Religious Influences in the Colonies

Pilgrims walking to church in winter.
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Many European settlers came to America in search of religious liberty. Some had experienced discrimination in their homelands for trying to practice their religion and hoped to establish a purer form of their faith in America. Most Americans are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims who fled Europe in 1620 and established a colony in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims, however, are only one of the religious influences on Colonial America.

1 The Pilgrims

In 1609 the Pilgrims left England and established a colony in Holland. They believed the Church of England, the official church of Britain, was extremely corrupt and beyond repair, and they wanted to practice a pure form of Christianity. They were unable to find economic success and feared their children were forgetting their English heritage, so the Pilgrims went back to England and from there set out for America on the Mayflower in 1620. Their leader was William Bradford. During their first winter in America, half the colony died because of the harsh conditions in their new home. The next year, however, the Wampanoag -- a local tribe of Native Americans -- taught them how to plant indigenous crops such as corn and squash, and the plentiful harvest that year was celebrated at a feast now known as Thanksgiving. Soon the Pilgrims joined with the Puritans, who wanted to reform the Church of England, not separate from it.

2 The Puritans

The Puritans, led by John Winthrop, came to America in 1630 and established a colony in Boston, Massachusetts. They believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church. In their view, Christianity should more strictly follow the Bible. They believed it was their destiny to create a pure Christian community in America. The Puritans were Calvinists, or followers of the teachings of John Calvin. Calvinists believed humans were hopelessly sinful and only a few had been chosen by God for salvation. Their harsh views were reflected in their worship and doctrine, which forbade the celebration of holidays, alcohol and merry-making, and encouraged a focus on work and church.

3 The Anglicans

In 1607 King James of England sent people to colonize Jamestown, Virginia. He wanted them to establish an Anglican, or Church of England, colony in America because he feared the influence of Spanish Catholics in areas such as New Mexico. The king issued a charter in 1624 ordering all people who lived in Virginia to belong to the Anglican Church and pay taxes to support it. He forbade the practice of other religions.

4 Other Groups

Other denominations and groups exerted religious influence in the colonies. Quaker William Penn established Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment," where people from many faiths would be welcomed and could practice their religion free from the threat of persecution. While Protestants, Catholics and Jewish people were all allowed to practice their religions, only Protestants could vote. Catholics settled in Maryland in 1634, but England claimed the state as a royal colony in 1692 and established Anglicanism as the official religion. Rhode Island was established as a "haven for religious dissidents" by former Puritan Roger Williams, who was forced out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for theological disagreements.

Janet Clark has written professionally since 2001. She writes about education, careers, culture, parenting, gardening and social justice issues. Clark graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in education. She has written two novels, "Blind Faith" and "Under the Influence." Clark has received several awards from the Iowa Press Women for her work.