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Puritan New England: Massachusetts Bay

GEO (Theme)
KC‑2.1.II.B (KC)
Unit 2: Learning Objective C
The second, larger Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay was conceived as a "city upon a hill." But it also struggled with internal turmoil—like the Salem Witch Trials—and external conflict, like King Philip's (Metacom's) War. 


  • After the arrival of the original Separatist "pilgrims" in 1620, a second, larger group of English Puritans emigrated to New England.
  • The second wave of English Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the New Haven Colony, and Rhode Island.
  • These Puritans, unlike the Separatists, hoped to serve as a "city upon a hill" that would bring about the reform of Protestantism throughout the English Empire.

“A city upon a hill”

A much larger group of English Puritans left England in the 1630s, establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the New Haven Colony, the Connecticut Colony, and Rhode Island.
Unlike the exodus of young men to the Chesapeake colonies, these migrants were families with young children and their university-trained ministers. Their aim—according to John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay—was to create a model of reformed Protestantism, a “city upon a hill,” a new English Israel.
The idea of a “city upon a hill” made clear the religious orientation of the New England settlement, and the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony stated as a goal that the colony’s people “may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of Country, to the Knowledg and Obedience of the onlie true God and Saulor of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth.” To illustrate this, the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company shows a half-naked Native American who entreats more of the English to “come over and help us.”
The 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On the seal, a Native American dressed in a leaf loincloth and holding a bow is depicted asking colonists to “Come over and help us.”
The 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Like their Spanish and French Catholic rivals, English Puritans in America took steps to convert native peoples to their version of Christianity. John Eliot, the leading Puritan missionary in New England, urged Native Americans in Massachusetts to live in “praying towns” established by English authorities for converted Native Americans and to adopt the Puritan emphasis on the centrality of the Bible. In keeping with the Protestant emphasis on reading scripture, he translated the Bible into the local Algonquian language and published his work in 1663. Eliot hoped that as a result of his efforts, some of New England’s native inhabitants would become preachers.

Religion and culture in Puritan New England

Puritan New England differed in many ways from both England and the rest of Europe. Protestants emphasized literacy so that everyone could read the Bible. This attitude was in stark contrast to that of Catholics, who refused to tolerate private ownership of Bibles in the vernacular language. The Puritans placed a special emphasis on reading scripture, and their commitment to literacy led to the establishment of the first printing press in English America in 1636. Four years later, in 1640, they published the first book in North America, the Bay Psalm Book.
As Calvinists, Puritans adhered to the doctrine of predestination, whereby a few elect would be saved and all others damned. No one could be sure whether they were predestined for salvation, but through introspection, guided by scripture, Puritans hoped to find a glimmer of redemptive grace. Church membership was restricted to those Puritans who were willing to provide a conversion narrative telling how they came to understand their spiritual estate by hearing sermons and studying the Bible.
Like many other Europeans, the Puritans believed in the supernatural. Every event appeared to be a sign of God’s mercy or judgment, and people believed that witches allied themselves with the Devil to carry out evil deeds and deliberate harm such as the sickness or death of children, the loss of cattle, and other catastrophes.
Hundreds were accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England, including townspeople whose habits or appearance bothered their neighbors or who appeared threatening for any reason. Women, seen as more susceptible to the Devil because of their supposedly weaker constitutions, made up the vast majority of suspects and those who were executed.
The most notorious witchcraft cases occurred in Salem Village in 1692. Many of the accusers who prosecuted the suspected witches had been traumatized by the Indian wars on the frontier and by unprecedented political and cultural changes in New England. Relying on their belief in witchcraft to help make sense of their changing world, Puritan authorities executed 19 people and caused the deaths of several others.
1876 engraving depicting the events of the Salem Witch Trials. The engraving shows a young woman writhing on the floor of a court room while shocked townspeople stare. Another woman raises a hand to testify in front of two judges.
1876 engraving depicting the events of the Salem Witch Trials. William A. Crafts, Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849. Boston: Published by Samuel Walker and Company. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Religious intolerance in Massachusetts Bay

Although many people assume Puritans escaped England to establish religious freedom, they proved to be just as intolerant as the English state church. When dissenters, including Puritan minister Roger Williams and midwife Anne Hutchinson, challenged Governor Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, they both were banished from the colony.
Roger Williams questioned the Puritans’ theft of Native American land. Williams also argued for a complete separation from the Church of England, a position other Puritans in Massachusetts rejected, as well as the idea that the state could not punish individuals for their beliefs. Although he did accept that nonbelievers were destined for eternal damnation, Williams did not think the state could compel true orthodoxy.
Puritan authorities found Williams guilty of spreading dangerous ideas, but he went on to found Rhode Island as a colony that sheltered dissenting Puritans from their brethren in Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, Williams wrote favorably about native peoples, contrasting their virtues with Puritan New England’s intolerance.
Anne Hutchinson also ran afoul of Puritan authorities for her criticism of the evolving religious practices in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In particular, she held that Puritan ministers in New England taught a shallow version of Protestantism emphasizing hierarchy and actions—a “covenant of works” rather than a “covenant of grace.” Literate Puritan women like Hutchinson presented a challenge to the male ministers’ authority. Indeed, her major offense was her claim of direct religious revelation (that she spoke directly with God), a type of spiritual experience that negated the role of ministers.
Because of Hutchinson’s beliefs and her defiance of authority in the colony, especially that of Governor Winthrop, Puritan authorities tried and convicted her of holding false beliefs. In 1638, she was excommunicated and banished from the colony. She went to Rhode Island and later, in 1642, sought safety among the Dutch in New Netherland. The following year, Algonquians killed Hutchinson and her family. In Massachusetts, Governor Winthrop noted her death as the righteous judgment of God against a heretic.

Puritan relationships with native peoples

Tensions had existed from the beginning between the Puritans and the native peoples who controlled southern New England. Relationships deteriorated as the Puritans continued to expand their settlements aggressively and as European ways increasingly disrupted native life. These strains led to King Philip’s War—from 1675 to 1676—a massive regional conflict that was nearly successful in pushing the English out of New England.
This is a map of New England indicating the domains of New England’s native inhabitants—including the Pequot, Narragansett, Mohegan, and Wampanoag—in 1670.
This map indicates the domains of New England’s native inhabitants in 1670, a few years before King Philip’s War. Image credit: "English Settlements in America" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
When the Puritans began to arrive in the 1620s and 1630s, local Algonquian peoples viewed them as potential allies in the conflicts already simmering between rival native groups. In 1621, the Wampanoag, led by Massasoit, concluded a peace treaty with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. In the 1630s, the Puritans in Massachusetts and Plymouth allied themselves with the Narragansett and Mohegan people against the Pequot, who had recently expanded their claims into southern New England. In May 1637, the Puritans attacked a large group of several hundred Pequot along the Mystic River in Connecticut. To the horror of their Native American allies, the Puritans massacred all but a handful of the men, women, and children they found.
By the mid-17th century, the Puritans had pushed their way farther into the interior of New England, establishing outposts along the Connecticut River Valley. There seemed no end to their expansion. Wampanoag leader Metacom or Metacomet, also known as King Philip among the English, was determined to stop the encroachment. The Wampanoag—along with the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett—went to war to drive the English from the land.
In the ensuing conflict, called King Philip’s War, native forces succeeded in destroying half of the frontier Puritan towns; however, in the end, the English—aided by Mohegans and Christian Native Americans—prevailed and sold many captives into slavery in the West Indies. The severed head of King Philip was publicly displayed in Plymouth. The war also forever changed the English perception of native peoples; after King Philip's War, Puritan writers took great pains to vilify Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages. A new type of racial hatred became a defining feature of Native American-English relationships in the Northeast.

What do you think?

State in your own words what John Winthrop meant by the idea of a "city upon a hill." Do you think Winthrop would have judged his colony a success at that mission?
After experiencing religious intolerance themselves in England, why do you think the Puritans practiced similar intolerance against dissenters like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson?
Do you think English settlers and their native neighbors, including the Wampanoags, could have lived together in peace? Why or why not?

Want to join the conversation?

  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Michael Fulcher
    The puritans treated the Native Americans like garbage. That wasn't very good for their "pure" testimony was it? Or did people accept that way of thinking back then?
    (11 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Gigi726
    Why were people called witches? Are they called that for a reason? Were men called witches too?
    (6 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user alyssa.carr
    I was wondering why were people called witches? Are they called that for a reason? Were men called witches too?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Manomay Shravage
      Witches were called so, because they practiced witchcraft, using magic spells and calling upon spirits to bring about change. Most of these so called 'witches' were thought to be Pagans doing the Devil's work.
      It's interesting that men were actually called witches too. At the Salem witch trials, along with women, six men were also convicted of witchcraft and executed.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 325728
    In the last section "Puritan relationships w/ Native People's," it says that "native forces succeeded in destroying half of the frontier Puritan towns; however, in the end, the English—aided by Mohegans and Christian Native Americans—prevailed and sold many captives into slavery in the West Indies," it sounds like the English took other Natives into captivity and sold them into slavery? But then reading the excerpt provided after of Mary, it seems the opposite; that an English woman (Mary) is held captive by Native Americans. Can someone explain?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kemal Suphi Dogru
    How can one justify the so-called intolerance of the Puritans, especially since they were the victims of
    intolerance at home? What light does this statement of Pope Leo XIII in 1885 throw on the problem:
    “the toleration of all religions…is the same thing as atheism?
    (5 votes)
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    • duskpin sapling style avatar for user 1076291
      Definitely not. They were definitely very, very, extremely intolerant towards other religions. Not only did they exile any Quakers who entered, but they also eventually started to execute any Quakers. The penalty for being anything but a Puritan, or even any suspicion that one was not entirely, wholeheartedly devoted to the Puritan faith, was exile at the very least. Also, isn't bringing up this statement from Pope Leo XIII, if being used to justify religious intoleration,in making a connection between toleration of religions and atheism -- also in the context of religious toleration being stated as undesirable or bad in some way(which it is not, it is a good thing in fact) -- suggesting that atheism is undesirable and/or bad in some way? Neither religious toleration nor atheism are bad things in any way, shape, or form, unless taken to an extreme -- and anything is bad when taken to an extreme.
      (2 votes)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Una
    Why do you think we are so quick to forget this important part of the history of Puritan settlers and embrace the fabrication that we learned in grade school of the peaceful and freedom seeking pilgrims?
    (5 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user fastandfurious12
    Where is the Massachusetts Bay colony now? On the US map?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user jchatman
    Why do infant mortality so high in Puritan New England.
    (2 votes)
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  • starky seedling style avatar for user Brandon Spangler
    How did the New England Colonists dealt with the Natives.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user jcamastro
    Why were people called witches? Were men called witches too?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There are people in all cultures around the world who, because they don't conform to the norm, get named certain things that label them as evil. "Witches" is the English word. In Spanish they are called "Bruja". In the power structure of the Massachusetts Bay colony, women were at the bottom of the ladder, so they were more likely than men to be accused of being "out of line". Though some men were likewise accused, it ws usually women who suffered more (as women do wherever the power structure is arranged against them).
      (2 votes)