Was America Founded on Freedom of Religion for All?
Short Answer: No
Read below for longer explanation.
American history, like all other national histories, involve the study of religion, politics, and sociology. Tocqueville, in his mid-nineteenth century Democracy in America, touches on this by stating, “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America…its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.” Most American Christians are taught that America was founded on the principle of religious freedom. This along with many other stories told to American children are only a piece of America’s founding story.
To help explain American history, a conceptual framework derived from the three groups present in the process of British colonization will be used. The first group are maintainers, those who see no need for systems and structures to change, the second are reformers who believe structures work if they are changed or rearranged, and the third are separatists who believe that systems and structures are inherently corrupt and must be separated from and therefore seek to create new ones. Applying this framework to the colonization of New England one can find easily surmise that those who did not emigrate were maintainers, the Puritans were, at least initially, reformers, and the Pilgrims were (un)willing Separatists.
In founding narratives, the religious passengers on the Mayflower are identified as Pilgrims, which is correct, but the assumption that Puritans and Pilgrims were the same is incorrect. In fact, the Puritans and the Pilgrims or Separatists are two different groups whose initial emigrations occurred at different times, the former in 1620 and the latter in 1630. The Separatists believed that the Church of England or Anglican (Episcopal) was beyond repair and formed their own congregations and thus were declared illegal in England while Puritans worked towards reform within the political and state church structures of England. The primary reason for the Pilgrim’s journey was to worship as they pleased in an English context rather than a Dutch one. The primary reason for Puritans going to North America was to “create model communities of saints that might reform, and thus save, England by their example.” In this context, we can see that Winthrop’s famous and often copied “city on a hill” phrase is loaded with meaning. Essentially, the Puritans came to North America to establish a society that showed England that religious, political, and social systems of England could be reformed into something, that in their view, was more biblical.
Although history supports that many of the passengers on the Mayflower came to New England in order to freely exercise their religion, it is clear they did not support the free exercise of all religions. The name New England carries significant meaning once the historical background is filled in. Preceding the Mayflower voyage was a series of political and religious events in England that led two similar, but different groups to emigrate to North America. Again, Bremer offers this helpful synopsis,
“The process of societal self-definition was largely completed by 1640…As events unfolded, Puritanism was defined with more precision than ever before, and figures like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who had been numbered among the faithful in England, found themselves outside the bounds of the emerging New England Orthodoxy.”
The Puritan response to those outside of New England’s Orthodoxy was to criminalize, punish, or expel those whom they considered heretics. This includes Williams who co-founded the first Baptist church in America in 1638 and due to his expulsion from New England founded Rhode Island, which at least in principle, was based on the idea of religious toleration as stated in 1644’s A Plea for Religious Liberty,
“It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries, and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.”
Not only were Baptists considered an imminent threat to Puritan Orthodoxy and society, so were Quakers, who were initially banished from Massachusetts in 1656. The enmity between Puritan society and the Quakers resulted in the 1658 enactment of the death penalty for any Quaker who summarily returned to the colony after expulsion. Four Quakers were hung before the law was repealed in 1661.
 https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/486494?journalCode=jr  The Puritan Experiment, Bremer, Loc. 1177, Kindle.  Ibid, 1364, Kindle.  Ibid, Loc. 1469, Kindle.  Ibid, Loc. 1564, Kindle.  http://constitution.org/bcp/religlib.htm