Thomas Morton was a bit of a scoundrel and free-wheeling character who came to America from England in 1624 on board the Unity. He was “a well-educated, well-connected, free-thinking Englishman,” according to the New England Historical Society. Others accompanying him were Captain Richard Wollaston and thirty indentured servants.
Morton and the others settled in the Puritans’ colony and began the business of trading with Native Americans. But Morton and Wollaston had little in common with the Puritans, so they established a neighboring colony at a site that is now Quincy, Massachusetts. In observations of his new home, Morton wrote that he “found two sorts of people in New England: the Christians and the Infidels [Indians]. The Infidels he found ‘most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other.’
In 1626, Morton and Wollaston parted company (to put it politely). Wollaston was selling indentured servants to Virginian plantation slave owners. The rest of the indentured servants rebelled and Morton threatened to have Wollaston arrested. With Morton overseeing, the settlers once again set up another colony called Marymount.
On May 1, 1627, a traditional day for English celebrations, Morton planned “a pagan MayDay party to help woo Indian wives for his young bachelors.” (Pagans believe in numerous gods and goddesses and religious freedom.) He wrote that there would be “Revels and merriment after the old English custome” and the colonists “prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day . . . and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare . . . to be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day,”
Needless to say with all the “good cheare,” the partying colonists and Indians became boisterous. They drank and danced around the Maypole for days. All of the raucousness infuriated the Puritans, who quickly took action. They sent in troops to “capture” Morton and company who did not resist. He was jailed, tried, and exiled, making his way back to England with the help of his Indian friends. In England, he wrote and published numerous satirical materials disparaging the dour lives of Puritans.
Massachusetts colonies were not alone in their religious intolerance. Except for Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, all of the original thirteen colonies set up state churches. For many settlers, the established church was a way to replicate part of the old world—whether British, Dutch, or other country. Structures (homes and other buildings) and institutions reminded colonists of their homelands. Whatever the established church, it also protected the interests of the majority, while oppressing those dissenters who might disrupt the social order.
As an increasing number of settlers with varying backgrounds arrived in North America, conditions slowly changed. For one thing, many more people who opposed the idea of an established church populated the land. Some settled in the colony of Maryland, which was founded by Cecilius Calvert (1605-1675), a Roman Catholic. Calvert named the colony in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I and also a Catholic.
Although Calvert remained in England, he and his family developed profitable business ventures in the Maryland colony. In addition, they encouraged Catholics, who had long been persecuted in England, to seek refuge in the North American colony. English Catholics were required to attend religious services of the state church, which conflicted with their beliefs. The Maryland colony also became a haven for North American Catholics who sought religious liberty.
The Maryland legislature passed the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, which allowed Catholics as well as some Protestant groups the freedom to worship as they chose. However, Unitarians, Jews, and others who denied the doctrine of the Trinity (God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) or that Jesus was the son of God could be arrested and executed for renunciations of Christian beliefs.
Although the Maryland colony was considered a tolerant community for its time, tolerance by definition (and usually in practice) means to put up with or endure. Tolerance assumes an attitude of superiority. The dominant person or group tolerates others as long as the “lesser” persons do not have equal status. Thus religious tolerance and religious freedom, literally speaking, are not synonymous.
Some settlements established during the colonial period went beyond mere tolerance to grant broader religious liberties, thanks to efforts of leaders like Roger Williams (1603-1683) and William Penn (1644-1718). Both believed strongly in freedom of individual conscience and thought government should stay out of religious matters.
When Roger Williams disagreed with the Puritan leaders in Massachusetts and spoke out for freedom of individual conscience, he was banished from the colony. That did not deter him, however. In 1636, he bought a tract of land from a Native American tribe that lived along the Narragansett Bay. He began a settlement that he named Providence, which later became part of the state of Rhode Island.
William’s settlement was a refuge for Jews, Quakers, and others who sought freedom of conscience and the separation of religion and government.
William Penn also was adamant about the right of every person to worship as he or she saw fit. Penn originally belonged to the Church of England, but in his early twenties he left the established church to become a member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, as they became known. Like other Quakers, Penn believed that God spoke to people through their conscience, and that people should not be forced to fight wars, pledge allegiance to a government, or show deference to royalty. Such respect, Quakers believed, belonged only to God.
Because they openly professed beliefs that seemed to threaten established authority, the Quakers were publicly whipped and often jailed. Penn, too, was jailed, but he continued to speak out for religious freedom and planned to launch a North American colony in which no government would be allowed to rule over an individual’s conscience. That colony of Pennsylvania eventually became the home of many diverse groups, including Anabaptists (now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch or Plain People) as well as people who professed no religious affiliation.
As religious leaders in the thirteen colonies attempted to maintain communities allowing religious liberty, they also argued that the colonies should be able to make their own laws and run their own government, free of English rule. Without civil liberties, religious freedom was not possible, they contended. Their advocacy for independence foreshadowed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.