April 26: Robert Hunt, Priest and First Chaplain at Jamestown, 1607

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Robert Hunt was born in England around 1568. He was a parish priest in Reculver, Kent, beginning in 1594, and in 1604 became vicar of Heathfield Parish in the Diocese of Chichester.

In 1607, Hunt accompanied Captain John Smith and the Jamestown colonists, serving as their priest and chaplain. The first celebration of the Holy Eucharist recorded in North America took place on May 24, 1607, and Hunt is believed to have presided. Captain Smith’s diary notes another celebration of the Holy Eucharist on June 21, 1607, and Hunt is more clearly indicated as the presiding priest.

In Captain Smith’s journal, the following tribute to Robert Hunt and his ministry may be found: “He was an honest, religious and courageous divine. He preferred the service of God in so good a voyage to every thought of ease at home. He endured every privation, yet none ever heard him repine. During his life our factions were oft healed and our great extremities so comforted that they seemed easy in comparison with what we endured after his memorable death. We all received from him the Holy Communion as a pledge of reconciliation for we all loved him for his exceeding goodness.”

Hunt died sometime prior to April 10, 1608. A memorial has been erected by the National Park Service in Historic Jamestown.


I  Almighty God, we bless thy Name for the life and witness of Robert Hunt, first chaplain to the Jamestown colony, whose community knew him as an honest, religious and courageous divine who, in his short life, endured great hardships without complaint. Help us, like him, to work for reconciliation and healing wherever we may be placed; through Jesus Christ thy Son, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  Almighty God, we bless your Name for the life and witness of Robert Hunt, first chaplain to the Jamestown colony, whose community knew him as an honest, religious and courageous divine who, in his short life, endured great hardships without complaint. Help us, like him, to work for reconciliation and healing wherever we may be placed; through Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Isaiah 43:1–7

1 Timothy 6:11–16

Matthew 5:21–24

Psalm 24

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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18 thoughts on “April 26: Robert Hunt, Priest and First Chaplain at Jamestown, 1607

  1. I think there might have been an earlier Eucharist by the Chaplain on the Golden Hind in the
    San Francisco bay area in 1570’s. Drake and his crew wintered over before completing their
    trip ’round the world. in 1780 or so.

  2. Richard Lewis, that event was the first recorded use of the BCP in the Americas, but it was I believe for Morning Prayer, not the Eucharist.

    I think all four of the readings given for this commemoration are quite good and appropriate to either travel & privation or to reconciliation & harmony in the community.

    Collect feels a little clunky in the opening: “…whose community knew him as an honest, religious, and courageous divine…” Can we speak with a little more boldness and say “Robert Hunt, first chaplain to the Jamestown colony, who endured great hardships with honesty and devotion, and without complaint…”

    As a closing note, if anyone ever says about me what Captain Smith said about him, I’ll consider my life a success!

    • Chris — I liked your closing note, and it made me think. If anyone ever says about me what Captain Smith said about him, — don’t trust him with your cash, your sweetheart, or your leather bound BCP with Hymnal. 🙂

  3. I was present in 1956 at the celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jamestown and the Virginia Colony. A Holy Communion service was held at the Robert Hunt shrine using silver provided by the Rev’d Cotesworth Lewis, rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. Many of the laity, priests and deacons from the larger church were present. I was a freshman at the College of William & Mary at the time. For the 400th celebration privileged to celebrate the Eucharist at the old church site the Sunday after Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the same place for prayers. We used the prayer book of that time, pewter vessels and large surplices.
    I can say with full assurance that the Rev’d Robert Hunt is still remembered with great reverence by the church in Virginia. Surely he is worthy of commemoration. Chris Arnold’s closing note says it all.

  4. Finally … another Virginia ‘saint’ is commemorated. 🙂

    Subtitle. Did he die in 1607 or 1608? Should it say ‘c. 1607’?

    Collect. He said ‘in his short life.’ He was 45 which was fairly common for the early 17th century.

    Hebrew reading. This reading supports ‘Manifest Destiny.’ It has to go. It doesn’t belong with a commemoration of a European settlement on the North American continent.

    Proper Preface of a Saint (2). I guess we need a new Proper Preface entitled ‘Holy Person.’ Saint just doesn’t seem right to me.

    Bio. The actual name of the National Park is: Historic Jamestowne (sic).

  5. The National Park Service has an excellent short biography of the Rev. Robert Hunt at: http://www.nps.gov/jame/historyculture/the-reverend-robert-hunt-the-first-chaplain-at-jamestown.htm .

    There is either a typographical or spelling error in the name of the national park at Jamestown. It should be spelled with an “e” at the end-Jamestowne.

    There is also an error in the title. Though Jamestown was founded in 1607, Robert Hunt’s death was in 1608 in all probability since we know it occurred prior to April 1608. His will which was written in 1606 before the voyage to Virginia was probated in England in 1608. Hunt left a wife, son and daughter behind in England.

    I want to challenge a statement made in the second paragraph about the first celebration of the Holy Eucharist recorded in North America being celebrated probably by Hunt on May 24, 1607. I seriously doubt the accuracy of the statement. Proving “firsts” can be quite difficult. But there are good reasons to think that this was not the first Holy Eucharist. If the emphasis is on recorded , then perhaps Hunt’s celebration was the first recorded, though one would need to check Spanish records also.

    The reasons I challenge the statement:
    1. There was a settlement of French Huguenots at Fort Caroline (near St. Augustine, Florida) in 1564. This triggered the settlement of St. Augustine by the Spanish the following year. Huguenots were not the only members of the expedition from France which also included non-believers as well as some Roman Catholics. During the year the fort lasted before being destroyed by the Spanish and the Huguenot men killed for being heretics, I would assume that there were regular church services which would have included Holy Communion.
    2. With the settlement of St. Augustine, Florida by the Spanish in 1565, there was a mission established A priest, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, accompanied the expedition of Pedro Menendez de Aviles. So there were regular celebrations of Mass beginning in late 1565 in what is now Florida.
    3. Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation on the Golden Hind did have a Chaplain Francis Fletcher as part of the expedition.. I would wonder if Fletcher celebrated Holy Communion with Drake and crew while they anchored off the coast of California in June 1579. This would have been the first English Protestant celebration of the Holy Eucharist if it occurred. At the very least, an English service from the Book of Common Prayer was conducted somewhere near San Francisco in June 1579. As noted above, this celebration may not have been a Eucharist but Morning Prayer.

    But before we say something is first, it needs further research.

    A comment on the collect. The most important part of the Rev. Robert Hunt’s life was his faithfulness of service during great trial-sickness, death, hunger, loss, and the factiousness of his companion settlers. Somehow the collect misses this point. Though he was described as “honest, religious, and courageous” this phrase does not really cover what was most remarkable about this man’s life and witness.

    • Perhaps “first Anglican Holy Communion celebrated on the North American mainland.” And the bio should, as Suzanne does, call it Communion, not Eucharist, since Communion is what Hunt would have called it.

  6. I think that Hunt deserves to be commemorated. Everyone is right about the service in Drake’s Bay, CA, by Drake’s chaplain. It was on June 24, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. I have always understood it was a Eucharist, which would be difficult to celebrate on shipboard in those days. I’m sure the chaplain conducted Mornig Prayer while at sea
    Certainly Hunt was the first Anglican priest who regularly ministered in what is now the US.. In one sense the OT reading is appropriate, but it can be misunderstood, so might well be replaced, although I have no idea by what..

  7. Surely estasblishing “firsts” is a slippery slope. I expect the commission will be able to work out a suitable wording without getting too PC about it: “first on the James River, first on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay,
    first to be bitten by a moccasin, first celebration under a loblolly pine . . . .”

  8. Suzanne covers many of the traps in the “first Eucharist” claim. Neither the US Park Service (the link is in her comment) nor the Colonial Jamestowne timelines mention a May 24 Eucharist, but both have an entry for June 21 to the effect that “Reverend Robert Hunt held the first Anglican communion in Jamestown under a sail used for protection.”
    In additon to Suzanne’s possible prior firsts, there were short-lived Spanish settlements at San Miguel de Guadalupe, probably in South Carolina, 1526-7, and somewhere near the eventual site Jamestown in 1570-1. As these were explicitly missionary endeavors, staffed by Dominican and Jesuit friars, respectively, they certainly celebrated Eucharists. (Assuming, of course, that we recognize their orders!)
    Whether Drake’s stay near San Francisco included a Eucahrist depends on who you read: Powel Mills Dawley (The Episcopal Church and its Work) says yes, but Derek Wilson (The World Encompassed: Drake’s Great Voyage 1577-1580), however, doesn’t mention a Eucharist, from which I deduce that neither Drake’s logs nor Fletcher’s memoirs mention one, either.
    David Beers Quinn (Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606) notes that “If the Thomas Luddington who was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, was the man of that name in the 1585 colony [Roanoke, North Carolina], then it is possible that he was already in Holy Orders. . . . In that case, the earliest Anglican observances on North American soil could be dated from the beginning of the settlement.”
    Finally, given that we’re looking for the first “in North America” – rather than “on North American soil” – then the first Anglican observances antedated both Drake’s voyage and the Lost Colony. While anchored in Florida’s St. James’ River on June 25, 1565, the crews of John Hawkins’ ships, having delivered their cargo of African slaves to the French colony of Ft. Caroline, observed Saint James’ Day.
    I don’t think we can ever really establish which was really the First Anglican Eucharist in North America, and as Dawley points out, it may not be worth trying. The earlier Communions — if any — were “isolated instances of Anglican worship. They are of more antiquarian interest than historical significance. The Virginia colony became the first permanent Anglican settlement, and in the crude shelter that was their chapel there was planted in America the tradition which is embodied today in every parish of the Episcopal church.”
    The Rev’d Hunt’s services to the colonly began well before June 21, 1607, which can be read at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/lhbcb:@field(DOCID+@lit(lhbcb0262adiv11))
    The NPS also explains the political significance of Hunt’s June 21 Eucharist, as it provided closure and reconciliation after a heated struggle over whether to give John Smith his rightful place on the council. And it provides this sentence, which deserves a quote: “All authorities, including Governor Edward Maria Wingfield, First President of the Council at Jamestown, and Captain John Smith, who agreed in nothing else, agreed in praise of this worthy man.”

    • Thank you, Steve. And you put my humble efforts to shame with greater scholarship. The question of firsts is not important and should be removed from the biography. What is important is the The Rev. Robert Hunt established regular worship for the colonists-daily morning and evening prayer and the quarterly Holy Communion which was the custom of his time.

  9. The historic details, I have to admit, are beyond my knowledge of specifics and (with gratitude) I defer completely to others’ commenting. My comments on the readings, collect, and preface, largely echo others’ leads, also.
    THE PREFACE: The preface of Saints (2) seems a bit overdrawn for the circumstances here. The one that makes more sense to me is that for the Dedication of a Church (despite the commemoration’s making no claim at an ecclesiastical “grand opening”). For comparison:
    A Saint (2):
    Because in the obedience of your saints you have given us an example of righteousness, and in their eternal joy a glorious pledge of the hope of our calling.
    Dedication of a Church
    Through Jesus Christ our great High Priest; in whom we are built up as living stones of a holy temple, that we might offer before you a sacrifice of praise and prayer which is holy and pleasing in your sight.
    READINGS: The OT lesson struck me as a mismatch (in this context) in that Isaiah’s prophecy was a promise about returning HOME, the opposite of going someplace NEW to live, specifically home from EXILE, rather than an EXPEDITION in search of reaping (some would say raping) resources from a new land. In addition, its promise of SAFETY and protection rang hollow in the specific case of the Jamestown settlement’s SUFFERINGS. An alternative for possible consideration would be Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, where the prophet writes to apprise the exiles that YHWH’s will is for them to make the best of their alien situation. (Although Jamestown is not exile, the overall message fits the situation comparatively better.)
    PSALM: I hope the Manifest Destiny overtones which Michael mentioned in the Isaiah reading aren’t “manifest” in Psalm 24. I’m unaware of them, if they’re present. As I read it, the Psalm affirms standard godly virtues (clean hands, pure heart, no falsehood, no swearing by a false god (“fraud”)), it doesn’t presume any one has a corner on the virtues (specifying only, “the generation of those who seek him” (i.e., seek God)), and affirms ultimately that YHWH is King (vv. 7-10). This all seems appropriate, even with a change of OT reading.
    EPISTLE: It’s not an objectionable selection for the commemoration, but it has some drawbacks. The beginning “As for you, man of God…” suggests that what follows is a contrast, but one we’re not going to hear about (unless the lector or preacher provides it). The singular addressee (“man of God”) suggests the reading applies to an individual (we would apply it , I suppose, to the Reverend Mr. Hunt, and thus the reading functions like a eulogy of sorts, rather than something addressed more directly (in the second person) to the gathered congregation as a living word from God – now – as present day and present tense exhortation). Verse 12’s “fight the good fight” is meant to paraphrase the list of virtuous traits listed in the previous verse, but in a commemoration about settlers in North America it could be taken in a rather less figurative way. I love the eschatological exhortation in the last few verses, and the doxology with affirmation of the Kingship theme already suggested in the psalm, but on the whole I think I’d prefer Philippians 4:4-8 be used, avoiding the problems just mentioned. For reference, the suggested Philippians verses are:
    [Phil 4:4-8]
    4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
    5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
    6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
    7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
    GOSPEL: This passage ends up emphasizing the important reconciling note that goes with the commemoration of Mr. Hunt. That seems appropriate. However, Suzanne’s comment about the collect stays with me as I consider the simplicity of this gospel selection.

    “The most important part of the Rev. Robert Hunt’s life was his faithfulness of service during great trial-sickness, death, hunger, loss, and the factiousness of his companion settlers. Somehow the collect misses this point. Though he was described as “honest, religious, and courageous” this phrase does not really cover what was most remarkable about this man’s life and witness.”

    That said, I would hope his conciliatory wisdom not be overshadowed by his longsuffering fortitude, and that another gospel selection, one expressive of this larger complex of faithfulness, could be found. (Matthew 20:17-28?)
    COLLECT: The collect is generic without being egregious – we can live with it, and won’t be hurt by it, but I’d be surprised if many were inspired by it. The INVOCATION is boilerplate (what, in the narrative or in the remainder of the prayer, relates to “Almighty” as the prayer’s approach to God?). The THANKSGIVING assumes nobody was paying attention if the narrative was used at worship, or (if it recaps the whole story for God’s sake) it bodes ill of God’s memory of Hunt. The PETITION isn’t bad but, as Suzanne’s comment suggested, it could say something more complete than “reconciliation and healing.” There is no “SO THAT” statement at all (explicit or implicit), and therefore nothing consequential included in the prayer for the church and all those praying it (a serious matter – was that thought ever mentioned before?). The conclusion is standard but fine as it stands.

    (I wish I could fulfill my own wishes and expectations for these prayers, but I can’t. I don’t mean to deride the work of those who formulate these materials, which I love. I offer my thoughts, and after you finish throwing darts at my CDO profile, I hope the Commission will do what it can, thank God for what we are able to share, and know its work is ultimately appreciated. It is a good commemoration, and I am thankful for it.)

    Almighty God, we bless your Name for the life and witness of Robert Hunt, first chaplain to the Jamestown colony, whose community knew him as an honest, religious and courageous divine who, in his short life, endured great hardships without complaint. Help us, like him, to work for reconciliation and healing wherever we may be placed; through Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

  10. The subtitle should simply state “First Chaplain at Jamestown, 1607”. He is not included just because he was a priest.

    Line 6, second paragraph: substitute “Presider” for “presiding priest”. Since he presided at the Eucharist (and is clearly not a bishop!), we know he must have been a priest.

  11. I’d celebrate him as America’s first parish priest rather than as a chaplain. Jamestown wasn’t an expedition but a deliberate planting of English life, complete with parish church, in the new world. The parish church (as an institution—Jamestown itself was soon abandoned for better locations) survives basically unchanged, although English life has been transformed into something the parishioners of Jamestown would never have recognised. The event is more significant than the man.

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