Although the settlers in Massachusetts fled religious persecution in England, it was by no means guaranteed that religious tolerance would guide their lives in America. In the 1600s, conflicts about religion tore through the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many of these pertained to the concept of religious freedom, which was subject to widely varied interpretations. For many of the settlers, who still came primarily from England, such liberty applied only to Christian denominations. Even within Christianity, opinions diverged about acceptance of Catholics as well as different Protestant sects. Some people advocated for an even broader scope that encompassed Judaism.
A split between Plymouth and the Bay colony was based in religious differences associated with attachment to the Church of England (COE). The Puritans of the Plymouth Colony advocated a greater separation, while those in the MBC preferred to maintain closer ties with the Anglican establishment.
One Massachusetts Puritan, Roger Williams, supported clear separation from the COE, but he opposed to create a new official church in the colonies. His dissent led to expulsion from Massachusetts, and traveling to establish the new colony of Rhode Island. Advocating for greater freedom of worship, Williams claimed that God was offended by forced religion. In Newport, Jews established a synagogue in 1658.
The extent to which individuals could deviate from devout practices was also challenged in the late 17th century, when notices of girls engaging in “witchcraft” began to circulate. Their alleged activities were publicized by a Puritan minister, Cotton Mather. Such accusations included elements of racism, as enslaved people of African heritage were labeled as satanists.