To Count or not to Count, that is the Question
I seldom take the time to meditate on method, which is probably a mistake.
I started this dissertation by skimming through reel after reel of microfilm of Virginia county court records, looking for any case in which the words “Christian” or “heathen” were used.
I also looked for mentions of ministers, churches, or religiously-oriented punishment (looking for instances in which miscreants were punished before church congregations on Sundays, wrapped in white sheets, for example).
I also noted wills that mentioned godchildren, just out of interest. I had a few theories about how all of this material might hang together, but I didn’t really have an overall methodological picture of what I was trying to do until much later.
Wills mentioning godchildren have turned out to be far more important than I thought. Dying English men and women gave their godchildren cows, pigs, horses, Bibles, money, and sometimes even slaves. Livestock were especially useful, and bestowing livestock meant material gain for godchildren. In other words, English Virginians took the social and religious function of godparentage seriously enough to materially and spiritually benefit their godchildren.
But how seriously did they take it? In the absence of letters or other personal reflections on the importance of caring for godchildren, and in the absence of parish registers that would show pairings of godparents and godchildren (pretty much nonexistent before 1740), wills are all I have to go on. So here comes my methodological problem: how much information can I get from counting the total number of wills in a county for a certain period of time, and then figuring out the percentage of wills that mention godchildren?
Here’s a sample: On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the County of Northampton (which split in the 1650s to become two counties, Accomack and Northampton) I have a very long continuous run of county records (also rare for seventeenth-century Virginia). From 1632, when the records begin, until 1640 (where I stopped counting this afternoon), I can tell you that 20% of wills mention godchildren. But how significant is this? There were only ten wills probated during that time; so just two of them mention godchildren. (In both wills, a godparent left a godchild a cow.) This is hardly a representative sample, since there were at least two probate inventories in the records that have no wills attached to them. That means, it is probable, if not certain, that not every will probated in Northampton County between 1632-1640 was actually recorded. Additionally, between 1632-1640, at least one attentive godparent gave a cow to his godson before he died. It pops up in the county court records because he wanted to make sure that everyone knew that a cow with his brand now belonged to someone else. How many other similar transactions occurred but no one thought to register them with the court?
In other words, wills are the only source for numbers that might or might not show the importance of godparenting in Anglo-Virginian culture, but those numbers are certainly flawed, since the record keepers themselves didn’t always have their eyes on the ball.
Why does it matter, you ask? From a variety of secondary sources, I have learned that in old England, godparenting was a serious social and spiritual duty. I want to know how that continued in the Chesapeake (if it did) and how that social and spiritual duty changed over time. Prior to 1670 it was fairly common for English people to have African-American godchildren. Godparents figure in several freedom suits prior to 1670, in which they were able to attest to their black godchildren’s Christianity. And before 1670, being Christian meant being entitled to freedom. By the end of the seventeenth century, you see very few examples of this. During the course of the eighteenth century, planters came to accept (reluctantly) that baptizing their slaves was the proper, Christian thing to do, but they never stood as godparents for slaves. This always struck me as odd: in the planters’ paternalistic worldview, their slaves were family to be cared for. Why not engage in that most familial and spiritual sign of care—stand as godparents for your newly baptized slaves? That might be an imponderable. But, understanding the social and religious functions of godparenting in the Chesapeake can help answer all sorts of questions about religion and race.
This is a complicated problem, and I’m abstracting about seventy pages of writing I’ve done on the subject. However, I am still left with the problem of counting. It gives some data about what was expected of godparents, which fills in the gaps left by the fact that seventeenth-century Virginians left very few personal papers. But I don’t know how far I should take it, given that the numbers are bound to be suspect. Food for thought. In the 1970s, I think most historians would encourage me to count away. Now, I am not sure it is the best course of action. I have to decide, and fast—my instinct is to finish the counting and hope it proves useful later. But it might also go down in the pile of research I’ve done but never found useful or illuminating in the long run.