A Shrine of Civil Religion



"[W.A.R. Goodwin] saw in Williamsburg-if restored-a place where history would speak to modern Americans; where they would hear a proud voice-a voice strong with faith in God, in democracy and liberty, in integrity, high moral purpose, a sense of public duty, and responsibility. This, to him, was a shrine of the American faith."


In a bold effort to sell his idea, Goodwin wrote an extensive letter to Edsel Ford detailing his dream vision. In the letter, he told Ford that "it would be the most unique and spectacular gift to American history and to the preservation of American traditions that could be made by any American." He also noted that, "other men have bought rare books and preserved historic houses. No man yet has had the vision and courage to buy and to preserve a Colonial village, and Williamsburg is the one remaining Colonial village which any man could buy" (Kammen 359-360). From these lines, it is evident that even in the preliminary stages of CW, Goodwin envisioned it as a sacred site that would make a spectacular gift for the American people. Goodwin even told Ford that "Williamsburg shall be a national shrine," one that "[provides] means by which ideals of [the nation's] glorious past can be presented and perpetuated," (Kammen 487).

As evidenced by his written language, Goodwin intended for CW to serve as something much grander than just a strip of restored houses and businesses. The labeling of Williamsburg as a shrine reveals Goodwin's desire to construct a site conducive to a civil religion. While Goodwin preached the religion of Christianity, he obviously also preached a secular religion founded upon memorializing traditions of the past. Although Ford declined Goodwin's offer to create a shrine, the idea of restoring Williamsburg to its Colonial and Revolutionary grandeur did not perish. At a conference in Williamsburg in 1926, Goodwin had the good fortune of encountering John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the famous oil tycoon. Goodwin entertained Rockefeller during his stay and included a tour of Williamsburg and the restored Bruton Parish Church. Smitten by the quaint town, Rockefeller expressed interest in the idea of reconstructing it as a memorial to and symbol of the past. In November of that same year, Rockefeller, via an extensive written letter, committed himself to the project, expressing how "this project would not interest [him] unless some complete thing could be done and so tied up with the university and its historical department as to insure not only its permanent maintenance but its permanent uses as a centre for the study of American history," (Kammen 361-362). Colonial Williamsburg would provide Americans with an educational and spiritual venue through which they could explore their point of origin as an American people and recall the democratic values and ideals of American mythology.

With the finances secure, the two dreamers engaged in the onerous task of buying discreetly the numerous properties along and adjacent to Duke of Gloucester Street. In an attempt to keep the project on the down in low, Rockefeller used the alias of Mr. David in all of his transactions. Despite this discretion, the townspeople began to notice that the real estate market was alive and well. Goodwin too attempted to played an important role in that he pressured locals to sell their property so as to participate in the grand restoration. With much of the town purchased, and with the arrival of historians and archaeologists, the citizens of Williamsburg finally realized the path on which they had somewhat unknowingly embarked. Trying to motivate the townspeople and gain their support, Goodwin preached his civil religion, telling them in 1929, "the Restoration is being done...not for the present and certainly not for the present inhabitants of Williamsburg, but as a witness to the future of the glories of the past," (Kammen 364).

The restoration itself occurred at a fairly rapid pace. With the primary property secured, Rockefeller decided to restore not only the extant historical buildings, but to level modern buildings and reconstruct originals from the colonial period. With such a large area to restore and reconstruct, Rockefeller had to select the initial buildings to get the process underway. He selected four initial structures to restore or reconstruct first: the Wren building at William and Mary; the Capitol; the Governor's Palace; and the Raleigh Tavern. The selection of these specific buildings plays a significant role in the narrative told and packaged in civil religion, but that will be covered later.

With the four main anchor sites completed, Williamsburg opened to the public in 1934 under the moniker of Colonial Williamsburg. The new town, full of costumed reenactors and colonial life interpreters, marketed itself as an authentic reproduction of eighteenth century Williamsburg. The parent non-profit organization, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Inc., touted the site's historical accuracy and its educational opportunities. Indeed, as evidenced by the much higher than expected attendance figures, people across Virginia and America bought into the idea of CW as an authentic window into the past. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to dedicate Duke of Gloucester Street with its historic buildings, he referred to it as "the most historic avenue in all America," (Kammen 362)

Upon the successful opening of their shrine, Goodwin excitedly told Rockefeller that they would "reproduce the symbols and sacraments of the past," (Kammen 200). Yet again, Goodwin's vocabulary relies on religious terminology to describe CW. Words such as sacrament, witness, and shrine seem more at home in a church than in CW. However, if one follows Edward Bellah's and Michael Kammen's arguments affirming the notion and nature of civil religion, he will see that Goodwin intended fully for CW to function in a religious manner. CW would not be a temple to God, but a temple to America and its foundational ideals of liberty, freedom, and patriotism. Goodwin hoped to offer Americans a secular religion dedicated to the values of the past, a religion that would reaffirm for some and convert for others so as to create and maintain a community of believers. In viewing CW as a construct of civil religion, readers can see how everything Goodwin, Rockefeller, and the CWFoundation did had a purpose and function in building the secular shrine.

Goodwin knew that if he wanted to build up a civil faith in his shrine, he would have to pay meticulous attention to detail and employ a rhetoric of sacred symbols through which visitors could interpret and understand the shrine. In response to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, author Michael Kammen notes how sacred symbols "convey messages and guidelines about the society's origins, its most cherished values, and the allegiances that it requires of its members," (Kammen 200). Reverend Goodwin intended for his shrine, as a large symbol and full of complementary symbols, to serve as a point of origin to which the present and future could look back. Once in the shrine, visitors could consume the values of liberty and see how America requires an allegiance of patriotism to ensure the survival of freedom. Clearly, the planners of CW chose to market democratic values and the concept of America, specifically Williamsburg, as a cradle of liberty.

First and foremost in the efforts to make CW a Bible of democracy was the notion of authenticity. To the dreamers and builders of CW, there could be no question as to the truth and accuracy of the site. In a country in the midst of an economic depression, faith in authenticity almost supplanted faith in authority. The visitor "must lose himself in a restoration of the spirit as well as of the flesh of this lost city. The work must therefore have its own inner integrity," (CWF 12). For CW to operate as a secular shrine of civil religion, it had to cause suspension of disbelief among visitors, then saturate them with a rhetoric of architectural and historical authenticity, and leave them as full believers of the purported truth of CW. Churches of non-secular religion preached the truth, and worshippers bought everything as real; CW would have to do the same thing, just in a secular sense. Instead of a church or cathedral, CW would rely on secular temples such as the Capitol. Instead of Jesus, Moses, and Paul, CW would preach of secular saints such as Colonel George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.

The stories of these buildings and men, just like the stories of biblical people, places, and events, had to come across as truth rather than myth. "Myth creates a fault line between what ought to have taken place and what did. It permits ideas and facts to criticize each other," (Fisher). To avoid the potential interpretation of CW as manifestation of mythology, Goodwin and Rockefeller approached the restoration with the philosophy that authenticity equals authority. As Kammen notes, the "word `authentic' had long since achieved a perverse yet powerful discourse in American cultural discourse." Everyone involved with CW "worried endlessly about authenticity in the tiniest details," (Kammen 28). With this stance regarding authenticity as an authority on truth, the "authentic" architecture and reenactments would function as the main rhetoric promulgating CW's civil religion.

The planners, designers, restorers, and construction workers labored meticulously to reconstruct and restore the buildings as accurately as possible. In the endeavor for authenticity, a minor crisis arose as to furnishing these buildings. Debates about furniture ranged from whether or not to use period pieces or reproductions, and where to purchase period items. Would furniture from the north carry the same authentic value as antique furniture from England? Would authentic English furniture subvert the message of American democracy? Would American craftsmanship reinforce notion's of pride and faith in America? These questions that the restorers encountered provide a glimpse at how strong a role authenticity played in grounding CW in civil religion. In the minds of these people, everything down to the furniture and floorboards had to be accurate so people would buy into the shrine and not question the message or authenticity, and subsequently authority, of CW.

Another rhetorical device employed in CW was the idea of an interactive landscape. Not only did the idea of authenticity involve architecture and concrete objects, it also worked its way into creating an interactive, living town. Goodwin and Rockefeller decided early on that theatrical townspeople would complement the buildings and exhibits as they could give visitors a human outlet to plug into and learn about CW. Visitors could come and meet colonial hostesses and see various reenactments of colonial town life. Goodwin envisioned a vibrant Williamsburg, authentic not only through its architecture, but also through its "citizens." Goodwin described his idea for having reenactors when he talked of "a cart driven by an old negro; an ox cart standing by a water trough; a stage-coach with coachman, footman, and driver, standing in front of the Tavern and used when desired to drive tourists around...Such scenes would show ancient modes of life and costume and would appeal to many who will not understand the fine points of architecture," (Kammen 364).

In their efforts for authenticity, Rockefeller and Goodwin created a shrine that preached a rather selective religion. The fact that they chose the Wren building, the Capitol, the Palace, and the Raleigh Tavern as their anchor sites provides insight into how and to whom they planned to tell their story. All of these buildings were places for educated, upper class, white men. As such, Jefferson, Washington, Wythe, Henry, and a host of other founding fathers frequented these locations. Naturally, these people were the ones who had the power and position to question Britain and launch the Revolution. Since Rockefeller and Goodwin aimed to enshrine the values of freedom and patriotism and the men who began these values, it is fitting that they chose the aforementioned buildings and men as the primary ones on which to anchor the shrine to America's past. It is even commendable that they included women and blacks, albeit in minor roles, as it attests to their desire for authentic reproduction.

Unfortunately, while the shrine encapsulated American ideals, it excluded many Americans. The functioning of CW along the lines of civil religion definitely seemed to work as white people came in the thousands to learn about America's past at Williamsburg, often writing Rockefeller letters of praise and exultation. For black Americans, however, the process of taking the sacraments of CW and identifying with America's ideals and past was somewhat difficult. Blacks could make the pilgrimage to CW, but they could not stay anywhere nearby. They could walk along D.O.G. Street, and speak to the reenactors, yet they could not eat in the restored taverns or shop in all of the trade stores.

Despite CW's attempts to authentically represent the past, it thrust values of the present white community of the `30's into the shrine of the 1760's and `70's. Rockefeller yielded to the belief that "white tourists would be comfortable only if blacks were visible in eighteenth-century livery as deferential servants but invisible as twentieth-century free persons," (Kammen 368). Thus, segregation remained the norm for CW visitors. For black reenactors, an entirely separate dorm existed with its own bathrooms and changing facilities. While CW preached a religion of freedom and patriotism, it neglected the liberties of blacks, and basically made them equal to the costumed slaves and servants that abounded in CW. White visitors turned a blind eye and jumped into the community of believers with both feet.