Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent

September 14, 2017

When the Puritans set up their colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1600s, they sought to create Bible-centered commonwealths, or civil states, to reflect their deeply-held religious beliefs.  In undertaking this goal, they were undoubtedly affected by their experiences in Europe as well as by the model of the ancient Israelites in the Bible, which presented both benefits and challenges for the Puritans in their own time and unique circumstances.  One challenge that the Puritans struggled with was in creating and enforcing religious laws and religious conformity.

The Puritans in America desired religious freedom to worship as they chose and welcomed all who shared their beliefs

The Puritans came to America for the freedom to set up their own church and community according to their own beliefs, rather than be forced to conform to an official church with which they disagreed.  In America, they made their Congregational Church the state church.  To be sure, the Puritans, like their European forbears, initially supported religious conformity in their colonies.  Those who chose to come and live in their colonies had to abide by the same religious views and practices.  Religious conformity was, the Puritans thought, the only way to preserve their faith and to keep the community pure and moral.  It was necessary, they thought, to protect the church from heresy and corruption and to maintain peace.  In this sense, the Puritans did not tolerate different religious sects in their community.  However, Puritans like minister Nathan Ward responded to qualms about intolerance by stating that those with differing beliefs “have free liberty to keep away from us.”  Unlike in Europe, no one was forced to reside in their colonies and conform against one’s will and beliefs.  In this sense, the colony was indeed a free one.

In time, some Puritans with differing religious views emerged in the community and began to vocalize their dissenting opinions and beliefs.  These dissenters had to keep quiet on their views or else leave the community.  The Puritans in Massachusetts banished a number of dissenters including Roger Williams, who later founded the colony of Rhode Island, and Anne Hutchinson, who later moved to Rhode Island.

In their attempt to follow the example of the ancient Israelites, the Puritans directly applied the practices of ancient Israel in their commonwealths.  As such, they adopted Old Testament religious laws for their colony.  This approach led to…

Despite these challenges in their new colonies, the Puritan lifestyle had many benefits.  High moral standards characterized Puritan life.  The church was central to society, and the church hall was centrally located for public worship.  The sermon was the most influential form of communication in New England, and the Bible was the main source of sermons.  Puritan beliefs and lifestyle positively influenced values of family, community, work, law, and reverence for God.  In fact, daily life naturally supported the laws of the colonies.  The Puritans’ morality was so rigorous, says historian Mark Noll in A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, that “almost all Americans since have been forced to react to it in some way.”  The Puritans would make radical Protestantism normal in America and give the future nation of the United States a strong moral rigor.

Though the Puritans struggled with issues of religious law and dissent, many of their Bible-inspired governing principles and civic values proved democratic, effective, and enduring.  The Puritans implemented (as discussed in earlier posts in this Puritan series) the principles of God’s sovereignty, covenants, constitutions, rule of law, popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, representative and limited government, literacy and education, and a strong moral and work ethic.  Such principles would lead to freedom, equality, individual rights, and constitutional republicanism in America.  These ideas and practices would become the Puritans’ valuable legacy.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.


Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
4.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
5.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as Covenant
6.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
7.  The Pilgrims & Private Property:  What the Pilgrims Might Have Thought About Communism & Socialism
8.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
9.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
10.  How the American Puritans Were Like the Bible’s Israelites
11.  Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government (and Why the U. S. has Three Branches of Government)
12.  Why the Puritans in America Favored Rule of Law
13.  Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
14.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy Over Aristocracy


Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 3, Part 3 of 3, Activity 3:  Understanding the Puritans’ Desire for and Practice of Religious Freedom, p. 130.  MS-HS.

Understanding the Puritans’ Desire for and Practice of Religious Freedom… 

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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