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Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants ‘venerating’ bones of saints?

I love a good mystery hidden in the mists of history and it goes without saying that is doubly true of a mystery with a strong religion hook. So the Washington Post team had my my full attention when it pushed out an online promotion for a fascinating feature story about some of the latest finds in the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

The key: Researchers found a small silver box containing what appear to be human bones, with what they believe is the letter “M” inscribed on the cover. Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

JAMESTOWN, Va. — When his friends buried Capt. Gabriel Archer here about 1609, they dug his grave inside a church, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a sealed silver box on the lid. … The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony. On Tuesday, more than 400 years after the mysterious box was buried, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and three other VIPs. “It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find. “It’s a huge deal.”

OK, but what was this small silver box? The story says it was probably an “object of veneration,” but are we talking about some form of link to ancestors? The Post team, interviewing the experts, immediately locks into a crucial religious element of this mystery – but misses some key questions and historical details.

The bottom line: We are supposed to be dealing with a Protestant colony. But is that a certainty for each and every member of this community? The story also notes that Archer’s mother’s name was Mary, with a large M, and that he came from a town outside of London called Mountnessing, with a large M.

Let’s read on, as the religious questions come into focus, somewhat.

Horn said in an interview before the announcement that the box is a reliquary, a container for holy relics, such as the bones of a saint. “It’s a sacred object of great significance,” he said. Such containers have a long tradition in the Catholic Church, and predate the Protestant Reformation. So the appearance of one in post-Reformation Jamestown is mystifying. Did it belong to Archer, whose Catholic parents had been “outlawed” for their faith back in England? Or to the fledgling Anglican Church, as a holdover from Catholicism?

Well, first things first. The relics of saints play a significant role in the ancient Christian churches in the East and the West – period.

Thus, a reliquary is not just a “Catholic thing,” although links to Catholicism are much, much more likely in this case than to the Orthodox churches of the East. Also, it would have been good – in my opinion – to note that the altars of ancient churches all over England would soon be stripped of their holy relics during waves of “reforms” by Protestants.

So the Post article is raising some very interesting questions, if, as it is claimed, this silver box truly has religious significance. If this box was the object of religious “veneration,” in the ancient Christian sense of that word, then the most crucial question is this: What is the name of the saint whose bones were saved in this manner? Where did these relics come from and how were they used in prayers with the saints?

Now, the suggestion that we are dealing with the saving of relics by some group INSIDE Anglicanism in that era is truly fascinating, since that might imply some early, early form of Anglo-Catholicism. Anglican readers – high- and low-church – help me out here. Is this even an option that should be discussed when dealing with artifacts from this colonial era?

Now, if the bones are not those of a saint, or a martyr, then we are not talking about religious “veneration,” unless the researchers quoted by the Post are talking about some kind of ancestor worship. The box may be a romantic keepsake, as a link to an ancestor, but calling this a major “religious” discovery may be a bit much.

So again: Saint or no saint? That is the question.

You can see that issue hovering in the background latter in the story. There are many details in this long passage, so read carefully:

Horn said he believed it was a sacred, public reliquary, as opposed to a private item, because it contained so many pieces of bone. “A private reliquary would be like a locket, or a small crucifix, with a tiny fragment of bone,” he said. This probably was for public display and devotion. Reliquaries usually are associated with Catholics, he said, adding, “What’s that mean for Gabriel Archer?” Archer was not known to be Catholic. But his parents in England had been “recusants,” Catholics who refused to attend the Protestant Anglican Church, as required by law after the Reformation. Horn wondered: Was Archer a leader of a secret Catholic cell? In 1607, a member of the settlement’s governing council, George Kendall, was executed as a Catholic spy, according to Jamestown Rediscovery, and Horn said Tuesday: “I’m beginning to lean more to the Catholic conspiracy.” But another theory is that the reliquary belonged to Jamestown’s fledgling Anglican Church. Even though reliquaries were “relics of the old religion,” Horn said, some were retained for use in the early English Protestant Church. If that’s the case, the reliquary was the “heart and soul” of the English church in the new world.

Once again, there is that statement of fact, that some were saving relics “for use in the early English Protestant Church.” Really now? Relics of the saints used in Reformation Protestant worship? Now there is a mystery worth investigating. Follow-up story, please!

By the way, here is an early note from former GetReligionista Father George Conger, an Anglican scribe: “The dead man could have been a Recusant. Secret Roman Catholic. The relics collected by secret Catholics at this time were usually the bones, clothing, blood etc of martyred RC clergy. He could have been a member of the Church of England. Article 22 the adoration of relics. But the relics of saints were not removed systematically from Cathedrals until Cromwell’s time – 50 years later. One could reverence relics, not worship them.”)

First printed at GetReligion and reprinted here with the permission of the author.

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