I understand that many settlers of the original thirteen English colonies in America were Protestants (or Puritans, specifically) who left Europe in search for better religious freedom.

However, since many settlers were driven by economic motives, there must have been decent religious diversity in America even during the period of colonization (up to 1776).

How was this reflected in everyday life? Was there, for instance, a protestant majority who took power and suppressed other beliefs? Were there many different churches competing with each other? What where the daily implications of this fact for the common settler?

I am aware that an answer to this may differ greatly when taking into account different colonies of different origins. I am mainly asking about the southern colonies, that is, Virginia, Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas.

I am also looking specifically at the eighteenth century, when development of the colonies was well underway.

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    Your question is very broad and hard to answer. “The thirteen colonies” is a period of time stretching from the early 1600S to the end of the Revolutionary War. In a lot of people’s minds, it probably stretches into 1800, because there was not a formal national government until then, and after that, new states began Entering. It’s also a time when there really wasn’t a lot of travel, your way of life was all you knew and that was happening 100 miles away was probably completely unknown to you. Jun 19, 2020 at 18:45
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    Keep in mind that the thirteen colonies were exactly that: thirteen different colonies, each with their own organization, religion and heritage. Many of those colonies were explicitly driven by religious motives, often divergent from each other. They also differed dramatically in regards to your question itself.
    – user15620
    Jun 19, 2020 at 19:24
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    @AnthonyStevens thank you for your comment. I have edited my post to address the issue of periodic placement. Regarding the geographical issue, I have already stated that I am looking at the southern area. I am also fine with specific examples taken from specific communities. Jun 19, 2020 at 19:35
  • The first few chapters of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America address this question directly.
    – user15620
    Jun 20, 2020 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


In general, each colony had an official, established church which did its best to impose a religious monopoly. In the article "Religious Deregulation: Origins and Consequences", Roger Finke argues:

Politicians and preachers alike considered the idea of religious freedom, or even religious toleration, a dangerous and heathen notion that was sure to to undermine the authority of the state and the very survival of the church. The religious liberties that gradually followed were offered as a solution to the immediate needs of a new nation, rather than an ideal for its future.

The cases of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are generally thought of as opposite ends of the spectrum. The Congregationalist Church was strong in Massachusetts while Rhode Island was famous for tolerance. However, an article by Alison Olson shows that the reality in these two colonies were not as different as one might imagine, especially later on:

By the 1730s both colonies had compromised their original positions. The British government had forced Massachusetts to admit men of property to freemanship, and later Baptists, Quakers, and Anglicans were exempted from paying taxes to the Congregational Church. Rhode Island, on the other hand, proceeded to tighten its grip by disfranchising Catholics in 1729 and barring Jews from office shortly hereafter. Still, the Congregational / Presbyterian church remained legally established in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island remained open to all faiths.

This article also shows that an important limitation on religious diversity in practice was economic. European populations in the early colonies was relatively sparse and for a town to support more than one church, it typically needed well over 1,000 residents. This helped to encourage tolerance at the level of the colony (Rhode Island hoped toleration might attract more residents) but it meant many towns were to small to support visible diversity at that level.


It’s really fascinating. These colonies all got chartered at different times. The charters generally reflected the state of affairs back in England. But England was in general state of religious turmoil.

The first successful colonies were during James I (1612). He was a moderate Anglican dealing with radical Calvinists and Catholics who tried to kill him. Those Colonies reflect a lot of religious diversity, but there were tensions. This was early on, and things were decentralized and somewhat chaotic. Later, around the early 1700s, things were a lot different. The British navy was well established in the region in the 1700s, protecting their very profitable Caribbean colonies. People might complain, but the peace was kept.


Maryland Colony was chartered later (1632) by Charles I. He ruled as an Anglican, but was married to a Catholic. Maryland was a Catholic colony. There was a lot of tensions between Catholics and Protestants throughout the 1600s. Once again, by the 1700s, the British empire has settled in, colonists are officially Church of England, but there is a lot of religious tolerance.


By the time Carolinas and Georgia are chartered (1660s), most of the insanity of the English civil war has past, a form of moderate Anglicanism had settled in. The three most southern states and their citizens were Church of England by law. There was dissent over the establishment of an official religion (ultimately leading to the Founding Father’s universal rejection of the US ever establishing a religion). It leads to Cary’s Rebellion and the division of Carolina into North and South. By the time it’s over, it’s the British Empire backed by British troops. Officially Church of England, tolerant of the practice of other religions, but disrespect for British Authority was not tolerated.


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