Puritanism, Tobacco, and the Glorious Revolution:

England and the colonies at Massachusetts Bay and Virginia in the eighteenth century

by Erin Klitzke


Puritanism in North America, 1630-1700

           It was in the year 1630 when the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop at the helm, arrived on the scene in North America.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was among the first British colonies in North America; a place where Puritan Protestants could escape from the watchful eyes of British monarchy.  Massachusetts Bay was the place where a separation of church and state, a principle that the United States later adopted, arose, mostly due to Puritan beliefs.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony granted a foothold in the northern reaches of what would become the United States and allow the English to challenge, to a degree, the French, who were already settling in what would later become Canada.  The Puritans who left for North America and a chance for salvation granted more power over the North Atlantic and the New World than the Puritans had ever dreamed, although their society and experiences were unique.

          The Puritans who became colonists in Massachusetts Bay were not Separatists, but they did not feel safe to practice their form of Protestantism in England.  Puritanism is based on a Calvinist belief in predestination – the notion that one is chosen by God before birth to be saved or to be damned.  The distinction between a pure Calvinist belief in predestination and the Puritan belief was the Puritan concept of the four covenants:  the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, the church covenant, and the social covenant.  Part of Calvinist belief is that the Israelites broke the covenant of works not once, but twice, and therefore the covenant of grace was created by God – it is by the grace of God that one is predestined to Heaven, and it is only by the grace and mercy of God that one would be allowed to live in Paradise.  However, the Puritans believed that by keeping the covenant of works, it was more likely that one was predestined to go to Heaven.  From this belief came their notion of the social covenant and the church covenant.  The social covenant states, very basically, that by keeping the covenant of works and seeing that others keep the covenant of works, one creates a more holy and pious society that facilitates the predestination of some to be saved.  The church covenant states that by studying religious texts and attending church functions, most basically attempting to be as holy and as pious as humanly possibly, by attempting to make one’s church as pure as it possibly can be, as close to the church in the kingdom of Heaven, one also facilitates the predestination of some to be saved.  However, the Church of England, headed by Charles I, leaned strongly toward Arminiamism, which was another, more lenient sect of Calvinism.  In this, the Puritans saw a very real danger, to their eyes, to the people of England, as they believed very strongly in the covenant of grace, which the Ariminian church did not have.  When Charles I dissolved Parliament, it became clear to the Puritans that it was no longer safe to practice their form of Calvinist Protestantism in England and therefore began to arrange to leave for North America, where England had already established a colony in Virginia several years before.  The Puritans, however, should not be confused with the Separatists, as the Puritans did not forsake the Church of England when they left for Massachusetts as the Separatists had.  Separatists like the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, forsook the Church of England as unholy and in that broke the social and church covenants, therefore forsaking the Puritan faith as well.  These Separatist groups congregated in Rhode Island and Plymouth Plantation, although they did go elsewhere. (Morgan, 27, 136, et al.).

          The men and women Massachusetts Bay colony landed near Salem, Massachusetts, in 1630.  Already, there were people living in Salem, most of them hoping to escape the turmoil in England.  Thus, the colony moved on to Charlestown, where they began to establish the colony (Morgan, 52-53).  The colony grew rapidly over the next several years despite hardship, much of which was due to a severe lack in supplies.  As time marched on, their communities began to have a structure conducive to keeping the social and church covenants.  Assigning unattached men and women to family groups prevented them from living alone and helped preserve the social covenant.  Everyone attended church.  The structure of the colony’s settlements was due in large part to their religious beliefs.  However, their religious beliefs would also be a large part of their problem.  As the colony grew, there was a need for more land than was readily available.  Although the Puritans had some success in converting the local tribes, their successes in that regard had not alleviated the need for land to farm.  It was because so many of the Puritans believed their calling was to farm the land that problems arose with the Pequot tribe.

          While it was not the last threat to make itself known to the Puritans, the war that began with the Pequots was certainly among the first of several serious problems the colony would have in the eighteenth century.  In 1637, the Puritans fought their war against the Pequot people and soon had decimated the tribe.  They overtook the lands of the Pequots and continued living their Puritan lives.  It was not the same story during Metacom’s war in the 1670s, when Metacom and his people attacked first and wiped out many Puritan villages.  Metacom's capture and subsequent death brought to a close what today is known as King Phillip’s War.  Another serious threat came from within, from one woman named Anne Hutchinson.  Hutchinson believed that she knew who was among the predestined for Heaven and for this reason created quite a stir in Boston.  Excommunication and exile punished her in March of 1637, when she departed for Rhode Island with her few remaining followers (Morgan, 136).  The social unrest that came with Anne Hutchinson would not be the last problem the colony would face revolving around their religion.

          The difference between generations in Puritan Society was a large if there ever was one, and it was due in part to the strictness of Puritan belief.  The first generation of Puritans, illustrating their extreme concern over identifying the faithful and preserving their religious beliefs, began an unprecedented practice in the 1840s: they began to test the conversion narratives of their children.  Now, a conversion narrative was a sign from God that the man or woman he communicated to through this narrative was among the saved.  It is apparent to modern scholars that the first generation did not believe their children pious or faithful enough to have true conversion narratives, thus they began to test them.  This created some very serious problems within Puritan society as parents began to withhold dowries and land from their children.  In doing so, they forced their children to exercise force of their own: their children began to have premarital relations and force their parents to allow them to marry so that the children that the daughters bore were not born out of marriage.  To attempt to combat this practice, the first generation instituted the Cambridge Platform in 1648, which stated that one’s parent must be an adult member – id est, to have a conversion narrative – of the church for the child to have the chance to study and learn enough about the church, God, and the works of God to have conversion narratives of their own.  It did not seem to matter to the first generation that they were, in essence, breaking the church and social covenants with this act.  It was not until 1662 and the Halfway Covenant that the Puritan church returned to its roots when the Halfway Covenant granted all children born in New England the chance to have their own narratives when they came of age through the activities their parents must have had.  As the first generation disappeared, it was apparent to all that change was coming.

          In the 1670s, King Phillip’s War unsettled the Puritans greatly.  They began to wonder if God had forsaken them due to the sins of the past and present.  As the anxiousness only grew, Jeremiah sermons came into popularity.  These sermons lectured on the need for a pious existence and how one must try not to sin because they are already disgusting in the eyes of God.  The Jeremiah sermons heralded a return to strict Puritanism in the 1680s.  Things began to unravel faster in 1692, illustrated by the Salem witch trials, in which eighteen hanged as witches.  Also in 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony came under the control of England and its church.  Parliament ordered that all forms of Protestantism be tolerated, but this was unacceptable to the Puritans.  It was clear by 1700 that the Puritans were a dying breed.

The Virginia Colony, 1607-1700

          The Virginia Colony was the grand experiment of its age.  After the failure of the Roanoke Colony in the early seventeenth century, England set its eyes on the mainland as a viable source of income, similar to the true-to-life gold mines the Spanish had found in South America.  Virginia preceded the Massachusetts Bay Colony by more than two decades and the colony itself was located in a far different climatic region.  Founded not for religion, but for profit, Virginia was a very different place than Puritan Massachusetts Bay.  It was to this place the infamous younger sons of British nobility flocked, hoping to make a new life for themselves and accumulate riches to rival their older brothers.  Although many died in the first few years, strong leadership and an unorthodox social order enabled the colony to survive the rough times and come to prosper.  Virginia, despite the rocky start, became one of England’s most successful colonies and a model for other southern colonies such as the Carolinas and Georgia.

          The Virginia Colony began as an investment by a group known as the Virginia Company.  These investors hoped to reap in the southern area of North America the same riches that the Spanish discovered in South America and the far southern reaches of North America.    Most of the people who agreed to go to Virginia were poor men seeking a fresh start and the younger sons of noblemen, who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by their ventures into the wilderness that was North America.  In 1607, the Virginia Company founded its first settlement in a swampy area of present-day Virginia.  Many died in the first few years due to the conditions, illness, and starvation.  In 1609, John Smith, a former soldier, took command of the situation and declared martial law, and soon after, the colony would relocate to more favorable conditions.

          When the colony relocated, however, the men of the Virginia Company found themselves facing more troubles.  A powerful Native American confederacy led by a chief named Powhatan, could no longer ignore them as they had in the past.  Although at the very first, it seemed things might work out between English settlers and the natives, this was not to be.  Several very foolish acts cost the colony the good will of the Powhatans and soon war ensued.

          Prior to war with the confederacy, John Smith befriended them and the tribe actually came to trust him.  However, with Smith’s injury in a powder explosion during the fighting he was unable to prevent and return to England, the colonists lost an advantage.  It was not until they captured Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas that the war ended with a fragile peace.

          Things began to look up for the Virginia colony, however, when John Rolfe discovered that the cash crop tobacco grew very well in the soil of Virginia.  So profitable was the plant that it could be found growing everywhere in the colony – in the streets, inside shanties, everywhere.  The labor-intensive crop would be the root of the changes in the social order in Virginia.  Soon, the practice of bringing over indentured servants – for which one would get 50 more acres of land – to work one’s land for a set period of time.  It became an art in seventeenth century Virginia to work one’s servants hard so they lived just to the end of their term of servitude, then died.  Hence, the death rate in Virginia remained very high – which was of concern to the Crown.

          In 1624, England took over the Virginia Colony from the Virginia Company.  This action was due in part to the high death rate as well as due to war with the Powhatan tribes after the deaths of Powhatan and Rebecca Rolfe – Pocahontas.  The headright system, however, which was the system that enabled landowners in Virginia to acquire 50 acres of land and set years of servitude for each of the people they brought over from England to the colony, was not affected by this change in management.  Indentured servitude and death of those servants were still very much a way of life in the profitable Virginia colony – and profitable it was.  Things did not begin to change until people began to outlive their servitude and find themselves in the world with no money, no land, and no way of changing that status.

          Nathaniel Bacon arrived in the colony around the time that the population of free servants began to steadily grow.  He was a young gentleman who had ambition matched by only a few in history.  Although he became quite a powerful young man in the colony very early on, he wanted more.  For this reason, he requested troops from his father-in-law, the governor of Virginia, to go take land from the native tribes living beyond a sort of borderland populated by freed servants.  His request denied, Bacon came up with a new plan and made his way to those same borderlands where he began to recruit the former servants into an army set on wiping out the natives – and more.  Bacon promised these men land, and when he found himself unable to take the land from the natives living nearby, he and his army began to take the land from the wealthy landowners of Virginia.  Bacon most likely would have taken the capital, Jamestown, itself if he had not died suddenly during the siege.  This rebellion taught the Virginians a very valuable lesson:  Indentured servitude just was not working.

          It was in many was the fault of Bacon’s Rebellion and other uprisings that caused Virginia’s wealthy landowners to introduce slavery to the colony.  Once the landowners instituted a system of slavery, they discovered that the stability they knew in years past returned and the colony again began to become more prosperous.  By 1700, indentured servitude was all but gone in the colony, and slavery was the norm.

          The changeover from indentured servitude to slavery in Virginia was perhaps one of the most dire occurrences in the history of the United States.  Slavery built on the principle that the African was below the European, the black below the white, which is a principle that people still find themselves fighting today.  It is possible that the evolution of Virginia, and the way that the colony evolved, was the root of many problems the United States faced later in its history, even some problems that face the nation today.

England, 1688-1763

           James II of England could not have known that he would give more power to Parliament and the people of England than John Lackland did when he signed the Magna Carta in the thirteenth century.  In the heat of a struggle between the Whigs and the Tories in England, James fled London and the throne on the advice of others, bearing in mind what befell his father, Charles I – death.  Thus came the Glorious Revolution, in which Parliament rose to incredible power and even chose their own King and Queen – in this case, William of the Netherlands and his English wife, Mary.  The power of Parliament was so great, it even managed to pass laws saying that no Catholic could be king or queen of England.  Due to the rise of Parliament, England became the most powerful nation in Europe, as their constitutional monarchy was far more effective than an absolutist monarchy.  In the eighteenth century, Britain was the most powerful empire in the world.

          Britain gained such incredible power largely in part to the way the government operated.  Parliament levied taxes, and in having the nobility and elected officials of the land levy the taxes, it was far easier to collect those taxes.  This is because the taxpayers of the land felt represented and thus knew that whatever taxes levied were fair.  In addition, Britain’s power came from the cooperation between the monarchy and Parliament.  The combination of effective taxation and a cooperative monarchy led to a military build-up in England – the tax money had to go somewhere, so it the investment made was in a large and powerful navy for the purpose of keeping control of the high seas, a control England would retain for generations to come.

          It was indeed a very good thing that England had a powerful navy.  With as many overseas colonies as England possessed, as well as such bad relations with absolutist France, it was imperative for the English to be able to control the trade between their colonies and elsewhere.  The Navigation Acts were one such attempt to control trade.  This legislation stated that British colonies could only trade with England.  This made sense to Parliament and the colonies, as England was their mother country and there should really be no need to trade with any nation beyond England.  There was, however, a problem when it came to molasses, which led to the Molasses Act.  The Molasses Act placed a six pence surtax on each gallon of molasses bought at French colonies in the Caribbean.  This price was prohibitively high and therefore the molasses was either smuggled or not bought at French ports at all.  With such a large navy, England had no trouble enforcing either of these acts.

          Following legislation set down by England was not a problem for colonists in what would become the United States.  They believed that England had every right to pass legislation for them, whether it be on the high seas or in the colonies themselves.  The White Pines Act signifies their willingness to cooperate, although it did take some underhanded dealing to get the colonists to follow the law to the letter.  The White Pines Act stated quite simply that all white pines felled were to first fill the orders of the British navy before the woodcutters and lumberjacks filled any other order.  However, before colonial governors received the order to top all bids on the pines, the law obedience to the law was not absolute.  The American belief at this time was that England could legislate for them as they were a part of the British Empire, but Parliament could not tax them as the colonies had no representation at Parliament.

          Taxation of the colonists was not an issue until the start of the French and Indian War, which was part of the larger Seven Years’ War, fought between the British Empire and France.  At first, things went poorly in the North American colonies because Parliament had not fathomed how to deal with the colonies yet.  William Pitt was the man that found a way to keep the colonists happy and get what Parliament needed to support the war effort.  Through methods of coercion and bribery, Pitt made the colonists cooperate – and the colonists had no trouble with his methods.  Pitt kept the colonists happy, and that earned their cooperation.  When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, most colonists could not have been happier to be who they were.

          The colonists in North America thought themselves British, and rightly so.  They were still citizens of England at this point, although they lived very far away from the mainland of the nation.  The reasons they were happy are simple:  as English citizens, they had rights that citizens of other nations did not have.  They had a right to a fair trial and a right to representation before taxation.  They had a right to own property, to marriage, to their own religion.  Their Bill of Rights was quite comprehensive, and unlike most nations of the time, England had a Bill of Rights granted to its citizens.  In 1763, there was no reason for the English colonists in North America to demand their independence – they were happy with the way things were – they were citizens of the most powerful nation in the world.

          The fact that it only took twelve years between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the American War for Independence may seem strange to some.  It is strange, admittedly.  Times change quickly, though, and so do loyalties and ideologies.  In twelve short years, everything the colonies believed would be turned on its ear, and the ironies of a belief in the same thing would send a nation to war with thirteen of her colonies would become clear.  Twelve short years before change began; twelve short years before a new nation would begin to fight its way to freedom.


Morgan, Edmund S.  The Puritan Dilemma.  New York:  Longman, 1999.




This document is copyright ©2001 Erin Klitzke.