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Massachusetts Bay Colony: Religion, History & Economy

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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.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by a group that envisioned building a model religious community. Discover who these people were, their religion, the history of their community, and their economic life. Updated: 09/01/2021

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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  • 0:02 The Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • 1:07 Forming the 'City on a Hill'
  • 2:01 Life & Economy
  • 3:35 Religious Life
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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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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