A Clash of Beliefs: Virginia

English-speaking whites, Native Americans, and Africans operated within belief systems that included supreme beings, a variety of lesser benevolent entities or angels, troublesome spirits and devils, explanations of good and evil, and stories about creation and the afterlife. For example, in the colonial period in Virginia, traditional religions of Indians and Africans came under intense pressure from the dominant English culture.

Besides envisioning opportunities for commercial gain, the King, Virginia Company investors, and colonists also viewed the Virginia experiment as a noble effort to fulfill the biblical injunction, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," (Matthew 28:19) by converting Indians to their Christian God. Christianity and civilization were nearly synonymous in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English world. This was reflected somewhat in an English social order where human beings occupied positions of increasing importance and responsibility in an ascending hierarchy from the lowliest servant or slave to the monarch, with reciprocal rights and responsibilities accorded to each. English colonists in Virginia were therefore confident their god intended for them to impose an "orderly government," not the Christian religion alone, on the non-Christian peoples they encountered.

English Virginians expected to convert the 15,000 to 20,000 Algonquian-speaking native inhabitants (Powhatans) of the Tsenacomoco coastal plain. The Powhatans were polytheistic, and their priests interceded with several deities to bring rain and cure disease. Powhatans were mindful of the remote Ahone, a beneficent god. The most important deity in their pantheon was the guardian Okeus who, if not properly appeased, brought sickness, crop failure, or other catastrophes on those who offended him. Traditional beliefs bound tribal members to each other and to the natural world in an ethos that English settlers and Virginia-born colonists could not fathom or take seriously. Indian agent and historian Robert Beverley and a party of his companions rifled a Powhatan temple toward the end of the seventeenth century without recognizing that their investigation was an act of desecration. In turn, most Native Americans spurned the monotheistic religion of the English invaders.

Most West Africans transported to Virginia had been brought up in complex belief systems distinguished by close relationships between the natural and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred. West Africans considered God to be omniscient and omnipotent. Their knowledge and worship of god was expressed in songs, names, myths, religious ceremonies, prayers, and proverbs. Supreme or creator gods such as Onyame, Mawu, and Olorun had only a remote connection to people's daily lives. Worshipers were most attentive to an array of lesser divinities, personages, and intermediaries associated with the forces of nature such as Oya in the Yoruba country, who was goddess of the Niger River and wife of Shango the thunder god, and Olokun, who owned the sea in Yoruba, Bini, and Ibo.

The Yoruba recognized more than 1700 divinities, known collectively as Orisha, and the Ashanti worshipped many divinities known as Abosom created to guard and protect men. Orisa incorporated Ogun, the god of iron and steel, and Orunmila, who understood "every language spoken on earth," for example. These sky, earth, water, and forest spirits paid close attention to the concerns of humans. Eshu, a trickster god in Dahomey and Nigeria, could bring evil on a house, although he was not purely evil since a daily act of appeasing the god garnered his protection and favor.

Africans torn from the supportive embrace of these belief systems were hard put to reestablish them on Virginia plantations. Archaeology on colonial sites and continuing research in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have begun to show that enslaved Africans clung to traditional practices in the cruel and unfamiliar environment of North America. Slave owners often dismissed or forbade what they saw as satanic, "outlandish," or dangerous practices.

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