Religious Tolerance in Colonial America


Freedom, liberty, and democracy did not appear suddenly with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. These rights and the institutions and laws which established and protected them developed as part of the American political tradition over time.


To understand their development we must consider the how selected ideas, institutions, and practices from Europe, and particularly from Great Britain, were adapted by colonists and transformed into American ideas, institutions, and practices. At the same time we must recognize the possibility of the non-British origins of some of our most cherished values and ideas. For example, some historians believe that the Iroquois Confederation influenced the authors of the Constitution.


Religious tolerance was an important but often misunderstood contribution of the colonial era. Tolerance developed only after time. Groups such as the Pilgrims and Puritans who left Europe to escape religious persecution often were intolerant of religious diversity themselves once they established themselves in the New World.


It was a long road from Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the First Amendment of the Constitution. Religion and government, far from being separate, were viewed as intrinsically connected by the early colonists.


The Pilgrims were Separatists and radical Puritans who sailed aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and founded Plymouth Colony near what is now Provincetown Massachusetts. They had originally left England for the religiously tolerant Netherlands, but left there for economic reasons and because their children were becoming more Dutch than English.


The Pilgrims had originally intended to go to Virginia controlled by the London Company, but ended up at Cape Cod Bay when they were blown off course. Pilgrim leader William Bradford and others wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact to establish a self-governing colony based on the majority rule of male church members. This established the precedent for local government based on written agreements and consent of the governed.


Bradford was elected the first governor of the colony. During the first winter half the Pilgrims died due to the cold climate, disease, and hunger. Native Americans helped the remaining Pilgrims to survive and taught them where to fish and how to grow corn. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated when the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to a harvest feast.


The Great Migration began in 1630 when 60,000 Puritans left England for the Americas. Most ended in the West Indies, but 10,000 to 20,000 settled in Massachusetts. They left England for economic reasons and due to religious persecution under King James and his son King Charles. After Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans defeated the Royalists in a civil war in England, Puritan emigration to America almost ceased between 1653-1658.


In 1630 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established with 1,000 settlers. They did not wish to cut all ties with the Anglican church or England. John Winthrop, the first governor sought to establish a “city upon a hill” or a model religious and civil society based on a covenant with God and one another. The colony was established as a Bible commonwealth guided by English law and scripture. Freemen were adult men who were church members and property owners. The General Court or legislature made the laws for the colony, and the special relationship between church and state was called the New England Way.


Church and religion were central to Puritans. They believed in predestination and that all members of the community must live a moral life, and if they did not the entire community would face God’s wrath. The “Old Deluder Law” passed in 1647 required parents to teach their children to read and towns to establish schools in order to foil the “chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”


Puritans had large families, the men working in the fields and women taking care of the children and supporting the field work by making soap, yarn, butter, clothes, and other needed things for the family. The soil was rocky and difficult to farm, so some New Englanders turned to fishing, trade and business, selling fish, rum, grain, meat, naval stores, and lumber to England and the West Indies.


Roger Williams, a Puritan minister founded a new colony Rhode Island in 1636 after purchasing land from the Narragansets. He was forced to leave Massachusetts Bay Colony because he questioned the New England Way and believed in a strict separation of church and state. Rhode Island's charter in 1644 gave inhabitants complete religious freedom. Consequently the colony attracted many people who held unpopular beliefs.


One of these people was Anne Hutchinson who was a nurse and a midwife who was critical of the established Puritan teachings and claimed she received her religious insights directly from God. This set the individual above the community and was intolerable to Governor Winthrop and the Puritan ministers and leaders. She was banished in 1638 and found refuge in Rhode Island. Massachusetts Bay Colony did not tolerate differences of opinion in religious matters and banished those who seriously questioned and threatened the church’s authority.


The Salem Witchcraft Trials occurred in 1692  after several young women of Salem were stricken with seizures which they attributed to demonic possession. They began to identify members of the community as witches and in a matter of months over 200 persons were named as witches. Fifty-nine were tried, 31 convicted, and 19 hanged. Most of the accused were women and the young accusers might have been mentally ill. Recent historians emphasize how the trials were rooted in the social and cultural climate of New England which fostered an environment in which witchcraft fears flourished and people used accusation as a way to deal with personal conflict and community tensions.


The early settlers brought with them European traditions of established churches and religious conflict. Established churches included the Anglican Church in the Southern Colonies and the Congregational Church in New England. Religious diversity in the Middle Colonies prevented the establishment of any one Church (except for the Anglican Church in part of New York). 


Established churches were supported by taxes, church attendance was required, and one often had to belong to a church in order to vote.


The church and religion were viewed as the moral bedrock of any community. Since good government was impossible without good morals, and since religion was essential for morality, reasonable people concluded that good government required the strong influence of religion. Political leaders were duty bound to have the salvation of their people always in mind as they attempted to build the “city upon the hill”, a model of virtue.  

Individuals who questioned the established church threatened the foundation of  the “good” society and government as well as the salvation of souls.  Consequently Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were ostracized and forced out of their communities due to religious intolerance.  Their freedom was sacrificed for the greater good of the community. Others were jailed and even hanged for their religious beliefs.


John Wise of Massachusetts was one of the first who questioned the conventional wisdom. According to Wise religion corrupted government.  Even more important for Wise the Puritan concerned about salvation, government corrupted religion.


Roger Williams helped to found Rhode Island where church and state were separate. Lord Baltimore in Maryland and William Penn made religious toleration part of the basic law in their colonies. The Rhode Island Charter of 1663, The Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, and the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges of 1701 affirmed religious toleration. Maryland gave no protection to Jews and others who did not profess to believe in Jesus Christ.  Pennsylvania gave protection only to those who believed in God. Only Christians could take part in the government.


Other colonies began to follow lead of Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Often they did so to serve the practical purpose of stimulating settlement and increasing population to increase profits for the King and shareholders. As people of different religions began to settle side by side tolerance increased.


Over time the established churches weakened. Although they continued to exist in New England and the South until after the Revolutionary War, America moved toward the separation of church and state. 


The influence of Church remained strong in early America.  Some would claim it continues to be strong today.  While this might be wishful thinking, others would point out the Americans are some of the most religious people in the world with 90% claiming to believe in God and heaven in public opinion polls.  This contrasts with much lower figures for most European Democracies. Perhaps these figures are a result John Wise’s ideas at work. Obviously religion factored significantly in the 2004 presidential election, and some political observers claim it was one of the most important factors in the recent election and division of the nation into “red states” and “blue states.”


Generations of Americans learned to honor the Protestant Work Ethic, an ethic prioritizing hard work and raising it to the level of religious, moral, and ethical duty stemming from Calvinist ideas about predestination. German historian, sociologist, and theorist Max Weber discussed the significance of the Work Ethic in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Contemporary observers are quick to point out that individuals from all of America’s diverse religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds honored hard work.


For more United States History notes, visit Mr. Crown's United States History and Government Page.

For fiction, literary criticism, political theory, political science, and history stories and essays, visit the online resume/CV/portfolio of Andrew Lawrence Crown. Click here and scroll down to the bottom of the resume/CV/portfolio to find the links to the Collected Writings of Andrew Lawrence Crown.