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Massachusetts Bay Colony

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Massachusetts Bay Colony

Faced with religious persecution at home, the Puritans looked further afield for their desired freedom. Undertaking a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic, they established the Massachusetts Bay colony. How did the colony fare in this new land? And were they able to stick to their Puritan ideals? This article will be your introduction to the Massachusetts Bay Colony!

Massachusetts Bay Colony Religion

Protestantism was a religious movement that split Europe. Protestants broke away from the traditional authority of the Catholic Church. Henry VIII moved to Protestantism after the Pope denied his divorce. English Protestants still kept some forms of Catholic worship like rituals and ceremonies in Church.

Sculpture of The Puritan, 1887, Springfield, Massachusetts. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Puritans were English Protestants who wanted stricter worship in England. They criticized the leftover Catholic elements in the Church of England, like rituals and ceremonies in Church. They wanted to "purify" the Church of England and return to a more straightforward form of worship as the Bible had instructed. Puritans wanted harsher punishments for religious sins like cursing God, adultery, and working on Sundays. Their criticisms led to religious persecution in England. Wanting to escape this persecution, Puritans founded a colony in Massachusetts Bay.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Map

Let's take a look at the Massachusetts Bay Map.

Map of New England Colonies Map of Massachusetts Bay Colony and New England area. StudySmarter Originals.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Founded

Wealthy Puritans like John Winthrop were given royal approval, or a charter, to colonize America by King Charles I. The charter allowed Puritans to self-govern as a colony yet remain tied to England. Winthrop became the first governor of Massachusetts Bay.

What was John Winthrop's vision for Massachusetts Bay? This sermon demonstrates his strong religious determination:

"We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

-John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill,” 1630 1

Winthrop envisioned the colony as a "city upon a hill," a city that would live strictly according to God's will. Winthrop quoted Jesus, who in the Bible said:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

- Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, King James Bible2

Puritans wanted to create a pure religious community free from the compromises of European rulers.

Did you know?

Massachusetts was named after the Native American tribe of the same name. It means "near the great hill."

Massachusetts Bay Colony Founded Education

In 1647 Massachusetts passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, arguing that Satan kept children illiterate to stop reading the Bible. The Act was the first attempt to establish a public school system. Any town with fifty or more residents had to hire a teacher to instruct the town’s children. While other colonies put education in the hands of parents, the Massachusetts Bay colony began a public education system.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Founded Economy

Like other early settlements, Massachusetts Bay's economy, in the beginning, relied on agriculture. But by the 1640s, the colony had diversified into trading, fishing, lumber, fur trading, and shipbuilding.

With the rise of the shipbuilding industry, a wealthy merchant class began to emerge. The creation of the merchant class would significantly alter the landscape of the colony. They would build homes, harbors, and new businesses with their wealth. Eventually, the majority of the Massachusetts economy would be well known for maritime commerce.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Government

The Puritans desired Massachusetts Bay to be an uncorrupted and religious society. Religious harmony was the primary concern in the early stages of building a settlement.

John Winthrop was elected the colony's first governor. Instead of allowing only those with property to vote, the colony based voting and government positions on church membership. A “General Court” was elected as an assembly by the men in the colony. Each town elected two representatives to discuss tax matters at the General Court.

Portrait of John Winthrop, unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Religious Divides

The Puritans' strict teachings did not give space for dissenting religious opinions, and several colonists eventually broke away from the colony. They would go on to found new settlements in the New England area.

One dissenter was John Davenport. Davenport was a Puritan minister who fled England for Holland. He joined the Massachusetts colony, having heard of the religious community. However, he was disappointed by the settlement, believing it did not go far enough. In 1638 he left Massachusetts and founded a new colony in New Haven.

Engraving of John Davenport by L.S. Anderson c.1855. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Another critic was Roger Williams, who would become famous when Thomas Jefferson took up his idea of separating religion from the government. He criticized the Massachusetts Bay colony for the lack of religious tolerance and their harsh treatment of Indigenous Americans. He was banished and went on to found Providence in Rhode Island.

Religious dissent fuelled the expansion of the New England colonies.

Why were Puritans in the colony unable to unite as one religious community?

The origins of Protestantism give us a helpful clue. Protestantism emerged as an alternative to Catholicism, which has a hierarchy with the pope and his cardinals at the top. For Protestants, the "priesthood of all believers" doctrine argued that everyone had a direct connection to God, not just priests. This doctrine opened the floodgates for personal interpretation of the Bible and led to many different branches of Protestantism.

This privileging of personal interpretation had unintended consequences. It meant that the power to interpret the Bible was in the hands of anyone who wished for it. It gave rise to different and unique interpretations of God's will. The Massachusetts Bay colony suffered from these internal divisions.


Massachusetts Bay Colony Conflicts

The Puritans faced several conflicts within and outside of the colony. The most pressing was over Indigenous American land, but political wrath from Britain also put the colony in danger. Another difficulty the colony faced was the witch-hunt craze spread from Europe to America, most famously in the Salem witch trials.

Massachusetts Bay Colony The Pequot War (1636-7)

The Pequot indigenous tribe had dominated other tribes in the New England area to control the beneficial fur trade. Indigenous tribes subordinate to the Pequot immediately sought alliances with the settlers to change this power imbalance.

Most colonists came into contact with Indigenous Americans upon their arrival in the New World. Some colonies maintained shaky alliances while others forcibly took their lands. The Massachusetts Bay Colony proved to be one of the latter.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Seal

Massachusetts Bay Colony Seal. Itl portrays a Native American saying,

"Come Over and Help Us." Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The spark that ultimately triggered the Pequot War occurred was the deaths of two Englishmen. Massachusetts Bay sent ninety soldiers to the Pequot territory, burning down villages. In response, the Pequot attacked warehouses and destroyed provisions. The war lasted almost an entire year, with victories mostly on the Pequot side. However, the Pequot lost most of their fighting men, and the tribe was forced to surrender.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Salem Witch Trials 1692

Like all Christians, Puritans believed in the Devil and his power to spread evil. Witchcraft was closely associated with the Devil and was quickly used to condemn anyone deemed "evil." Both men and women could be accused of witchcraft. However, women were seen as the weaker sex and considered more susceptible to the Devil. Accusations required little proof, and panic and fear spread like wildfire. The Salem witch trials saw hundreds of people condemned and nineteen people executed.

Massachusetts Bay Colony The Downfall of Oliver Cromwell

In 1640 a civil war broke out in England. The monarch Charles I was executed for his indulgence and religious laxity. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, replaced him as the head of England. However, when Cromwell died, the monarchy was restored, Cromwell was branded as a king-killer, and his reputation was destroyed.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When Charles II was restored to the throne, he persecuted Puritans and forbade their worship. Puritans lost their power in Parliament, and many went to prison. This wrath extended to Massachusetts Bay. The royal charter that the colony was founded on was revoked. In 1689, with new monarchs on the throne, a new charter was allowed. This charter took power away from the Puritans by imposing its laws. Voting now required not Puritan church membership but property ownership, similar to Virginia's.

Massachusetts Bay Colony - Key takeaways

  • Puritans believed in “purifying” the Church of England and had strict religious values that dictated their lives.
  • Religious freedom was the primary reason for settling in New England.
  • John Winthrop was the colony's first governor. He wanted the colony to be "a city on the hill", a holy city that God would approve of.
  • The colony was founded through a charter issued by King Charles I. This charter was later revoked when Oliver Cromwell executed Charles I.

1 - Edmund Clarence Stedman and Ellen Mackay Hutchinson, A Library of American Literature: Early Colonial Literature, 1607-1675 (1892)

2 - The Bible: King James Version (Matthew 5-7).

Frequently Asked Questions about Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was one of the original settlements in America. The colony was settled by Puritans who brought strict religious values. The established government was a theocratic commonwealth.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was known for its strong maritime industry.

Massachusetts Bay Colony was a charter colony set up as a religious-based government.

The major issues in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the Pequot War of 1636-1637, the English Civil War, and the Salem witch trials.


Final Massachusetts Bay Colony Quiz

Question

Who was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? 

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Answer

John Winthrop 

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Question

An English Protestant who disagreed with the Reformation of the Church of England is known as a?

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Answer

Puritan

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Question

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed by a charter granted by who? 

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Answer

King James I

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Question

The war that the Massachusetts Bay Colony and local Native Americans were involved in. 


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Answer

The Pequot War 

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Question

The religious idea that states only some will be allowed into heaven 


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Answer

Predestination 

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Question

The Old Deluder Satan Act established what critical system in the Massachusetts Bay Colony? 


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Answer

Religious Education

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Question

What were the reasons for Puritans to settle in Massachusetts Bay?


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Answer

Religious Freedom

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Question

Religious Dissenters left Massachusetts Bay to expand and settle different areas. List two of the religious dissenters and the colonies that they founded.


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Answer

Roger Williams- Rhode Island 

Thomas Hooker- Hartford, Connecticut 

Anne Hutchison-Portsmouth 

John Davenport- New Haven, Connecticut

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Question

The Puritans followed the religious teachings of what theologian?


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Answer

John Calvin

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Question

The elected board in Massachusetts that voted and acted on decisions in the best interest of the community. 


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Answer

The General Court 

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