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Were most of the initial founders of the North American colonies really dissident Christians fleeing religious persecution in Europe? I've heard it said a number of times, but I wondered if it is actually the case.

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Depends on the colony -

  • Maryland was most assuredly a refuge for Catholics.

  • Pennsylvania was explicitly for Quakers under William Penn.

  • Massachusetts was founded by Puritans & Baptists who had already escaped once to Holland. The Mayflower Compact (linked above) was an explicitly religious document signed by members of a wayward sect who trying to get to Virginia, but couldn't navigate...

  • Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, escaping persecution in Massachusetts (drum roll please!)

In contrast,

  • New York was all about money from the get-go. The Dutch didn't really do the religious persecution thing that much.
  • Georgia was basically a debtor's prison.
  • My own native Virginia was all about tobacco. Read John Smith's biography if you don't believe me.

Generically, historians have posited there are two influences in American development - God and Mammon. God is a more northerly thing, and the explanation goes that is the reason the Northeast tends to be more "socialistic" or paternal in its governance. By contrast, the South was a more money-based thing, in which laisez-faire economics would be more valued - hence Texas' reputation as the reddest of the red states, and Massachusetts' as a blustery blue*.

Finally, the Spanish influence ostensibly mixed both Religion and Money - but in no event was it the persecuted fleeing Europe. Rather, it was the establishment church in much of the West and in Florida that at least came along for the ride.

A decent primer on this is "How the States Got Their Shapes," an amazing book and an okay TV Show

So, short answer - depends on where you're talking.

And now for the obligatory hand-grenade: (Meaning, I'm being a bit tounge-in-cheek here)

*Personally, I've always thought these colors were backwards, as I used to think of Massachusetts as a pinko-communist sort of place....

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Thanks. Any good references? – DJClayworth Aug 20 '12 at 18:23
Wikipedia will back up these claims, or my old "This American Pagent" from AP History :) I'm trying to source the God in the North, Money and the South thing - but it may take some time. – Affable Geek Aug 20 '12 at 18:25
Thanks. And I don't doubt the correctness, I'm looking for "further reading" references. – DJClayworth Aug 20 '12 at 18:34
I'm not sure I'm convinced that Christian influences are what led the northeast to be socialist. The South is more Christian than the Northeast today and is also more economically conservative. This theory appears to claim that they became liberal because of their Christian beliefs, at the same time that they were abandoning those very Christian beliefs. The Puritan colony was originally established on socialist principles, but they abandoned that pretty quickly. – Jay Aug 21 '12 at 7:32

I don't think any serious, honest historian would deny that people seeking religious freedom were an important component of the early settlers. Whether they were "most" is probably unanswerable. I don't think anyone took a survey at the time asking, "Are you coming here for religious reasons?" so they could then carefully tabulate 52% yes, 48% no or whatever. Even if someone had, many settlers likely had multiple reasons.

For example, Christopher Columbus said he was going to America to bring the Gospel to the Indians, and also to find a better trade route to the Indies. He negotiated with the king for a percentage of any money made from trade routes he established, and he worked to bring missionaries. (I'm not saying that Columbus was a dissident, he's just a prominent example of someone with multiple motives.)

There's nothing odd about this. Suppose someone asked you why you took you present job. You likely have many reasons: salary, benefits, working conditions, interesting work, opportunities for advancement, convenient commute, etc etc.

Also, you specifically say "dissidents". Many early settlers were comitted Christians, but not particularly dissidents. Many settlers of South America in particular were committed Catholics, at a time when their government fully supported Catholicism.

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