Religion in the Thirteen Colonies

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How did religion influence the development of the New England colonies?

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Religion was an essential element in the foundation and development of the New England colonies. Many of the early colonists were "Dissenters," a term used to describe people in England who were not members of the Church of England. Through the mid-nineteenth century, Dissenters, including both Protestants and Roman Catholics,...

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Religion was an essential element in the foundation and development of the New England colonies. Many of the early colonists were "Dissenters," a term used to describe people in England who were not members of the Church of England. Through the mid-nineteenth century, Dissenters, including both Protestants and Roman Catholics, who "dissented" from the 39 Articles of the Church of England, were discriminated against, and could not enter Oxford and Cambridge University or hold certain political offices. Many moved to the colonies in search of religious freedom.

Many of the colonies in New England were settled by Puritans, who wanted to create devout religious communities. This led to such early excesses as the Salem Witch Trials. On the other hand, Roger Williams and the early colonies in Rhode Island advocated greater religious freedom and separation of church and state. Many of the people who moved to the United States were members of smaller or minority religious groups. This meant that there were many small, tightly knit communities in New England, leading towards what eventually became a philosophy of federalism.

The eventual evolution of the United States into a country with a "wall of separation" between church and state was due to two different impulses in these early colonies, one of tightly knot religious communities wanting strong local control to exercise their beliefs and one of people who wanted a more secular society with individual religious freedom.

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Religion played the key role in the settlement of the first three communities of New England: Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Rhode Island.

Although New England had far less fecund farmland than in the South, its population grew steadily. In 1700, New England's population was larger than that of Virginia and Maryland.

The first of the three important settlements in New England was that of the Pilgrims in 1620. They thought the practices of the Church of England were too Catholic, and they wanted their own religious community. After spending a decade in Holland, the Pilgrims sailed aboard the Mayflower to Plymouth.

In 1630, John Winthrop led a second group on the Arbella to New England. The Puritans sought to "purify" the Church of England rather than break away from it. However, Winthrop was determined to create a disciplined community built on religious uniformity, and religious dissenters were not tolerated.

One religious dissenter, the charismatic and intelligent Roger Williams, challenged Winthrop's harsh rules and beliefs. After he was banished to England, Williams founded a third colony, which would become Rhode Island. Williams supported religious freedom and fair treatment of Native Americans.

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The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by Puritans, a religious group looking to purify the Church of England. To the Puritans, reading the Bible was important, and, as a result, they focused on literacy and education. They founded grammar schools and the first university in the United States, Harvard, in 1636, as a means of educating clergymen. The Puritan towns were tight-knit and formed around churches as a way of reinforcing their beliefs. Puritans mostly settled in family groups, and their towns were comprised of well-ordered, church-going populations with families that exercised strong control over their children.

The colony of Rhode Island was founded in reaction to the Puritans. The founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Instead of advocating the practice of Puritanism, he advocated a form of religious tolerance. In 1763, a Jewish synagogue was founded in Newport, Rhode Island.

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Religion was quite important to the New England colonies. The church was the main part of a town and it also served as a meeting house. People lived in close-knit farming communities for safety but also to ensure that one could get to church on Sundays. Since the Puritans practiced a form of Christianity that believed God had chosen the "Elect" to go to heaven, and one showed that one was a member of this group by being successful, the Puritans worked hard at their occupations. This region was not dependent on slaves, though before the American Revolution some New England residents did own slaves. Children and hired hands did most of the farm labor. The sons married and created their own farming families. This led to the growth of the New England colonies and westward expansion. Religious dissent was not tolerated in the Puritan religion; one group of dissenters left the Massachusetts colony and formed Rhode Island.

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