Many (although not all) of the early colonists in New England were religious dissenters – persons who had separated from established churches in Great Britain – for whom the New World represented a haven from royal persecution. Particularly in the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts, shared religious commitments and the experience of persecution led community leaders to frame their colonies as quasi-utopian places for the faithful to prosper. Given the opportunity to create societies according to their own understandings, they did not hesitate to engage in radical social experiments meant to prove that “godliness” was not only a spiritual virtue but had practical implications for everyday life as well. From the beginning, ministers like Robert Cushman and civil magistrates like William Bradford and John Winthrop urged their citizens to recognize that they were drawn together for a purpose far beyond their own liberty, or even security, and to place the welfare of the community as a whole above their own.

Cushman and Winthrop, for example, offered advice to the colonists about how to best prepare themselves mentally and spiritually for the arduous task of a godly commonwealth. Both men urged their audiences to embrace the Christian ideal of “brotherly affection.” In response to the extraordinary demands of colonization, they urged their listeners to willingly be generous and abjure “self-love.” This was taken quite literally at Plymouth, where the London-based investors funding the colony required the colonists to agree that everything would be held in common for the first seven years, and then at the end of that term, all property/profits divided equally between colonists and investors. Although this experiment with communalism failed rather spectacularly and was abandoned after only three years, the ethic of neighborliness continued to be an important touchstone in both colonies throughout the seventeenth century.

New colonists continued to arrive regularly throughout the 1630s and 1640s, and as the population increased, the colonists struggled to balance their desire to remain true to their founders’ idealized notion of community with the realities of life and commerce. In Massachusetts Bay, for example, merchants such as Robert Keayne were expected to moderate their desire for profit with a due consideration of the extreme needs and limited means of their customers. Keayne, who was both a shrewd businessman and a devout member of his church, apparently struggled his whole life to meet this standard; at various times, he was admonished by both his congregation and the civil government for unjust business practices (see Admonishment and Reconciliation of Robert Keayne with the Church, 16391640). This accusation apparently stung so deeply, Keayne used his last will and testament to present an extensive Apologia for his actions.

William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation: From the Original Manuscript (Boston: Wright and Potter, State Printers, 1898), 162-164.

All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.