Our Colonial History
and Its Influence on the Constitution

"Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together." (James Madison in a letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822).

Settlement of the Northern Colonies

England’s King James I granted a charter to the Plymouth Council in 1607 to colonize and develop lands in America that extended from the middle of present-day New Jersey northward to Nova Scotia. This territory would become home to people known as Puritans and Pilgrims.

Under Queen Elizabeth I, in an attempt to unify and strengthen the church and improve general morality of the populace, the 1559 Act of Uniformity set the order of prayer in the Book of Common Prayer used in the Church of England. This Act also made it a legal obligation for all citizens to attend services at the official Church of England every Sunday. Punishment was a considerable fine of 12 pence for failure to attend Sunday worship and other holy day services throughout the year.

Between 1585 and 1605 disaffection with the Anglican Church resulted in a separatist movement that sought to return worship to a more simplistic format. Unlike Puritan groups who attempted reform from within the Anglican system and therefore maintained their membership in and allegiance to the Church of England, the Pilgrim separatists held that their differences with the Church of England were irreconcilable. They organized their worship practices independently of the organization of a state-supported church. As a consequence, since they were not in conformity to the Act of Uniformity, they were fined, imprisoned, were vilified and mocked. Seeking peace, security and freedom of worship, in 1606 and 1607 small groups of Pilgrims surreptitiously moved to Amsterdam.

Life in the Netherlands was stressful since the language was difficult to learn and the culture strange. Distraught over the idea of losing their unique identity, after a few years the Pilgrim congregation decided that further measures were necessary if they were to avoid extinction as a separate group. The group considered several options for resettlement, among them were the territory owned by the Dutch government known as the Hudson River area in New Netherlands; and the expanded regions north of the Virginia colony known as “New England” that had been granted to the Plymouth Council.

After negotiations with several financiers, the Pilgrims left the Netherlands on the Speedwell bound for Southampton, England where they met up with a second ship, the Mayflower. The two ships were to travel together to the New World. However, before leaving British waters, the Speedwell was determined to be an unseaworthy vessel and was abandoned. A regrouping of the parties resulted in 121 passengers on the Mayflower, which finally set out on 16 September 1620.

When the Mayflower landed at what is known today as Provincetown Harbor in Massachusetts, the final negotiations between the Plymouth Council for New England and the British government were incomplete. This factor left the Pilgrims technically without any official form of government. Thus, before disembarking the Mayflower a brief compact, later known as the “Mayflower Compact,” was drafted and ratified, thereby establishing an independent colony not directly controlled by any European government. The signers of the compact promised cooperation among the settlers for the general good of the colony, with due submission and obedience to the colony’s leadership.

Later, the Massachusetts Bay Company, organized in 1691, would establish crown colonies at Salem and Boston under the joint monarchy of William and Mary of England and Scotland. These colonies would come to dominate the politics and economy of the New England territories. Plymouth later merged with the Massachusetts Bay Company.

Roger Williams and Religious Liberty

Seeking to establish a "nation of saints" in which they hoped reformed religious practices and moral legislation would purify a society of people, the leadership of the New England colonies ended up institutionalizing what they had fled England to avoid: a persecuting government. In contrast to the harshness of these colonial leaders, Roger Williams, an English theologian who settled in the Salem colony, preached religious toleration, separation of church and state, and a complete break with the Church of England. He also advocated a more congenial fellowship with the Native Americans living in the area. Because of these unorthodox views Williams, in 1636, was banished to die in the wilderness to the west of the Massachusetts colonies.

"Despite reverence for the Bible and antipathy towards 'Popery,' the Puritans had established a type of theocracy akin to that of medieval Roman Catholicism, in which the church ruled in all civil matters, including that of administering capital punishment for violations of a spiritual nature. A relative few Protestants (such as Roger Williams) prior to this period had contended that this was contrary to the pure teachings of the New Testament, in which the Church was separate from the State (see Matthew 22:21)." (Quote from Wikipedia: "Salem Witch Trials").

Roger Williams survived his exile in part because the Indians he had previously befriended in the area helped him. In June of 1636, Williams arrived at the site of the present-day Providence, Rhode Island. Williams secured the land from the Indians to whom it belonged, in distinction to the previous settlers who had just taken the land from the Indians, and formed a settlement there. The next year, others from villages in Massachusetts seeking freedom from tyranny followed Williams to Rhode Island where other settlements were soon established.

Williams's colonial government was unique in its day, being a government expressly providing for religious liberty, and a separation between civil and ecclesiastical authority (church and state). The Biblical principles he employed in his government later became part of the foundation for the United States Constitution.


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