Seventeenth-century New England was a hierarchical society in which socially prominent families were assigned the best land and the most desirable seats in church. “Some must be rich and some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection” declared John Winthrop. This was part of God’s plan, reinforced by man-made law and custom. The General Court forbade ordinary men and women from wearing “the garb of gentlemen.” Ordinary settlers were addressed as “goodman” and “goodwife,” while the better sort were called “gentleman” and “lady” or “master” and “mistress.” When the General Court in 1641 issued a Body of Liberties outlining the rights and responsibilities of Massachusetts colonists, it adopted the traditional understanding of liberties as privileges that derived from one’s place in the social order. Inequality was considered an expression of God’s will, and while some liberties applied to all inhabitants, there were separate lists of rights for freemen, women, children, and servants. The Body of Liberties also allowed for slavery. The first African slave appears in the records of Massachusetts Bay in 1640.

Massachusetts forbade ministers from holding office so as not to interfere with their spiritual responsibilities. But church and state were closely interconnected. The law required each town to establish a church and to levy a tax to support the minister. There were no separate church courts, but the state enforced religious devotion. The Body of Liberties affirmed the rights of free speech and assembly and equal protection of the law for all within the colony, but the laws of Massachusetts prescribed the death penalty for, among other things, worshiping “any god, but the lord god,” practicing witchcraft, or committing blasphemy.

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