Puritan is one answer -- but only one -- to the question of religion for Massachusetts in the 1600s. The Puritans who founded Boston went down in history for strict laws about keeping the Sabbath, the scarlet letter for adultery and the Salem witch trials that closed out the 17th century. The image of Puritan Massachusetts persists, but it’s not entirely accurate. Apart from the fact that the native population had its own beliefs, the early British colonists who settled in Massachusetts weren’t all Puritans.
Separatists and Puritans
Plymouth’s Pilgrims weren’t Puritans, although they shared some beliefs. The Plymouth colonists settled on the coast to the south in 1620, 10 years before Puritans founded Boston in 1630. For most of the 17th century, the Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay colonies were separate entities, both occupying land that eventually became the state of Massachusetts. Plymouth’s religious leaders were Separatists, an outlawed sect that favored breaking away from the Church of England entirely. The Puritans wanted to purify and reform the Church of England.
Both colonies enacted strict laws on keeping the Sabbath and neither observed Christmas as a holiday. Both Massachusetts colonies required attendance at Sunday services, and both treated marriage as a civil rite, not a church sacrament. Author Stephen Innes says in “Creating the Commonwealth” that restrictions on holidays created a calendar with more than 300 working days. Massachusetts colonists in the 17th century didn’t observe religious holidays like Christmas and Easter -- but did recognize election day and the day of the Harvard commencement as days of rest, along with Sundays.
The Puritans in Massachusetts Bay and the Separatists in Plymouth didn’t tolerate dissenters. Quakers and Baptists both fell in that category. Plymouth whipped and expelled Quakers instead of executing them, as Massachusetts did. One dissenter, former Puritan leader Roger Williams, went on to found Rhode Island after Massachusetts expelled him in 1636 for preaching in favor of tolerating other religions. Both colonies feared and banned witchcraft, and Massachusetts held celebrated witch trials in Salem at the end of the 1600s.
Native Americans occupied Massachusetts long before British colonists arrived, and each group held its own beliefs, but colonists pushed to convert their neighbors to Christianity. The colonists moved the so-called “Praying Indians” into separate towns, authorized by the Massachusetts government, once they converted. Minister John Eliot, who arrived in Boston in 1631, started more than a dozen Praying Indian towns and translated the Bible into Algonquin. A printer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published the “Eliot Bible” in 1663.
- Pilgrim Hall Museum; Pilgrim and Puritan: A Delicate Distinction; Richard Howland Maxwell; March 2003
- “Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England”; Stephen Innes; 1995
- Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century, Part 1
- Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century, Part 2
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress: First Complete Bible Published in America
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images