Jamestown’s Self-Government: A Biblical Model

Above: This initial meeting of the General Assembly convened in 1619 in the choir of the Jamestown Church and consisted of the governor, the governor’s Council, and elected representatives from all of the settled areas in Virginia. Painting by Sidney King Credit: Preservation Virginia

As the colonists made the daring and arduous journey to the Jamestown settlement and survived the very harsh first few years in the new settlement, the question began to arise: how do they effectively govern themselves when they are 3,000 miles away from their king and government? The 1606 Charter they came with had established that there would be two councils, one in Jamestown and one in England that would co-govern the settlement.

But governing well proved to be difficult when so many colonists perished in the first few years.  King James I then decided that the colony would be governed by a strict militaristic regime. This change dissuaded many would-be adventurers from making the trip to Jamestown.

In response, England appointed a governor to the colony that would be allowed to hold a General Assembly of individuals to legislate for themselves, known as the House of Burgesses. In 1618, “[the] Virginia Company officials adopted English Common Law as the basis of their system in the Virginia Colony…[it] included a system of self government which included the capacity for the colonists to select their own representatives to govern…[and] pass their own laws.” 

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1907 Memorial Church on the site of the first General Assembly meeting in 1619 at Jamestown. Credit: Virginia General Assembly

This change to the Charter of Virginia was huge. Colony members were then considered “not merely as servants of a commercial company, dependent on the will and orders of their superior, but as free men and citizens,” Verna Hall and Rosalie Slater, co-founders of the Foundation for American Christian Education, state in The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States. (Hall 2006, p. 165)

The House of Burgesses demonstrated the seeds of Christian self-government as the foundation for effective self-governing bodies. At StoneBridge School, we teach that self government comes from the heart and conscience in how we act, think, speak.  Once you can govern yourself, you can govern your household, then church community, then civil community.  It is meant to allow for responsibility to be built upon and earned.  Along with the Mayflower Compact, future colonies also looked to the House of Burgesses’ example that honored English common law, but allowed colonists to make adjustments to their new lives as they best saw fit. 

Over the next 170 years, these colonies thrived through Christian self-government, which afforded them true liberty. When England began tightening the reins over colony rule, tensions rose within the colonies. Samuel Adams, one of the nation’s founding fathers, embodied how a good number of the colonists felt about this change.

“Still there is the great and perpetual Law of Self preservation to which every natural person or corporate Body hath an inherent Right to recur. This being the Law of the Creator, no human Law can be of force against it,” he stated.  (Hall 2006, p. 282A)

The House of Burgesses’s example impacted the nation’s founding fathers in drafting our nation’s Constitution. The Constitution provides legislation and laws to cover the nation as a whole, but allows for the states to make laws that better suit each state’s unique needs.  

Hall, Verna M. 2006. The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America. Chesapeake, VA: Foundation for American Christian Education.