Puritan Persecution of Non-Protestants in Colonial America
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Persecuted become the Persecutors
Although they were victims of religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans supported the Old World theory that sanctioned it, the need for uniformity of religion in the state. Once in control in New England, they sought to break “the very neck of Schism and vile opinions.” The “business” of the first settlers, a Puritan minister recalled in 1681, “was not Toleration, but [they] were professed enemies of it.” Puritans expelled dissenters from their colonies, a fate that in 1636 befell Roger Williams and in 1638 Anne Hutchinson, America’s first major female religious leader. Those who defied the Puritans by persistently returning to their jurisdictions risked capital punishment, a penalty imposed on four Quakers between 1659 and 1661. Reflecting on the seventeenth century’s intolerance, Thomas Jefferson was unwilling to concede to Virginians any moral superiority to the Puritans. Beginning in 1659 Virginia enacted anti-Quaker laws, including the death penalty for refractory Quakers. Jefferson surmised that “if no capital execution took place here, as did in New England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or the spirit of the legislature.”
The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution
Expelled from Massachusetts in the dead of winter in 1636, former Puritan leader Roger Williams (1603-1683) issued an impassioned plea for freedom of conscience. He wrote,
“God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill state; which inforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civill Warre, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.” Williams later founded Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom. He welcomed people of every shade of religious belief, even some regarded as dangerously misguided, for nothing could change his view that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”
Execution of Quakers
Mary Dyer (d. 1660) first ran afoul of Massachusetts authorities for supporting theological dissenter Anne Hutchinson. As a result Dyer and her family were forced to move to Rhode Island in 1638. Converted to Quakerism in England in the 1650s, Dyer returned to New England and was three times arrested and banished from Massachusetts for spreading Quaker principles. Returning to Massachusetts a fourth time, she was hanged on June 1, 1660.
Intolerance in Virginia
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the religious intolerance in seventeenth-century Virginia, specifically on the anti-Quaker laws passed by the Virginia Assembly from 1659 onward. Jefferson apparently believed that it was no more than an historical accident that Quakers had not been physically punished or even executed in Virginia as they had been in Massachusetts.
Jews Find a Refuge in America
For some decades Jews had flourished in Dutch-held areas of Brazil, but a Portuguese conquest of the area in 1654 confronted them with the prospect of the introduction of the Inquisition, which had already burned a Brazilian Jew at the stake in 1647. A shipload of twenty-three Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam (soon to become New York) in 1654. By the next year, this small community had established religious services in the city. By 1658 Jews had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, also seeking religious liberty. Small numbers of Jews continued to come to the British North American colonies, settling mainly in the seaport towns. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, Jewish settlers had established several thriving synagogues.
Designed by Peter Harrison, constructed in 1762, and dedicated in 1763, Touro Synagogue is considered an architectural masterpiece. It is the sole surviving synagogue built in colonial America.
A breastplate is an ornamental covering for the Torah, designed in imitation of the breastplate worn by the High Priest, as described in the book of Exodus. Breastplates, similar to the one seen here, were used in colonial synagogues.
During the colonial period, this board was used at Touro Synagogue to prepare the dough for Matzoh (unleavened bread) used in the Passover season.
The Quakers (or Religious Society of Friends) formed in England in 1652 around a charismatic leader, George Fox (1624-1691). Many scholars today consider Quakers as radical Puritans, because the Quakers carried to extremes many Puritan convictions. They stretched the sober deportment of the Puritans into a glorification of “plainness.” Theologically, they expanded the Puritan concept of a church of individuals regenerated by the Holy Spirit to the idea of the indwelling of the Spirit or the “Light of Christ” in every person. Such teaching struck many of the Quakers’ contemporaries as dangerous heresy.
Quakers were severely persecuted in England for daring to deviate so far from orthodox Christianity. By 1680, 10,000 Quakers had been imprisoned in England, and 243 had died of torture and mistreatment in the King’s jails. This reign of terror impelled Friends to seek refuge in New Jersey in the 1670s, where they soon became well entrenched. In 1681, when Quaker leader William Penn (1644-1718) parlayed a debt owed by Charles II to his father into a charter for the province of Pennsylvania, many more Quakers were prepared to grasp the opportunity to live in a land where they might worship freely. By 1685 as many as 8,000 Quakers had come to Pennsylvania. Although the Quakers may have resembled the Puritans in some religious beliefs and practices, they differed with them over the necessity of compelling religious uniformity in society.
A youthful William Penn (1644-1718) portrayed in armor suggests that at this point in his career he may have been considering following his father into a military profession. Soon after this portrait was made, Penn became a member of the Society of Friends, one of whose fundamental tenets was the renunciation of force.
Penn’s Frame of Government
In his famous charter of religious liberty, William Penn pledged that all citizens who believed in
“One Almighty and eternal God . . . shall in no wayes be molested or prejudiced for their Religious Perswasion or Practice in matters of Faith and Worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any Religious Worship, Place or Ministry whatever.”
Pennsylvania became a reference point a century later for Americans opposing plans for government-supported religion.
“Witness the state of Pennsylvania,” a group of Virginians urged its House of Delegates in 1785, “wherein no such [religious] Establishment hath taken place; their Government stands firm and which of the neighbouring States has Members of brighter Morals and more upright Characters.”
This undated image depicts a feature of Quaker religious practice that made early Friends so repugnant to other denominations: their insistence on equality for women, including the right–in defiance of the apostle Paul’s injunctions–to speak in Meeting for Worship and to preach the Gospel.
Quaker Book of Discipline
This collection of “advices” on the behavior of American Quakers was a compilation of guidelines covering every aspect of Quaker life. These advices were periodically issued between 1682 and 1763 by the highest institutional authority in American Quakerism, the Yearly Meeting.
This compilation appears to have been made by the Meeting itself for distribution to local Quaker meetings throughout America. Its purpose was to establish “Decency and comely Order in all our Meetings of Worship, & Plainness in the particular Members of our Society.” Though often ascribed to the Puritans (who, in fact, liked bright colors and, in moderation, the good things of life), “plainness” was a Quaker ideal.
The Pennsylvania Germans
The first group of Germans to settle in Pennsylvania arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 from Krefeld, Germany, and included Mennonites and possibly some Dutch Quakers. During the early years of German emigration to Pennsylvania, most of the emigrants were members of small sects that shared Quaker principles–Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and some German Baptist groups–and were fleeing religious persecution. Penn and his agents encouraged German and European emigration to Pennsylvania by circulating promotional literature touting the economic advantages of Pennsylvania as well as the religious liberty available there. The appearance in Pennsylvania of so many different religious groups made the province resemble “an asylum for banished sects.” Beginning in the 1720s significantly larger numbers of German Lutherans and German Reformed arrived in Pennsylvania. Many were motivated by economic considerations.
This certificate features characteristic Pennsylvania German motifs.
The Narrow Gate
This Pennsylvania German illustration depicts a familiar 19th century evangelical motif of the narrow gate to Heaven and the broad and seductive road to Hell, where the devil and his minions await the self-satisfied sinner.
Many of the German sects that emigrated to Pennsylvania brought with them “primitive” Christian practices such as footwashing, seen here being practiced by the women of the Moravian Brethren.
Roman Catholics in Maryland
Although the Stuart kings of England did not hate the Roman Catholic Church, most of their subjects did, causing Catholics to be harassed and persecuted in England throughout the seventeenth century. Driven by “the sacred duty of finding a refuge for his Roman Catholic brethren,” George Calvert (1580-1632) obtained a charter from Charles I in 1632 for the territory between Pennsylvania and Virginia. This Maryland charter offered no guidelines on religion, although it was assumed that Catholics would not be molested in the new colony. In 1634 two ships, the Ark and the Dove, brought the first settlers to Maryland. Aboard were approximately two hundred people. Among the passengers were two Catholic priests who had been forced to board surreptitiously to escape the reach of English anti-Catholic laws. Upon landing in Maryland the Catholics, led spiritually by the Jesuits, were transported by a profound reverence, similar to that experienced by John Winthrop and the Puritans when they set foot in New England. Catholic fortunes fluctuated in Maryland during the rest of the seventeenth century, as they became an increasingly smaller minority of the population. After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in England, the Church of England was legally established in the colony and English penal laws, which deprived Catholics of the right to vote, hold office, or worship publicly, were enforced. Until the American Revolution, Catholics in Maryland were dissenters in their own country, living at times under a state of siege, but keeping loyal to their convictions, a faithful remnant, awaiting better times.
Father Andrew White
The “Apostle to Maryland,” Father Andrew White (1579-1656), described the celebration of the first mass upon the arrival of the Ark and the Dove,
“We celebrated mass for the first time . . . . This had never been done before in this part of the world. After we had completed the sacrifice, we took upon our shoulders a great cross that we had hewn out of a tree, and advancing in order to the appointed place . . . we erected a trophy to Christ the Savior, humbly reciting, on our bended knees, the Litanies of the sacred Cross, with great emotion.”
This is the only known seventeenth-century image of Father White. The palm trees depicted in the background reveal the artist’s ignorance of conditions in Maryland.
Like some of their Protestant counterparts in the colonies, the Jesuits in Maryland assumed the responsibility of converting the native population to Christianity. They were quite successful, owing to men like Father White, a skilled linguist, who translated spiritual exercises into the Piscataway language.
An ostensorium, also called a monstrance, is used at Catholic communion services to display the consecrated Host. Markings on the base indicate that it was commissioned by George Thompson (fl. 1658-1663), first Clerk of Court of Charles County, Maryland, or by one of his descendants.
Maryland Act Concerning Religion
In 1649, Catholics in the Maryland Assembly passed an act stipulating that no Trinitarian Christian “shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested, or discountenanced, for, or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province.” Though this act was not as inclusive as similar ones in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, which brought theists within their purview, it was another in a series of progressive measures taken by early American colonists to emancipate themselves from the European belief in enforced religious uniformity.’
In this fanciful recreation Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, is showing his 1649 Act Concerning Religion to the ancient Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus. Here Calvert is depicted in a long line of civil libertarians, running from the ninth-century Saxon king, Alfred, on Calvert’s left through William Penn, in the broad-brimmed hat, to Benjamin Franklin, viewing the proceedings from Heaven in his familiar fur hat.
Catholic Church at St. Mary’s City, Maryland
These artist’s recreations of the first free standing Roman Catholic Church in British North America are based on extensive historical and archaeological research, conducted by the staff of Historic St. Mary’s City. The church was probably built in 1667 at St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s seventeenth-century capital.
Catholic Religious Medals
These religious medals, worn by seventeenth-century Catholic colonists in Maryland, bespeak a society spiritually administered by the Jesuits. Excavated at St. Mary’s City, they represent, from left to right: St. Ignatius Loyola (on the reverse, St. Francis Xavier); “the Five saints,” all canonized in 1620: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Isidore the Husbandman, and St. Philip Neri on one side, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier on the other; a sacred site at Zaragosa, Spain, where the faithful believed that the Virgin appeared to the apostle St. James the Greater upon a pillar of jasper; and St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier side by side.
Virgin Mary at St. Mary’s City
This white clay fragment of a statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered at St. Mary’s City at the site of the home of Garret Van Sweringen, a Dutch Roman Catholic who settled in Maryland in the 1660s.
Virginia was settled by businessmen–operating through a joint-stock company, the Virginia Company of London–who wanted to get rich. They also wanted the Church to flourish in their colony and kept it well supplied with ministers. Some early governors sent by the Virginia Company acted in the spirit of crusaders. Sir Thomas Dale (d. 1619) considered himself engaged in “religious warfare” and expected no reward “but from him on whose vineyard I labor whose church with greedy appetite I desire to erect.” During Dale’s tenure, religion was spread at the point of the sword. Everyone was required to attend church and be catechized by a minister. Those who refused could be executed or sent to the galleys. When a popular assembly, the House of Burgesses, was established in 1619, it enacted religious laws that “were a match for anything to be found in the Puritan societies.” Unlike the colonies to the north, where the Church of England was regarded with suspicion throughout the colonial period, Virginia was a bastion of Anglicanism. Her House of Burgesses passed a law in 1632 requiring that there be a “uniformitie throughout this colony both in substance and circumstance to the cannons and constitution of the Church of England.” The church in Virginia faced problems unlike those confronted in other colonies–such as enormous parishes, some sixty miles long, and the inability to ordain ministers locally–but it continued to command the loyalty and affection of the colonists. In 1656, a prospective minister was advised that he “would find an assisting, an embracing, a comforting people” in the colony. At the end of the seventeenth century the church in Virginia, according to a recent authority, was prospering; it was “active and growing” and was “well attended by the young and old alike.”
The Book of Common Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer, which contains the liturgy used by the Church of England, was compiled during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) and revised under Queen Elizabeth I. The prayer book, used in Virginia church services, was published in all shapes and sizes.
Here is a page from the large 1662 edition and the same page as it appears in a 1730 shorthand edition, with the order slightly altered. The creator of the shorthand system, James Weston, advised his readers that he had omitted the “Forms of Matrimony . . . at the Desire of the Subscribers, that the Price might be less.”
Official Instructions on Religion
This manuscript is an eighteenth-century copy of the original Virginia Company records, owned by Thomas Jefferson and sold to the Library of Congress as part of Jefferson’s library in 1815. The document illustrates the Virginia Company’s concern for the health of the church. It orders the settlers to offer generous financial assistance
“to the intent that godly learned & painful Ministers may be placed there for the service of Almighty God & for the spiritual benefit and comfort of the people.”
Baptism of Pocahontas
Like the other seventeenth-century British colonies, Virginia aspired to convert the native populations.
The Virginia Company’s instructions to its governors required them to make conversion one of their objectives. The most famous early convert was Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, head of the Powhatan Confederacy. Pocahontas was baptized by the Reverend Alexander Whitaker before her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614.
Anglican Religious Credentials
One of the handicaps faced by the Church of England in Virginia and the other American colonies was its lack of authority to ordain priests. To receive holy orders, candidates were obliged to travel to England. This was an obstacle some were unwilling to confront. As a result, the Church of England often experienced a shortage of priests in America. Among the pious young Americans who made the perilous journey was Thomas Read, a Virginian, who was ordained by Richard Terrick, Bishop of London, on September 21, 1773, at which time he also received a license to preach in Maryland. Read’s ecclesiastical credentials, as well as a special, protective carrying case, which has his name etched on its front, are seen here.
Originally published by the United States Library of Congress to the public domain.