bonds that held the state together. In its perceived inaction against Native Americans, Virginia failed to preserve those bonds with its people, so Bacon sought to overthrow the colonial government in 1676.

To portray the Virginia founders’ vision of godly commonwealth, Haskell plumbs massive amounts of literature from England and Virginia during that century of Renaissance colonization. His book is now one of our best, not only on the founding of Virginia itself, but also on the decades of experimentation and providentialist “casuistry” that preceded it. Haskell’s approach is more given to observation than argumentation, however, and even some experts will find sifting through the book’s dizzying details a demanding task.

Aside from his characterization of Nathaniel Bacon, it is not always entirely clear what is new about Haskell’s argument. Certainly one finds echoes and themes of Haskell’s findings in Perry Miller’s long ago article, and in more recent work by historians such as Douglas Bradburn, Rebecca Goetz, James Horn, and Karen Kupperman, to name a few. But Haskell does not comment much on how his work relates to that of other scholars, or to what we already knew about religion and Virginia’s founding. Even if the interpretative significance of For God, King, and People is not always obvious, its vast explorations into the providentialist and political underpinnings of Virginia’s founding are impressive in and of themselves. It is a must-read for professors and graduate students focused on English colonization.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander B. Haskell is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. 

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