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Churches of the Eastern Tribes, plus one

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'The Parish Churches have been erected and maintained by parochial assessment, voluntary contributions and public grants. The oldest – the mother church – is St. Peter's in St. George's, occupying a commanding site in the old churchyard, now disused. – The Bermuda Pocket Almanack, Guide and Directory for the year of Our Lord 1898. <br>'The early colonists did not come to Bermuda for religious reasons like those which later motivated the Pilgrims, for example, to settle Plymouth Colony in 1620; the Bermuda settlers were not drawn uniquely from any particular sect or shade of religious conviction. Like their counterparts in Virginia, they were willing to risk their lives by crossing the Atlantic to settle in an unknown land because of an expectation of opportunities for personal gain.' — A. C. Hollis Hallett, Chronicle of a Colonial Church: 1612–1826 Bermuda, 1993.

As the late Dr. A.C.H. Hallett, known affectionately to all as 'Archie', noted in the opening pages of his magisterial work on the churches of Bermuda from 1612 to 1826, the original settlers did not alight on these shores intent on worship of God, but rather that of Mammon, a what's-in-it-for-me mentality. Some might say that despite now having one of the highest concentrations of houses of worship per square mile anywhere in this world, that such an attitude of earthly benefit surmounts any aspiring to the Lord. In other words, some Bermudians (as we became known) were not interested in the biblical enjoinment to 'not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth…but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven' (Matthew 6: 1920).

With regard to things Mammon, Bermuda has done an outstanding job over the last 399 years, for our GDP and quality of living is one of the highest in the world: treasures stored up indeed. Not everyone has an equal piggybank though, but then equality has never been achieved through greed. On the other hand, we have made sure we covered our heavenly store by stocking up on churches of many sizes and Denominations. Some of those buildings of worship, while through their internal functions have perhaps helped to lay up treasure in heaven, externally have become monuments of 'World Heritage' stature, thus serving to lay up some earthly treasure as well, not only for us, but also for the economy of cultural tourism.

While the big Anglican church is now in the City of Hamilton, the beginnings of religious worship in Bermuda took foundation with the building of a timbered structure in St. George's in 1612, later to be called 'St Peter's', now one of the outstanding monuments of that World Heritage Site. The original edifice was knocked down in a great gale and the first governor of Bermuda decided its heavenly timbers would do just fine for a residence for his lordship and were so applied to the building of the first of five Government Houses.

In the original plan, Bermuda was to have two churches, one at St. George's and the other central to the island in Pembroke. By 1618, this was increased to four, but due to the complaints of the populace, that was soon increased in 1623 to nine churches, the first being on the Common Land of the Bermuda Company and the others in the eight 'tribes'. In 1617, one Richard Norwood had surveyed the territory and divided the land into 50-acre shares for conveyance to the shareholders of the Company. Groupings of the shares were divided into the eight tribes, later called parishes, but the lands now comprising St. George's Parish were held apart for the Company and intended to produce revenue for it from rents and produce. So as originally allocated and named in Dr. Hallett's book, the easternmost was St. George's Church, while moving westward to the centre of Bermuda was Hamilton Tribe Church, Smith's Tribe Church and Devonshire Tribe Church: all later underwent name changes to more saintly appellations.

All the three Tribe churches east of Hamilton and that of the Common Land of the St. George's area also underwent considerable earthly transformations during their lives, now approaching four centuries. St. George's Church (later St. Peter's), the earliest of the four churches discussed here, was rebuilt several times and was almost abandoned in the nineteen century when the structure called 'The Unfinished Church' was constructed on another site in the town. The three eastern Tribe churches were built some time after 16223, but all may have been severely damaged in the hurricanes of 1712 and 1716; according to Dr. Hallett, the latter storm “broke down” the St. George's Church.

Hamilton Tribe Church began at one site but was soon moved to the present location of Holy Trinity on the eastern fringe of Harrington Sound, evolving into the building found there today. A tower was added in 1895 with a bell given in memory of Rev. Alexander Ewing, Rector of the Parish, 1791-1817. It was he who presciently wrote about Bermuda: 'Small though this spot is, a great deal of the world can be seen in it'.

Smith's Tribe Church went through three buildings, two of which were found by archaeologists in recent years, located in what is now its cemetery. The present structure, St. Mark's, was created in the later 1800s. The second church, as with others of the early 1800s, were captured in drawings by James Charles Stuart Green, about whom little is apparently known, except that he was obviously named, despite the Green, for a king of Scotland. His drawings are now in the collections of the Bermuda National Trust.

Devonshire Tribe Church evolved in the mid-1800s into Christ Church, while the second church, built on the foundations of the original in the early 18th century, yet stands and was rescued from perdition and restored as a major piece of Bermuda's ecclesiastical and archaeological heritage in the last century.

These four churches are of course those of the Anglican state religion of England, created by Henry VIII as a result of his break from the Catholic church of Rome. There are other churches worthy of mention as structures and diverse religions, but those are subjects for latter columns perhaps. In the meantime, you may now have some sense of the architectural complexity of these buildings, but that pales in significance to the political goings-on of the Anglican Church in Bermuda.

For homework on that subject, you are referred to the genius of the mind and writings of 'Archie' Hallett, who, when not laying out the history of the Church in Bermuda in his library for our eventual edification, was happily and most competently playing the organ in a few of the present Anglican houses of on their days of worship.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum of Bermuda, incorporating the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Comments may be made to or 704-5480

Devonshire Tribe Church about 1890 (James B. Heyl), with inset view by J. Green in 1822 (BNT Collections).
Smith's Tribe Church in 1890s (Moniz Collection, NMB), with inset view by J. Green in 1819 (BNT Collections).
St. George's Church in 1890s (Moniz Collection, NMB), with inset view from north (Bermuda Historical Society Collections).
Hamilton Tribe Church circa 1890 (James B. Heyl), with inset view by J. Green in 1819 (BNT Collections).

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Published March 26, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated March 25, 2011 at 7:14 pm)

Churches of the Eastern Tribes, plus one

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