Maryland Toleration Act (1649)

2012-07-30 10:31:07

In 1629, George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, established the Maryland colony as a haven for English Catholics. George died in 1632 and his son, Cecilus, or Cecil, Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, developed the colony and became its first proprietor. Cecil, Lord Baltimore, sent his younger brother, Leonard Calvert Maryland, to run the colony. The Stuart monarch supported this colony, but religious freedom for Catholics was undermined by the English Civil War. With the death of Leonard Calvert in 1647, Puritans seized the colony, arrested a number of Catholic leaders and priests, and brought an end to toleration in Maryland. However, in 1649, control of the colony reverted back to the Calverts. At this point Cecil, Lord Baltimore, wrote ‘‘An Act Concerning Religion,’’ which is better known as the Maryland Toleration Act. The Maryland legislature adopted this law on September 21, 1649.

The Maryland Toleration Act is often cited as the beginning of religious freedom in America. This understanding of the act is true, but only in the most limited ways. Officially titled An Act Concerning Religion, this law was designed to protect Trinitarian Christians in the Maryland colony. The law provided that ‘‘noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or dicountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.’’ At the time, Catholics faced severe persecution in England. Thus, the act was a significant step forward in the struggle for religious liberty. This was also the first use of the term ‘‘free exercise thereof,’’ which would later be used in the First Amendment.

The act did not however, offer religious freedom in the modern sense of the term. The law was draconian in its punishment of dissenters and people of other faiths. The statute provided that anyone who should

deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to bee the sonne of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the father sonne and holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the said Three persons of the Trinity or the Unity of the Godhead, or shall use or utter any reproachfull Speeches, words or language concerning the said Holy Trinity, or any of the said three persons thereof, shalbe punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods.

Jews, Unitarians, skeptics of any kind, and of course any nonbelievers might be executed under this provision. Later in the century, a Jewish merchant would be sentenced to death for his faith, but in the end he would merely be expelled from the colony.

The law also tried to regulate religious discussion. Thus, anyonewhomight ‘‘utter any reproachfull words or Speeches concerning the blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of our Saviour or the holy Apostles or Evangelists’’ could be fined, imprisoned, or whipped; have his property confiscated; or be expelled from the colony. Fines and imprisonment might also be meted out to anyone who

in a reproachful manner or Way declare call or denominate any person or persons whatsoever inhabiting, residing, traffiqueing, trading or comerceing within this Province . . . an heritick, Scismatick, Idolator, puritan, Independant, Prespiterian popish prest, Jesuite, Jesuited papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barrowist, Roundhead, Separatist, or any other name or terme in a reproachfull manner relating to matter of Religion.

Finally, the statute provided penalties for anyone who might ‘‘prophance the Sabbath or Lords day’’ by swearing, being drunk, working unnecessarily, or failing to attend church.

The goal of the statute was to create harmony

between Protestants and Catholics in a colony that had been founded by a Roman Catholic proprietor, Lord Baltimore, but was populated mostly by Protestants. The act did not accomplish much. In 1654, the Puritan-controlled colonial legislature repealed the act and banned Roman Catholics from living in the colony. However, Oliver Cromwell interceded and once again restored the Calverts to power. In 1658, Maryland reenacted the Toleration Act. After the Glorious Revolution, the Catholic Calverts lost all control of the colony, and in 1692 the newly appointed royal governor removed all Catholics from power by requiring all office holders to take a Protestant oath. By 1702, the Church of England had been established as the official church of the colony. Catholics were allowed to settle in Maryland and practice their faith, but could not hold office, and after 1718 could not vote. By the time of the Revolution, Maryland had distanced itself from its brief flirtation with some form of religious toleration.

The act of 1649 illustrates the limited notions of religious freedom in the seventeenth century, while at the same time demonstrating that some leaders understood that religious toleration could produce a peaceful society. In the act, Lord Baltimore explained why such legislation was necessary. Baltimore wrote that: ‘‘the inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealthes where it hath been practised, And for the more quiett and peaceable governement of this Province, and the better to preserve mutuall Love and amity amongst the Inhabitants’’ free exercise for Trinitarian Christians would be protected in the colony.


References and Further Reading

  • Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Krugler, John D. ‘‘Lord Baltimore, Roman Catholics, and Toleration: Religious Policy During the Early Catholic Years, 1632–1649.’’ Catholic Historical Review 65 (1979): 49–75.