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The Practice of Religious Tolerance in the Colonies in America

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Although many people came to America seeking religious freedom, it seems as though they were really looking for the freedom to practice their own religion. In reality, almost all of the colonies were chartered to practice religions that they could not practice in Europe. The founders of several colonies preached religious tolerance but in reality were only concerned with practitioners of their own religion and the amount of legal authority they could derive from “God’s will”.

Oftentime, the people preaching the necessity of religious freedom were the same people making and enforcing the laws. Members of what could be called the ruling class weren’t exactly in danger of being burned at the stake but they were fearful of being oppressed like they were in England. William Penn states, “no People can be truly happy…if abridged of the freedom of their consciences, as to their religious and professional worship” (VO4, 47). Penn recognizes the need for religious freedom for a successful and happy society. However, the only people protected by such freedoms were “person or persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God” (VOF, 47). Even in Pennsylvania, considered a model colony for religious freedom, christian-centric religions were the only acceptable ones. Native Americans and many others were conveniently excluded from all such religious protections. Similarly exclusive religious toleration doctrines existed in many other colonies, namely Maryland. The Maryland Act Concerning Religion explains how people “professing to believe in Jesus Christ,” (VOF, 28) shall be free from harassment based on their religious beliefs. Many people came to the new world seeking freedom from the oppression of the Church of England but immediately forgot what it felt like to be oppressed and subsequently became the oppressors.

In addition to advocating for pseudo-religious freedom, the people who settled in the new world used the platform of religious exclusivity to elevate their political authority. As John Winthrop stated, “The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal…in reference to the covenant between God and man…this liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority” (VOF, 31). Winthrop uses a religious appeal to reinforce the idea that it is each citizen’s duty to submit themselves to authority. Many leaders at this time relied on the alliance between church and state to enforce their laws and ensure people behaved ideally. John Winthrop reiterated this belief during the trial of Anne Hutchinson for preaching against Puritan doctrine, “We see not that any should have authority to set up any other exercises besides what authority hath already set up,” (VOF, 36). This type of narrow-minded religious justification allowed the court to expel Hutchinson from Massachusetts. Because these settlers so closely entwined government and religion, there didn’t need to be a violation of civil law to expel her. Her views contradicting Puritan ideals were grounds enough for such legal action. Religious freedom in this time meant the freedom to preach and govern according to Christ-centric teachings and essentially outlawed other religious teachings.

Puritans came to the colonies to establish their idea of societies free to practice their religion but missed the mark quite a bit. In their haste to escape the Church of England they created societies centered on religious tolerance – for their own religions only. Too many leaders were concerned with protecting themselves and their constituents from the oppression they felt in England that they ended up trampling the rights of others – namely Native Americans.

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