Massachusetts Bay Colony – Encyclopedia of U.S. History

In 1629, the English Crown granted a royal charter to the Massachusetts
Bay Company giving the company rights to colonize and trade in the
area of New England between the Merrimack and Charles Rivers. The
charter was unusual in that it gave the company power to establish whatever government it chose for its colony, subject only to the authority of
the king. The charter also was different from others because it did not
require that business sessions be held in England. This allowed the company to move entirely to New England and to establish the company
government as the colonial government. As a result, the stockholders, or owners, of the company had a rare opportunity
to define membership in the colony.
At the time it granted the charter, England
was experiencing a religious upheaval. Many of
the stockholders in the Massachusetts Bay
Colony were Puritans who had been working
for reform of the Church of England. It seemed
increasingly hopeless that reform would happen
under the leadership of King Charles I
(1600–49). The charter, therefore, changed
quickly from a trade investment into an opportunity to establish a community founded on
By 1630, nearly one thousand people had
settled in New England at the Massachusetts
Bay Colony. The company established a theocratic, or religiously oriented, government. A
governor, assistants, and a general court of the
stockholders oversaw the laws of the colony. By
using the power of the general court to admit
new members, the stockholders managed to
limit voting rights in the colony to those of their
own religious faith. With expansion of the
colony, this system evolved into a government of
deputies representing the various towns in a
bicameral court in 1644. Voting rights and positions in government, however, remained privileges for church members only.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony grew
quickly. A great movement of Puritans from
Europe, known as the Great Migration, brought
thousands of people to the New World to live in
communities of faith. By 1650, the colony had
nearly forty towns. Each town was required to
have its own church, and a rigorous standard of
membership was defined. Much of town politics
revolved around the organization and membership of the church. Most towns operated fairly independently of, but were united by, a central government for the
The colony’s growing independence caused tension with the English
Crown. In 1664 and again in 1676, royal commissions investigated the
colony and submitted negative reports of their independent behavior.
The charter for the colony was officially withdrawn in 1684, and the
Massachusetts Bay Company was dissolved.
The colony continued to function without legal status until another
charter was issued in 1691. The new charter destroyed the close union of
church and state by redefining the requirements for suffrage, or voting
rights. Instead of meeting a religious requirement, the freemen of the
colony gained the right to vote by meeting certain property standards.
The charter of 1691 also merged the Plymouth Colony and Maine with
the Massachusetts Bay Colony.