Massachusetts Bay Colony

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MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY. Established under the aegis of the New England Company, Massachusetts Bay Colony was first established by a group of Puritan merchants in 1630. The merchants had obtained their initial charter from the Council for New England in 1628. Wary of the validity of that document, the company reorganized, secured a modified royal charter, and renamed itself the Governor and Company of massachusetts Bay. The charter, which ceded lands from three miles south of the Charles River to three miles north of the Merrimack, allowed the company to establish its own government for the colony, subject only to the king.

In the face of mounting tensions in England—constricting economic opportunities, an increasingly corrupt Anglican Church, the dissolution of Parliament by Charles I, and the jailing of prominent Puritan leaders—settlement in American grew ever more attractive. And though members maintained an interest in the trading company's economic potential, they recognized too the religious and political benefits of establishing an American colony. The colony would be a religious refuge, a "holy experiment," where devout Puritans and their families would settle far from England's corruption. In a daring move that contributed to their governmental, religious, and economic autonomy, the Company decided to move its entire operation to Massachusetts, out of range of the Crown's watchful eye. In October 1629 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Company chose lawyer, gentleman, and devout Puritan John Winthrop to be the colony's first governor. Winthrop began the arduous task of raising money, locating and provisioning ships, and attracting a range of passengers interested in participating in the "holy experiment."

Though most immigrants were motivated in part by the promise of economic stability in a colony rich in natural resources, including land, many were guided by a commitment to the tenets of Puritanism, a religion that stressed the individual's personal covenant with God and community. In New England they would plant the seeds for a godly colony where the congregants themselves would shape their religious institutions. Not all of those immigrants attracted to the mission, however, were devout Puritans. Winthrop and the other Company leaders took pains to ensure that the colony would include settlers with the skills necessary to ensure its success—craftsmen, doctors, servants, and laborers—regardless of the depth of their religious commitment.

The Company pointedly assured those they left behind that they were not Separatists; from aboard their ship the Arbella, they published a written public statement proclaiming their allegiance to the Crown and Church of England. Unlike their brethren who had abandoned the Church to establish a Separatist colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, the members of the Bay Company intended instead to plant the seeds for a pure church that would in turn spark the continued reformation of the church in England. On 8 April 1630 the Arbella and three other ships set sail with some four hundred men, women, and children.

Though the ships initially made land at the small settlement at Salem, where eighty people had died during the previous harsh winter, Winthrop and the other Company officers encouraged their band to settle new land south of Salem, on the bay. Concerns about the Salem settlement went beyond its limited resources: several of Salem's settlers had developed a reputation for sympathy with the Separatists in Plymouth. Seeking to escape that branding, the new colonists established plantations in towns around the bay, including Charlestown, Newtown, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Winthrop eventually settled in Boston.

The first winter in the colony tested the mettle of the settlers. Starvation and disease took the lives of two hundred people, and another two hundred returned to England in the spring. The task of not only protecting colonists but also ensuring the economic stability of the colony fell to Winthrop and his officers. Aided by a steady stream of immigrants who continued to flee England and arrived with fresh supplies, including window glass, cooking tools, guns and powder, and cloth and clothing, by 1631 the colony had attained a level of economic equilibrium.

In the fall of 1630 the Company called the first General Court in Massachusetts Bay. Though franchise (being able to vote) was not considered the right of Englishmen, and the colony's charter did not demand that the magistrates address this issue, the Court opened freeman ship (the rights of citizenship) to all male residents. At the same time, the Court limited the power of freemen to the right to choose the colony's assistants; all legal and judicial powers were retained by the assistants themselves, who on their own elected the governor and deputy governor.

In acknowledgment of the colony's religious mission, in 1631 the Court restricted franchise to only those freemen who were church members. In spite of that limitation, by so doing the Court extended franchise to more men than would have had that right in England. The Court recognized that a covenanted people would be more inclined to accept their leadership If they had participated in the process of establishing the government. Though the new government was explicitly not a theocracy—ministers were prohibited from holding public office—the decision to limit franchise to church members also made the colony's theocratic underpinnings abundantly clear. A religious commonwealth, Massachusetts Bay established Puritanism as the state-supported religion, and made it clear that no other faiths would be tolerated in the colony.

At its session in May, the Court enfranchised 118 men. By the following year, the Court decided to turn the election of the governor over to freemen rather than the assistants. Winthrop and the majority of the original assistants were reelected in each of the first few years of the colony.

The original settlers of massachusetts Bay implemented laws designed to create communities that capitalized on broadly based franchise; they sought to avoid a society ruled by a few wealthy landowners, typical of that which they had left behind in England. Though property ownership was and remained the primary ingredient in the Puritan recipe for godly communities, for the most part the colony took pains to ensure equitable distribution of that essential resource. The Bay Colony government deeded title for townships to groups of male settlers. These proprietors distributed the land among themselves. And though proprietors made land grants reflecting the current wealth and status of town leaders—men of the highest rank received the largest plots—all proprietors received enough land to support their families.

Moreover, all men participated in the central governmental organ, the town meeting. Each year the town meeting chose selectmen, passed ordinances, and levied and collected local taxes. Each town elected its own representatives to the General Court, which soon assumed a greater authority in colonial politics than the governor and magistrates.

Colonists recognized the centrality of their holy covenant with God and each other. As regenerate Christians, it was their duty to monitor the purity of their political leaders, their spouses and children, their neighbors, and even the very clerics who instructed them in the path to a godly life and community. Though the governor, deputies, and assistants did not always agree on the extent to which the government should control behavior—resulting in an almost constant legal battle over laws governing everything from dress to alcohol consumption—all colonists were wary of behavior perceived to be outside of accepted definitions of pious conduct and demeanor.

Over the course of the first generation of settlement in Massachusetts Bay, tensions surrounding the colony's religious establishment erupted into outright disputes. On several occasions those disputes resulted in attempts to purge the community of people who put into practice controversial religious beliefs. Roger Williams, minister of the church in Salem, condemned the legal establishment of the Puritan church in Massachusetts Bay, advocating instead the separation of church and state the Pilgrims had instituted in the Plymouth Colony. The government, he claimed, had no authority over the spiritual lives of the settlers. In addition, he objected to the Puritans' practice of seizing rather than purchasing Indian lands. In the face of mounting tension, the magistrates banished Williams from the colony in 1635. He settled with his followers in Rhode Island, where they established the town of Providence.

Anne Hutchinson was another target in the magistrates' attempts to control dissidence in the colony. Hutchinson, a midwife of some renown in England, mother of seven children, and wife of a prominent merchant, held prayer meetings for as many as sixty women in her home following church services. There she led discussions about the minister's sermons, and questioned the emphasis they seemed to her to place on good behavior—a covenant of works rather than one of faith. An antinomian, Hutchinson believed that faith and the resulting grace came through direct revelation from God, clearly threatening to the authority of the colony's ministers. Moreover, as a woman, Hutchinson's actions challenged traditional belief that only men should be responsible for religious teaching.

In 1637 Massachusetts Bay's magistrates tried Anne Hutchinson for heresy. Though she defended herself before the judges with courage and no small amount of skill, they found her guilty and banished her from the colony. Hutchinson followed Roger Williams to Rhode Island.

Other religious dissidents left Massachusetts Bay of their own volition. In search of both greater religious freedom and the opportunity to acquire more land, one hundred Puritans led by Thomas Hooker left the colony in 1636 to settle in the Connecticut River Valley, establishing the town of Hartford. Others established Wethersfield, Windsor, and New Haven.

In addition to religious dissent, political and economic controversy shaped the colony's development. With three thousand miles separating Massachusetts Bay from mother England, the colony considered itself an independent commonwealth. That assumption came into direct conflict with the Crown's mercantilist expectations. In 1660, on his ascent to the throne, Charles II established a committee to gain control of British colonial resources. The Lords of Trade and Plantation oversaw colonial commerce. It monitored adherence to Parliament's new Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1663, reining in colonial merchants trading with foreign countries in sugar, tobacco, and indigo, and instituting additional laws regulating European exports to America.

New England merchants bristled at the Crown's efforts to reassert control. The Bay Colony's government chose to ignore the Navigation Acts, and persisted in importing and exporting goods as it saw fit, claiming that the royal charter exempted it from the new trade regulations. The Crown responded by sending troops to the colony to enforce compliance. In 1684, on the recommendation of the Lords of Trade, the English court revoked the colony's charter. Two years later, it created the Dominion of New England, effectively eliminating a number of existing colonial governments, Massachusetts Bay's among them. James II appointed Edmund Andros Governor of the Dominion. Andros banned town meetings, dismissed the assembly, and questioned the validity of all land titles filed under the original charter. The Puritan colonists of massachusetts Bay petitioned the Crown for Andros's dismissal, but their protests fell on deaf ears.

In the wake of the ouster of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, however, Massachusetts Bay successfully revolted against Andros, who returned to England. The Bay Colony asked for the restoration of its original charter. Though the recently enthroned William and Mary agreed to the dissolution of the Dominion, they did not fully restore the colony's independent authority. Instead, they created a new colony of massachusetts, under a royal charter established in 1691. Plymouth and Maine were absorbed into Massachusetts Bay. Though the charter restored the Massachusetts assembly, it undermined the colony's theocratic underpinnings; all male property owners, not just Puritan church members, were guaranteed the right to elect representatives. The charter also gave the Crown the right to appoint the governor. The government established by the 1691 charter existed for the next seventy years. In spite of the Crown's influence under the new charter, the Bay Colony's government grew increasingly independent.


Allen, David Grayson. In English Ways: The Movement of Societies and the Transferal of English Local Law and Custom to Massachusetts Bay in the Seventeenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Morgan, Edmund. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

Leslie J.Lindenauer

See alsoAntinomian Controversy ; Plymouth Colony ; Providence Plantations, Rhode Island and ; Puritans and Puritanism ; andvol. 9:Evidence Used Against Witches ; Massachusetts School Law ; Trial of Anne Hutchinson at Newton, 1637 .

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Massachusetts Bay Colony

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Massachusetts Bay Colony