The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11

Author: G. L. Davis  | Date: A.D. 1649

Religious Toleration Proclaimed in Maryland

A.D. 1649

G. L. Davis

Whatever peculiar credit may belong to the first colonists in other parts of North America for their services to human rights and liberty, it remains the signal glory of the Maryland founders to have established, almost at the beginning of their enterprise, the principle and practice of religious tolerance, at least within the limits of Christian faith.

From the planting of the colony by Cecilius Calvert, an English Roman Catholic, in 1633, to the formal enactment of "Toleration" was only sixteen years, but the colonists were fully ripened for the step when it was taken. Their new settlement had, in fact, begun "with Catholic and Protestant dwelling together in harmony, neither attempting to interfere with the religious rights of the other, and religious liberty obtained a home, its only home in the wide world, at the humble village which bore the name of St. Mary’s.’"

The charter of Maryland was a compact between a member of the English and a disciple of the Roman Church; between an Anglo-Catholic king and a Roman Catholic noble; between Charles I of England and Cecilius, the second Baron of Baltimore, and the First Lord Proprietary of Maryland. To the confessors of each faith it was the pledge of religious freedom. If not the form, it had the spirit and substance, of a concordat, in a sense quite as strong as any of those earlier charters of the English crown, to which the chief priest of Rome was, in any respect, a party. This is the inference faithfully drawn from a view of the instrument itself; from a consideration of the facts and circumstances attending the grant; and from a study of the various interpretations, essays, and histories of the many discourses and other publications which have appeared upon this prolific theme. It accounts for the prohibition of any construction of the charter inconsistent with the "true Christianreligion.1 This in a grant to the Roman Catholic Proprietary is intended doubtless as a simple security for the members of the English Church.

It suggests the reason, also, why the obligation to establish the religion of Englishmen was omitted in the case of Maryland, but expressly or tacitly imposed, either by the charters or by the orders given to most, if not all, of the other Anglo-American colonies. It is not less in harmony with the supposition of King Charles’ regard for the rights of his Anglo-Catholic brethren, who subsequently came to St. Mary’s, than with that generally admitted sincerity of Lord Baltimore, which cannot be reconciled to the notion of his accepting a grant directly opposed to the principles or to the practice of his own faith. It is supported by the fact that the object of the Calverts, in asking for the charter, was to found a colony, including the members respectively of the English and of the Roman Church—an object which, we cannot doubt, was known to the King who signed the instrument. And it is fully confirmed by the action of the provincial Legislature—the best commentary upon the spirit of the charter—and by one of the first judicial decisions still preserved upon the records.

Such is the meaning of the charter historically interpreted, and such the earliest principle and practice of the government—freedom to the Anglican and freedom to the Roman Catholic—a freedom of conscience, not allowed, but exacted. A freedom, however, of a wider sort springs forth at the birth of the colony—not demanded by that instrument, but permitted by it—not graven upon the tables of stone, or written upon the pages of the statute-book, but conceived in the very bosom of the Proprietary and of the original pilgrims—not a formal or constructive, but a living, freedom—a freedom of the most practical sort. It is the freedom which it remained for them, and for them alone, either to grant or to deny—a freedom embracing within its range, and protecting under its banner, all those who were believers in Jesus Christ. And the grant of this freedom is that which has placed the Proprietary among the first law-reformers of theworld, and Maryland in advance of every State upon the continent.

Our ancestors had seen the evils of intolerance; they had tasted the bitter cup of persecution. Happy is he whose moral sense has not been corrupted by bigotry, whose heart is not hardened by misfortune, whose soul—the spring of generous impulse —has never been dried up by the parching adversities of life! The founders of Maryland brought with them, in the Ark and the Dove, the elements of that liberty they had so much desired, themselves, in the Old World, and which to others in the New, of a different faith, they were too good and too just to deny.

Upon the banks of the St. Mary’s, in the soil of Maryland, amid the wilderness of America, they planted that seed which has since become a tree of life to the nation, extending its branches and casting its shadows across a whole continent. The records have been carefully searched. No case of persecution occurred during the administration of Governor Leonard Calvert, from the foundation of the settlement of St. Mary’s to the year 1647. His policy included the humblest as well as the most exalted; and his maxim was, "Peace to all—proscription of none." Religious liberty was a vital part of the earliest common law of the province.

At the date of the charter (1632) toleration existed in the heart of the Proprietary; and it appeared in the earliest administration of the affairs of the province. But an oath was soon prepared by him, including a pledge from the Governor and the privy counsellors, "directly or indirectly," to "trouble, molest, or discountenance" no "person whatever," in the province, "professing to believe in Jesus Christ." Its date is still an open question; some writers supposing it was imposed in 1637, and others in 1648. I am inclined to think the oath of the latter was but "an augmented edition" of the one in the former year.

The grant of the charter marks the era of a special toleration. But the earliest practice of the government presents the first; the official oath, the second; the action of the Assembly in 1649, the third, and, to advocates of a republican government, the most important phasis, in the history of the general toleration. The oath of 1648 is worthy of attention in another particular. It contained a special pledge in favor of the Roman Catholics—a feature which might have been deemed requisite, in consideration of the fact that the Proprietary had appointed a Protestant gentleman for the post of lieutenant-general or governor. Some also of the privy counsellors were of the same faith.

The little provincial Parliament of Maryland assembled at St. Mary’s, in the month of April, during the year 1649. This was about fifteen years after the landing of the Pilgrims, under Governor Calvert; about thirty years later than the settlement of the Puritans at Plymouth; and more than forty subsequently to the arrival of the Anglo-Catholics at Jamestown, in Virginia. The members of the assembly at St. Mary’s met in a spirit of moderation, but seldom the characteristic of a dominant party. The province was at peace with the aboriginal tribes within its limits. The unhappy contest with Colonel William Clayborne had been virtually terminated; the rebellions of Captain Richard Ingle and other Protestant enemies effectively suppressed; the reins of government recovered, and the principles of order once more established.

Governor Calvert, the chief of the Maryland Pilgrims, after a trying but heroic and honorable administration, had died, amid the prayers and blessings of his friends, without a stain upon his memory. Thomas Green had also for a short period been the governor; and the principal key of authority was then held by Captain William Stone.

The assembly was composed of the Governor, the privy counsellors and the burgesses. In many particulars its model was not unlike that of the primitive parliaments of England. The governor and the privy counsellors were appointed by Cecilius, the feudal prince or proprietary of the province; the burgesses, who were chosen by the freemen, represented the democratic element in the original constitution of Maryland. The delegates were sent by Kent and by St. Mary’s, the only two counties at that time within the limits of the principality; the former upon the east, the latter upon the west, side of "the Great Bay." And while there is no reason for asserting the want of harmony upon the business of this assembly, it is a remarkable fact that for more than two centuries the most strongly marked differences have existed between the shores of the Chesapeake, not only of a geographical, but also of a political, character.

Kent, in the midst of many sad reverses, had grown out of a settlement founded as early as 1630, by Colonel Clayborne, in the spirit of a truly heroic adventure, under the jurisdiction established at Jamestown, and during the administration—it is supposed—of Governor Harvey, upon an island of the Chesapeake called Kent, but then the "Isle of Kent"; a purchase—to quote the Colonel’s own words—from "the kings of that country"; and the original centre of the country represented at St. Mary’s, though now included within the limits of Queen Anne’s—an island still noted for the beauty of its scenery and the wealth of its waters in fish and fowl; and the only dwelling-place of the colonists upon the eastern shore at the time of this assembly; the seat, also, of opulence and elegance at a period anterior to the American Revolution, and presented in the Virginia House of Burgesses before the settlement of St. Mary’s;2 but above all, distinguished as the first focal point of Anglo-American civilization within the present boundaries of the State3 of Maryland.

St. Mary’s, which also had been purchased from the Indians—how honorable to the memory of those who took part in that transaction!—and which had borne the appellation of Augusta-Carolina, included a territory of thirty miles, extending toward the mouth of the Potomac, and embracing the St. Mary’s, which flows into that river. Within this country was also the small city, which had been rounded upon the site of an aboriginal village, and which, like the river upon which it stood, derived its beautiful name from the Blessed Virgin. It was the chief star in a constellation of little settlements and plantations, and for a period of about sixty years was the provincial capital of Maryland; a city of which nothing now remains deserving the dignity of ruins; a few relics only are preserved, the records and everything belonging to the government having long since been removed toAnnapolis, but a spot still consecrated in the affections of the country.

Judging from the number of wholesome laws enacted in 1649, as well as the shortness of their session—for it did not include twenty-five days—it would seem, the assemblymen of this year were certainly not very fond of talking or speechmaking. It appears, also, that some of them, like our Saxon forefathers, could neither read nor write. It can be proved from the records that two of them, at least, were in the habit of making a signet mark. But did they not leave a mark also upon the country and upon the world?

The "Act Concerning Religion"—for that is the title of the law—forms so important a link in the aim of this narrative that its leading provisions should be stated. The design was five-fold: To guard by an express penalty "the most sacred things of God"; to inculcate the principle of religious decency and order; to establish, upon a firmer basis, the harmony already existing between the colonists; to secure in the fullest sense freedom, as well as protection, to all believers in Christianity; and to protect quiet disbelievers against every sort of reproach or ignominy. In determining the different lines and landmarks, a regard, of course, must be had to the spirit of the charter, to the theological notions of the age, and to the character of the elements which then composed the population of the province.

1. The proprietary had the right, upon all doubtful points, to construe the charter in that manner which was most favorable to himself. But no interpretation was allowed inconsistent with the "Sacrosancta Dei" and the "Vera Christiana Religio"—the former implying a prohibition of the most wicked kind of blasphemy, as well as the desecration of the most holy institutions; the latter defining or bounding the pledge of religious freedom to the Roman Catholic by securing the same liberty for the English churchman. And there cannot be reasonable doubt that among statesmen, as well as ecclesiastics, two centuries ago, the Lord’s Day and the Trinity, or fundamental article of revealed religion, were two of the "most sacred" things of God. This fact accounts for the penalty against those who were guilty of violating the sanctity of the "Sabbath," or of "cursing" God; that is, denying the great doctrine of the Athanasian Creed.

2. A history is not an argument. In any other place a dispute indeed upon a question of religious decency would be quite as useless as one upon a point of taste. But the world, either Roman Catholic or Protestant, is hardly yet so wise as to be prepared to condemn Lord Baltimore and the assembly of Maryland for the imposition of a fine of five pounds upon the man who should dare to speak reproachfully of "the Blessed Virgin," or of the heroic evangelists and apostolic martyrs of the primitive Church.

3. There is a striking difference between religious uniformity and social harmony. And it was an object of the law to tolerate the want of the one and to promote the growth of the other. In this particular it was but the development of the policy which had been adopted under the first governor’s administration. Bounded by the preceding explanations, the law throughout breathes the spirit of peace and charity as well as harmony.

4. Freedom in the fullest sense was secured to all believers in Christianity: to Roman Catholics and Protestants; to Episcopalians and Puritans; to Calvinists and Arminians; and to Christians of every other name coming within the meaning of the assembly. A Christian was a believer in Jesus Christ. The belief in Christ was synonymous with a faith in his divinity. And the recognition of his godhead was equivalent—such is the clear intention of the act—to a confession of that article in the apostolic creed which teaches the great doctrine of the Trinity. The act of the assembly also fully explains the oath which had been imposed upon the governor and the privy counsellors. And the believer enjoyed, not only a freedom, but also a protection. He who "troubled, molested, or discountenanced" him was, according to the law, fined for his offence.

5. From the language of the act, as well as the subsequent practice of the government, it is evident that the quiet disbeliever also was protected. A case can easily be given. But it is enough for the reader to look at that section of the law which forbids the application, in a reproachful sense, to "any person or persons whatsoever," of any "name or term" "relating to matter of religion."

The act, it will be observed, covers a very broad ground. It is true, it did not embrace every class of subsequent religionists.A Jew, without peril to his life, could not call the Saviour of the world a "magician" or a "necromancer." A Quaker, under the order of the government, was required to take off his hat in court, or go immediately to the whipping-post. The Mormon, who dignifies polygamy with the notion of a sacrament, who disseminates the Gospel in the propagation of his species, would not have been allowed, we may suppose, to marry more than one woman. But as early as 1659 a well-known nonbeliever in the Trinity lived here, transacted his business, and instituted without objection his suits in the civil courts. Nor were the Jewish disabilities entirely removed till a period long after the American Revolution; and this feature of the law, all things considered, was not more of a reproach to the legislators of 1649 than the constitution of the State to the reformers of 1774.

We have no evidence, indeed, that any Quakers were in Maryland at the passage of the law; and when they came, their case was misunderstood; for the dislike toward them arose from their supposed want of respect for the constituted authorities, and their refusal to take the oath of submission. A constitutional difficulty might also readily occur to anyone, as it certainly did to the Proprietary, who was bound by the charter to maintain the fundamental principles of Anglo-Saxon law, which had always regarded the instrumentality of the oath in the administration of practical justice as the corner-stone of a system. But every disposition was manifested to render them comfortable; and they soon became a flourishing and influential denomination.

Notwithstanding the imperfection which ever marks human legislation, it is wonderful to think how far our ancestors went in the march of religious freedom. The earliest policy of Maryland was in striking contrast with that of every other colony. The toleration which prevailed from the first, and fifteen years later was formally ratified by the voice of the people, must, therefore, be regarded as the living embodiment of a great idea; the introduction of a new element into the civilization of Anglo-American humanity; the beginning of another movement in the progress of the human mind.

1 The words in the English copy of the charter are "God’s holy and true Christian religion"; in the Latin, "Sacrosancta Dei et vera Christiana religio."

2"The Virgintans," says Chalmers, "boasted, with their wonted pride, that the colonists of Kent sent burgesses to their assembly, and were subjected to their jurisdiction, before Maryland had a name." Nor was the boast without foundation. Their early legislative journals show conclusively that the island was represented by Captain Nicholas Martin.

3 The date of the settlement cannot be accurately given. Ethan Allen supposes it was during the year 1629.


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Chicago: G. L. Davis, "Religious Toleration Proclaimed in Maryland," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 304–311. Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2023,

MLA: Davis, G. L. "Religious Toleration Proclaimed in Maryland." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 304–311. Original Sources. 28 May. 2023.

Harvard: Davis, GL, 'Religious Toleration Proclaimed in Maryland' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.304–311. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2023, from