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.

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Just How Free Was Religious Life in the Early American Republic?

Religious liberty, perhaps, is the key legacy of the Revolutionary generation. The new United States was a society where slavery was a growing economic force, gender inequality was becoming entrenched, and the new nation’s expansion relied on the exploitation and expropriation of Native Americans. If there was one freedom, however, on the march in the early republic it was religious freedom. The progress of religious freedom in the United States was also the progress of religion itself. “[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the state” noted James Madison, that famous advocate of religious liberty, in an 1819 letter.[1] Religious freedom, then, is the American freedom. This has been the animating assumption behind most scholarship on the religious development of late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Continue reading