Religion in the Thirteen Colonies

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Why did the Puritans, despite fleeing religious persecution in England, establish their own church and persecute dissenters?

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The Puritans fled religious persecution in England. They endured a dangerous journey across the Atlantic and the high risks of trying to establish a settlement in a new place full of Native Americans, which they feared as "savages" because they took their version of their religious faith with extreme seriousness....

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They did not have the modern sensibility of "you do your thing and I'll do my thing, and if our paths cross it is beautiful."

On the contrary, they thought they were the only people practicing the one true faith as God intended it to be, and therefore, the only people destined for heaven. They didn't think the established Church of England was simply another choice in a menu of options: they thought it was wrong, the devil's throne, and a path to damnation. They certainly were not going to allow an institution they thought was so very destructive into their colony, just as they were not going to allow in what they considered other destructive forces, such as Catholicism or Quakerism.

A modern parallel might be a modern community setting up organic farming in a new area. They would not be at all tolerant of a nuclear waste depository or a pesticide factory coming to their lands. They would have gone away precisely to avoid these pollutants, so the last thing they would do would be to welcome them with open arms. This is how the Puritans felt about other versions of Christianity.

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It's important to understand that religious toleration didn't mean the same thing in the 17th century as it does today. Hardly anyone at the time believed that different denominations should, or even could, coexist happily in a state of harmony. The huge divisions unleashed by the Reformation were as wide and deep as ever; the level of bitterness between different denominations was raw and often violent. The Puritans who left England for America wanted to find somewhere they could practice their religion safe from official intolerance and interference. Yet they also wanted to make sure that their specific brand of Christianity was the only one that would prevail. Religious toleration for Puritans meant the right to practice their faith, not for anyone else to practice theirs.

We should always bear in mind that different denominations didn't simply regard each other as being wrong or misguided; they sincerely believed that they had the monopoly on truth and that those who held a different faith were agents of the Devil. With such an attitude prevalent among Christians as a whole, it's not surprising that the Puritans were so keen to establish their own theocracy on American soil.

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The reason for this is that the Puritans did not believe in religious tolerance.  They were fleeing persecution, it is true, but that does not mean that they thought all religions should be free to worship in peace.  Instead, what they wanted was for their religion to dominate.

The Puritans believed that God would punish any society that did not enforce the proper beliefs and actions.  They felt, therefore, that the presence of other religions (or of dissenters from their own religion) in their society would bring God's wrath down upon them.  For this reason, they did not tolerate dissent.

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The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had fled an established church and religious persecution in England. Why, then, did they promptly establish their own church and persecute dissenters?

When we talk about the Puritans who came and settled in New England, we typically say that they came in search of religious freedom.  But this is not true, or at least not in our modern sense of the word.  The Puritans did not believe in a vision of religion in which all people were free to worship in their own way.  Instead, they believed that they should impose their religion on any society in which they lived.  So, they did not oppose religious intolerance; they wanted to be able to impose their own ways on others.

The Puritans believed in something that is sometimes called the “national covenant.”  They believed that God had made a pact with them in which he would bless their country if they would create the sort of society that he wanted.  Therefore, it was very important for them to have an established religion and to punish dissenters.  They were simply trying to ensure that they kept their end of the bargain with God.

In short, then, the Puritans established their own church and punished dissenters because they believed that was what God wanted.

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