It has long been understood that the prime motive for the founding of the New England colonies was religious freedom. Certainly what those early colonists wanted was the freedom to worship God as they deemed proper, but they did not extend that freedom to everyone. Those who expressed a different approach to religious worship were not welcome. Puritans especially were intolerant toward those who held views other than their own.
Much of the religious disaffection that found its way across the Atlantic Ocean stemmed from disagreements within the Anglican Church, as the Church of England was called. Those who sought to reform Anglican religious practices—to “purify” the church—became known as Puritans. They argued that the Church of England was following religious practices that too closely resembled Catholicism both in structure and ceremony. The Anglican clergy was organized along episcopalian lines, with a hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. Puritans called for a congregationalist structure in which each individual church would be largely self‐governing.
The Plymouth colony. A more extreme view was held by the Separatists, a small group mainly from the English town of Scrooby, who opposed any accommodation with the Anglican Church. Unlike the Puritans, who were also referred to as Non‐Separatists, the Separatists advocated a complete break with the Church of England. At first, the Separatists left England for the more tolerant atmosphere of the Netherlands, but after a while, their leaders found the Dutch a little too tolerant; their children were adopting Dutch habits and culture. When the opportunity arose to settle on land granted by the Virginia Company of London, the Separatists accepted the offer. In 1620, they set sail for America on the Mayflower. As a result of their migrations, the Separatists became known as the Pilgrims, people who undertake a religious journey.
Instead of landing on Virginia Company land, however, the Pilgrims found themselves in what is now southern Massachusetts. Because they were outside the jurisdiction of the company and concerned that new Pilgrims among them might cause problems, the leaders signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement establishing a civil government under the sovereignty of King James I and creating the Plymouth Plantation colony.
The Pilgrims endured terrible hardships in their first years at Plymouth, with disease and starvation taking a toll. Relations with the Indians in the area were mixed; despite the charming folktale of the peaceful “first Thanksgiving,” the reality is that the Pilgrims used force to control the local tribes. The infant colony grew slowly, raising maize and trading furs with the nearby Dutch as well as with the Indians. Plymouth Plantation was the first permanent settlement in New England, but beyond that distinction, its place in American history is somewhat exaggerated. Before long, the Pilgrims were eclipsed by the far larger and more important immigration of Non‐Separatist Puritans, who started the Massachusetts Bay colony.
The Massachusetts Bay colony. Harassment by the Church of England, a hostile Charles I, and an economic recession led the Non‐Separatist Puritans to decide to settle in North America. Puritan merchants bought the defunct Virginia Company of Plymouth's charter in 1628 and received royal permission to found a colony in the Massachusetts area north of Plymouth Plantation. Between 1630 and 1640, more than twenty thousand Puritan men, women, and children took part in the “Great Migration” to their new home.
The Puritans brought a high level of religious idealism to their first colony, which their leader John Winthrop described as “a city upon a hill”—a model of piety for all. Almost overnight, they founded a half dozen towns, setting up churches on the congregationalist pattern under the Reverend John Cotton. These churches ran their own affairs, taxed the community to finance operations, and hired and fired ministers. Although church attendance was compulsory, not everyone was deemed worthy of membership. The New England Way was a rigorous examination of a person's spiritual beliefs to identify “saints,” or those qualified to be a church member. This intimidating test ultimately served to limit church membership and forced the next generation to modify procedures. Education was a high priority in Puritan society because literacy was essential to Bible study. Laws were passed calling for the creation of grammar schools to teach reading and writing, and Harvard College was founded in 1636 to train the clergy.
The narrow views of the Puritan leaders regarding religious conformity provoked opposition. Roger Williams argued for the separation of church and state, and the right of privacy in religious belief, and against compulsory church service. Banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1635, he went south to Narragansett Bay and founded the Providence settlement. In 1644, Williams received royal permission to start the colony of Rhode Island, a haven for other religious dissenters.
Anne Hutchinson was another critic of clerical authority. Puritan leaders called her and her supporters Antinomians—individuals opposed to the rule of law. As a woman, she was also seen as a challenger to the traditionally male‐dominated society. Tried for sedition, Hutchinson was also exiled as a danger to the colony. She lived in Rhode Island for a time and then moved to New Netherland, where she was killed in 1643 during a conflict between settlers and Indians.
The Puritans brought disease as well as their religion to the New World, and the impact on the native population was the same as it had been in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America a century earlier. As settlements expanded beyond the coastal region, conflicts with the local tribes became common, with equally devastating results. Notably, for the colonists in Massachusetts Bay and New England, disease was less of a problem than it was in the southern colonies. The cold winters limited travel, and the comparatively small farming communities that were established limited the spread of infection. Death rates dwindled, and life expectancy rose. Improved survival combined with the immigration of entire families contributed to the rapid growth of the population.
Massachusetts Bay was a theocratic society, or a society in which the lines between church and state were blurred. Church membership, for example, was required for men to vote for elected local officials. The intent of many of the colony's laws was regulation of personal behavior based on Puritan values. Single men and women could not live on their own. Disrespectful servants, errant husbands, and disobedient wives were subject to civil penalties, and rebellious children could even be put to death. The laws also provided a degree of protection for women by punishing abusive men and compelling fathers to support their children.
Puritan efforts to maintain an intensely ideal religious community did not endure past the first generation. Their restrictive membership requirements in place made it difficult for the Puritan churches to maintain themselves. In 1662, the Half‐Way Covenant was adopted to address the problem. It allowed the church members' baptized children who would not give testimony to achieve sainthood (and thereby church membership) a “half‐way” membership in the congregation. This change in the rules meant that the children's children could receive baptism after all. Without sainthood, however, they could neither vote on church matters nor take communion. Change was also imposed from outside. Massachusetts's 1691 royal charter made property ownership rather than church membership the qualification for voting and provided for the toleration of religious dissenters. The New England Way was breaking down, and a consequence was the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 and 1693.
Belief in witches and demonic possession was common in the seventeenth century, and many people, mainly middle‐aged women, were accused of witchcraft throughout New England. What made the events in Salem Village unique was the extent of the hysteria, which led to the imprisonment of more than one hundred men and women and the execution of twenty. Historians attribute the outbreak to several factors—rivalries between families, a clash of values between a small farming community like Salem Village and the more cosmopolitan commercial center of Salem, and the ties between many of the accused with Anglicans, Quakers, and Baptists, whom the Puritans considered heretics.
Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. Connecticut was settled by colonists from Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s. Thomas Hooker, a minister from Cambridge who advocated less stringent views on religious conformity than other Puritan clergy, brought part of his congregation to the territory in 1636. New Haven, on the other hand, was founded two years later by Puritans who found even Massachusetts Bay too liberal. Self‐rule was established in 1639 through the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first written constitution to create a government, which followed Hooker's approach and gave the right to vote to all freemen and not just church members. Relations with the Indians were important in Connecticut's early history. The Pequot War (1636–37) largely wiped out the Pequot tribe and cleared away the last obstacle to the expansion of settlements in the Connecticut River Valley. Despite the Fundamental Orders, Connecticut was really without legal status until 1662, when it was chartered as a royal colony.
New Hampshire and Maine were originally proprietorships granted not by the king but the Council of New England. Both colonies strove to maintain their independence but were only partly successful. Massachusetts effectively controlled New Hampshire until 1679, when it became a separate colony under a royal charter; Maine remained part of Massachusetts until 1820.