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An Early Law for Religious Toleration

Large_Broadside_on_the_Maryland_Toleration_ActProvisions for religious toleration began to enter the laws of the American colonies as early as mid-17th century. The first law granting a degree of religious freedom was passed by the Maryland General Assembly of Freemen in April 1649. It was supported by the proprietor of the colony, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a Catholic who wanted to protect Catholic settlers in the colony from persecution. Religious toleration was already practiced in the colony, since the Calverts had encouraged Protestants as well as Catholics to settle there. Yet passage of the Toleration Act now seemed urgent given events in England, where Parliament had recently executed Charles I and instituted Puritan rule. The specific provision for toleration was preceded by a long list of penalties for blasphemy, perhaps, as some historians have suggested, to blunt the novelty of the key passage:

And whereas the inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealthes where it hath been practised, And for the more quiett and peaceable governemt of this Province, and the better to pserve mutuall Love and amity amongst the Inhabitants thereof. (5) Be it Therefore also by the Lo: Proprietary with the advise and consent of this Assembly Ordeyned & enacted (except as in this psent Act is before Declared and sett forth) that noe person or psons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beleife or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent, soe as they be not unfaithfull to the Lord Proprietary, or molest or conspire against the civill Governemt established or to bee established in this Province vnder him or his heires.

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