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How Religious Beliefs Affected Colonial Social Structure in America Research Paper

Pages:6 (1917 words)



Topic:Colonial America

Document Type:Research Paper


Colonial America was a diverse hodge-podge of religious communities. The Quakers had been given Pennsylvania by William Penn, whose father had held ties with the King of England (Fantel). The Puritans were in New England. Baptists established themselves in the South. Catholics had been in the Northern territories and in the Southwest well before the Protestant surge, and they also established the first Catholic state in Maryland—before it was later taken over by Protestants who banned Catholicism (Laux). In short, there was little religious unity broadly speaking, but religion nonetheless played an important role in the structuring of society and class when it came to local organization. Hawthorne and Melville—the two premier authors of the 19th century—described this experience of social stratification within a religious context fairly well. But there are numerous signs and examples of how it existed and persisted. This paper will show that religion was used as a means of dividing the social structure into classes and pockets of power so that the religious institutions determined the organization of society from top to bottom.

As Pyle and Davidson point out, “religious adherence was in the allocation of power, privilege, and prestige during the colonial period” (57). Those who wanted to secure for themselves a position of power and privilege in society necessarily had to abide by the rules of the religious institution of the community. The Quakers had rules about swearing, gambling, drinking and theater-going. They also had rules about how true religion should be practiced—and those beliefs were based upon their reading and interpretation of the Bible (Fantel). Quakers were heavily involved in the government of Pennsylvania in the 170ss—however, many Quakers gradually came to feel conflicted about the duties expected of them as politicians and the duties expected of them as Quakers and pacifists. For example, the Quakers initially wanted to respect the human rights of the Native Americans, but as the American colonies were not united in this view. The Virginia House of Burgesses, dominated by Anglicans, wanted to abjure the treaty between the Crown and the Native Americans: Virginia land owners wanted to push further West and expand their territory (Holton). Thus, there was a clear distinction between what the Anglican community viewed as politically correct and what the Quaker community could tolerate.

Quakers had suffered persecution in Europe and so they sought to respect most other religions in Pennsylvania. Catholics for the most part were the only religious community not tolerated by the Protestant communities in the early American colonies. Maryland was founded as a refuge for Catholics, but the Catholic community was always still rather small in the colony as the number of Catholic settlers was actually fewer than the number of Protestant indentured servants (Laux). Maryland was founded to give Catholics persecuted under the Protestant Crown in England a place to go. Lord Baltimore was its governor and Catholics were given positions of authority in society. The structure of the local society was set up so that Catholics were land owners and their servants were Protestants. More and more Protestant settlers came to Baltimore, whose Catholic leaders practiced religious liberty under the Toleration Act—so there was no rule banning other religions from establishing themselves. When by the mid-1600s, the Puritans took over the colony Lord Baltimore temporarily lost his rights to the colony and anti-Catholicism spread for decades. Catholics were denied the same rights they had given to Protestants in prior decades. As Graham notes, Catholics were “virtually excluded from political life and new faces filled important provincial offices” when the Puritans took over the colony (197).

Hawthorne described life in…

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…social structure, paid lip service to Enlightenment ideals while in practice only granting “equal rights” to land owning white men.

For that reason, women also had little status in colonial America. It was not until the 19th century that a Women’s Movement began to emerge in opposition to slavery. Women advocates like Angelina Grimke Weld and Sojourner Truth, traveled about the country prior to the Civil War speaking about both women’s rights and the evils of slavery. They couched their rhetoric in religious doctrines, though each used different methods of speaking. Weld was an educated white southern woman of status—i.e., she came from a land-owning family. Truth was a former slave. Weld spoke the language of privilege—but even as a woman she was something of a unique phenomenon in America and most men of the WASP establishment merely tolerated her presence at conventions while others saw her as a pest. Both she and Truth, however, advocated for the abolishment of slavery and helped to lay the foundation for social change that would come about following the Civil War.

In conclusion, religion affected the social structure of colonial America in different ways, depending on the religion of the community. The Quakers in Pennsylvania were pacifists, but their political duties seemed to contradict their religious beliefs, which meant that though they started out with political positions they eventually abandoned those posts. The New England Puritans created a social structure in which shrewdness was rewarded as they linked salvation with worldly success. The Anglicans and Deists saw themselves as the Elect and everyone else as beneath them. The Catholics promoted equality and religious tolerance but were not tolerated in turn by Protestants. Women, blacks and natives were all given a back seat, socially speaking, to the male WASPs who grabbed control of the social,…

Sample Source(s) Used

Works Cited

Fantel, Hans. William Penn: Apostle of Dissent. NY: William Morrow & Co., 1974.

Graham, Michael. "Posish Plots: Protestant Fears in Early Colonial Maryland, 1676-1689." The Catholic historical review 79.2 (1993): 197-216.

Holton, W. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Laux, John. Church History. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1933.

Melville, Herman. Clarel.

Milder, R. Herman Melville. New York: Columbia University Press,1988.

Pyle, Ralph E., and James D. Davidson. "The origins of religious stratification in colonial America." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42.1 (2003): 57-75.

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