3 Colonies That Supported Religious Freedom: Dissidents, Catholics, and Quakers

By Steve Wiegand

The Massachusetts and Jamestown colonies were only the beginning. Throughout the rest of the 17th century, English settlers of all kinds moved to America. Some of those didn’t like where they landed — or the place they landed didn’t like them. But it was a big country, so they began the American tradition of moving on.

Some of the colonies — Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, North and South Carolina — were either privately founded or were offshoots of the Massachusetts and Virginia colonies (see Figure 3-2). But three of them had very different beginnings.

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Sneaking off to Rhode Island

In 1633, a smart and sociable guy named Roger Williams became a minister in Salem, Massachusetts. He also became an expert in Native American languages and was troubled by the way his fellow settlers treated the natives.

His fellow settlers, meanwhile, were troubled by Williams’s insistence that land shouldn’t be taken from the Native Americans unless it had been the subject of valid treaty negotiations, and that there should be a separation between the institutions of church and state. So troubling was this latter idea to the governing Puritan leaders that they decided to ship the troublemaker back to England.

But Williams was tipped off to the plan by John Winthrop, and with the help of friendly Native Americans, Williams and his family slipped off in 1636 to an unsettled area.

By 1644, it had become the colony of Rhode Island. Small and disliked by its neighbors, Rhode Island became a haven for those seeking religious freedom — or those who just plain didn’t like life in the rest of Puritan New England.

“No person in this country shall be molested or questioned for the matters of his conscience to God, so he be loyal and keep the civil peace,” Williams said. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Condoning only Christianity in Maryland

While the Puritans may have had some religious differences among themselves, they did agree on one thing: They didn’t like Roman Catholics. Undaunted, Catholics established a colony north of Virginia in 1634. Called Maryland, it was the result of a grant given by King James I to his former secretary, George Calvert, who had converted to Catholicism.

The colony prospered as a tobacco exporter. But so many Protestants were allowed in that its Catholic founders were threatened with the prospect of being persecuted in their own colony. So they struck a compromise in 1649, which recognized all Christian religions — and decreed the death penalty for Jews and atheists.

Promoting tolerance in Pennsylvania

If Puritans didn’t like Catholics, they really didn’t like Quakers. Quakers (who referred to themselves as “Friends”) were steadfast pacifists who had no paid clergy, refused to use titles or take oaths of allegiance, and were said to “quake” from deep religious emotion.

In 1681, a wealthy Quaker named William Penn got a charter to start a colony in America. He advertised it honestly and exhaustively, attracted a diverse group of settlers, and founded Pennsylvania. Penn treated the Native Americans fairly, set up a relatively liberal system of laws, and made it easy for just about anyone to settle in his colony.

By 1700, Pennsylvania’s leading city, Philadelphia, was, after Boston, the colonies’ leading cultural center.

Penn died in poverty and in social and political disrepute. But more than any other colony, Pennsylvania was truly tolerant of differing religions, cultures, and national backgrounds.