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The settling of Massachusetts

America was built in the smoke from the great fire of the Protestant Reformation. A German priest named Martin Luther (1517) broke with the Roman Catholic Church, which had ruled most of Christianity since the late Roman Empire . Luther said that individuals had to have a personal relationship with God and the Bible; priests and popes couldn't tell them what to think or sell them a ticket to heaven. John Calvin, another reformer, went further. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), Calvin said God had already chosen who would go to heaven and who would burn in hell; this theory was the predestination of the elect. God knew everything, and no amount of good works would change his mind.

Conveniently for English religious debaters, King Henry VIII (1533) had just kicked the Catholic church out of England over his multiple-marriage issue. As England scrambled to piece together its own church, religious beliefs were up for grabs. This confusion drove both radical Protestants (who didn't think the English church was changing fast enough) and out-of-favor Catholics (who felt it was changing too fast) to the New World for spiritual breathing room.

The Pilgrims and Plymouth

First out the door were the most radical Protestants, a small group of Separatists who wanted to separate completely from the new Church of England. They first went to Holland, where they stayed for 12 years. Although the Dutch were tolerant of the group's religious rights, the Pilgrims feared that their children were becoming more Dutch than English. After a short stop back in England to gather supplies, 50 Pilgrims and 52 other settlers sailed for Virginia on a small boat called the Mayflower.

After two months, the Mayflower landed 700 miles north of their intended destination, on a peninsula now called Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. Before they even got off the ship, the settlers signed the Mayflower Compact (1620), agreeing to make decisions by the will of the majority. From this simple agreement and the open town meetings that followed came a feeling for participatory democracy that now has a history of almost 400 years in the United States.

The Pilgrims had great leaders: a non-Separatist soldier named Myles Standish (also called Captain Shrimp because he was short) and William Bradford, an eloquent self-taught scholar who could read five languages. More than half of the Pilgrims died the first winter, so when they brought in a good harvest the next year, they really did have a happy Thanksgiving. The Plymouth colony never had more than a few thousand people; later, it merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony a few miles to the north.

The Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630), which would become Boston, was settled by Puritans who believed they had to purify, but not actually leave, the Church of England. They came to America to escape political repression, a bad economy, and restrictions on their religion. They got off to a strong start with almost 1,000 well-equipped settlers arriving on 11 boats. They also had an excellent leader in John Winthrop, who served for 19 years. Around 20,000 more settlers arrived during the first 12 years of the colony's existence, although twice as many headed south for the warm breezes and easy sugar living of Barbados.


Question: Were the Puritans Separatists?

Answer: No. They wanted to purify the Church of England from within.

The Bay Colony near Boston offered freedom but not easy living. All men who belonged to the Puritan church could vote, which meant about two out of five people — a much higher percentage of voter participation than any place else at the time — could vote. The catch was that, to be in the church, you had to have had a conversion experience that identified you as one of the visible saints, one of those whom God had to picked to go to heaven. Prospective church members had to explain to an interview panel how they knew God had chosen them (without sounding prideful, of course).


Question: Why did the Puritans leave England?

Answer: They left to escape political repression, recession, and religious restrictions.

In the early days of Puritan orthodoxy, the freethinking Anne Hutchinson (1638) challenged the religious authority of the leaders of the Bay Colony. She believed she had a direct revelation from God that, if predestination were true, everybody had a duty to follow his or her own conscience. Leaders banished her from the colony, and she happily left with her whole family.

Roger Williams (1635) was another purifying spirit. He said the Congregationalists (a more modern name for the church that started with the Puritans) should make a complete break from the corrupt Church of England, treat the American Indians fairly, and not try to legislate religious behavior. Hounded out of Massachusetts, he helped found the colony of Rhode Island to protect freedom of thought and expression.


Question: Why did Anne Hutchinson get in trouble with the leaders of the Bay Colony?

Answer: She challenged their religious authority.

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