Moments in History: Tolerance and Dissent

by Christian Rivera

How did the religious dissenters who flooded into the northern colonies address the question of religious dissent in their new homes?  It’s interesting to note that as far as the Massachusetts Bay colony was concerned, the very people who were fleeing religious persecution in England were often guilty of committing the act themselves in America.  In England, persecution unified the Puritans; in John Winthrop’s Massachusetts, persecution had splintered them.  The Puritans advocacy of individual Bible study naturally led to differences of opinion among settlers, and therefore, caused Puritan churches to divide—and subdivide—throughout the 17th century.  The Puritans responded with varying degrees of severity directed towards dissenters, ranging from excommunication to (as in the case of four unfortunate Quakers) hanging those who disagreed with mainstream Puritan ideology.  This inevitably caused the founding of new colonies such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, where those had been persecuted in Massachusetts could practice their faith openly. 

On the contrary, Pennsylvania, which was founded by William Penn—a Quaker—was a much more tolerant colony.  Quakers believed that God made his love equally available to all people, and that all people should be treated equally.  This view stood in direct contrast to the views of the Puritans, who believed that only a selected few could enjoy the grace of God.  This belief caused immigrants to flock to Pennsylvania, and caused Pennsylvania to have a harmonious coexistence with indigenous Native Americans.  Quakers in Pennsylvania tolerated a wide variety of protestant sects, and even Roman Catholicism—though it must be acknowledged that despite this high level toleration, even the Quakers—or the Society of Friends, as they were sometimes known—used government to enforce their brand of religious morality.

How the question of dissenters was addressed created very different results between the two colonies.  On one hand in Massachusetts, dissenters were persecuted and driven out of the colony to form new colonies of their own.  In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, diversity was embraced, leading to a very prosperous colony whose capital city of Philadelphia even rivaled New York.  Where intolerance in Massachusetts led to hostilities between settlers and natives, Pennsylvania’s tolerance led to peace, and even opened commerce with natives.

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