The Puritans exalted individual judgment—hence their insistence on reading the Bible. The very first item printed in English America was a broadside, The Oath of a Freeman (1638), explaining the rights and duties of the citizens of Massachusetts and emphasizing that men should vote according to their “own conscience ... without respect of persons, or favor of any men.” Yet modern ideas of individualism, privacy, and personal freedom would have struck Puritans as quite strange. They considered too much emphasis on the “self” dangerous to social harmony and community stability. In the closely knit towns of New England, residents carefully monitored one another’s behavior and chastised or expelled those who violated communal norms. In the Puritan view, as one colonist put it, the main freedom possessed by dissenters was the “liberty to keep away from us.” Towns banished individuals for such offenses as criticizing the church or government, complaining about the colony in letters home to England, or, in the case of one individual, Abigail Gifford, for being “a very burdensome woman.” Tolerance of difference was not high on the list of Puritan values.


Differences of opinion about how to organize a Bible Commonwealth, however, emerged almost from the founding of Massachusetts. With its emphasis on individual interpretation of the Bible, Puritanism contained the seeds of its own fragmentation. The first sustained criticism of the existing order came from the young minister Roger Williams, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1631 and soon began to insist that its congregations withdraw from the Church of England and that chinch and state be separated. “Soul liberty,” Williams believed, required that individuals be allowed to follow their consciences wherever they led. To most Puritans, the social fabric was held together by certain religious truths, which could not be questioned. To Williams, any law-abiding citizen should be allowed to practice whatever form of religion he chose. For the government to “molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine or practicing worship” violated the principle that genuine religious faith is voluntary.

Williams aimed to strengthen religion, not weaken it. The embrace of government, he insisted, corrupted the purity of Christian faith and drew believers into endless religious wars like those that racked Europe. To leaders like John Winthrop, the outspoken minister’s attack on the religious-political establishment of Massachusetts was bad enough, but Williams compounded the offense by rejecting the conviction that Puritans were an elect people on a divine mission to spread the true faith. Williams denied that God had singled out any group as special favorites.

By the mid-seventeenth century, English settlement in New England had spread well inland and up and down the Atlantic coast.

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