New England

From the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620, religion in New England was shaped by the tension between traditions brought from afar and spiritual developments born of a land already filled with a diversity of practices and beliefs. Early efforts to enforce religious uniformity eventually gave way to an ever-expanding “spiritual marketplace” of Anglicans and Baptists, Quakers and Shakers, Congregationalists and Unitarians, as well as the resilient and adaptable traditions of African Americans and the region’s original inhabitants. The Pilgrims were only one chapter of a story that soon included new worlds of faith.

The first English settlements in Massachusetts were intended to be theologically uniform, but almost immediately differences of opinion became a part of the American religious experience. Facing persecution and sometimes death, dissenters fled to other colonies, while members of new denominations arrived and brought changes from within, creating a region known for both piety and diversity.

Children’s Letter Book, around 1840

Children’s Letter Book, around 1840

Religion informed every stage of life in early America, beginning with childhood. From the establishment of the first schools in New England in the 17th century, moral lessons and scriptural allusions were an essential part of education. Letter books like this one used biblical tales to teach basic reading skills.

The Bay Psalm Book

The first book published in English North America, the 1640 Bay Psalm Book was used for worship by the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, who prohibited any singing in church other than songs drawn from the Bible. For decades, this book set the tone for communal devotion.

The Bay Psalm Book, 1640

The Bay Psalm Book, 1640

Loan from David Rubenstein

Lucretia Coffin Mott

Massachusetts-born Quaker minister Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880) was an educator, abolitionist, and pioneer of women’s rights. She led efforts to avoid the use of goods produced through the labor of enslaved people and organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention with suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Portrait of Lucretia Mott

Portrait of Lucretia Mott

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Lucretia Mott’s Cloak, 1840

Lucretia Mott’s Cloak, 1840

Gift of Lucretia Mott (Churchill) Jordan

John Winthrop

As governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop borrowed a phrase from scripture when he called his settlement “a city upon a hill,” serving as a model for others. He brought this communion cup with him aboard the Arbella, which transported early Puritan settlers from England in 1630.

Portrait of John Winthrop

Portrait of John Winthrop

Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

John Winthrop’s Cup, 1610–1611

John Winthrop’s Cup, 1610–1611

Loan from The First Church in Boston, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Shakers

Led by Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784), the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing was a religious community influential throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Called “Shakers” for their ecstatic worship, they embraced industry and commerce to further their cause, becoming known for craftsmanship, herbal remedies, and celibacy.

Shaker Advertisement

Shaker Advertisement

Courtesy of Warshaw Collection of Business Americana

Shaker Glasses, 1825–1850

Shaker Glasses, 1825–1850

Shakers Dancing, around 1840

Shakers Dancing, around 1840

Courtesy of New York State Museum, Albany, New York

Christianity and Native Americans

Exiled from Massachusetts for his unorthodox religious beliefs, Roger Williams traveled into what is now Rhode Island to start a colony of his own. He used this compass sundial as he explored southern New England, meeting members of the Narragansett tribe, from whom he purchased the land that would become Providence.

Portrait of Roger Williams

Portrait of Roger Williams

Courtesy of Museum of American Finance 

Roger Williams’s Compass Sundial, around 1635

Roger Williams’s Compass Sundial, around 1635

Interactions between European settlers and Native Americans often included exchanges of religious ideas. The first Bible printed in America was John Eliot's translation into the Algonquian language. Wampum not only served as currency but had religious significance, serving a function similar to scripture.

John Eliot Preaching to Indians

John Eliot Preaching to Indians

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division 

John Eliot's Bible, 1663

John Eliot's Bible, 1663

Loan from American Bible Society

Wampum, 18th Century

Wampum, 18th Century

Gifts of Mendel L. Peterson and The Chase Manhattan Bank

Breaking with the Church of England

Saint Paul’s Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, stayed open during the Revolution despite tension between their Anglican faith and New England’s patriotic mood. The church’s rector, Edward Bass, remained neutral during the war, but later crossed out benedictions for the King in his prayer book and inserted blessings for Congress.

Edward Bass’s Book of Common Prayer, 1766

Edward Bass’s Book of Common Prayer, 1766

Loan from St. Paul’s Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts

After the Episcopal Church in America was formally separated from the Church of England in 1789, Saint Paul’s in Newburyport became known as the “Bishop’s Church,” home to the first Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts. The church displayed this status atop its steeple with a carved wooden bishop’s mitre.

Saint Paul’s Finial, 1800

Saint Paul’s Finial, 1800

Loan from St. Paul’s Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts

Paul Revere's Church Bell

Church bells provided the iconic sounds of early America, not only summoning the faithful to worship but also serving as a communication system that could function at a distance in this mostly rural nation. For decades after the Revolution, Paul Revere was better known for his bells than his midnight ride. This bell hung in a Maine church until 1831, when it was moved to a Massachusetts textile mill.  

Revere and Son Bell, 1802

Revere and Son Bell, 1802

Gift of J. P. Stevens & Co., Inc., through American Textile History Museum Collection

Revere and Son Advertisement 

Revere and Son Advertisement 

Courtesy of The Paul Revere House