Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws and Dissent


The Puritans in America desired religious freedom to worship
as they chose and welcomed all who shared their beliefs

When the Puritans set up their colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1600s, they sought to create Bible-centered commonwealths, or civil states, to reflect their deeply-held religious beliefs.  In undertaking this goal, they were undoubtedly affected by their experiences in Europe as well as by the model of the ancient Israelites in the Bible, which presented both benefits and challenges for the Puritans in their own time and unique circumstances.  One challenge that the Puritans struggled with was in creating and enforcing religious laws and religious conformity.

The Puritans came to America for the freedom to set up their own church and community according to their own beliefs, rather than be forced to conform to an official church with which they disagreed.  In America, they made their Congregational Church the state church.  To be sure, the Puritans, like their European forbears, initially supported religious conformity in their colonies.  Those who chose to come and live in their colonies had to abide by the same religious views and practices.  Religious conformity was, the Puritans thought, the only way to preserve their faith and to keep the community pure and moral.  It was necessary, they thought, to protect the church from heresy and corruption and to maintain peace.  In this sense, the Puritans did not tolerate different religious sects in their community.  However, Puritans like minister Nathan Ward responded to qualms about intolerance by stating that those with differing beliefs “have free liberty to keep away from us.”  Unlike in Europe, no one was forced to reside in their colonies and conform against one’s will and beliefs.  In this sense, the colony was indeed a free one.

In time, some Puritans with differing religious views emerged in the community and began to vocalize their dissenting opinions and beliefs.  These dissenters had to keep quiet on their views or else leave the community.  The Puritans in Massachusetts banished a number of dissenters including Roger Williams, who later founded the colony of Rhode Island, and Anne Hutchinson, who later moved to Rhode Island.

In their attempt to follow the example of the ancient Israelites, the Puritans directly applied the practices of ancient Israel in their commonwealths.  As such, they adopted Old Testament religious laws for their colony.  This approach led to harsh moral and religious laws, with severe punishments or the death penalty for offenses like idolatry, blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery, homosexuality, sodomy, etc.  To be sure, similar laws existed in Europe and were somewhat typical of the time.  However, some Puritans questioned such laws as not applicable to their own time, people, and colonies, and some thought such laws did not balance with the mercy found in the Christian New Testament.

As such, the Puritans deeply struggled with how to shape their colonies according to the Bible.  They saw two different spiritual approaches in the Old and New Testaments, and they knew their circumstances differed from those of the ancient Israelites.  Yet they also believed God’s Word was relevant to their present situation, and they desired a moral, godly community.

Despite these challenges in their new colonies, the Puritan lifestyle had many benefits.  High moral standards characterized Puritan life.  The church was central to society, and the church hall was centrally located for public worship.  The sermon was the most influential form of communication in New England, and the Bible was the main source of sermons.  Puritan beliefs and lifestyle positively influenced values of family, community, work, law, and reverence for God.  In fact, daily life naturally supported the laws of the colonies.  The Puritans’ morality was so rigorous, says historian Mark Noll in A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, that “almost all Americans since have been forced to react to it in some way.”  The Puritans would make radical Protestantism normal in America and give the future nation of the United States a strong moral rigor.

Though the Puritans struggled with issues of religious law and dissent, many of their Bible-inspired governing principles and civic values proved democratic, effective, and enduring.  The Puritans implemented (as discussed in earlier posts in this Puritan series) the principles of God’s sovereignty, covenants, constitutions, rule of law, popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, representative and limited government, literacy and education, and a strong moral and work ethic.  Such principles would lead to freedom, equality, individual rights, and constitutional republicanism in America.  These ideas and practices would become the Puritans’ valuable legacy.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related posts/videos:
1.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
2.  An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
3.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
4.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Ancient Israelites
5.  The First Thanksgiving in America
6.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
7.  The Puritans’ Moral Authority Was the Bible
8.  The Puritans in America Identified with the Ancient Israelites and Practiced Covenants
9.  Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
10.  The Puritans in America Favored Rule of Law Based on the Bible
11.  The Puritans in America Created the First Written Constitution of Law
12.  The Religious Landscape of the Original Thirteen Colonies in Early America
13.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief & Religious Tolerance in America
14.  Roger Williams:  His Quest for Religious Purity and Founding of Rhode Island
15.  Roger Williams:  First Call for Separation of Church and State in America
16.  William Penn:  His Holy Experiment in Religious Tolerance in America

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Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 3, Part 3 of 3, Activity 3:  Understanding the Puritans’ Desire for and Practice of Religious Freedom, p. 130.  MS-HS.

Understanding the Puritans’ Desire for and Practice of Religious Freedom

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the Puritans’ desire for religious freedom in coming to America, how they defined or envisioned religious freedom in society, why they desired conformity, their struggles in implementing religious laws, and their challenges in dealing with religious dissent.

Suggested Reading:  Chapter 3 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.  Students read sections 3.2, 3.14.

Activity:  Class Discussion.  1)  How did the Puritans define and support religious freedom?  How did this view influence their move to America?  2)  Discuss the meaning of religious conformity and its historical context.  Why did the Puritans have a state church?  Want conformity?  What Old Testament religious laws did they impose?  Consider the Puritans’ time, background, experiences, and reasons for supporting religious conformity.  3)  What is dissent?  A dissenter?  How did the Puritans view religious dissent?  Why?

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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