Maryland’s Protestant Revolution and the Problem of Religious Freedom

Maryland’s religious history is unique in colonial British North America. We largely remember Maryland as the Catholic colony that embraced religious toleration and religious freedom, in contrast to New England’s stodgily Puritan establishment or Virginia’s scattered Anglican church. Scholars and commentators looking for sources or influences on the First Amendment are consistently drawn to the colony’s justifiably famous 1649 “Act concerning Religion.” This act made it a crime to “declare call or denominate any pson or psons whatsoever inhabiting” Maryland “an heritick, Scismatick, Idolater, puritan, Independant, Prespiterian popish prest, Jesuite, Jesuited papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barro-wist, Roundhead, Sepatist, or any other name or terme in a reproachfull manner relating to matter of Religion.” “[T]he free exercise” of Christian religion was explicitly protected by the act, with repeat violators of their fellow colonialists’ conscience were to be “severely punished by publick whipping & imprisonmt.”[1] The “Act concerning Religion” places Maryland next to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania as one of the colonial regimes committed, for European Christians at least, to religious freedom in the seventeenth century.

The problem, and what makes the colony unique, is that Maryland’s experiment in religious freedom failed.

In 1688, thanks to the opportunity provided by the political turmoil back in Britain, the Catholic Calverts were toppled by a Protestant-led coup. In 1701 the Church of England, with toleration for dissenting Protestants, was established in Maryland. Catholics were largely excluded from political power and their legal rights sharply curtailed. Maryland would become a success story for Anglicanism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. While Anglican establishments were created in some colonies, such as New York, and missionaries flooded into others, like Connecticut, only in Maryland did the Church of England firmly establish itself and become the central social and political denomination until the American Revolution.[2]

For modern Americans this Protestant revolution in the Old Line State is a step backwards. The history of American religion is supposed to be progressive: from the darkness of the establishments of New England and Virginia to the beginnings of religious freedom during the Revolution to our modern pluralistic society. Why did Marylanders misstep? Why did they replace a regime of religious toleration with one of restriction?

Late seventeenth-century Maryland was a religiously bifurcated society. A small Catholic minority, headed by the Calvert family, reigned over a growing Protestant majority. In 1676 Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, reported that “[t]he greatest part of the Inhabitants of [Maryland] (three of four at least) doe consist of Prsesbiterians, Independents Anabaptists and Quakers, those of the Church of England as well as those of the Romish being the fewest.” Each of these denominations supported “a sufficient number of Churches and Houses called Meeting Houses for the people there and these have been built and are still kept in good repaire by a free and voluntary contribution of all such as frequent the said Churches and Meeting Houses.” Calvert painted this situation as placid, and in ways that should be familiar to modern Americans. Maryland was a religiously free colony through laws “made by the advice and consent of the Freemen by their Delegates assembled as well as by the Proprietor and his Council.”[3]

Yet this tolerant regime, committed to the voluntary principle, spawned deep discontent. There was a ceiling to the political aspirations of Protestants. Local elites could, and did, wield considerable influence but the most powerful colony-wide positions were largely reserved for Catholics. The “Act concerning Religion” was also nominally illegal, for the original charter given to the first Lord Baltimore ordered that the new “be dedicated and consecrated according to the Ecclesiastical Laws of our Kingdom of England.” Lack of a privileged place for the Church of England within Maryland violated this instruction. There were also fears on the frontier, where some Marylanders Protestants saw Catholics as dangerous potential allies with the Natives and French—that “the Maryland Papists, [sought] to drive us Protestants to Purgatory within our selves in America, with the help of the French spirits from Canada.”[4]

An undercurrent within this unrest against the Calverts’ regime of religious toleration was a conflict between the Protestant majority and their Catholic proprietors over the nature of religious freedom. This conceptional collision comes across clearly in the justification for their revolution provided by Protestant Associators, those who overthrew the proprietary government. These Protestant leaders noted that “Churches and Chappels, which by the said Charter should be built and consecrated according to the Ecclesiastical lawes of the Kingdom of England, to our greate regrett and discouragement of our religion, are erected and converted to the use of popish Idolatary and superstition, Jesuits and seminarie preists are the only incumbents.” This favoring of Catholicism, in a nominally tolerate colony, had a withering effect on Protestantism.

Lands “given for the maintenance of the Protestant Ministry [have] become escheats, and are taken as forfeit, the ministers themselves discouraged, and noe care taken for their subsistance.” This breach in the supposed neutrality of Maryland’s government ran much deeper just economic privileges. Lord Baltimore and his cronies were accused giving Protestant orphans to be raised by Catholics and “a young woman that has been lately forced by order of Council from her husband committed to the custody of a papist, and brought up in his religion.” “These and many more even infinit pressures and Calamitys” were subjected to Protestants by Catholics. These outrages had a common origin: the failure of the religious regime created by the Calverts.[5]

It was not just that Maryland’s supposedly tolerant regime actually favored Catholics over Protestants. To the Associators toleration was not true religious freedom at all. The lack of a institutional center of gravity created a situation, in the words of the 1692 Associator-dominated assembly, where “many wicked Lewd and disorderly people Prophaned and Neglected” the Sabbath “by working Drunkeness Swearing Gaming & other unlawfull pastimes and debaucheries.”[6] Vice and corruption was allowed to run rampart by the fact that in embracing religious toleration and the voluntary principle the Calverts failed to provide their colony with a moral center. True freedom to the Protestant revolutionaries of late seventeenth-century Maryland was an established, Protestant freedom. The ordered system of the Church of England provided the moral structure necessary for Marylanders to truly practice their religion in freedom—from popery, vice, and irreligion.

That is why Maryland “misstepped” on the path to our modern pluralist conception of religious freedom. Marylanders did not see it as a misstep at all. Rather, what happened in late seventeenth-century Maryland was a collision of conceptions of religious freedom—the pro-Catholic toleration of the Calverts with the Protestant freedom of the Associators. The subsequent Protestant revolution exposes the fundamental weaknesses of religious toleration in seventeenth century. The religious landscape shaped by the “Act concerning Religion,” while committed to the voluntary principle, was one where the minority tolerated the beliefs of the majority. Protestants were locked out of substantial political, social, and economic influence, despite being able to practice their faith openly. In the seventeenth century tolerance bred resentment, not acceptance of other faiths or a pluralist commitment to diversity. Resentment bred revolution.

Maryland’s largely forgotten seventeenth-century Protestant Revolution might have much to remind us about nature of religious toleration and freedom. What the Free State’s experience suggests is that for a regime of religious toleration to survive it must provide more than the narrow ability to practice one’s faith openly. Religious life is intimately tied to political life, thus a regime that commits itself religious freedom without complying political freedom is asking for the sort of contempt bred by the Calverts among Maryland’s Protestants. The same is true in reverse—political freedom without religious freedom can bred the same sort of unrest. Religious practices without political practices to support them, and vice verse, are troubled from the start.

The problem of religious freedom in seventeenth-century Maryland is in some ways a problem for us today. If we are to learn the lesson that Calverts overlooked, we must remember that religious practice, free or no, is intimately linked to political practice.


[1] For the full text of the act, see William Hand Browne, ed., Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland, January 1637/8-September 1664, Reprint, vol. 1, Archives of Maryland (Baltimore: Harry S. Scott Inc., 1965), 244-7, quotations on 244, 246. This toleration had its clear boundaries. The “Act concerning Religion” declared those who “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 ffather sonne and holy Ghost, or the God-head of any of the said Three psons of the Trinity or the Vnity 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 psons thereof, shalbe punished with death and confiscaton or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires.”

[2] There is, in the words of Owen Stanwood, “relatively little scholarship” on Maryland’s Protestant revolution. As I hope this post makes clear this is an interpretative tragedy! The best place to begin is an old, but still excellent and useful, book: Lois Green Carr and David William Jordan, Maryland’s Revolution of Government, 1689-1692 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971). For a brief recent treatment see: Owen Stanwood, The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 106-12. The literature on the late seventeenth and eighteenth century Anglican Church in Maryland is even scarcer. The best (and only) starting point is: Nelson Waite Rightmyer, Maryland’s Established Church (Lebanon: Sowers Printing Company, 1956). The account narrated in this post draws from these secondary sources and my reading of the primary sources.

[3] For Lord Baltimore’s report see: William Hand Browne, ed., Proceedings of the Council of Maryland, 1667-1687/8, Reprint, vol. 5, Archives of Maryland (Baltimore: Harry S. Scott Inc., 1972), 133-4.

[4] For a sense of these anti-French, Catholic, and Indian fears, see the “Complaint from Heaven with a Huy and crye and a petition out of Virginia and Maryland” in Ibid., 134-42. Quotation on 134.

[5] For both this and the above paragraph, see “The Declaration Of the reason and motive for the prest appearing in arms of His Majtys Protestant Subjects in the Province of Maryland” in William Hand Browne, ed., Proceedings of the Council of Maryland, 1687/8-1693, Reprint, vol. 8, Archives of Maryland (Baltimore: Harry S. Scott Inc., 1972), 101-7.

[6] William Hand Browne, ed., Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, April 1684-June 1692, Reprint, vol. 13, Archives of Maryland (Baltimore: Press of the Friedenwald Company, 1972), 421.

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