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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Remembering “Jefferson’s Statute”

b7f1a-summertrip2010316Few documents in the history of American religious freedom are as famous as Virginia’s “[A]ct for establishing religious freedom” – also known as Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom or (more colloquially) as Jefferson’s Statute. A quick glance at Jefferson’s text (carefully edited by the Virginia General Assembly) shows us why. Few other documents are such a clear and powerful exposition on the need for freedom of conscience.[1] The text has also aged well and appeals both sides of our modern church-state conflicts. On one hand the Statute suggests that religious freedom is a gift from god, for the “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and on the other argues that religious beliefs are no different from “our opinions in physics or geometry.”  In the Statute what the twenty-first century reader would think of as distinct “religious” and “secular” discourses are melded with spiritual coercion denounced as both “sinful and tyrannical.”[2] Who can disagree with that? It is no wonder why, then, that Jefferson had his role in drafting Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom engraved on his tombstone. Continue reading