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Jamestown's Significance for Americans 400 Years On

Four centuries ago the first English settlers arrived in Virginia, establishing a colony that laid a foundation for the future United States of America. What are the lessons of Jamestown 400 years later?

by Melvin Rhodes

In little more than four years, the emphasis has changed.

I was in Jamestown again just a month after the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first successful English colony on the North American continent. Britain's Queen Elizabeth was there to start the celebrations, as she was for the 350th anniversary in 1957.

Jamestown was the birthplace of representative government in North America. The first democratically elected assembly met there in 1619. In 1699 the capital was moved to nearby Williamsburg, and there it remained until the birth of the United States. In 1775, members of the Virginia House of Burgesses voted to instruct their delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence.

During two previous visits I listened intently to enthusiastic accounts of America's birth, a long process that began with that first fledgling settlement in 1607. It was quite a miracle.

Like Roanoke before it, Jamestown almost didn't make it. An earlier Spanish settlement just a few miles away, established in 1570, had been wiped out by natives. The English settlement was threatened by both Spain and the local native population, but starvation and disease killed off most of those early settlers.

A subtle difference

For the 400th anniversary, these things were said again, but this time there was a subtle difference, more in keeping with the times in which we live. The new emphasis was on the coming together of three distinctly different cultures—the English, the Native Americans and the African-Americans who started arriving in 1619, brought to the colonies through the West African slave trade.

The subliminal message was that, although difficult at first, these three cultures eventually were successfully brought together. The implication was that, in turn, all cultures can be brought together successfully. As it says on the Great Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum —Latin for "Out of many, one."

But is this the real lesson of Jamestown?

Clash of cultures

"Trouble between the Indians and the settlers started on the first day the English stepped ashore on the banks of the Chesapeake… The native people, the Powhatans, and the English would clash again and again, seeming to try and outdo each other in terms of the bloodthirsty behavior as they battled for dominance in Tidewater Virginia, the region the natives called Tsencommacah, believed to mean 'our place'" (Kieran Doherty, Sea Venture, 2007, p. 8).

After the massacre of almost a quarter of all Virginia's English settlers on March 22, 1622, the new arrivals were not to trust the native population again. There were to be many battles between the English settlers and the Native Americans, in Virginia and the other colonies that were later established.

Following the creation of the United States of America, Americans continued to move westward and yet more conflict followed. Eventually, through disease and conflict, Native Americans were reduced in number by well over 50 percent (estimates vary). The relationship between those of European descent and the natives hasn't been an example of peace and harmony.

Nor has the relationship between the settlers and the Africans who were brought to America.

"The year 1619 was one of the most notable in American annals. The first representative assembly in the New World convened in that year at Jamestown. A few weeks later the first Negroes were brought to Virginia" (Virginius Dabney, Virginia, The New Dominion, 1971, pp. 28-29).

It was in Virginia almost 250 years later that slavery was ended in the United States with the defeat of the secessionist Confederate States of America. This was not the end of racial disharmony, however, which, though greatly reduced, continues to this day.

The fact is that Jamestown in no way symbolizes successful multiculturalism. Rather, it illustrates the inevitable conflict that follows the coming together of different cultures and the significance of the triumph of one ethnic group over others!

America prophesied in the Bible

People in the Western world today have been conditioned to deny the importance of ethnicity, in an era when the emphasis is on multiculturalism.

However, this is not universal. In Africa, I frequently hear the cry "Africa for the Africans!" Muslim countries in the Middle East do not welcome people of other religions. Westerners cannot move to India, China or Japan and expect to spend the rest of their lives there, taking citizenship. It is only in the West that immigrants can become permanent residents and eventually citizens. Immigration is strictly a one-way traffic.

In contrast, the Bible shows the importance of ethnicity, of tribal identity.

When asked what would be the sign of His second coming, Jesus Christ said: "For nation will rise against nation" (Matthew 24:7). The Greek word for nation here is ethnos, from which we get the word ethnic. Ethnic conflict was being foretold. It is interesting to note that most of the conflicts in the world today are ethnic, with religious differences often an added complication.

Genesis 49 deals with the 12 tribes of Israel "in the last days" (verse 1). Clearly, these tribes were still to be of some significance. In fact, the Old Testament is full of prophecies relating to these tribes in the period right before the return of the Messiah.

In Genesis 48 we see Jacob, the patriarch of the 12 tribes, blessing his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. In verse 16 he says, "Let my name be named upon them." His name was changed to Israel.

The name Israel in Bible prophecy is usually not referring to the Jewish nation in the Middle East, which only came into existence in 1947. The Jews are a part of Israel, one of the 12 tribes. But the other tribes still exist at the end time. And the major tribe is Joseph, the father of Ephraim and Manasseh.

According to the prophecy in Genesis 48, Ephraim's "descendants shall become a multitude of nations" and Manasseh's were to be a "great" nation (verse 19). These prophesied blessings were fulfilled in the nations of the British Empire and Commonwealth (Ephraim), a powerful multitude of nations that continued for three centuries until after World War II. The great single nation that was to come out of Joseph is the United States.

God set these two nations "high above all nations of the earth" (Deuteronomy 28:1). The British ruled over 60 different nations around the globe. Americans expanded across a continent, spreading the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

Jamestown is where it all began

One ethnic group was given the ascendancy over others as God fulfilled His promises to Israel and his descendants. Through these nations, great wealth came upon many ethnic groups, as God intended all nations to be beneficiaries of their blessings—both physical and spiritual. "I will make you a great nation… I will bless those who bless you… And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3).

Jamestown and the continent of North America were dramatically changed as a result of the English conquest.

With this and other settlements not only came greater prosperity but also representative government and freedom of religion.

"When the General Assembly met in July and August, 1619, in the little church beside the river, it marked the first step in the building of this country's democratic institutions. Antedating the Mayflower Compact by more than a year, this first Virginia General Assembly was a milestone in the history of liberal government" (Dabney, p. 29).

Now Virginia had "a legislative, administrative and judicial system much more closely in accord with that prevailing in England… It is interesting to note that the members of this first Assembly were elected under a franchise more liberal than that prevailing in England" (pp. 29, 31).

This was the first parliament established by Englishmen in the New World. Eventually, representative government was to be established throughout the world in other British colonies. Many of these parliaments have survived the transition to independence, but many former British colonies have not been successful with preserving their democratic systems. Independence meant the end of British domination and the beginning of domination by another ethnic group, usually one with no tradition of democracy.

Dominant cultures

One of the great lessons of Jamestown is that domination by a single ethnic group can make a major difference. But what if that group no longer dominates in the decades to come? Demographic trends show that the period of dominance by the Anglos is rapidly coming to an end. This is not only true in the United States. If demographic trends continue, the present majority populations of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the nations of Western Europe will be replaced by peoples of other cultures, mostly immigrants from third world countries and their descendants. This will make a big difference to these nations.

The first group of settlers that dropped anchor in Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607, numbered only 104. Within months that number would be down to only 38. Who would have thought that those 38 immigrants, their descendants and others who followed would one day dominate the continent?

Immigration to the United States today is on a far greater scale. Whenever I fly back from Ghana, the plane is full of people, mostly Ghanaians, intending to make a new home in the United States. On each flight there are about 300 people, far more than on those first three ships that arrived in Jamestown. Ghana is just one country sending people to America. My flight is just one of dozens that arrive each day.

How significant will the arrival of these new settlers be? Could their arrival in America have a future impact as great as the arrival of those Englishmen four centuries ago?

The Bible prophesies that the modern descendants of ancient Israel will find they are taken over by strangers, foreigners of different cultures and religions. "A nation whom you have not known shall eat the fruit of your land and the produce of your labor, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually" (Deuteronomy 28:33).

The same chapter also foretells that the Israelites (the descendants of the British settlers and others of Western European descent) will find that their economy also is controlled by strangers. "He shall lend to you, but you shall not lend to him; he shall be the head and you shall be the tail" (verse 44).

It is ironic that the 400th anniversary of Jamestown coincided with the announcement that America's population has now passed the 300 million mark. A few weeks later it was announced that the numbers of "minorities" has reached 100 million, a third of the people. The ratio is constantly changing with massive immigration from third world countries. The birthrate is also a factor. The prediction is that "minorities" will be the majority by the midpoint of this century.

One day Americans of European descent will discover they have a diminished impact on the cultural and political course of America. Too late they will discover that the institutions set up over a thousand years of democratic evolution from the British Isles to the shores of the New World are transformed into something very different. They will find themselves strangers in their own country, just as surely as the Native Americans did centuries ago. WNP

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