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Religious Freedom in British North American Colonies Before 1700

Updated on October 15, 2012

Many of the British American colonies that eventually formed a part of the USA were populated by European settlers, who were persecuted for their religious beliefs back home, but they held on passionately to their beliefs. They supported their leaders who dreamed of ‘city on hill’ and had a great faith in the ‘religious experiment’ that could be successfully realized in the wilderness of America.

The settlers had a missionary vision of their church even in colonies like Virginia, planned as commercial venture. The entrepreneurs there saw themselves as militant Protestants working towards the glory of their church.

However, the settlers practiced not one but diverse religions before the 18th century and the issue of religious freedom depended largely on the political and religious stance of the region in which they lived.

Before 1700, the British North American colonies differed on the extent of religious freedom in the New world. There were three regional orders, New England, Middle colonies and the South within the colonial empire. Most of the settlers in these colonies were of English origin on whom applied the different Acts of British Empire. Puritanism was predominant in New England. The mid-Atlantic colonies had a majority population of the Quakers. The population in South was oriented more to commerce and enterprise, than religion.

When we speak of religious freedom, we mean the right granted legally to individuals to practice and preach religion. It also means not being persecuted for holding any form of religious beliefs. These regions demonstrated fairly tolerant approach to religion, but we also notice a gap between what was stated and practiced on religious freedom, at the same time. The New England region consisted of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut. The English Puritans came to settle in large numbers in this area between 1620 and 1640. They had been originally persecuted in their homeland by state and church. The Puritans thought they were the chosen ones by God for salvation and not everyone could belong to their order. The extreme Puritans were known as Separatists, who left for the New World in 1620. The Puritans set up a government with the aim expressed in the statement, “The whole purpose of the Government was to enforce God’s laws.”

In the South, Protestant religion was overwhelmingly predominant. However, the religious and political authorities distinctly discriminated against them. Rebel leaders like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams challenged the authority of Puritan clergy and leaders.

The first colony formed in Massachusetts in 1608 provides us an example of religious freedom. Plymouth, Massachusetts was a colony formed by English Separatists (also known as Puritans) who made an attempt to live without any form of religious discrimination.

New colonies that came into existence prior to 1700 consisted largely of people who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. Therefore, the colonists took upon themselves to build an order where religion was a matter of personal faith and belief rather than state imposition. However, some of the colonies, especially the northern colonies deviated from this goal and imitated the British model that combined state and church.

The New England colonies that included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established as ‘plantations of religion.’Although some settlers arrived here with secular motives, a majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed correct.

The Middle colonies were ethnically diverse. Moreover, each colony had its own perspective on religious issues. For instance, Williams openly supported freedom of religion and even such outcasts, as Quakers were acceptable to him. His ideas on separation of state and church were so repugnant that he was declared a heretic and banished out of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

A small group of Puritans and the others in the South felt free to worship without persecution.

The religion developed in varied patterns in the colonies. In Massachusetts, the religious theocracy of the Puritanism was dominant. On the other hand, the Rhode Island allowed full religious freedom. Initially, Baptists were in majority there, but other sects were soon in evidence. Some of the other colonies like New Jersey and South Carolina also allowed complete religious freedom. Colonies as Maryland and Pennsylvania can be said to have been fairly tolerant. We also notice shifting religious preferences in some of these colonies. As for instance, Maryland, at first a haven for Catholics, and Pennsylvania, a haven for Quakers originally, had numerous Anglicans settled within a few decades. Anglicans as well as Presbyterians were also quite populous in further South.

we can say finally that the idea of holy Trinity lay at the foundation of religious belief. If a religion had an allegiance to the notion of Trinity, it was relatively free to worship and practice its religion and the Puritans were especially intolerant.


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