John Donne, from A Sermon . . . Preached to the Honorable Company of the Virginia Plantation, 13 November 1622

In 1607, the first permanent English settlement in the New World was established at Jamestown by members of the Virginia Company of London. In the years that followed the fledgling colony suffered terrible hardship and a horrifying death rate, brought on by disease, hunger, a startling degree of incompetence, and intermittent warfare with the Powhatan Indians. Cultivation of tobacco began in 1612, and in 1622 the colony was granted a monopoly on the sale of tobacco in England, ensuring its future prosperity. In the same year, however, more than three hundred and fifty colonists, a third of the colony, were killed in conflict with the Powhatans. Partly as a result of this devastating loss, and partly because of simmering tensions over the government of the colony, the Virginia Company was dissolved in 1624, and Virginia became a Crown Colony under royal control.

[Click on image to enlarge] Unlike the Puritans who settled in New England in search of religious freedom, the members of the Virginia Company were loyal to the Church of England. It was thus natural that in 1622 a group destined for the Virginia voyage should gather to hear a sermon by the famous preacher John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's. In the sermon, one of only six published in his lifetime, Donne warns the colonists against allowing greed or arrogance to distract them from what he saw as their primary mission, the conversion of the Indians. At the same time, he reassures the members of the Company that both divine and secular law provide them with ample justification for their colonial enterprise.

Acts 1.8

But ye shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and ye shall be witness unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

[Click on image to enlarge] There are reckoned in this Book, >> note 1 two and twenty sermons of the Apostles; and yet the Book is not called the preaching, but the practice, not the words, but the Acts of the Apostles. And the Acts of the Apostles were to convey the name of Christ Jesus, and to propagate his Gospel over all the world.

Beloved, you are Actors upon the same stage too. The uttermost part of the earth are your scene. Act over the Acts of the Apostles. Be you a light to the Gentiles >> note 2 that sit in darkness. Be you content to carry him over these seas, who dried up one Red Sea for his first people, and hath poured out another Red Sea, his own blood, for them and us.

When Man was fallen, God clothed him, made him a leather garment; there god descended to one occupation. When the time of Man's redemption was come, then God, as it were, to house him, became a carpenter's son; there God descended to another occupation. Naturally, without doubt, Man would have been his own tailor and his own carpenter; something in these kinds Man would have done of himself, though he had no pattern from God. But . . . in preserving Man from perishing in the Flood, God descended to a third occupation, to be his shipwright, to give him the model of a ship, an Ark, and so to be the author of that, which man himself in likelihood would never have thought of, a means to pass from nation to nation.

Now, as God taught us to make clothes, not only to clothe ourselves, but to clothe him in his poor and naked members here; as God taught us to build houses, not to house ourselves, but to house him in erecting churches to his glory; so God taught us to make ships, not to transport ourselves, but to transport him, that when we have received power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon us, we might be witnesses unto him, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.

* * *

There is a power rooted in nature, and a power rooted in grace: a power issuing out of the law of nature, and a power growing out of the Gospel. In the law of nature, and nations, a land never inhabited by any, or utterly derelicted, and immemorially abandoned by the former inhabitants, becomes theirs that will possess it. So also is it, if the inhabitants do not in some measure fill the land, so as the land may bring forth her increase for the use of men. For as the man does not become proprietary of the sea, because he has two or three boats fishing in it, so neither does a man become lord of a main continent, because he hath two or three cottages in the skirts thereof.

That rule which passes through all municipal laws in particular states, interest reipublicae ut quis re sua bene utatur, the state must take order, that every man improve that which he hath, for the best advantage of that state, passes also through the law of nations, which is to all the world as the municipal law is to a particular state: interest mundo, the whole world, all mankind, must take care that all places be improved, as far as may be, to the best advantage of mankind in general. Again, if the land be peopled, and cultivated by that people, and that land produce in abundance such things, for want whereof their neighbors or others (being not enemies) perish, the law of nations may justify some force in seeking by permutation >> note 3 of other commodities which they need, to come to some of theirs.

Many cases may be put, when not only commerce and trade but also plantations in lands not formerly our own may be lawful. And for that, accepistis potestatem, you have your commission, your patents, your charters, your seals from Him >> note 4 upon whose acts any private subject, in civil matters, may safely rely.

But then, accipietis potestatem, you shall receive power, says the text. >> note 5 You shall, when the Holy Ghost is come upon you, that is, when the influence of the motions of the Holy Ghost enables your conscience to say that your principle end is not gain, nor glory, but to gain souls to the glory of God. This seals the Great Seal, this justifies justice itself, this authorizes authority, and gives power to strength itself. Let the conscience be upright, and then seals, and patents, and commissions are wings; they assist him to fly the faster. Let the conscience be lame and distorted, and he that goes upon seals, and patents, and commissions goes upon weak and feeble crutches. When the Holy Ghost is come upon you, your conscience rectified, you shall have power, a new power out of that. What to do? That follows: to be witnesses unto Christ.


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