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The Toleration Act of 1649

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Have you ever heard of the concept, 'separation of Church and state'? When the English began settling in the New World, the Maryland colony helped pioneer this idea through the Toleration Act of 1649.

The Reformation and Religious Persecution

How many Christian denominations can you name off of the top of your head? Catholics, Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians...the list goes on and on. Before the Reformation, a period of religious upheaval and change in Europe, there was only one type of Christianity in town: the Catholic Church. During the 1500s, many people began to question the Catholic Church's teachings and practices. This ultimately led to the emergence of new Protestant faiths in Europe. The term 'Protestant' comes from the word 'protest'. These new faiths were quite literally formed in protest of the Catholic Church.

In England, the Reformation took an interesting turn when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from one of his wives. At the time, the Catholic Church had a pretty strict no-divorce policy. Henry decided to go ahead with the divorce, and went on to form his own religion after he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. This is how the Church of England (also referred to as Anglicanism) became the official religion of England. Across England, various aspects of the Catholic faith were eliminated or changed in the new Anglican religion. In addition, countless Catholics were forced to either convert to the new faith, or were persecuted for their religious beliefs.

As you probably know, the colonies in the New World offered religious groups like the Puritans a chance for religious freedom. While the Puritans settled in New England, the Maryland colony would offer Catholics a similar opportunity.

Lord Baltimore and the Maryland Colony

In 1629, George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore, secured a charter for a colony in the New World. Just three years later, his son, Cecil Calvert (also called Lord Baltimore) would begin developing the Maryland colony between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Lord Baltimore had two goals for the Maryland colony:

  • to make money
  • to offer a safe haven for English Catholics

Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore
Second Lord Baltimore

By 1634, the Maryland colony was truly starting to come together. A number of wealthy Catholics settled in the colony, along with numerous Protestant laborers and artisans. Within the following decade, the population of Maryland continued to grow. As a result, Catholic colonists became drastically out-numbered by Protestants. During this time, the Catholic leaders in the community began to worry. What if the Protestant majority in Maryland began to limit the rights of Catholics living in the colony? That would completely defeat one of Lord Baltimore's purposes for the colony! Maryland's government came up with an answer to this question in 1649.

Implementation of the Toleration Act of 1649

In April of 1649, Maryland's leaders met in St. Mary's City, the colony's capital. Of the 12 different acts passed that spring, one of the most significant was 'An Act Concerning Religion', also known as the Toleration Act of 1649.

According to the act, '...no person or persons whatsoever within this province...professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion, nor in the free exercise thereof...' So what exactly does that mean? In essence, the Toleration Act of 1649 made it illegal to prevent any Christian from practicing his or her religion. The act also created fines and penalties for people who broke the law.

Maryland Toleration Act
Maryland Toleration Act

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