The Act of Toleration of 1649

Jessica Holmes, Christina Boggs
  • Author
    Jessica Holmes

    Jessica has a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University and a Bachelors in Public History from Western Michigan University, with a State of Michigan Level 2 Professional Librarian Certification. She specializes in historical education and research. Jessica has worked with students of all ages, pre-K through college and adults.

  • Instructor
    Christina Boggs

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

Learn about the Act of Toleration of 1649 and its impact on religion in Colonial Maryland. Explore why it was created, which religions were impacted, and why its legacy is important and relevant today. Updated: 11/22/2021

Table of Contents


Introduction to the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649

The separation of church and state is a political concept that grew from religious discourse throughout history. When settlers arrived in the New World to settle the colonies, some religious groups were seeking safety from the religious rule and persecution of the English monarchy. Maryland was the first colony to address the concept of separation of church and state when it passed the Act of Toleration in 1649, also known as the Maryland Toleration Act.

The Founding of Maryland

The colony of Maryland was chartered in 1632 by King Charles I. George Calvert, also known as the First Lord Baltimore, who applied for a charter to settle a colony in the New World, hoped he could create a colony that was free from religious persecution. Calvert was one of many Catholics who was seeking to flee the religious persecution from the Church of England. Lord Baltimore had plans for his colony to be a religious safe haven but also a profitable settlement, hoping to grow and harvest tobacco in the New World. Lord Baltimore died in 1632 before the charter was granted, but King Charles I granted the colony charter to the first son of Lord Baltimore, Cecilius Calvert, who became the new Lord Baltimore. Maryland was named after King Charles I wife, Henrietta Marie, and in spring 1632, the son of Cecilius, Leonard Calvert, arrived at the colony with 300 settlers. The colonists settled in St. Mary's, and Leonard Calvert was named the first governor of the colony of Maryland. One of the most unique characteristics about the Maryland colony was that in the charter granted by King Charles I, the Calvert family was given both the right to establish a colony in Maryland and ownership of the land that they settled. This unique position established Maryland as the first colony to grant freedom of religion to all persons and would set the precedence for freedom of religion in the New World.

George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore, founded Maryland in 1632.

George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore, founded Maryland in 1632.

Religion in Colonial Maryland

Maryland became a melting pot of religions during this time, becoming home to several Catholics, Protestants, and Puritans. As the colony population increased, lured by the promise of religious freedom, Catholics became the predominant group in the area. Maryland attracted a variety of faiths because many desired a life that was free from religious oversight. While these different religious groups are all considered Christian, they do not necessarily share the same beliefs or follow the same practices. For example, Catholics followed the teachings and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and did not believe that the Bible was the only religious authority, often following the direction and leadership of the Pope. In the contrary, Protestants believed in the teachings of Jesus and closely followed the Bible. The word protestant is derived from ''protest.'' Protestants are those who protested against the teaching of the Catholic church. Lastly, the Puritans, also known as Anglicans, were a subgroup of Protestants, who followed the Church of England which was created by King Henry VIII. The Church of England was created when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife. He was unable to do this because Catholic law did not support divorce. King Henry VIII created The Church of England which he based on Catholicism, but he changed many religious practices including the expectation to convert to Anglicanism. This religious turmoil led to an exodus of Catholics, Protestants, and Puritans who did not want to convert to the Church of England and decided to help settle the colony of Maryland as it offered freedom of religion. These religious groups lived, worked, and settled Maryland with relatively few disputes for many years, even sharing the same chapel for worship. That is until the English Civil War began in 1642 and religious discourse began to unravel as colonists feared they would lose control of the colony and therefore lose the ability to practice religion freely.

The English Civil War and Religious Freedom

The English Civil War, beginning in 1642, resulted from a long-standing history of religious and political oppression in England. The war was nearly a decade long battle between King Charles I and his Royalist party, and the Parliamentarians, over the governing structure of England and issues concerning freedom of religion. In 1649, King Charles I was executed for treason, accused of abusing his power as King. This event led the Maryland colonists to fear that the religious freedom they had been able to enjoy since 1632, was at stake. King Charles had granted the charter and now that he was no longer King, the colonists feared they would lose the freedoms they had been granted. Furthermore, the colony leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, feared that one group might attempt to establish religious law and take control of the colony. As a result, the Maryland Assembly (the governing body of Maryland) passed the Act of Toleration in 1649, which gave colonists the freedom of religion within the Christian faith.

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  • 0:04 Reformation & Persecution
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Enactment of the Act of Toleration in Maryland

When Leonard Calvert died, Lord Baltimore appointed a founding colonist, William Stone, to serve as the next governor. Stone was also a devout Catholic and the move was done to secure Maryland as a safe haven for Catholics. Cecil Calvert proposed a new law and asked that Stone and the Maryland Assembly vote on it. In April 1649, the Maryland Assembly gathered in the colony capital of St. Mary's. Here, the Assembly voted to pass twelve legislative acts and the most notably passed was ''An Act Concerning Religion'' which became the Act of Toleration in 1649.

Key Points in the Toleration Act

The Maryland Toleration Act was not a blanket permission to practice any religion. There were many limitations and stipulations that were included in the act, including limiting acceptable religions to practice, outlining punishments and fines for breaking law, and giving the Assembly the right to withdraw the religious tolerance at any time.

The Act of Toleration of 1649 did the following:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the main idea of the Toleration Act?

The main purpose of the Toleration Act of 1649 was to afford the freedom of religion to colonists. This act only accepted religions within the Christian faith.

Why was the Maryland Toleration Act significant and what were its limitations?

The Maryland Toleration Act was significant because it is the first instance of the separation of church and state found in colonial America. The act had limitations including only tolerating religions in the Christian faith and being able to revoke the freedom of religion at any time.

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