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Religious Tolerance In Colonial America

Info: 1284 words (5 pages) Essay
Published: 25th Apr 2017 in History

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To what extent and why did religious toleration increase in the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries? answer with reference to 3 individuals, events, or movements in colonial hist. during the 17th and 18th centuries­.

Walking to the gallows, William Leddra knew that his death was not going to be neither quick nor painless. After spending the entire winter chained to a log in a lonely prison cell, the only hope he had may have been his slight feeling of relief in believing that his continued loyalty, even during his suffering, would be gloriously reward in his next life. This devout Quaker was offered the chance to recant and join one of the Congregationalist churches or leave Massachusetts, yet he refused. Thus, on March 14th, 1661, William Leddra was put to death for heresy and ignoring his banishment from the state.

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Even though the Puritan and Separatists migrated to America in search of religious freedom, their tolerance for other religions was very low. The communities set up under Puritanism were told by their governor, John Winthrop that they needed to be a “city upon a hill”. This means that Massachusetts must set an example and show how a town should be managed. Winthrop passed a law ordering that all the people living in Massachusetts must attend religious conferences. Those who did not could be whipped, chastised, banished, imprisonment, and sometimes execution. Charles II was restored as the king of England and in agreement under his word; the British government would force the puritan commonwealth to adopt a new policy of religious tolerance. Even though, it was no longer legal by England to execute people due to their religion, minorities would have nearly no possible chance in holding any leadership positions unless they were within a private environment holding the same beliefs. The new idea was that minority religions were to be treated as a plague and that its followers were to be quarantined in the hopes that eventually they would disappear. The puritan settlers that wanted to escape the religious persecution in England had become just as if not more intolerant of religious diversity. However, as more people with varying cultures came to the colonies, the Puritan persecution was no longer practical. Also, when communities became overpopulated, the ones who moved away from the church sometimes lost their bond with religion. To many people, all seeking their own individual freedoms were immigrating turning the New World into a melting pot of cultures. In the late 17th and 18th century, religious toleration in the American colonies increased steadily due to several factors such as the ideas expressed and practiced by religiously tolerant communities, economic necessities, and The Great Awakening.

Roger Williams and William Penn are considered to be two of the most influential advocates for individual freedoms in colonial America. Roger Williams came to the Massachusetts Bay colony as a puritan with differing beliefs than his other townsmen. He believed that there should be a complete separation of church and state. Due to these beliefs, he was exiled out of the colony to an area where he founded Rhode Island. In his newly founded colony, he promoted his ideas of religious toleration. Roger William’s ideas were similar to William Penn’s in that Penn decided that a settlement which offered religious freedom, fair trials and free elections would be more successful than the colonies that persecuted and oppressed. At the time, this idea would be considered extremist and unthinkable. In 1666, Penn joined the Society of Friends and became a large contributor in establishing a colony for those who wished to escape discrimination. Penn came from a recognizable background which took notice to Charles II. Since Charles knew of the family background and was himself religiously tolerant, he granted Penn an area of land that would later be named Pennsylvania. Penn acknowledged that the Native Americans who resided on that land were the proper owners, so rather than take the land by force like most other colonizers he gained their respect by paying for it. Just from the start, the new settlers were already more successful than other colonies because by initially treating the natives as equals, they opened up friendly room for trade and communications. This free system of government attracted people from all over. Not only the English moved to the area but others such as Germans, Hyugonouts , Welsh, and the Irish. Over 30,000 people were influenced by the system of democracy in Pennsylvania.

Life in England was not as promising as life in the new world. An American worker would be more successful than an English worker. This is because the New World had a variety of natural resources that England did not have. With so many people yearning to earn themselves a better living, they left Europe and headed west towards America. Chartered companies emerged and traveled in search of new opportunities for wealth. In 1609, the Dutch West India Company discovered the area which is now known as New York. It was led by Captain Henry Hudson, who named the river after his name. Dutch West India Company became a prominent source of trade. It originated in the Netherlands where it developed as a national industry for goods. Unlike most nations, where all the money went to the King, the Dutch West India Company was a corporation that sought to spread the wealth through share holders in the middle class. The area they discovered happened to be one of the best fur trading regions in North America. Eventually, the success they made selling fur as well as tobacco attracted attention from England who saw them as a direct competitor. This resulted in a conflict that resolved with the British in control of the area. The British had to learn cultural and religious tolerance for the sake of peaceful trade to be able to transition them into a steady power since there were so many Dutch settlers still in the area.

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At the turn into the 18th century, religion had begun to loosen in the colonies. This was partly because the settlers were more interested in their personal economic endeavors rather than their religious practices. As new preachers entered the colonies from Europe, they brought with them new messages. These messages were not for the weary as they were harsh and provided the common man with much guilt. The preachers however, inspired the people through emotion and faith. They put a lot of energy into their sermons which brought people to listen because humans are naturally drawn to what makes them feel emotions stronger. This era is known as the Great Awakening. For instance, In 1739, George Whitefield, who was an Anglican priest, joined the Great Awakening movement. He wanted to unify all the branches of Christianity so that they could have a common goal. Whitefield attracted thousands of listeners to his sermons where he made them realize that they should not turn away from religion in attempt to get materialistic wealth.

The teachings and practices provided by William Penn, The Rhode Island colony, and events such as the Great Awakening allowed religious tolerance during the 17th and 18th centuries to extend far more than previous times. Even though religious pluralism was not instantly adopted by every culture, many cultures such as the Quakers were motivated to improve society by separating religious affairs from civil ones. The concepts of fair trials, freedom of religion, and democratically elected officials are some of the key values that hold true even in American society today.


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