The Voices of Colonial Religion


Religion in the early colonies shows that the preachers in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries held great power over their congregations that limited their freedoms. In each community, the church stood as the reflection of its people. Many of these established churches were formed by a variety of religions like Puritans, Anglican, Catholic, Protestant, and Quaker leaders.  While a variety of churches existed, each created laws that forbid any contact with people from other religions. Because the laws were strict, it often helped in influencing how newer colonies used religion. Baym wrote, “The eighteenth-century saw enormous changes-economic, social, philosophical, and scientific-that inevitably affected the influence and authority of clergymen” (p. 365).  The shift saw sermons demonstrate a mix of fearful and forward-thinking preachers aimed at either scaring or advancing their churches politically and socially.  By analyzing religious literature from colonial America, it will show that religious leaders used their sermons to influence congregations to promote their church’s needs over those of the colonists.

Early religious literature from Puritan Separatists shows that as early as the 17th- century, a shift existed in religious beliefs that created a division between communities. The Puritans believed that they were fleeing Europe because of religious persecution, yet they formed colonies that used religion in the same manner as in what they fled.  John Bradford (1952), a Puritan Separatist, wrote of this split in Of Plymouth Plantation, “The one side laboured to have the right to worship and Discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men’s interventions” (6).  However, what Bradford does not represent is that his colony also forbid community members from expressing any form of disagreement with what their church said.  Roger Williams, a member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was persecuted and banished from his colony for daring to speak out against his leaders for believing that a separation of church and a state was necessary as well as religious freedoms were rights colonists were entitled. Williams goes on to establish a colony in Narragansett Bay where he used these beliefs to establish basic rights his citizens.  Since Williams was persecuted, it showed that what the earliest colonists wanted to do had failed because they became the oppressors they believed they had escaped.  Even with persecutions of colonists at the hands of community leaders, still, their power continued into the next century. Bonomi (2003) writes, “Religious observance in the American provinces was often strong, with congregation formation matching population growth and church building proceeding at a vigorous pace throughout the colonial years” (xvii).  From this expansion of religious beliefs came a new and dominant force other than Puritans, and that is the Anglican congregations.   Just as the religious leaders were divided in the 1500s, so were those in the 1600s as well.  One such religious leader, Jonathan Edwards wrote in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1739), “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God” (par. #1).  The fear of God and persecution allowed Edwards to control his congregation by using his sermons as a way to continue Puritan existence.  Fear of banishment was a strong motivation used to control church members, and it is clear by reading the sermons Edwards delivered that he believed he held great power over his colony.  But, it also represents the belief that he felt his control was fading as advances in politics began to take place.  Other religious leaders were beginning to greatly shift religious ideologies to bring about the earlier beliefs like those of Roger Williams by practicing a separation of church in state.  Samuel Sewall, an extremely religious man, used the Bible to define who he was.  It is in his diary that true reflections of his character can be found.  Sewall wrote, In The Diary of Samuel Sewall, about local community issues like crimes, births, deaths, marriages, and daily occurrences in his colony (1973).  He often used the Bible verses to solve moral problems that demonstrate a calm man who listened to those around him. In contrast, his temperament explains why church’s shifted and many denominations existed since many persecuted set out to form new colonies that represented what the old ones they left did not.  His limited involvement with community affairs, as represented in his diary, shows the respect the church had, but it also shows how he took a passive role while allowing citizens the opportunity to judge and pass down sentencing to their peers.  This practice by men like Williams would later influence the political system greatly.

By comparing religious beliefs and practices of early colonial religious leaders, it is clear that leaders shaped and oversaw the communities they established.  Their fear of losing the power to govern as they believed was necessary for keeping others from influencing their colony. Sermons were written to control the followers of some denominations while others were allowing them to practice freedoms yet to be established.





Works Cited

Baym, N. (Ed.). Norton anthology of American literature (7th ed.). New York: Norton. (2007).

Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the cope of heaven: Religion, society, and politics in Colonial America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Rutgers University Press, 1952.

Edwards, Jonathan. Sermons and Discourses. WJE Online.  Vol. 22.  (1739).

Sewall, Samuel. Diary of Samuel Sewall. Vol. 1. Рипол К


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