Colonial House Picture of the colony
Meet the Colonists Behind the Scenes Interactive History Media Gallery
Behind the Scenes
Introduction Interview with the Executive Producer Colonial Life, Then and Now

The Native American Story
A Historian Awakens 1628
Religion on the Colony
The Longest Day
Building the Colony
Candid Camera
The Training
By Charles Hambrick-Stowe
Photo of Charles Hambrick-Stowe

(continued from previous page)

I'll describe the way I approached this challenge below, but first some further preliminary considerations. Of course, I had no idea who the colonists would be in real life. Some of them might be believers -- 21st-century Christians or persons of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or some other faith. Among the Christians, some might be Roman Catholic or Orthodox, some might be evangelical or Pentecostal, some might be traditionally "mainline" Protestant. Some might be extremely zealous about their faith; some might be just nominal members of a church. Of course, it also seemed likely that some of the colonists would not be religious at all in their real lives. Of these, some might be secular people entirely naïve -- clueless -- about religion. They might be apathetic about spiritual matters or they might be curious and willing to give it a try -- in the same way that the participants would be giving everything else in the 17th century a try. In addition to such individuals, COLONIAL HOUSE could also include some inhabitants with negative real-life religious baggage, perhaps outright antagonism toward spiritual things or anything smacking of "church." How to create a religious structure that would be not only a realistic historical exercise for all these colonists but also meaningful to them personally? How to imagine a religious environment with both kinds of integrity -- historical and personal?

I developed a proposal, which was accepted by the COLONIAL HOUSE organizers, that centered on the creation of a printed resource called the PRAYER AND WORSHIP BOOK. During the first months of 2003 I pulled together appropriate 17th-century spiritual writings and edited them in time for the PWB to be printed for use by the Colony's inhabitants. The book includes meditations and prayers for personal daily use -- upon rising in the morning and before retiring at night, at mealtime, on the Sabbath, when feeling sick, etc. -- and for corporate use on the Sabbath (Sunday).

We had decided that the colony's religious life would be broadly English Protestant, but neither specifically Church of England nor Puritan. In a Puritan colony like Massachusetts Bay or Connecticut, church services occupied the colonists all day on Sunday, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, whereas in nominally Church of England colonies, services were briefer and some people would also have enjoyed games and other recreation on Sundays. It was decided, therefore, that the Colonial House Sabbath would include religious exercises on Sunday morning and the chance for play in the afternoon. The colony would have a lay religious leader to conduct corporate religious exercises and serve as the spiritual leader of the colony, but he would not be identified as an ordained pastor or priest because that would require too close a definition of the colony's ecclesiology. The PWB, accordingly, would include materials from across the spectrum of early 17th-century English Christian life.

There are several basic sources for the PRAYER AND WORSHIP BOOK. First of all, the Bible readings for each Sunday are taken from the cycle presented in the Church of England's BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. The PWB also includes printed prayers for every Sunday from the BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. In this sense, the outline of religious practices for Sunday morning looks very much like the Anglican service of Morning Prayer. In addition, following the simple format of Puritan worship, the PWB includes a section of doctrinal teaching taken from an influential early 17th-century work by leading Puritan theologian William Ames, THE MARROW OF THEOLOGY. My idea here was to provide some meaty material that could either be read aloud by the religious leader or incorporated into his own teaching and/or preaching in the colony. Finally, the PWB includes for each Sunday a meditative selection from Lewis Bayly's enormously popular devotional manual, THE PRACTICE OF PIETY. Again, this could be read aloud or used in some creative fashion by the religious leader as he led the meditations and prayers of the group. The reason for including Bayly was not only the quality of his spiritual guidance but because, although he was a priest in the Church of England, his book was widely read by Puritans and Anglicans across the spectrum of English society.

I edited the PRAYER AND WORSHIP BOOK, therefore, to represent a broadly Protestant English religious perspective. The Bible selections, formal prayers, doctrinal exposition, and meditations are all authentically 17th century without being exclusively identified with one branch of the church or another. I attempted to make this material relevant to the experience of the inhabitants of the Colony by offering a series of questions, which could be used in group discussion or as suggested points in the religious leader's teaching or preaching. Of course, the creative use of this printed resource was left entirely up to the discretion and wisdom of the individual who was to become the religious leader of the colony. Perhaps it would be used on a daily and weekly basis, or perhaps it would serve primarily as background material for the colonists.

I met the colonists in early June at Plimoth Plantation during their training session. My job was to brief them, in just a few short hours, on the nature of English Christianity in the early 17th century and the variety of Protestantism that made its way to the Anglo-American colonies. There was a lively discussion after I had presented some basic information. It was fascinating for me to be teaching not students in a classroom but a group of people that would soon actually be living in a 17th-century colony. Even during that morning session there were hints that the practice of religion could become one of the most challenging aspects of their experience.

I have spent three and a half decades thinking about the religious life of colonial America. I have lived in the 17th century in my mind. But I have never tried to live there physically as well. It was a privilege to help this group of Colonial House inhabitants make that leap through time.

Email this Page to a Friend
About the Project For Teachers Resources Sitemap
Be more adventurous. Help bring programs like COLONIAL HOUSE to your PBS station ... pledge online!