Religious Self-Determination - The Dissenters of the Colonial Life

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012


Some settlers of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies soon began moving south to found new colonies. A variety of motives came into play. First, the Puritans would not permit freedom of religious worship. Second, church and government were so interconnected that religious dissenters could not fit into the community even outside church. Third, the population was growing steadily, and good farmland was becoming scarce./p>


In 1639, dissenting minister Thomas Hooker and a group of like-minded colonists founded the colony of New Haven on the southern coast of Connecticut. There they wrote a document called “The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut,” which was the first formal constitution of any colonial government in North America. The Connecticut colonists soon established Yale College as a more liberal rival to Harvard.

Rhode Island

Like Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams found himself in disagreement with Puritan authorities. Williams disapproved of any relationship between church and state; he felt that the two should be separated. People should be free to worship in whatever way they pleased; membership in a particular church should not affect civil rights. Williams was so outspoken on this issue that he was banished from Massachusetts. He established the colony of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636. When Rhode Island was granted a royal charter in 1644, Williams insisted on a guarantee of religious freedom for all the colony’s inhabitants.

Shortly before Williams established his colony, a woman named Anne Hutchinson arrived in Boston in 1634. Although women could not be ordained ministers, she became an unofficial religious leader soon after her arrival. In her home, she led discussions of the Bible and of the sermons of the leading ministers of the city. These meetings were widely popular, especially among women. However, many Bostonians believed that Hutchinson’s growing influence threatened the authority of the ministers. As time passed, and Hutchinson became more and more critical of the ministers who ran the city, she was arrested on a charge of weakening their authority. Hutchinson put up a spirited and logical defense of her actions, but lost her case. She found sanctuary in Rhode Island.


In 1681, William Penn received the colony of Pennsylvania as a gift from King Charles II of England. A Quaker, Penn founded his colony as an experiment in religious tolerance and equal rights for all inhabitants. Thousands of immigrants sailed to Pennsylvania, attracted by the promise of freedom and by its abundance of fertile farmland. Philadelphia, Penn’s planned “City of Brotherly Love,” soon became the largest city in the colonies.


Lord Baltimore (George Calvert) envisioned a colony on Chesapeake Bay and petitioned King Charles I to grant him land there. Although he died in 1632, before the charter was signed, his son established the colony the following year and named it Maryland. The colony had been intended as a refuge for Catholic immigrants who were persecuted by Anglicans in England and the nearby colony of Virginia, but soon it was opened to Protestants as well. Settlers of both Maryland and Virginia dedicated their efforts to growing tobacco, which the Jamestown colonists had proved was a highly profitable cash crop.

Tobacco meant plantations and a large labor force to work them. At first, indentured servants made up the labor pool, but once they had worked out their indentures and become free, they began to start small farms of their own. Small and large farmers did not get along well, since each encroached on the other’s economic interests. In Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), the small farmers attacked local the American Indians, whose lands they wanted for themselves. They also looted the large plantations and even took over the government in Jamestown for a short time. In the end, the rebellion was put down, and the governing body of Virginia, called the House of Burgesses, declared that the Anglo-American colonists had the right to settle on Native-American lands.

This outbreak of violence helped lead to the increase in the slave trade. The first record of any African slaves in North America was in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1640. After Bacon’s Rebellion, the tobacco and cotton planters of the South realized that they could not rely on the labor of indentured servants. They wanted a labor force over which they could exercise total and permanent control. African slaves fit their requirements perfectly. Because they looked different from Europeans, spoke languages that Europeans could not understand, and were not Christians, it was easy for the Anglo-Americans to justify slavery to themselves on the false grounds that Africans were racially inferior to Europeans.


The Carolinas were originally one colony, founded in 1663 and named in honor of King Charles I. Carolina was a colony of small farms and rice plantations. Growing rice and cotton demanded so much slave labor that by 1720, slaves comprised two-thirds of the population. Knowing that they were out-numbered and fearing possible slave rebellions, the leaders of the Carolinas made their slave codes especially harsh.

This map shows the original thirteen British colonies, with the dates of their founding.

US History Original Thirteen British Colonies Dates Map

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:  The British Colonies Practice Test

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