A Colony Established on Religious Freedom: But how much freedom is too much?

This is a religious distribution map a little bit after our time, in 1760. But I think we can already see these patterns starting to emerge.

Everyone knows the Puritans established colonies in North America to escape from religious persecution. Not wanting to conform to the Church of England, and being followers of a more Calvinistic approach to religion, the Puritans fled to the new world. But once they arrived and became established, how did they treat differing opinions on religion? As is generally expected when it comes to ancient times and the ideal of liberalism, not very well. Given the Calvinist twinge to their beliefs, Puritans believed in a selection process for salvation: “He saved selectively and arbitrarily, rather than universally or as a reward for good behavior. In this belief in God’s complete power over grace and salvation, the Puritans elaborated upon the ‘Calvinist’ doctrines of the sixteenth-century Swiss theologian Jean Calvin” (American Colonies 161). Since salvation couldn’t be earned and had to be given every action a Puritan took caused deep self-reflection. If they had some bad luck, like a bad harvest or an injury, they would look back to see where they injured God in order to deserve the bad luck. Because of this worldview they saw all differing opinions on religion as a test from God.

They were serving God well if they could ignore those opinions and come out a Puritan again. Thomas Shepard inĀ Puritans in the New World gives a perfect example in his autobiography for how differing opinions were dealt with: “But from hence it arose that, as all error is fruitful, so this opinion did gender above a hundred monstrous opinions in the country, which the elders perceiving, having used all private brotherly means with Mr. Cotton first and yet no healing hereupon, they publicly preached both against opinions publicly and privately maintained, and I account it no small mercy to myself that the Lord kept me from that contagion and gave me an heart or light to see through those devices of men’s heads” (52). The congregation gets news of differing opinion traveling around the colony and immediately starts preaching against it and even criticize opinions held privately. This made the colony a lot like England. A place for people to live in peace, only if they followed the popular, dominant religion. Since community was such an important thing for colonies to maintain and cultivate, this comes as no surprise really. The Puritans had to escape the prosecution of their home country, but they were still technically from there. They learned how to handle other religions from their time in England. They may have felt like rebels leaving England to go be adventurous and strike out for themselves, but that didn’t change their conservative mindset.

This might be a broader history question, but when do you guys think this changed? When did true freedom of religion actually come into play in America? Coming from England and hundreds of years of religious persecution it must have taken a massive shift in ideology to allow for that kind of individual freedom. I wonder what was the catalyst for such a change.


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