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The Declaration of Independence

Lesson Plan

Church & State in British North America

  1. Why did so many people believe that society was best served by a close alliance between a single church and state government?
  2. How did freedom of religion and freedom of speech differ among the original colonies?

A Beginning Based on Freedom to Worship — but on a European Model


Woodcut by John Foster, Boston, 1677
This woodcut represents the earliest known map of New England from 1677. The mapmaker showed west at the top with north to the right.

The Arbella was one of eleven ships carrying Puritans to Massachusetts in 1630. This voyage was the largest ever attempted in the English New World. The passengers of the Arbella left England with a new charter and a great vision. They were determined to be a beacon for the rest of Europe, "A Modell of Christian Charity," in the words of future governor, John Winthrop.

They wanted to show the rest of the world the right and moral way to live. Winthrop stated their purpose quite clearly: "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

Governor John Winthrop
John Winthrop travelled to the New World aboard the Arbella. He was elected and dismissed as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony several times.

The Massachusetts government favored one church, the Puritan church. This model was popular in many European countries. Throughout Western Europe, civil governments gave support to one Christian denomination. They granted them special powers and privileges, and persecuted men and women who held other religious views. When the first settlements began, Anglicanism (under the Church of England) was the established religion in England; in Scotland, Presbyterians had the highest status; the Dutch Reformed Church was the favored church in the Netherlands; and the Roman Catholic Church dominated in France and Spain. During this time, most believed that close alliances between religion and government benefited both the church and the state. Together, they could better promote morality, social harmony, and political stability.

You are a Puritan coming to America. You are asked about the fact that your colony will not accept someone practicing a religion different from yours. The question you ask is "How can you be a model of Christian Charity if you don't accept someone who believes differently than you?" How would you answer?

SKILLS: Analyze, Judge

Why did so many people believe in the need for a close relationship between church and state? For a century, Western Europe had seen many bloody conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics, or Protestants. This led to problems both in everyday society and within the government. Europeans had seen first hand the consequences of religious dissent. Many of those affected by these conflicts immigrated to the New World, and brought their fears about religion with them. It is no surprise, then, that the founders of the first colonies in America quickly set up religious establishments similar to Europe. While they gave their citizens the liberty to practice their founding faith, they refused to grant much religious freedom beyond that boundary.

Harvard College

This engraving shows the Harvard campus as it looked during the 18th century.

Ministers were highly revered by the colonists. Although ministers were not allowed to hold political office, they made many of the most important decisions. In 1636, Harvard College was founded to train Puritan ministers. It was the first college in North America.

By the end of the 1630s, as part of a "Great Migration," nearly 14,000 more Puritan settlers came to Massachusetts. The colony began to spread. In 1691, Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed Plymouth colony, creating one large territory.

Dissent in Massachusetts and the Settlement of New Colonies — The Model Begins to Change

The colony needed more than a strong church to survive. Many dissenters — Christian men and women who were not converted — also lived within Massachusetts Bay. Non-Puritan settlers founded towns such as Marblehead. The Puritans allowed this because they needed a wide variety of people and skills for their colony to succeed.

But there was not too much room for religious disagreement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans' faith was very strong and they spoke about it with fury. So when free thinkers began to speak their minds about religion and government, conflict occurred. Such was the case in Massachusetts Bay when Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams spoke their minds.

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)
Anne Hutchinson was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 by Governor John Winthrop.

Anne Hutchinson was a deeply religious woman. According to the way she interpreted the Bible, the ministers of Massachusetts were wrong to try to control social behavior. She thought their efforts to convert others to Puritanism conflicted with the doctrine of predestination. Predestination is the belief that God chooses who will go to heaven. She asked simply: "If God has predetermined for me salvation or damnation, how could any behavior of mine change my fate?"

This sort of thinking was seen as extremely dangerous. If the public ignored church authority, anarchy was more likely to occur. The power of the ministers would decrease. Soon after Anne Hutchinson's first comments, over a group of community members began gathering in her parlor to hear her thoughts on the weekly sermon. Her leadership position as a woman made her seem all the more dangerous to the Puritan order.

The clergy felt that Anne Hutchinson was a threat to the entire Puritan colony. They decided to arrest her for heresy. In her trial she argued intelligently with Governor Winthrop, but the court found her guilty and banished her from Massachusetts Bay in 1637.

The day Mary Dyer died
Mary Dyer was the first woman executed for her religious beliefs in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As an indication of how religiously strict Massachusetts was, an outspoken and previously banished Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker.

Anne Hutchinson is banished and Mary Dyer is put to death. Give one reason John Winthrop might have used to support these actions. Give one reason that Ann Hutchinson might have used to defend herself.

SKILLS: Judge, Create

Rhode Island

Roger Williams was a similar threat. Williams was an important Protestant theologian whose ideas of religious freedom and fair dealings with the Native Americans resulted in his exile from the Massachusetts colony.

His ideas got him into major trouble in Massachusetts Bay. He became the first American to call for separation of church and state. He also believed in complete religious freedom, so no single church should be supported by tax dollars. Massachusetts Puritans believed there was one true faith, so his words were offensive and intolerable to them. Williams was summoned to the General Court in Boston for "erroneous" and "dangerous opinions."

Williams did not only have strong beliefs about religion. He claimed taking land from the Native Americans without proper payment was unfair. Ultimately, he was tried by the General Court and convicted of sedition and heresy. His sentence was to be banished.

In 1636, he purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and founded the colony of Rhode Island. This colony was the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated. Anne Hutchinson herself moved to Rhode Island before a fatal relocation to New York.


Thomas Hooker was a devout Puritan minister. He also had some controversial opinions regarding the church. Hooker objected to linking voting rights with church membership, which is what they did in Massachusetts Bay.

In 1636, his family led a group of followers west and built a town known as Hartford. This would become the center of the Connecticut colony. In religious practices, Connecticut mirrored Massachusetts Bay. But it was different politically because it allowed more access to non-church members.

In 1639, Connecticut enacted the first written constitution in the western hemisphere. The model of government they used included an elected governor and a two-house legislature. These ideas were very innovative at the time. The Connecticut constitution served as a model for other colonial charters and even future state constitutions after independence was achieved.

In 1637, under the leadership of John Davenport, a second colony was formed in the Connecticut River Valley. It formed around the port of New Haven. Unlike the citizens in Hartford, the citizens were very strict about church membership and the political process. They even abolished juries because there was no mention of them in the Bible. Most citizens accused of a crime simply reported for their punishment. Without a jury, there was no point to providing a defense.

This map shows the area known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 17th century. Settlers soon branched out and settled the areas that would be known as Connecticut and Rhode Island.

King Charles II merged New Haven into its more democratic neighbor in 1662.

If you were accused of a crime, would you report to a judge for sentencing, as the people of Connecticut did, if those were the rules? Would it matter to you whether you did the crime or not? Would it matter whether you were innocent or not?

SKILLS: Analyze, Judge


<i>Cecil Calvert presenting to Lycurgus his Act Concerning Religion</i>
James Barry, 1793
In this engraving, Cecil Calvert presents his 1649 Act Concerning Religion to the ancient Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus, while libertarians throughout history, including Ben Franklin and William Penn, look on.

Those who first settled in Maryland were also fleeing religious persecution. In England in 1632, Cecelius Calvert, known as Lord Baltimore, was given all of the land between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Lord Baltimore decided to grant religious freedom to the Catholics who remained in Anglican England and let them settle on the land. At this time in England, Catholics were still a persecuted minority. For example, it was illegal for anyone to be married by a Catholic priest. Lord Baltimore thought that his land could serve as a refuge. But his intentions were not purely religious. He also hoped to make a profit on the settlement and use of the land.

Maryland, named after England's Catholic queen Henrietta Maria, was first settled in 1634. Although it was seen as a refuge for Catholics to practice their religion, economic opportunity was the draw for many Maryland colonists. Consequently, most immigrants did not cross the Atlantic in family units but as individuals. The first settlers were a mixture of country gentlemen (mostly Catholic) and workers and artisans (mostly Protestant). This mixture would doom the Catholic experiment. With more and more workers immigrating, Catholics soon found themselves in the minority. But the Maryland legislature still represented a pro-Catholic cause.

Fearful that the Protestant masses might restrict Catholic liberties, the House of Delegates passed the Maryland Act of Toleration in 1649. This act granted religious freedom to all Christians. Like Roger Williams in Rhode Island, Maryland thus created these laws to protect religious liberty. Within ten years, however, Protestants outnumbered Catholics in the legislature, which caused a lot of conflict between the two groups. The Act of Toleration, however, is an important part of the colonial legacy of religious freedom. In fact, this Act was very influential to the First Amendment in the American Bill of Rights.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey

William Penn
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania ("Penn's Woods") and planner of Philadelphia, established a very liberal government by 17th century standards. Religious freedom and good relations with Native Americans were two keystones of Penn's style.

Pennsylvania was different. William Penn was awarded an enormous tract of land in the New World because King Charles II owed his father a huge debt. William Penn had a vision. He would create a land for people of his faith, the Quakers. They had suffered serious persecution in England. In 1681, his vision became a reality.

Quaker Meeting House
Central to the Quaker way of life was the Meeting House. Here, Quakers would come together to worship. The above image depicts one of London's Quaker Meeting Houses.

Quakers, or the Society of Friends, suffered greatly in England. As religious dissenters of the Church of England, they were targets of discrimination. But the Friends were also pacifists. This meant that they would not participate in any conflict. They would not fight in any of England's wars, nor would they pay their taxes if they believed the money would go to a military venture. They also believed in total equality. Therefore, Quakers would not bow down to nobles. Even the king would not receive the courtesy of a tipped hat. They refused to take oaths, so their loyalty to England was always in question. Of the Quaker families that came from England to the New World, a majority of males had spent time in jail.

The Quakers of Penn's colony, established a very liberal government for the seventeenth century. Religious freedom was granted to all and there was no tax-supported church. Penn insisted on developing good relations with the Native Americans. Women saw greater freedom in Quaker society than elsewhere, and they were allowed to participate fully in Quaker meetings.

Pennsylvania, or "Penn's Woods," benefited from the vision of its founder. He promoted his new colony throughout Europe, and as a result, skilled artisans and farmers flocked to the new colony. Quakers owned New Jersey and the remnants of New Sweden, now called Delaware. With vast land, skilled workers, and Philadelphia as its capital, Pennsylvania soon became the keystone of the English colonies.

Virginia and the South

The Church of England was the strongest in Virginia, where religious dissenters made up only a small minority until the 1750s. But the Church became weak as time went on. It was hard to gain popularity for the church because the settlements in Virginia were so scattered. Also, the churches lacked real Anglican priests because they could not afford to pay them well. Prominent men in the colony led worship most of the time to keep the Church active. All Virginians were still required to attend public worship, and their taxes went back to the Church in England. After 1750, as Baptist congregations grew in that colony, some religious conflict occurred. Outspoken preachers were attacked by angry mobs. Some were fined and imprisoned.

Elsewhere in the colonies, Anglicans enjoyed less official support. In the Carolinas as well as in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, Anglicans never made up a majority. They had always competed with ethnically diverse groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, and a variety of German Pietists. But while the Church of England never had the same hold over the colonies as the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, it steadily spread through the South and Middle Colonies.

Thus, at the beginning of the 18th century in colonial America, religion was important and central influence on the lives of the vast majority of people. But there were still some who rejected the idea that religion was central to a unified state and an orderly society. These leaders, including Roger Williams and William Penn, argued that it was the duty of governments to uphold liberty of judgment and conscience.

Would you say that early America was founded as a "Christian nation"? Explain your thoughts.

SKILL: Judge
  1. Why did so many people believe that society was best served by a close alliance between a single church and state government?
  2. How did freedom of religion and freedom of speech differ among the original colonies?


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