Religion in the Thirteen Colonies

Start Free Trial

How did religion shape and influence colonial society?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Religion shaped colonial society in a number of significant ways. This varied from colony to colony, so it is important to look at different regions in turn.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were largely settled by the Puritans. These were Christian fundamentalists who settled in New England so as to...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Religion shaped colonial society in a number of significant ways. This varied from colony to colony, so it is important to look at different regions in turn.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were largely settled by the Puritans. These were Christian fundamentalists who settled in New England so as to practice their faith free from the influence of the Anglican Church. Heavily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin, they set up theocratic societies during the seventeenth century. Religion and society were one and the same in Puritan New England. Church attendance was compulsory. It was illegal to work on Sunday. Spiritual leaders were also political leaders. This led to an insular society that was often suspicious and unwelcoming to outsiders and outright hostile to dissenters.

Rhode Island was founded on the notion of religious liberty. Roger Williams had refused to follow the tenets of the Puritans in Massachusetts and founded the Colony of Rhode Island in response. Rhode Island was welcoming to people of various religious beliefs. Consequently, it saw some of the earliest populations of Jews, Quakers, and Catholics in the Thirteen Colonies leading to an open and diverse society.

The Middle Colonies were also more welcoming to various religious practices. New York granted citizenship to Christians of any sect. Pennsylvania became a refuge to Quakers. Maryland was established as a safe haven for Catholics. This religious diversity brought overall diversity to this region. Europeans from various parts of their continent settled there creating a dynamic society made up of people of various backgrounds.

Virginia closely associated itself with the Church of England from the very start. In fact, early colonial law required that all Virginians attend services at an Anglican Church. This caused a large amount of resentment among the non-Anglicans in the colony and led to societal divisions.

In fact, throughout the Southern Colonies, membership in the Anglican Church was a prerequisite for political office. At times this caused ill feelings and hostility because it disenfranchised the many non-Anglican colonists in the region. That being said, many of the Southern Colonies still tolerated most Christian sects.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Religion played an important role in colonial life. One of the reasons why people came to the New World was because they felt persecuted in Great Britain because they held different religious views from the Church of England. For example, the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their religious beliefs were found throughout New England. The Puritans, however, did not allow for religious freedom in their colonies. Those with different religious viewpoints were persecuted, and some people fled to other places. For example, Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island because he believed in religious freedom, and he was not accepted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Other colonies were also established so people could practice their religious beliefs. Lord Baltimore established the colony of Maryland in order for Catholics to freely practice their religion. Catholics were not allowed to do this in Great Britain. William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania. He believed in the concept of religious freedom. People who settled in Pennsylvania were able to practice their religion without persecution. Quakers, Huguenots, Lutherans, and Mennonites were some of the different religious groups found in Pennsylvania.

Religion played an important role in colonial society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A Puritan minister, John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the founder of the city of Boston.  In an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5:14, Winthrop told his passengers aboard the Arbella,

For we must consider that we should be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we should deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be may a story and a byword through the world.

Winthrop, therefore, believed that he and his fellow Puritans had a covenant with God to create a society governed by the Scriptures in which everyone worked together for the common good. As a result  of the strong influence of the Puritans, the American character was shaped by these Puritanical moral, religious, and ethical beliefs.  In fact, there are those historians who hold that the Puritan ethic of thrift, hard work, and self-sufficiency contributed considerably to the success of capitalism in the New World. And, since the Puritans held that wealth was a sign of God's favor, they strove to attain it.

This Puritan belief in a spiritual contract between God and humanity led the way for the American constitutional democracy. For, the intermingling of relgious beliefs and Colonial law became thorough.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Religion shaped the American colonies both on the personal level and on the level of whole colonies.  This was, of course, true to different extents for different people and different colonies.

On the personal level, religion was a very important part of the lives of many colonists.  This was still a time when practically everyone was religious.  For example, religion, in the form of the Great Awakening, changed the lives of many individuals during that great revival.

But religion also impacted entire colonies.  This was most particularly true in New England where colonies were explicitly set up for religious reasons.  The Puritans and their belief system helped to make New England colonies more democratic and to make them centers of mercantile activity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team