New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, the "middle colonies" of the original thirteen British colonies, were characterized by greater religious toleration and greater ethnic and religious diversity than their neighbors to north and south. While, with some exceptions, the colonies of New England were dominated by the Puritan branch of the Church of England and the southern colonies by the more mainstream Church of England, several European denominations found homes in the middle colonies.

Major Causes of Religious Toleration in the Middle Colonies

Japanese rendering of two American ships from expedition of Matthew Perry

Many factors interacted to create the pluralistic religious climate of the middle colonies. Of these factors, three of the most important were the area's ethnic diversity, its tolerant legal climate, and its leading role in trade and commerce. Interestingly, the region's tolerant and pluralistic culture did not result in a less religious population. Instead, Presbyterian congregations in the middle colonies sparked the First Great Awakening that transformed the cultural landscape of Colonial America and prepared its population to come together in the American Revolution.

Ethnic Diversity

Execution of Dutch Protestants during rule of Duke of Alva

While both the New England colonies and the southern colonies were settled by an overwhelmingly British population, usually with roots in some branch of the Church of England, the middle colonies welcomed a far more diverse population, both from within Britain and from across Europe. In many cases, these European immigrants were escaping from the turmoil created in much of Europe by the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing religious wars. Mennonites and Dutch Reformed from the Netherlands, Huguenots from France, Baptists from Germany, Presbyterians from Scotland and Ireland, Jews from Portugal, Lutherans from Scandinavia, and Quakers and Baptists often persecuted in their native England and Wales were among those who arrived to settle the middle colonies. Many religious groups also sought converts among the Native American and African American populations of the region, and included members of these groups in their congregations.

Legal Toleration

William Penn and colonialists at conference

In part because they were settled by a more diverse population, the middle colonies tended to have a legal climate that was unusually religiously tolerant by the standards of the time. The religious toleration guaranteed by the Quakers of Pennsylvania, who believed with their leader William Penn that enforced religious observance created hypocrisy, was exceptional. But other middle colonies also offered at least limited religious toleration. New York allowed churches to be established on the local level, and towns to vote on which church their taxes would support. It is estimated that in 1771, 18 different houses of worship in what is now New York City served a population that could not have numbered higher than 22,000.

Commerce and Trade

Historical ships off of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The middle colonies bustled with commerce. Trade brought people from many different backgrounds together and created a diverse and tolerant climate compared with the more isolated or homogeneous culture of some other colonies. Trade also created thriving cities such as New York and Philadelphia where products and ideas from all over the world were assimilated by the growing population of colonial America.

The Great Awakening

George Whitefield preaching to crowd

The Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals in the American colonies between the 1730s and 1770s, mirrored a similar reawakening of Protestant Christianity occurring in England, Scotland, Wales, and parts of Europe during roughly the same period. Such preachers as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield galvanized audiences with spellbinding, emotional sermons that emphasized the need for personal salvation and personal piety, in contrast to the "dryness" of institutional or cultural Christianity. The Great Awakening was profoundly influential on subsequent American history, and many historians believed it helped lay a foundation for the American Revolution by challenging authority and by emphasizing the need for Christians to hold and act on their own personal convictions.