The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery


It's rare to write about the same news topic twice in the same day, unless it's one of those hot-button topics that's driving people crazy on social media. That's a sobering thing to say, but there you have it.

However, I am truly fascinated with the depth of the questions being raised in early discussions of the silver box recently unearthed by the Jamestown Rediscovery team. This morning I raised some questions about a massive Washington Post piece on this topic and now, lo and behold, The Atlantic has posted a report on the same topic.

The Post piece pivoted on a question: Is the small silver box, containing human bones, found buried with colonial leader Gabriel Archer a reliquary or not? If it is a reliquary, in the ancient Christian sense of that word, then what saint or martyr were some of the colonialists venerating in this manner? 

Now editors at The Atlantic -- based on interviews with some of the same experts -- have published a lengthy piece that appears to be much more certain about several key facts. Check this out:

After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.

“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”

If that box is what Horn, in this new interview at least, seems certain that it is, then there are logical conclusions that can be drawn. Big ones.

The finding is a historical bombshell, unearthed in a grave on the site of what was once the first church built at Jamestown. Which means researchers may have just discovered proof of an underground community of Catholics -- including Archer and perhaps the person who buried him with the relic -- who pretended to be Protestants.

“The first settlers there were mostly members of the Church of England,” said James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College who focuses on the roots of American Catholicism. “While they didn't have the same active hostility to Catholics that the slightly later Puritan colonists in New England did, they were not particularly welcoming to Catholics. If there were Catholics in Tidewater Virginia ... that would be news.”

It’s the kind of discovery that makes historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other academics giddy with curiosity. But it raises even bigger questions, too -- ideas that could rewrite our understanding of the intersection of religious and cultural identities in colonial America.

I especially appreciated the implied timeline in this new piece, placing the silver box in the ground just ahead of the wave of fierce anti-Catholic sentiment in England and the colonies. Still, if Catholics -- secret or not -- were part of Jamestown, then The Atlantic is right in stating that the opening chapters of the book of Catholic history in America must be rewritten.

Also, there is this blockbuster paragraph containing information not covered by the Post piece.

“There is this sense that American Catholic history begins in the 19th century with a wave of immigrants from Germany and Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s, but there is a history of earlier Catholicism,” said Maura Jane Farrelly, an associate professor of American studies at Brandeis University. “What’s captivating about it is the notion of the secretive nature. If he’s secretly Catholic, what does that faith mean to him that he’s willing to hold onto it even though it’s dangerous?”

“We have been finding bits and pieces of rosaries and crucifixes and other things that obviously were Catholic.”

Read on!

Late addition: Check out this America piece on whether "secret Catholics" at Jamestown are a big story or not. 

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