How does freedom of religion and democracy pertain to self-government in New England settlements prior to 1650?

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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Neither religious freedom nor democracy were important in seventeenth century New England; in fact both were considered dangerous and were discouraged.

The Puritans on New England were strong believers in the Calvinist doctrine of original sin. To the people of New England, the will of God was paramount, rather than the will of the people; and only one source to determine the will of God existed, and that was the Bible. They believed that government was necessary to restrain people, not liberate them. Rev. John Cotton in a letter once stated:

Democracy I do not conceive that ever God did ordain as a fit government either for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors, who shall be governed? As for monarchy, and aristocracy, they are both of them clearly approved, and directed in scripture, yet so as referred the sovereignty to himself, and setteth up Theocracy in both, as the best form of government in the commonwealth, as well as in the church.

Freedom of religion was a great sacrilege to the people of New England. God had chosen them as their "elect," and those who disagreed with the interpretation of scripture provided by their ministers had "fallen away" and was in danger of hell fire. More frightening to them was that those who had fallen into error might preach their erroneous doctrine to others and cause them to likewise fall away.

Two notable examples exist: Anne Hutchinson held meetings in her house to discuss sermons and soon was interpreting scripture for herself. This was a grave error, partially because she had arrogated to herself the role of a minister, and also because she was a woman. John Winthrop once said of her:

If she had attended to household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her.

Hutchinson was ultimately banished from the colony and was murdered along with five of her children by hostile Indians at Hell's Gate, Rhode Island. Upon learning of her death, Winthrop commented:

God's hand is apparently seen herein, to pick out this woful [sic] woman, to make unheard-of heavy example...Appropriate that the massacre took place at this `Hell Gate.' Proud Jezebel has at last been cast down.

A less drastic example was Roger Williams, who believed that church and state must be completely separated. When he refused to recant his opinions, he was banished to England, although Winthrop allowed him to secretly leave the colony and settle elsewhere.


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