Religion 400 years ago

Hans Rollmann
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Who preached the word of God in the early days of Cupids?

Twice this summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Cupids, which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its beginning. In August, archeologist Bill Gilbert showed me the fruits of his impressive excavations of the settlement, and I visited the new Legacy Centre.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to participate in a symposium sponsored by the Newfoundland and Cupids Historical Societies.

As events commemorating this first settlement in English-speaking Canada draw to a close, it might be worthwhile to reflect once again on the religious dimensions of the early 17th-century undertaking.

No religious settlement

Unlike some American settlements of the period, the colony at Cupers Cove had no overarching religious purpose.

Despite Daniel Woodley Prowse's earlier contention, there is no evidence that oppressed English religious refugees organized communities in the bays and coves of Newfoundland. Rather, when John Guy and his settlers arrived in the Bay of Conception, they did so for investors who combined Bristol seafaring and fishing experience with London wealth.

Yet religion was never absent from the minds of 17th-century people in a new land. Already, the charter of the Newfoundland Company provided for conversion of aboriginals by bringing in the culture-confident language of its day potential converts to the true worship of God and Christian religion.

The business interests that wrote the charter for the Newfoundland Company were Protestants who loathed the superstitions of the Church of Rome and required of travellers to the colony the anti- Catholic Oath of Supremacy.

Even before there was any talk of a clergyman, Guy's instructions required that divine service be publicly read and attentively harkened unto especially on the Sabbath day, both forenoon and afternoon. Without remembering God, Guy was told, no beginning has a good foundation, so these services were seen as necessary for the settlement's happiness, success and prosperity.

A learned and godly minister

Although the journals and correspondence from the period are very businesslike or descriptive of the new land, and largely void of religious language, there is some evidence a clergyman may have served in 17th-century Cupids.

Shortly after his arrival in Newfoundland, John Guy, in a letter to Sir Percival Willoughby penned at Cupers Cove on Oct. 6, 1610, expressed his desire for a learned and godly minister to the great comfort to us all and a credit to the plantation.

For a plantation to function well, a clergyman was considered indispensable, to perform the pastoral and ministerial duties associated with English parish life. The challenging conditions of a plantation overseas and the spiritual needs of its inhabitants made such a requesteven more desirable.

As I have written elsewhere, this learned and godly minister may have been William Leat, a Church of England clergyman. Leat appears in the records of the Virginia Company in 1621 and 1622.

When he sought service in Virginia, the minister received a good recommendation for his civil and good carriage by John Slany, the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company. Next to Guy, Slany played the most prominent role in the development of Cupids. In Virginia records, the Reverend Leat is described as a Minister being heretofore in Newfoundland and preacher. So it is likely that the priest, who died within a year of his arrival in Virginia, served earlier as a minister in Cupids.

Archeologist Bill Gilbert has drawn my attention to a letter of John Slany to Sir Percival Willoughby that attests to actual preaching in the plantation during the summer of 1612. Slany wrote that on Sunday the 14 of June the word of God was preached at our Colony in Cupers Cove to the great rejoicing of the people, 200 persons being present.

Leat or another visiting preacher may have attracted not only Guy's settlers, but the spiritually starved seasonal fishers of the area.

Presence of the zealous Puritan pastor Erasmus Stourton in Cupers Cove, alleged by Judge Prowse in his History of Newfoundland (1895), is as untenable as Rev. Lewis Amadeus Anspach's assumption in his History of the Island of Newfoundland (1819) that the settlement was located in Mosquito (since 1909, Bristol's Hope).

My soule I bequeath to God Almighty'

Recent discoveries show that people remained at Cupids well beyond the time when the Newfoundland Company had given up on Newfoundland.

A will of James Hill, a long-time resident of Cupids, was only discovered within the past two years and shows how individuals saw their lives governed by an omnipotent God.

My soule I bequeath to God Almighty and my body to the Earth, wrote James Hill on March 4, 1674, from Cupids Cove. As for all my Goods within and without the said house of Cupits Cove I wholly resign to Thomas Butler now of Porta Grave.

Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University, and can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Newfoundland Company, Church of Rome, Church of England Virginia Company

Geographic location: Island of Newfoundland, Bristol, Canada Virginia Bay of Conception London

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