Religious Beliefs in Colonial New Jersey

Puritans from the New Haven colony settled in East Jersey.
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Settlement of New Jersey in the 1600s was characterized by a promise of religious liberty. The Dutch and Swedish, and later the English, realized offering religious freedom would attract more settlers. The Protestant Reformation in Europe had fueled widespread religious persecution, and many Europeans sought sanctuary in the New World. Dissatisfaction with government in the New England colonies led many there to resettle in New Jersey. Despite changes in governance, religious liberty persevered in the colony. Many faiths lived there in relative harmony, but the presence of Catholics was resented by the predominantly Protestant population.

1 Religion in New Netherlands

Settlement west of the lower Hudson River began in the 1620s. The first settlers in this part of New Netherlands were Dutch and Swedish. The Dutch East India Co., claimants of the land, hoped settlers would follow the Dutch Reformed, or Calvinist, faith. The company soon realized the need for settlers outweighed their religious ideals and ultimately welcomed all faiths. Dutch Reformed followers established themselves primarily in the colony’s northeast corner. Swedish and German Lutherans moved to the southwest and later were joined by Finnish Lutherans. Dutch Reformed settlers in this area lived peacefully with the Lutherans. No churches existed during this period, and religious services were conducted in houses or barns. Baptism and Communion were performed by traveling ministers.

2 Religion in East Jersey

In 1664, the English took control of western New Netherlands. Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret were granted proprietorship, and Carteret renamed the colony New Jersey. Carteret granted religious liberty to all free men. The colony later was divided into East Jersey and West Jersey. Puritans came to East Jersey from the New Haven colony after its merger with the liberal Connecticut colony. The Puritans’ strict morality strongly influenced East Jersey government. The late 1600s saw the arrival in East Jersey of many Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. A few of these French Protestants also settled in West Jersey. A disagreement over baptismal rites in New England led Puritan Francis Doughty to introduce the Presbyterian faith in Long Island. Followers later settled in northern East Jersey.

3 Religion in West Jersey

In 1675, members of the Quakers, or Society of Friends, purchased West Jersey. The Quaker faith dominated West Jersey, and their religious influence created an environment distinctly different from East Jersey. Calvinists and Puritans in East Jersey emphasized God’s wrath. The Quakers espoused repentance and a forgiving God. In the late 1600s, Baptists and Presbyterians moved into southwest Jersey from northern East Jersey as well as from Ireland and Wales.

4 Minority Religions in Colonial New Jersey

The first Jewish settler in colonial New Jersey established his family in the colony’s northeast region in the late 1600s. A small Catholic settlement was founded in the colony’s southeast region in the early 1600s, and a few French Catholics reportedly arrived with Carteret. Catholics were not entirely welcome in the colony, and continually lived under threat of persecution. In 1701, Queen Anne of England told colonial governor Lord Cornbury that religious tolerance was to be shown to all settlers except Catholics. Anglican missionaries attempted to found parishes for the Church of England in the colony but were not very successful.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.