Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans and Theocracy in the 17th Century

They wanted to bring about the reform of Protestantism throughout the English Empire.

“A City upon a Hill”

A much larger group of English Puritans left England in the 1630s, establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the New Haven Colony, the Connecticut Colony, and Rhode Island.

Unlike the exodus of young men to the Chesapeake colonies, these migrants were families with young children and their university-trained ministers. Their aim—according to John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay—was to create a model of reformed Protestantism, a “city upon a hill,” a new English Israel.

The idea of a “city upon a hill” made clear the religious orientation of the New England settlement, and the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony stated as a goal that the colony’s people “may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of Country, to the Knowledg and Obedience of the onlie true God and Saulor of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth.” To illustrate this, the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company shows a half-naked Native American who entreats more of the English to “come over and help us.”

The 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like their Spanish and French Catholic rivals, English Puritans in America took steps to convert native peoples to their version of Christianity. John Eliot, the leading Puritan missionary in New England, urged Native Americans in Massachusetts to live in “praying towns” established by English authorities for converted Native Americans and to adopt the Puritan emphasis on the centrality of the Bible. In keeping with the Protestant emphasis on reading scripture, he translated the Bible into the local Algonquian language and published his work in 1663. Eliot hoped that as a result of his efforts, some of New England’s native inhabitants would become preachers.

Religion and Culture in Puritan New England

Puritan New England differed in many ways from both England and the rest of Europe. Protestants emphasized literacy so that everyone could read the Bible. This attitude was in stark contrast to that of Catholics, who refused to tolerate private ownership of Bibles in the vernacular language. The Puritans placed a special emphasis on reading scripture, and their commitment to literacy led to the establishment of the first printing press in English America in 1636. Four years later, in 1640, they published the first book in North America, the Bay Psalm Book.

As Calvinists, Puritans adhered to the doctrine of predestination, whereby a few elect would be saved and all others damned. No one could be sure whether they were predestined for salvation, but through introspection, guided by scripture, Puritans hoped to find a glimmer of redemptive grace. Church membership was restricted to those Puritans who were willing to provide a conversion narrative telling how they came to understand their spiritual estate by hearing sermons and studying the Bible.

Like many other Europeans, the Puritans believed in the supernatural. Every event appeared to be a sign of God’s mercy or judgment, and people believed that witches allied themselves with the Devil to carry out evil deeds and deliberate harm such as the sickness or death of children, the loss of cattle, and other catastrophes.

Hundreds were accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England, including townspeople whose habits or appearance bothered their neighbors or who appeared threatening for any reason. Women, seen as more susceptible to the Devil because of their supposedly weaker constitutions, made up the vast majority of suspects and those who were executed.

The most notorious witchcraft cases occurred in Salem Village in 1692. Many of the accusers who prosecuted the suspected witches had been traumatized by the Indian wars on the frontier and by unprecedented political and cultural changes in New England. Relying on their belief in witchcraft to help make sense of their changing world, Puritan authorities executed 19 people and caused the deaths of several others.

Religious Intolerance in Massachusetts Bay

1876 engraving depicting the events of the Salem Witch Trials. William A. Crafts, Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849. Boston: Published by Samuel Walker and Company. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although many people assume Puritans escaped England to establish religious freedom, they proved to be just as intolerant as the English state church. When dissenters, including Puritan minister Roger Williams and midwife Anne Hutchinson, challenged Governor Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, they both were banished from the colony.

Roger Williams questioned the Puritans’ theft of Native American land. Williams also argued for a complete separation from the Church of England, a position other Puritans in Massachusetts rejected, as well as the idea that the state could not punish individuals for their beliefs. Although he did accept that nonbelievers were destined for eternal damnation, Williams did not think the state could compel true orthodoxy.

Puritan authorities found Williams guilty of spreading dangerous ideas, but he went on to found Rhode Island as a colony that sheltered dissenting Puritans from their brethren in Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, Williams wrote favorably about native peoples, contrasting their virtues with Puritan New England’s intolerance.

Anne Hutchinson also ran afoul of Puritan authorities for her criticism of the evolving religious practices in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In particular, she held that Puritan ministers in New England taught a shallow version of Protestantism emphasizing hierarchy and actions—a “covenant of works” rather than a “covenant of grace.” Literate Puritan women like Hutchinson presented a challenge to the male ministers’ authority. Indeed, her major offense was her claim of direct religious revelation (that she spoke directly with God), a type of spiritual experience that negated the role of ministers.

Because of Hutchinson’s beliefs and her defiance of authority in the colony, especially that of Governor Winthrop, Puritan authorities tried and convicted her of holding false beliefs. In 1638, she was excommunicated and banished from the colony. She went to Rhode Island and later, in 1642, sought safety among the Dutch in New Netherland. The following year, Algonquians killed Hutchinson and her family. In Massachusetts, Governor Winthrop noted her death as the righteous judgment of God against a heretic.

Puritan Relationships with Native Peoples

Tensions had existed from the beginning between the Puritans and the native peoples who controlled southern New England. Relationships deteriorated as the Puritans continued to expand their settlements aggressively and as European ways increasingly disrupted native life. These strains led to King Philip’s War—from 1675 to 1676—a massive regional conflict that was nearly successful in pushing the English out of New England.

This map indicates the domains of New England’s native inhabitants in 1670, a few years before King Philip’s War. Image credit: “English Settlements in America” by OpenStaxCollege

When the Puritans began to arrive in the 1620s and 1630s, local Algonquian peoples viewed them as potential allies in the conflicts already simmering between rival native groups. In 1621, the Wampanoag, led by Massasoit, concluded a peace treaty with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. In the 1630s, the Puritans in Massachusetts and Plymouth allied themselves with the Narragansett and Mohegan people against the Pequot, who had recently expanded their claims into southern New England. In May 1637, the Puritans attacked a large group of several hundred Pequot along the Mystic River in Connecticut. To the horror of their Native American allies, the Puritans massacred all but a handful of the men, women, and children they found.

By the mid-17th century, the Puritans had pushed their way farther into the interior of New England, establishing outposts along the Connecticut River Valley. There seemed no end to their expansion. Wampanoag leader Metacom or Metacomet, also known as King Philip among the English, was determined to stop the encroachment. The Wampanoag—along with the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett—went to war to drive the English from the land.

In the ensuing conflict, called King Philip’s War, native forces succeeded in destroying half of the frontier Puritan towns; however, in the end, the English—aided by Mohegans and Christian Native Americans—prevailed and sold many captives into slavery in the West Indies. The severed head of King Philip was publicly displayed in Plymouth. The war also forever changed the English perception of native peoples; after King Philip’s War, Puritan writers took great pains to vilify Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages. A new type of racial hatred became a defining feature of Native American-English relationships in the Northeast.

Originally published by the Khan Academy under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.



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