Peterborough, nh jan. 2000, pp. 10-13

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(Peterborough, NH)

Jan. 2000, pp. 10-13
Copyright 2000, Cobblestone Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

by Louise Chipley Slavicek

America's first colonists came to the New World in search of religious freedom. Yet all the early colonies--whether settled by the French, Spanish, Dutch, or English--set up established or state-supported churches patterned after the government-run churches of Europe. Many of the first settlers came from countries where church and government had long been connected, and they had not been free to choose a religion.
Things did not seem much different for them in America at first. The original colonial governments required all residents to support a specific church, regardless of individual religious beliefs. In Virginia (the first permanent English settlement in America), for example, all households were taxed to support the Anglican Church--just as in England. Several other southern colonies also named the Anglican Church as their state church.
Most of the New England colonists, however, did not want to re-create England's official church in their new homeland. These were the Puritans. They accused the Anglicans of putting too much stress on ritual aspects and not enough on Biblical teachings. In the New World, the Puritans hoped to worship without Anglican interference. Yet, although they sought religious freedom for themselves in America, they did not extend that freedom to others. Consequently, every New Englander was compelled by law to support and attend the local Puritan (also called Congregational) church. Any religious DISSENT was prohibited. Catholics and non-Puritan Protestants, such as Quakers, sometimes were fined, imprisoned, whipped, or BANISHED by government officials. Those rejecting Puritanism, warned one Puritan leader, "shall have free liberty to keep away from us, gone as fast as they can."
In 1635, Massachusetts's Puritan rulers banished a minister named Roger Williams for daring to criticize the colony's close bond between church and government. Soon after, Williams founded Rhode Island, the first American colony to guarantee separation of church and state. He unconditionally supported religious liberty for all. The colony quickly attracted Catholics, Jews, Baptists, and others fleeing PERSECUTION elsewhere in America and in Europe.
About fifty years later, Englishman William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania as a refuge for his fellow Quakers. Quakers had been persecuted violently in both England and America. They emphasized pacifism (peacefulness) and the equality of all people before God. Like Williams, Penn established complete religious freedom in his colony. By the late 1700s, Pennsylvania had become home to more than four hundred different religious groups--the most religiously diverse colony in the New World.
By showing that people of many religions could live together peacefully, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island helped promote an acceptance of religious diversity among Americans. And along with this tolerance came an important change in the Colonial population.
From about 1700 on, America's population began to become more diverse. People from many different countries and faiths flocked to the New World. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, nine of the original thirteen Colonies still had state-run churches: the Anglican Church in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and New York and the Congregational Church in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. But in almost all these colonies, dissenters now outnumbered members of established churches! No one religious group remained large enough to control every other group. Even the once-powerful Massachusetts Puritans were forced to make important CONCESSIONS to dissenters. They began to permit Baptists and other non-Puritans to use income from taxes to support their own churches. Local governments throughout the Colonies were finding it increasingly difficult to enforce belief in one religion.
Thus, the pattern of religious persecution slowly was being replaced by religious freedom. The way was paved for the Bill of Rights, with its guarantee of full religious liberty for all Americans.
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DISSENT is a difference of opinion, or a disagreement.
BANISHED means forced by official orders to leave a place.
PERSECUTION is the act of being harassed or punished for one's beliefs, race, or religion.
CONCESSIONS are acknowledgments that certain points are true or just.
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The Separatists, or Pilgrims, were the first to leave England in pursuit of religious freedom. This painting* portrays an idealized version of the first Thanksgiving.
Roger Williams was forced to leave Massachusetts (and his family) rather quickly in 1636. Government officials threatened to arrest him and ship him back to England because he refused to stop discussions of freedom of religion.
John Winthrop served as governor of Massachusetts and was one of the most famous Puritan leaders. He was governor when both Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banned from the colony for their religious beliefs.
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Louise Chipley Slavicek received her master's degree in history from the University of Connecticut. She has written more than twenty articles on historical subjects.
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*Picture referred to in this article is not available in this format but can be found in the original publication.

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