"Have To" History - The Thirteen Colonies (Part Two)

Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About... The Original Thirteen Colonies (Part Two): Three Basic Approaches To Religion

Recap of Part One:

1. Covering the colonies in a few short weeks is tricky, but pretty common across state curriculums. How your teacher covers the thirteen colonies and what you’re expected to remember about them will vary widely with what they personally find interesting or important – especially if you live in one of the thirteen original states. 

2. The thirteen colonies are often discussed in three (or four) chunks – New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South (which is sometimes split into Chesapeake and the Lower South). Similarities within each region were partly a function of the circumstances in which they were founded and partly due to the ways in which geography, climate, and the like shaped what was possible (or profitable) in each region.  

3. There were three basic types of charter represented – corporate (or “joint-stock”), proprietary, and royal. Most colonies began with corporate or proprietary charters but were eventually taking over directly by the crown.  

Now that we have the difficult stuff out of the way, let’s grossly oversimplify religion.  

Three Approaches To Religion In The Colonies 

Categorizing how the colonies handled faith is an artificial convenience conceived of after the fact to make history a tiny bit easier for normal people. There weren’t clear distinctions between categories – just varying degrees across time and place. In the broadest possible terms, then, we’ll look at three options: 

The Puritanical Approach – Religious belief and behavior was dictated by religious leadership, who were also often economic and political leaders as well. There was little or no room for “dissenters” and punishments could be severe.  This approach, not surprisingly, was most dominant in New England (minus Rhode Island). 

The Pragmatic Approach – Different religious groups found ways to accommodate one another out of necessity or practicality. Communities developed around shared faith and maintained expectations for behavior and belief within those communities, but they weren’t often quite as rigid. Plus, people had other things to do and didn’t always have the time or inclination to cut off ears or burn holes in anyone’s tongue. They might scowl at you a bit, however. This approach was most easily observed in the Middle colonies (minus Pennsylvania), although it arguably shaped those to the south as well over time.  

The Kumbaya Approach – Most belief systems are welcome as long as they agree to play nicely with one another. Man’s relationship with the Almighty can’t be dictated by statute or improved by punishment. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were the only colonies to really give this a shot early on, although New York moved this direction more quickly than the remaining ten. By the Revolutionary Era, most colonies were somewhere between the Pragmatic and the Kumbaya approach. 

Now that we’ve grossly oversimplified the nature of religious tolerance (or lack thereof) in over three centuries of colonial America, let’s step back even further and overgeneralize about the public role of faith in general across the thirteen colonies over that same period. Because why not? 

As you’ve probably picked up on by now, the concept of “freedom of religion” wasn’t nearly as prominent in colonial times as popular history would have us believe. For many, the idea that an individual could or should simply choose what was true made about as much sense as letting a toddler choose whether or not fire was hot or wolves were friendly. To most Puritans (including the Pilgrims), “freedom” was the ability to break away from the oppressive wrongheadedness of the Old World and set up things the “right” way in the New – as God clearly intended. Catholic or Jewish communities in the Middle colonies, on the other hand, mostly just wanted the “freedom” to establish their own little enclaves and be left alone. 

Of course, many colonists came for reasons unrelated to their religious beliefs – economic opportunity, a fresh start, escaping poverty, political upheaval, or famine. Religion may have played an important role in their lives (socially, personally, or both), but it wasn’t at the top of their agenda when they booked passage.   

Despite the celebrated efforts of a few other individuals, Protestantism was both dominant and demanded in most times and places. Most colonies, whatever their charter, had an established church which was supported by tax dollars. For much of the colonial period, church attendance was required by law and deviations from religious norms could be severely punished by local authorities. Those unwilling to at least recognize the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus and the basics of personal salvation (whether predetermined or chosen) were often driven out of their communities – if they were lucky. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were the only colonies which provided sustained efforts towards true religious tolerance. 

There was no universal public education system, but you could find local efforts supported by tax dollars and reinforcing whichever religious flavor held sway in that colony or community. In the New England colonies, literacy was essential to properly read and understand the Bible and other religious writings, as well as to participate meaningfully in society and politics (which weren’t that different from the church at the time). As you looked further south, education became less and less predictable, often depending primarily on your social status and the whims of your community.

Evolving Circumstances & Shifting Perspectives

Over time, as immigration increased diversity, those belonging to different denominations (as long as they were still Protestant) were sometimes excused from directly supporting the established faith or allowed to direct their funds towards their own religious institutions. After the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s (and especially after its sequel a half-century later), denominational authority began to weaken dramatically. Christianity became more “democratic” and the idea of “free will” gained increased influence in how faith was understood by many. Calvinism and the doctrine of “predestination” provoked plenty of deep theological thinking and spiritual consideration, but a man with the power to change his own destiny (by accepting the grace of God) could go forth and get things done. He could transform his family through his faith. He could impact his community through his actions and his choices. He could help shape the direction of a nation, were he given the opportunity – all while the Calvinists were still debating supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism.

To put it another way, the Old Lights (think Puritans) were educated; the New Lights (think post-Great Awakening Methodists and Baptists) were empowered.  

The whole “all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights” would have made little sense to Calvinist hearts and minds. The whole premise ran counter to most of Christianity’s foundational teachings in the previous two millennia. The Great Awakening gave Christianity a complete makeover and a whole new mission. The children of God were no longer put on this earth to serve the church and merely await the Second Coming in fear and trembling; they were here to get involved and get things done, and if need be, to show everyone else how to get with the program as well. The faith preached by the Great Awakening also distinguished between institutional authority and one’s personal relationship with the Almighty – laying the groundwork for formal separation of “church” and “state.”  

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.  

What You’re Most Likely To Be Asked (for Parts One and Two) 

In terms of the colonies as a whole, anything goes. Expect stories from Jamestown, the Pilgrims (particularly the Mayflower Compact), and anything involving religious conflicts (Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, the Quakers, etc.) Fortunately, it’s still near the beginning of the year and hopefully you’re still pretty focused in class, taking notes and actually doing the reading and trying to figure out what seems most important or interesting to your teacher. As referenced above, the original thirteen colonies covers way more historical ground – literally and historically – than the shorthand suggests.  

That’s probably why standards over this time period tend to be a bit more broadly phrased than for some other segments of American history. Here’s the net cast by Virginia’s History and Social Science Standards of Learning: 

The student will apply social science skills to understand the factors that shaped colonial America by (a) describing the religious and economic events and conditions that led to the colonization of America; (b) describing life in the New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies, with emphasis on how people interacted with their environment to produce goods and services; (c) describing specialization of and interdependence among New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies; (d) describing colonial life in America from the perspectives of large landowners, farmers, artisans, merchants, women, free African Americans, indentured servants, and enslaved African Americans; and (e) explaining the political and economic relationships between the colonies and Great Britain. (US I.5) 

Is that all? No memorizing the names of all their pets or anything? Not surprisingly, APUSH is even more all-encompassing. Here are just a few highlights: 

In the 17th century, early British colonies developed along the Atlantic coast, with regional differences that reflected various environmental, economic, cultural, and demographic factors. (KC-2.1.II) 

The Chesapeake and North Carolina colonies grew prosperous exporting tobacco – a labor-intensive product initially cultivated by white, mostly male indentured servants and later by enslaved Africans. (KC-2.1.II.A) 

The New England colonies, initially settled by Puritans, developed around small towns with family farms and achieved a thriving mixed economy of agriculture and commerce. (KC-2.1.II.B) 

The middle colonies supported a flourishing export economy based on cereal crops and attracted a broad range of European migrants, leading to societies with greater cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity and tolerance. (KC-2.1.II.C) 

The colonies of the southern Atlantic coast and the British West Indies used long growing seasons to develop plantation economies based on exporting staple crops. They depended on the labor of enslaved Africans, who often constituted the majority of the population in these areas and developed their own forms of cultural and religious autonomy. (KC-2.1.II.D) 

Distance and Britain’s initially lax attention led to the colonies creating self-governing institutions that were unusually democratic for the era. The New England colonies based power in participatory town meetings, which in turn elected members to their colonial legislatures; in the southern colonies, elite planters exercised local authority and also dominated the elected assemblies (KC-2.1.II.E) 

Hang in there. Most of this stuff ends up foundational to the American history to follow – so that helps. Also, it gets a bit easier after independence. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) And way less boring. Except for about twenty other things – all of which we’ll cover next.

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