Typically, sociologists explain the growth of religious toleration as a result of people demanding religious freedom, ideals supporting tolerance becoming more prevalent, or shifting power relations among religious groups. By any of these accounts, Puritan New England was not a society where religious toleration flourished. Yet, when contrasted to a coterminous Puritan venture on Providence Island, it becomes clear that New England’s orthodox elite did succeed in developing a system to bound, and in turn reduce, religious conflict among themselves. It also becomes clear that this system was durably shaped by New England’s vast (if occupied) territorial frontier.
In 1628, 120 miles east of the coast of Nicaragua, English merchants happened upon a small island suitable for colonization and the production of lucrative crops. Dubbing their venture Providence, backers in England developed the settlement as a Puritan religious and military outpost in the heart of the Spanish West Indies. Like New England, it sent large numbers of English Protestants to the New World in the early 1630s and struggled to establish religious and political institutions during its first decade of settlement. On Providence, religious infighting tore the colony apart. Debates about the location of the Island’s church, the ministers’ authority over expulsion, and the possibility of congregational separation to the mainland, propelled settler revolt. Despite some notable hiccups—for instance, the threat of charismatic usurpers like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson—New England managed to develop a stable orthodox tradition. By 1641, New England’s leadership could proclaim their settlement an actually existing New Jerusalem. On Providence, after three failed settler revolts, a successful Spanish assault ended the project.
These differences in religious-state development were crucially shaped by the variation in open space between the two settlements. Providence was a tightly packed and closed space surrounded by water. New England had a vast frontier. Because they had nowhere to send religious dissenters, Providence’s leadership tried to address settler complaints by extending tolerance to religious dissenters, liberalizing property contracts, and expanding settlement to the mainland. At first leaders in Massachusetts adopted a similar approach. During this period, there were intense conflicts around spatial management like those on Providence. But once the frontier was “opened”, these conflicts were defused. New England found itself on a paradoxical trajectory: institutionalized religious intolerance and durable social peace.
There can be little doubt that New England’s leadership recognized this strategy of toleration by territorial segmentation was facilitated by their geography. Leading New England minister John Cotton put it to dissenter Roger Williams like this, “[b]anishment is a lawful and just punishment: if it be in proper speech a punishment in such a Country as this is, where the Jurisdiction (whence a man is banished) is but small, and the Country round it above it, large, and fruitful…. [B]anishment is not counted so much a confinement, as an enlargement, were a man doth noe so much loose civil comforts, as change them.” Territorial availability legitimated Williams’ expulsion.
Scholars today insist that such a system doesn’t reflect true tolerance. Leaders from the Providence venture also chastised New Englanders about their embrace of territorial division to manage religious difference. Writing to Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop they sarcastically asked, “them who daily leave you at the [Massachusetts] Bay and go many miles southward for better accommodations only may you not ask them whether they doubt the work be of God? whether his gracious presence be not amongst you etc.?” If today’s critics emphasize the limitations of an expulsion-centered model of toleration, Providence’s leadership wondered if the sort of religion you could maintain only by removing dissenters was legitimate. According to them, New England’s claim that the expulsion system was “a work of God” were “merely besides this question.”
Ironically, it was the proximity produced by the confines of Providence Island that seem to have caused all the trouble. Unlike Europe – where religious dissenters often found themselves huddled into secret churches outside of public view – New England’s system presented dissenters a means to practice religion publicly and collaborate in decision making. Moreover, by focusing on the benefits of frontier separation, elites could stem religious debate among themselves and also ensure protections against radical forms of Protestant dissent. However onerous such a system was, it had its appeals.
These debates about religious authority and territory are significant because they suggests that regimes of toleration are also shaped by how easy it is to push people out. In the American context, the frontier is typically imagined as barrier to orthodox religious control. However, such accounts miss the opportunities afforded by the frontier for religious state makers. The frontier is not simply the basis of America’s tradition of religious radicalism; it is also the basis of its intolerance.