Religious Freedom in Colonial Times


Analyze the extent to which religious freedom existed in the British North American colonies prior to 1700.

Introduction and Thesis

The original thirteen colonies in America were founded upon some similar governments and colonial methods among the states. All of the colonies in New England, middle region and south had to deal with the issue of religious toleration and the responses were varied. In regards to colonies’ development prior to 1700, religious toleration varied from section to section; excluding a few exceptions, in general New England colonies had very little religious toleration, the Middle Colonies had a high degree of religious toleration while the Southern colonies generally permitted some form of religious toleration.

Body Paragraph 1– New England allowed little religious toleration

- Other religions other than Puritanism was not allowed in all New England colonies besides Rhode Island

o Quakers faced fines, punishments and banishments.

o Non-Puritans were not given the right to vote

o Non-Puritans were required to pay tax for tax-supported Congregational Church

- Fellow Puritans who argued against Puritan doctrines were banished

o Anne Hutchinson and antinomianism

§ Challenged predestination and was banished even though she was Puritan

o Roger Williams banished

§ A fellow Puritan, challenged Bay Colony’s charter and right of civil government to regulate religious ideals

- Established “Blue Laws”

o People were not allowed to drink, dance on religious Sabbath day

§ Were bound by law to follow Puritan ideals

§ Connecticut was called the “Blue Law” state

- Exceptions -Rhode Island founded by Roger Williams

o Freedom of religion for all, even Jews and Catholics.

o Is the exception of New England’s general strict limitations on religious toleration

Body Paragraph 2 – Middle Colonies had a high degree of religious toleration

- Quakers, the Society of Friends, dominated Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware

o Are 3 of the 4 middle colonies

o No tax-supported church that demanded allegiance

o Freedom of religion

§ Catholics and Jews could not vote or hold office due to pressure from London

o Representative assembly was elected by any land owners

§ “Franchise” not determined by religion.

- Exception: New York governors appointed by joint-stock company of West Indies Company were somewhat harsh

§ Quakers and religious dissenters who opposed Dutch Reformed Church persecuted

o However governor position soon overtaken by Duke of York who focused primarily on economic growth

§ Did not place emphasis on religious restrictions

Body Paragraph 3 – Southern Colonies generally permitted some religious toleration

- Anglican Church was the established church

o Was tax-supported

o General persecution of Catholics

§ However other religions and sects of Protestantism allowed.

§ Conflict with Catholic Spaniards in South

- Were more economically geared

o Nobody came to Southern colonies for religious reasons

§ No Puritans in South

o TF religious restrictions, if any, were not as harsh as New England especially.

- Exception to Protestant South

o Catholic Maryland

§ Ensured religious freedom and toleration to all Christians

- Via “Act of Toleration”

- However decreed death penalty to those who denied divinity of Jesus

- Jews and atheists did not enjoy religious freedom.

o However gave more protection for Catholics, an exception to the general Catholic persecution in the colonies.

- The “squatters” of North Carolina and Georgia

o North Carolina did not confirm to establishing Church of England

§ Colonists were not taxed to support church

o Georgians blessed with religious toleration

§ Expanded to German Lutherans, Scots Highlanders.

§ However Catholics did not receive this privilege

§ Many missionaries allowed to work among debtors and natives, including notable John Wesley


Expanding Thesis

- New England colonies generally dominated by Puritans, faced very little religious toleration, and even challenges to its doctrines by fellow Puritans were met harshly

- The Middle colonies were generally blessed a high degree of religious toleration due to as most of the colonies were governed by Quakers.

- The Southern Colonies had some religious toleration, generally with freedom of worship extended to all but to Catholics.


- Colonies that were found for religious reasons ensured that its governmental and societal policies followed their beliefs.

o Quakers believed that all were “children under God” and extended freedom of worship to all, generally reflected in the Middle Colonies.

o Puritans were very religiously intense and did not allow for other religions, as reflected in their strict policies in New England.

o Maryland ensured that it would be a haven for Catholics through necessary governmental regulations as well as permitting freedom of worship to all Christians but those who denied divinity of Jesus.


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