1649 Three Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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On April 21 Maryland’s colonial assembly passed “An Act Concerning Religion,” more commonly known as the Religious Toleration Act. Despite this title, the opening sections of the act concerned anything but toleration; they prescribed death for anyone who “shall from henceforth Blaspheame GOD , that is curse him, or shall deny our Saviour JESUS CHRIST to bee the son of God, or shall deny the Holy Trinity. …” Cheap by comparison were “reproachfull words or speeches concerning the blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Saviour, or the holy Apostles or Evangelists … ,” which occasioned only a fivepound fine for a first offense. Profaning the Sabbath by swearing, drinking, playing, or working would cost the violator two and a half shillings.

The Toleration Act earned its title, and its historic importance, from a clause that decreed: “And wheras the inforcing of the Conscience in matter of Religion hath frequently fallen out to bee of dangerous Consequence in those Commonwealths where it hath beene practised … no person or persons whatsoever within this Province … professing to beleeve in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced, for or in respect of his or her Religion.” For the first time in any American colony (except for the tiny, haphazardly organized handful of towns that would eventually become Rhode Island), inhabitants had a legal right to practice Christianity as they chose.

The Maryland law did not mark the start of a new era, however, so much as an attempt to forestall the end of an old one. Since its first colonists had arrived, in 1634, Maryland had been unique among the colonies for the peace and mutual respect between its Catholic and Protestant residents. It had been established as a haven for Catholics, who suffered from many legal disabilities in England. The proprietor, Lord Baltimore, was Catholic, as were nearly half the original settlers.

Baltimore had instructed the Catholics in that group to “suffer no scandall nor offence to be given to any of the Protestants,” to “be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion,” and to “treate the Protestants with as much mildness and favor as Justice will permitt.” He also ordered that “all Acts of Romane Catholique Religion be done as privately as may be.” When a few Jesuit priests claimed exemption from civil law, he made them submit to his authority. Baltimore’s tolerant policies remained in effect through the 1630s and 1640s even as, across the sea, England sank into a bloody civil war that was greatly aggravated by doctrinal differences.

As the 1640s progressed, however, Protestant immigrants began to greatly outnumber Maryland’s Catholic ruling class. Among these were many Puritans from the neighboring colony of Virginia, whose Anglican majority was much less tolerant of dissenters. Lord Baltimore welcomed the newcomers, going so far as to appoint a mostly Protestant government. And by passing the Act Concerning Religion, his Catholic-dominated assembly put into law the long-established principle of equality. With these actions Baltimore hoped to keep the polarizing divisions of the old country from cropping up in the new.

Alas, the very breadth of Maryland’s policy of religious liberty led to its downfall. Puritans continued to stream in, and in 1653, with the Puritan Oliver Cromwell firmly in control in England, they seized Maryland’s colonial government. Catholics were barred from the assembly, which repealed the Toleration Act in 1654 and declared that “none who profess the exercise of the Popish Religion, commonly known by the name of the Roman Catholic Religion, can be protected in this Province.” For four years the Puritans exerted a harsh rule in Maryland until Cromwell told them “not to busy themselves about religion, but to settle the civil government.” The Toleration Act was then restored and remained in effect until 1692, after England’s Protestant Revolution, when Anglicanism became Maryland’s official religion. From then until the Revolution, Catholics—by then perhaps a tenth of the population—were reviled, persecuted, disfranchised, and denied civil rights in the colony Lord Baltimore had hoped would be a peaceful home for all Christians.