American Punishment and Religion

Religion was an important feature of crime and punishment in colonial America, probably even more so than in England. Many of the religious dissenters

who migrated to America, such as the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania, were especially interested in enforcing religious norms.

Most of the colonies therefore made little distinction between sin and crime.

Early Puritan legal codes demonstrate the importance of religion in the justice system of colonial America. The 1648 Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts

dictated that heresy and blasphemy were crimes, that Jesuits entering the colony were to be expelled, and that Anabaptists who continued to hold their

beliefs were to be banished. In addition, Massachusetts had strong laws against Quakers, hanging two Quakers in 1659. The Sabbath was also taken

seriously and enforced by the criminal law. Fines could be imposed for skipping church services, for example. The connection between religion and the

criminal law was perhaps most graphically illustrated in the Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, which included a Biblical citation supporting each of the

code’s capital offenses.

The courts acted as the secular arm of the churches, prosecuting individuals for sexual crimes such as adultery, sodomy, buggery, and fornication. The

punishments for some of these crimes were serious, especially during the seventeenth century, when, for example, buggery was a capital offense in

Puritan New England. Courts also frequently prosecuted less serious sexual offenses. Unmarried couples convicted of fornication were fined, whipped, or

placed in stocks. Religious offenses also existed outside of New England. For example, Virginia imposed penalties for failing to attend church and applied

the death penalty to those convicted of rape, sodomy, larceny, murder, or sacrilege.

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