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The Religion and Founding of the Massachusetts Colony

Kayla Armstead, Mary Deering
  • Author
    Kayla Armstead

    Kayla has taught history for over 2 years. They have a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and Bachelors in Social Science Education from Florida State University. They also have a 6-12 Social Studies Certification.

  • Instructor
    Mary Deering

    Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Read about who founded the Massachusetts colony and its development. Learn about Massachusetts' geography, economy, and the importance of religion to the Puritans. Updated: 12/14/2021

Massachusetts Colony: Facts and Overview

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the Puritans, a religious group in England. They founded their colony to escape religious persecution and hoped to build a model religious community in the Americas. The productivity and quality of life in the colony were remarkable for the time. Originally settled in 1630, they had a profound impact on education and government that still affects America today.

Massachusetts Bay Colony: Geography

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established north of the famous Plymouth colony. As a part of the northern New England colonies, the colony had access to the bay, which they used for shipbuilding. Their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean allowed them to develop ports that served as centers of trade. The colony was originally founded between the Charles and Merrimack rivers. This spot was chosen to give colonists access to drinking water, and an easier way of growing crops under the sometimes harsh conditions of the New England climate.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the Puritans, a religious minority group who migrated to the New World seeking to create a model religious community. The Puritans believed that the Anglican Church needed to be purified of the influences of Catholicism. The Puritans were opposed by both the established Anglican Church and the Stuarts, the ruling monarchs of England, and they became quite unpopular in England.

By 1629, many Puritans were tired of trying to reform the church in England, and they feared that God would soon punish the sinful English. A wealthy group of Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint stock company that hired 17 ships to transport the Puritans to their new home in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Puritans were led by a one-time lawyer named John Winthrop, who became one of the most powerful religious leaders in the colony. Winthrop wrote that the Massachusetts Bay Colony must become a 'city on a hill,' an example of a perfect religious community.

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  • 1:07 Forming the 'City on a Hill'
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Massachusetts Colony: Facts and History

It is important to understand the historical context behind the founding of the Massachusetts colony. In the 17th century, England was going through a lot of religious and political changes. The Puritans, who founded the colony, believed that the Anglican Church (the official church of England) had been corrupted and needed to be reformed. Their name came from the fact that they believed that the church needed to be "purified." Unable to reform the church themselves, they sought to set up colonies where they could build settlements based on the religious principles of Puritanism. What made the Massachusetts Bay Colony unique, was that migrants quickly filled the colony. Other colonies usually grew slowly over many years. This was called the Great Puritan Migration. In Massachusetts, the colony was quickly populated with migrants seeking to leave to practice Christianity the way that they wanted.

Who Founded Massachusetts?

When Puritans became unpopular in England, they sought to start a settlement that reflected their religious values in Massachusetts. Puritans that had the resources and money formed a group called the Massachusetts Bay Company to accomplish this. This joint-stock company financed the journey by providing provisions and 17 ships to travel across the Atlantic and found the colony in 1630. While the colony was founded by this group of Puritans, one man emerged as the central leader, John Winthrop. He helped organize the colony and later served as governor.

A statue of a Puritan man

A statue of a Puritan man

Massachusetts as the "City on a Hill"

Many of John Winthrop's writings provide insight into the ideas behind the founding of the colony. He wrote that he hoped that the colony would become a "city on a hill." He wanted it to serve as the perfect example of a successful religious community. Many others wanted this as well, as the population of the colony grew to 40,000 by the end of the 1630s. This growth was much faster than in other colonies like Virginia, or later Georgia.

What Type of Colony Was Massachusetts?

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a charter colony. This meant that the colony was allowed to govern itself, by electing local officials to carry out political administration. However, they could only do this as long as England approved of their actions, and as long as their laws were the same as England's. With the signing of the Massachusetts Colony Charter, shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company, and a General Court, elected by local Puritans, controlled affairs. The General Court appointed John Winthrop as the first governor of the colony. He and the court were generally in charge of the colony, since many stockholders did not come to Massachusetts, and only expected profits to be sent to them back in England. By the 1680s the colony lost its charter and became a crown colony. This meant that they were now subjects of the royal government of England.

A stained glass image of a Puritan man

A stained glass image of a Puritan man

Massachusetts Colony: Economy

As towns and other communities popped up in the colony, colonists grew a variety of crops, including pumpkins, corn, rice, and beans. They intended to grow wheat but struggled to do so successfully due to the poor soil. However, these crops were much more nutritious than those grown in England and provided key nutrients that extended the life expectancy of colonists into their 70s. Colonists fished and harvested timber from the dense forests. This was used in their growing shipbuilding industry. They brought goods to local markets with these ships, as well as sold raw materials from New England in European markets.

The prosperity of the economy of Massachusetts improved the quality of life for colonists. They had access to clean drinking water and enjoyed a cool climate, which slowed the spread of disease, a major factor that led to the failure of other colonies. Because of this, life expectancy was much higher in the Massachusetts Colony than in other regions. The charter that was written when the colony was founded required that 15 elementary schools be opened. In these schools they implemented quality education, boasting a high literacy rate. Many women even received an education as well.

Forming the 'City on a Hill'

The migration of the Puritans differed greatly from migration in other colonies. While other colonies grew slowly, the Puritan migration was incredibly fast. The Massachusetts Bay Colony reached the same population level as the decade-old Virginia colonies within one year. Between 1629 and 1643, nearly 9,000 immigrants in more than 200 ships came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Under the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the government remained in the hands of the General Court, the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Very few of the shareholders of the stock company migrated to the colony, so the colony was largely run by Winthrop and his assistants. The General Court determined who would be the governor and who would act as the assistant. For the first several years of the colony, Winthrop acted as the head of the General Court and as the governor.

Life & Economy

As more and more Puritans poured into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they began to form towns and communities. Puritans farmed in the fields surrounding their towns and grew a variety of different crops. This variety of crops, as well as the pure drinking water and cool climate of New England, stopped the spread of diseases that were common in other colonies of the time.

The Puritans lived into their 70s or 80s and were among the first groups of people who lived long enough to see their grandchildren. In addition, the variety of different crops helped the Puritans to become economically successful. In the event that one crop failed, Puritan farmers still had other crops to sell or to feed to their families.

Each Puritan town had its own church and town meeting, a form of government where all the male church members made decisions about the running of the town. This form of government continues to be used in small New England towns today, with the change that in modern town meetings all voters can participate in the decision-making process for their town.

According to the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, any town of at least 15 people had to open an elementary school supported by local taxes. This policy ensured that, by the 1660s, a majority of New England men could read and write. The same literacy rates were not achieved in the Chesapeake colonies until the 18th century. Although Puritan women were not as well educated as Puritan men, many families sent their daughters to school with their sons.

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Video Transcript

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the Puritans, a religious minority group who migrated to the New World seeking to create a model religious community. The Puritans believed that the Anglican Church needed to be purified of the influences of Catholicism. The Puritans were opposed by both the established Anglican Church and the Stuarts, the ruling monarchs of England, and they became quite unpopular in England.

By 1629, many Puritans were tired of trying to reform the church in England, and they feared that God would soon punish the sinful English. A wealthy group of Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint stock company that hired 17 ships to transport the Puritans to their new home in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Puritans were led by a one-time lawyer named John Winthrop, who became one of the most powerful religious leaders in the colony. Winthrop wrote that the Massachusetts Bay Colony must become a 'city on a hill,' an example of a perfect religious community.

Forming the 'City on a Hill'

The migration of the Puritans differed greatly from migration in other colonies. While other colonies grew slowly, the Puritan migration was incredibly fast. The Massachusetts Bay Colony reached the same population level as the decade-old Virginia colonies within one year. Between 1629 and 1643, nearly 9,000 immigrants in more than 200 ships came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Under the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the government remained in the hands of the General Court, the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Very few of the shareholders of the stock company migrated to the colony, so the colony was largely run by Winthrop and his assistants. The General Court determined who would be the governor and who would act as the assistant. For the first several years of the colony, Winthrop acted as the head of the General Court and as the governor.

Life & Economy

As more and more Puritans poured into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they began to form towns and communities. Puritans farmed in the fields surrounding their towns and grew a variety of different crops. This variety of crops, as well as the pure drinking water and cool climate of New England, stopped the spread of diseases that were common in other colonies of the time.

The Puritans lived into their 70s or 80s and were among the first groups of people who lived long enough to see their grandchildren. In addition, the variety of different crops helped the Puritans to become economically successful. In the event that one crop failed, Puritan farmers still had other crops to sell or to feed to their families.

Each Puritan town had its own church and town meeting, a form of government where all the male church members made decisions about the running of the town. This form of government continues to be used in small New England towns today, with the change that in modern town meetings all voters can participate in the decision-making process for their town.

According to the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, any town of at least 15 people had to open an elementary school supported by local taxes. This policy ensured that, by the 1660s, a majority of New England men could read and write. The same literacy rates were not achieved in the Chesapeake colonies until the 18th century. Although Puritan women were not as well educated as Puritan men, many families sent their daughters to school with their sons.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the first founder of Massachusetts?

While many Puritans contributed to the founding of the colony, John Winthrop emerged as the first political leader. He was elected governor multiple times.

Did the Massachusetts colony have religious freedom?

While Puritans were able to practice their religion, other religions were frowned upon. Political power was directly tied to one's status in the church.

What religion were the colonists in Massachusetts?

The colonists in Massachusetts were Puritans. They believed that the Church of England had been corrupted and needed to be purified.

When was Massachusetts founded?

Massachusetts was founded in 1630. Through the 1630s thousand of migrants would come to settle in the colony, as Puritans attempted to leave the limitations of the Church of England.

What was unique about the Massachusetts Bay Colony?

The population of the colony rose much quicker than it did in other colonies, as thousands of Puritans moved into the region.

Why was Massachusetts founded?

Massachusetts was founded by Puritans who were unable to reform the Anglican Church. Instead, they set up their colony to form a settlement based on their religious ideology.

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