About Colonial Life in Massachusetts

The earliest colonial settlements in Massachusetts were humble homes.
... Hongjiong Shi/Hemera/Getty Images

Massachusetts began as two colonial settlements. The first was established in 1620 by the Pilgrims, a small group of religious separatists who migrated from England to the Netherlands and then to the "New World," where they established Plymouth Colony.

The Puritans, who wanted to set up a model religious community, began their "Great Migration" in 1629. This larger group quickly established the city of Boston and several other significant settlements. Because the Puritans wanted to practice their faith free from persecution and their common English ancestry, the two groups quickly unified as one colony with shared economic, political, religious and cultural values.

1 Religion and Politics

Through the early 1700s, religion gave Massachusetts colonists a common purpose that shaped their government and their daily lives.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans shared a Calvinist faith based on the concept of "predestination" -- the predetermination regarding whether people would go to heaven or hell. As a result, the Puritan colonists were constantly looking for signs that they were, indeed, one of the saved -- something that was evident through hard work, moral living, and economic success.

In the "Bible Commonwealth," religion was at the heart of daily life. Colonists lived by their religious beliefs and religion formed the basis of government. While there was some separation of church and state -- clergy could not hold political office -- only male church members, the "visible saints," and not the common folk, could run for governor or serve in the representative assembly.

As the colonial population grew, colonists built small, orderly towns organized around a meetinghouse, which served as both the church and the town hall. Here, in the town hall meetings, there was greater freedom for the "un-elect," common folk -- although not women. In town meetings, each property-owning adult male had a vote -- a preliminary form of democracy that influenced American revolutionary ideals.

2 Dissent

Although the Massachusetts colonists had migrated to the New World to escape religious persecution, they were completely intolerant of dissent within their beloved community.

As an outspoken woman and a critic of church teachings, Anne Hutchinson was doubly controversial. Hutchinson advocated antinomianism, the argument that followed the logic of predestination to its most extreme -- if it had already been determined who would be saved, then the truly saved had no reason to follow social mores or the laws of government. Charged with high heresy, Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts Bay, before eventually dying in a conflict with Native Americans in New York.

Reverend Roger Williams also faced the ire of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams' demands for complete religious freedom and insistence that colonists pay Native Americans fairly for their land were in direct contrast to the dominant beliefs of the colony, and Williams was forced into exile.

Williams found refuge among the friendly Narragansett tribe, from whom he purchased land and established the colony of Rhode Island, the first colony with complete religious freedom. As a result, Rhode Island grew rapidly as dissenters flocked in from all parts of English America.

3 Economics and Family Life

Spurred on by their deep Calvinist faith, Massachusetts colonists were a hardworking lot. In a cold climate with rocky soil, colonists worked feverishly to scrape out small, subsistence farms. Unable to grow large amounts of cash crops like tobacco, as the Virginians did, the people of Massachusetts developed a mixed economy that included not only small farms but fishing, shipbuilding, maritime commerce and a variety of industries.

As England's colonies expanded, trade became particularly important to Massachusetts, and some colonists grew incredibly wealthy selling rum and other goods in what came to be known as the "Triangular Trade."

Just as the cold climate shaped the economy, it shaped the colonists' daily lives. The cold helped eliminate unhealthy bacteria that thrived in warmer climates like the Chesapeake. In this healthy environment, colonists lived longer and the infant mortality rate was incredibly low. As people reproduced rapidly and children thrived, families were the backbone of Massachusetts communities.

Children were generally well-educated, as Puritans believed that people must be able to read the Bible themselves. Women were expected to submit to their husbands and gave up their economic and property rights upon marriage, but women simultaneously held their families together and supervised much of the work that went into maintaining households, farms, and small businesses.

4 Challenges and Changes

As early as the mid 1600s, the religious zeal that formed the center of earlier colonial life was weakening due to the influence of younger generations and new migrants, many of whom were more concerned with reaping a profit through the rapidly growing colonial mercantile trade system than building a model religious community.

Weakening faith among the population and growing class conflict created problems for colonists. The infamous Salem Witch Trials emerged over conflict between the poorer small farmers -- the accusers -- and the wealthier merchant class in coastal Salem. While there are many theories about the Salem Witch Trials, the majority of scholars agree that at their heart the trials reflected the growing class stratification of Massachusetts and the tension between religious conservatives and those more concerned with economic matters.

Additionally, concern about the declining relevance of the church and changes in its structure of that weakened the church's religious purity in favor of wider participation. The Puritan church would never fully recover.

By the mid 1700s, the power of the church had waned significantly, although its emphasis on hard work, resourcefulness and independence remained "New England" values.

Based in Dallas, Exa von Alt has been working in education and the social sciences for nearly 10 years. Her lesson plans are published on the University of Oklahoma's K20ALT website and she has written several entries in "American Centuries: The Ideas, Issues, and Trends that Made U.S. History"(MTM Publishing). Exa von Alt holds a Master of Arts in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.