An Act Concerning Religion (The Maryland Toleration Act)
Issued in 1649; reprinted on AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History (Web site)
A seventeenth-century Maryland law sets the stage for future religious freedoms
"Inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those common wealthes where it hath been practiced."
In 1649, in the English colony of Maryland, a law was issued by Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baron of Baltimore (1605–1675; known as Lord Baltimore), the governor of the colony, banning criticism of various forms of Christianity and allowing people to practice their Christian religion freely. It was the first law establishing freedom of religion (or at least, Christianity) in North America. The law, the Maryland Toleration Act, helped set the stage for the freedom of religion that would mark the independent United States 140 years later. The act was issued at a time when England was in the midst of a civil war in which religion was a central issue. The act made Maryland a refuge for English Catholics who were often persecuted for their beliefs during the English civil war (1638–60).
The 1600s were a time of religious and political turmoil in England and throughout Europe, and consequently in England's North American colonies. The religious unrest had begun in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, when a German priest named Martin Luther (1483–1546) posted on a church door a list of ninety-five objections to various teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic religion. Luther insisted that the Roman Catholic Church should be reformed, and the movement he launched is called the Reformation. Eighteen years later, in 1535, the king of England, Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47), declared that he, and not the pope, would be head of the Christian church in England. The English king had a different motivation: he had asked Pope Paul III (1468–1549), leader of the Roman Catholic Church, to grant him a divorce so that he could leave his wife and marry another woman who might be able to give him a son and an heir to his throne. The pope refused to grant the divorce, in part because it violated church teaching and in part because without another heir, the throne of England stood to come under Spanish control. Henry VIII's first wife was Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), his older brother's widow and the daughter of King Ferdinand V (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella (1451–1504) of Spain.
The two events—Luther's religious challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church and King Henry VIII's establishment of the new Church of England—demonstrated how closely linked religion and politics were in the sixteenth century. Kings depended on the pope to give his blessing to their political power, and the pope depended on kings to enforce adherence to the one and only permitted religion. This system, which had been in place for hundreds of years, was destroyed by both Luther and Henry VIII. Within a few years, other theologians and rulers joined the dispute. A variety of religious theorists published their own objections and alternatives to Catholic teachings, and attracted followers who preferred to worship outside the regular church. Rulers chose sides in the dispute between Luther and the pope, resulting in wars over religious preferences.
In England, the struggle over whether the Roman Catholic Church should be the official religion of the country carried on for over 150 years during the reigns of the next five monarchs: King Edward VI (1537–1553; reigned 1547–53); Queen Mary I (1516–1558; reigned 1553–58); Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603); King James I (1566–1625, reigned 1603–25); and King Charles I (1600–1649; reigned 1625–49). Their reigns were marked by continuing controversy and violence over whether the Church of England should remain separated from the Roman Catholic Church or whether England's official religion should revert to Roman Catholicism. Queen Mary and King Charles, both of whom were Catholics, were in fact each executed. On top of the argument about the official religion were the teachings of several different theologians. Some wanted to establish new, separate churches. Some wanted to reform the Church of England to rid it of influences left over from the Roman Catholic religion.
The religious disputes in England were also reflected in England's colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America. Early English immigrants in the colony of Virginia (named after Queen Elizabeth, who never married and was known as the Virgin Queen) were primarily pursuing wealth. But followers of various Protestant religious leaders emigrated for a different reason: They seized on the opportunity to establish settlements in North America where they could worship according to their religious convictions without interference by authorities in England. The best known of these religious groups in North America were the Pilgrims, who established a settlement at Plymouth in 1620, called the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims were so-called Separatists, meaning they wanted to establish a church separate from the Church of England rather than reform it. A larger group of religiously motivated settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the Puritans, who established the town of Salem in 1628. (Two years later, a larger group of Puritans founded another town, Boston, also in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.) Although these early settlers are sometimes described as seeking religious freedom, this did not mean freedom for everyone. The Puritans, in particular, were intent on having an official church—the Church of England—that was "purified" of Roman Catholic influence.
Four years after the Puritans established their outpost in Salem, a Catholic aristocrat in England, Lord Baltimore, received a charter, or permission, from King Charles to establish a colony in North America, to be called Maryland in honor of the King's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. (At the time, the king of England claimed control over a broad stretch of North America along the Atlantic coast; in turn, he granted charters to companies or individuals, as in the case of his friend Lord Baltimore, to organize settlements.) Lord Baltimore founded Maryland as a safe haven for Catholics who were persecuted by Puritans in New England and Church of England settlers in the colony of Virginia. But Protestants in other colonies, who strongly disapproved of establishing a Catholic colony in North America, moved into Maryland, soon leaving Catholics as a minority representing only a quarter of the population. As a result, Lord Baltimore felt compelled to persuade the colonial assembly to pass a law in 1649 that allowed Christians of all persuasions to practice their religious beliefs in peace.
At about the same time, a religious civil war had broken out in England, pitting the Puritans, who had gained control over Parliament, against the Catholic King Charles I. The king was overthrown and executed in 1649. The Puritans abolished the monarchy and established a commonwealth, a form of government based on the common good of the citizens rather than the rule of a monarch. For the next twenty years, a civil war raged in England, pitting the Puritans against Catholics and loyalists of the monarchy.
Although the English civil war seemed to be about religion, it also took in two different views of the nature of government. King Charles I had believed that whatever powers the Parliament held were, in essence, a gift of the king. Members of Parliament, on the other hand, felt just the opposite: that the real authority in the country should rest with the elected members of Parliament, who might then grant the king some authority. In the decade before, armed conflict broke out between forces loyal to King Charles I and forces loyal to the Puritan-controlled Parliament, the two sides had argued continually over the king's power to levy, or charge, taxes, and the Parliament's unwillingness to raises taxes as a tool to limit the power of the king.
Things to remember while reading An Act Concerning Religion:
- The notion of "freedom of religion" contained in the act did not mean residents of the colony were entirely free; it meant that various forms of the Christian faith were permitted to coexist. People caught criticizing religion in general, or specific beliefs of religious sects (such as the importance of the mother of Jesus, which was a central belief of the Catholic religion) were subject to being fined, imprisoned, or whipped in public.
- The act was designed in part to calm passions over religion. It prohibited people in Maryland from calling one another names that were based on religious conflicts and that might be viewed as leading to conflict, names like "roundhead," "idolator" (worshiper of idols, or statues), or even "Brownian" (a follower of English theologian Robert Browne) or "Lutheran," a follower of Martin Luther. Such terms carried much more emotional weight at the time than they do in the twenty-first century.
- The text of An Act Concerning Religion reflects the conventions of the mid-seventeenth century, when there was no universal agreement on how to spell words.
An Act Concerning Religion
Forasmuch as in a well governed and Christian Common Wealth matters concerning Religion and the honor of God ought in the first place to bee taken, into serious consideracion and endeavoured to bee settled, Be it therefore ordered and enacted by the Right Honourable Cecilius Lord Baron of Baltemore absolute Lord and Proprietary of this Province with the advise and consent of this Generall Assembly:
That whatsoever person or persons within this Province and the Islands thereunto belonging shall from henceforth blaspheme God, that is Curse him, or 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 [shall be] punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires.
And bee it also Enacted by the Authority and with the advise and assent aforesaid, That whatsoever person or persons shall from henceforth use or utter any reproachfull words or Speeches concerning the blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of our Saviour or the holy Apostles or Evangelists or any of them shall in such case for the first offence forfeit to the said Lord Proprietary and his heirs Lords and Proprietaries of this Province the summe of five pound Sterling or the value thereof to be Levyed on the goods and chattells
And be it also further Enacted by the same authority advise and assent that whatsoever person or persons shall from henceforth uppon any occasion of Offence or otherwise in a reproachful manner or Way declare call or denominate any person or persons whatsoever inhabiting, residing, traffiqueing trading or comerceing within this Province or within any the Ports, Harbors, Creeks or Havens to the same belonging an heritick, Scismatick, Idolator, puritan, Independant, Prespiterian, popish prest [priest], Jesuite, Jesuited papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barrowist, Roundhead [see box for discussion of many of these groups], Separatist, or any other name or terme in a reproachfull manner relating to matter of Religion shall for every such Offence forfeit and loose the somme of tenne shillings sterling or the value thereof to bee levyed on the goods and chattells of every such Offender and Offenders, the one half thereof to be forfeited and paid unto the person and persons of whom such reproachfull words are or shalbe spoken or uttered, and the other half thereof to the Lord Proprietary and his heires Lords and Proprietaries of this Province. But if such person or persons who shall at any time utter or speake any such reproachfull words or Language shall not have Goods or Chattells sufficient and overt within this Province to bee taken to satisfie the penalty aforesaid or that the same bee not otherwise speedily satisfyed, that then the person or persons soe offending shalbe publickly whipt, and shall suffer imprisonment without baile or maineprise untill hee, shee or they respectively shall satisfy the party soe offended or greived by such reproachfull Language by asking him or her respectively forgivenes publiquely for such his Offence before the Magistrate of cheife Officer or Officers of the Towne or place where such Offence shalbe given.
And be it further likewise Enacted by the Authority and consent aforesaid That every person and persons within this Province that shall at any time hereafter prophane the Sabbath or Lords day called Sunday by frequent swearing, drunkennes or by any uncivill or disorderly recreacion [recreation], or by working on that day when absolute necessity doth not require it shall for every such first offence forfeit 2s.6d sterling or the value thereof, and for the second offence 5s sterling or the value thereof, and for the third offence and soe for every time he shall offend in like manner afterwards 10s sterling or the value thereof. And in case such offender and offenders shall not have sufficient goods or chattells within this Province to satisfy any of the said Penalties respectively hereby imposed for prophaning the Sabbath or Lords day called Sunday as aforesaid, That in Every such case the partie soe offending shall for the first and second offence in that kinde be imprisoned till hee or shee shall publickly in open Court before the cheife Commander Judge or Magistrate, of that County Towne or precinct where such offence shalbe committed acknowledg the Scandall and offence he hath in that respect given against God and the good and civill Governement of this Province, And for the third offence and for every time after shall also bee publickly whipt.
And whereas 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 thereof, Be it Therefore also by the Lord Proprietary with the advise and consent of this Assembly Ordeyned and enacted (except as in this present Act is before Declared and sett forth that noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies [ways] troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beleife or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent, soe as they be not unfaithfull to the Lord Proprietary, or molest or conspire against the civill Governement established or to bee established in this Province under him or his heires. And that all and every person and persons that shall presume Contrary to this Act and the true intent and meaning thereof directly or indirectly either in person or estate willfully to wrong disturbe trouble or molest any person whatsoever within this Province professing to beleive in Jesus Christ for or in respect of his or her religion or the free exercise thereof within this Province other than is provided for in this Act that such person or persons soe offending, shalbe compelled to pay treble [triple] damages to the party soe wronged or molested, and for every such offence shall also forfeit 20s sterling in money or the value thereof, half thereof for the use of the Lord Proprietary, and his heires Lords and Proprietaries of this Province, and the other half for the use of the party soe wronged or molested as aforesaid, Or if the partie soe offending as aforesaid shall refuse or bee unable to recompense the party soe wronged, or to satisfy such fyne [fine] or forfeiture, then such Offender shalbe severely punished by publick whipping and imprisonment during the pleasure of the Lord Proprietary, or his Lieutenant or cheife Governor of this Province for the tyme being without baile or maineprise.
And bee it further alsoe Enacted by the authority and consent aforesaid That the Sheriff or other Officer or Officers from time to time to bee appointed and authorized for that purpose, of the County Towne or precinct where every particular offence in this present Act conteyned [contained] shall happen at any time to bee committed and whereupon there is hereby a forfeiture fyne or penalty imposed shall from time to time distraine and seise [seize] the goods and estate of every such person soe offending as aforesaid against this present Act or any part thereof, and sell the same or any part thereof for the full satisfaccion of such forfeiture, fine, or penalty as aforesaid, Restoring unto the partie soe offending the Remainder or overplus of the said goods or estate after such satisfaccion soe made as aforesaid.
The freemen have assented.
What happened next …
In England, the civil war ended with the eventual defeat of the Puritan-controlled Parliament and restoration of the monarchy in Charles II (1630–1685; reigned 1660–85), the eldest son of Charles I. Upon the death of Charles II, his brother, James II (1633–1701; reigned 1685–88), who had converted to Catholicism, became king. Although the Puritans did not maintain control of the British government, the Catholic Church was not reestablished as the official church of the country. James did, however, try to install Catholics in high positions. Protestant nobles upset by James welcomed Dutch prince William of Orange (William III; 1650–1702; reigned 1689–1702), and his English wife Mary (1662–1694), as king and queen of England. In a bloodless revolution called the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James was forced to abdicate, or give up the throne, to William and Mary.
In England's colonies, religious intolerance diminished in line with events in England. Although some colonies maintained official religions for many years—in some cases, even after the colonies became independent states after the Declaration of Independence in 1776—the right to practice religion freely was guaranteed by the first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted in 1789. Two years later, the states ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights. The first amendment begins with the words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…." The principles of the Maryland Toleration Act had become a part of the basic law of the United States.
Although the law guaranteed the freedom to practice any religion—or none at all—this was not an end to religious intolerance. In the 1840s, significant numbers of Roman Catholics from Ireland and Germany began immigrating to the United States. The reaction was the Know Nothing movement, a group of secretive organizations opposed to the free immigration of Catholics. A similar anti-Catholic reaction occurred from 1915 to 1924, when a large number of Italian immigrants, almost all of them Catholic, arrived. As late as 1960, the Catholicism of U.S. senator John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) of Massachusetts, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, was considered a possible negative factor. In fact, Kennedy narrowly beat his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon (1913–1994), and became the first Catholic to serve as president of the United States.
Did you know …
- Freedom of religion was not the only distinguishing characteristic of colonial Maryland. Part of the colony's royal charter, or license, granted in 1632 to Lord Baltimore called for laws governing the colony to be "of and with the advise, assent, and approbation of the free-men of the said Province, or the greater part of them, or of their delegates or deputies." Other colonies also had provisions for representative government, but in other cases those entitled to vote constituted a relatively small group of men among a much larger population. In Maryland, all free men (that is, men who were not slaves or indentured servants, people who agreed to work for a period of time in exchange for passage) were entitled to a vote. In 1648, a woman, Margaret Brent (1600–1671), tried to vote, but was denied. Women in Maryland were not entitled to vote until 1920, after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
- At the same time the Maryland Toleration Act was passed, in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, blasphemy, a statement showing contempt for God, was punishable by death. The general laws of Massachusetts of 1649 stated: "If any person within this Jurisdiction whether Christian or Pagan shall wittingly and willingly presume to BLASPHEME the holy Name of God, Father, Son or Holy-Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous, or high-handed blasphemy, either by wilfull or obstinate denying the true God, or his Creation, or Government of the world: or shall curse God in like manner, or reproach the holy Religion of God as if it were but a politick device to keep ignorant men in awe; or shal utter any other kinde of Blasphemy of the like nature & degree they shall be put to death."
For More Information
Andrews, Matthew Page. The Founding of Maryland. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century, 1933.
Fisher, Louis. Religious Liberty in America: Political Safeguards. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Ives, J. Moss. The Ark and the Dove; the Beginning of Civil and Religious Liberties in America. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1969.
Let Freedom Ring: The Words That Shaped Our America. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2001.
McGreevy, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
Schwarz, Frederic D. "1649 Three Hundred and Fifty Years Ago." American Heritage (April 1999): p. 138.
Slavicek, Louise Chipley. "Religious Freedom in Colonial America." Cobblestone (January 2000): p. 10.
"Lauues and Libertyes of Massachusetts (1648)." Legal History and Philosophy. Reprinted from the copy of the 1648 edition in The Henry E. Huntington Library, a special edition of The Legal Classics Library, Division of Gryphon Editions, Birmingham, 1982. http://www.commonlaw.com/Mass.html (accessed on January 16, 2004).
"An Act Concerning Religion, April 21, 1649: An Interpretation and Tribute to the Citizen Legislators of Maryland." AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History. http://www.ku.edu/carrie/docs/texts/maryland.htm (accessed on January 15, 2004).
"The Catholic Encyclopedia: Ulrich Zwingli." New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15772a.htm (accessed on January 16, 2004).