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John Smith's Baptism

March 14, 2011

The rector of the church where adventurer John Smith was baptized visited the site of the first major English church in North America on March 5, 2011.

He checked to make sure it was facing the right direction.

"Which way is east?" asked the Rev. Daffyd Robinson on the cloudy Saturday.

Satisfied that the postholes archaeologists found in 2010 are aligned the right way, Robinson then showed interest in the other structures around the James Fort site: wells, the first brick oven, and the reconstructed barracks.

The Rev. Daffyd Robinson(left) is given a tour of James Fort by Tom Patton, Public Program Coordinator for Historic Jamestowne
The Rev. Daffyd Robinson(left) is given a tour of James Fort by Tom Patton, Public Program Coordinator for Historic Jamestowne
The barracks for the soldiers led by Smith would have been the same kind of "mud and stud" building still found in Robinson's home parish in Lincolnshire, near the North Sea coast of England. The fort's barracks frame doesn't have mud on it now -- only a pile slumped at one corner from a failed batch last year.

"Not enough horsehair," Robinson said, smiling. "You need to bring in some experts from Lincolnshire. We know a fellow down the road who is redoing his mud and stud -- no idea when he’ll actually get around to it!"

Robinson and his wife also visited Jamestown Island in 1994 just before the Jamestown Rediscovery project found archaeological evidence of the first fort of the Virginia colony. Robinson remarked on the difference between his visits.

"Has the John Smith statue been moved?" he asked Tom Patton, Public Program Coordinator for Historic Jamestowne.

Patton told him no, but the site is clear of most of the trees that stood around the statue in 1994. The Smith statue went up more than a century ago, when people believed the fort site had eroded into the James River.

"It turns out he's been inside his fort the whole time, and he's the only one who knew it!" Patton told Robinson.

Robinson is rector at Willoughby Church, whose main structure was built in the 1300s. Since 1974 it has sported a detailed stained glass window about the life of its most famous member.

Smith was the son of a yeoman farmer and was baptized Jan. 19, 1580, in the font that now stands below the stained glass about him. The wooden ladder to the church tower is so old that Smith may have scampered up its footholds as a boy, Robinson said.

Smith grew up to be a soldier under the patronage of Lord Willoughby, whose family is the patron of the church. After fighting wars in Europe, Smith was named to the first governing council of the Virginia colony and served a year as president. Many credit Smith with keeping the colony functional in the face of rampant death and disease.

The church website says the 1974 stained glass design in the church was donated by Phillip L. Barbour of Kentucky and visited by Virginia Governor Chuck Robb in 1985. Scenes in the glass in "The John Smith Window" show him being baptized, studying at Louth Grammar School, and practicing his horseriding. The glass also portrays the prince of Transylvania who made Smith a captain of 250 soldiers and the coat of arms the prince granted Smith when he killed three Turkish warriors in single combat.

The two women on the glass are Pocahontas and Frances Howard, the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox who sponsored the 1624 publication of Smith's most famous book, about the Virginia colony.

But most Englishmen don't know much about Smith, Robinson said. "He's a just a name to most people. It's getting better because we've made some attempts to tell the story, but there's always a new generation to teach."

During the 2007 commemoration of Jamestown's 400th anniversary, the church got a grant to produce a play about Smith's life. But it hasn't been produced since, and Smith's childhood home no longer stands.

"There isn't a big artifact like you have here," Robinson said. "We do have the glass. The glass in the chancel is very much about the Virginia Company and telling their story. We keep pushing it because it's our little tourist bit."

Barbour donated two other stained glass windows that make further connections between Willoughby and America. One shows the Rev. Robert Hunt offering the first communion in the Virginia colony on June 21, 1607. The other window shows the Rev. Alexander Whitaker, who ministered to the Henrico settlement upriver from Jamestown and who may have baptized Pocahontas into the Christian faith.

The church also posts the flags of the United States and Virginia inside the church, beside a plaque about Smith.

To see the storytelling windows and get more information about Willoughby Church, visit www.willoughby-lincs.org.uk

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Preservation Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation formed a new collaboration in the fall of 2010 to connect their histories through compelling stories of discovery, diversity and democracy.

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