Romanticizing Religious Freedom

It is common wisdom that the New World became a haven for religious freedom, allowing Puritans, Catholics, and other minority religious groups to settle where they might practice their faith in peace.  However, the truth is more complicated, as demonstrated in various documents found in the Early State Records collection.

A good example can be found in the history of Maryland, when a perilous journey was accepted in exchange for religious tolerance and hopeful economic benefits.  As found in LLMC #35580, the June 2, 1632 Charter of Maryland granted a proprietary colony to Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore.  He then began a great experiment in religious freedom, particularly for Catholics, although he was also interested in the financial benefits of the New World.  A 1646 document, A Moderate and Safe Expedient to remove Jealousies and Feares, and danger, or prejudice to this State, by the Roman Catholicks of this Kingdome.., appealed to Parliament to grant Catholics freedom of religion or to sell their property in England and immigrate to Maryland (LLMC #35579).  The document argued that Lord Baltimore's planned Catholic colony would provide monetary and other benefits for England, as well as ensuring that English Catholics remain loyal subjects.

As the colony developed, so did laws for the protection of Catholics and other religions. The Laws of Maryland Concerning Religion, also called the Maryland Toleration Act, mandated religious tolerance for Christians who believed in the Trinity of God (and death to the blasphemers and deniers of Jesus).  Passed on April 21, 1649 by the Assembly of the Maryland Colony, the law fined those who, in a reproachful manner, called others such names as “Roundhead,” “Papist,” “Lutheran,” and other names considered to be derogatory (LLMC #35554)[1].   Maryland thus became a haven for English Catholics still suffering from the Protestant Reformation.

However, as the population expanded and new Protestant settlers, particularly Puritans, moved to Maryland, this acceptance was challenged.  In 1655, John Langford's A Just and Cleere Refutation of a False and Scandalous Pamphlet (LLMC # 35582) was published in London; it vigorously defended the proprietors' policy in the colony and challenged criticisms in Leonard Strong's Babylon's Fall in Maryland regarding the governmental system and acceptance of religious differences.  Indeed, an early rebellion against the government occurred in 1655, as described in the French news sheet Recueil des gazettes.  The newspaper depicted an account of the Battle of Severn between the Puritans of Providence and Lord Baltimore's followers in March (LLMC #35581), resulting in a brief rule of Maryland by the Puritans.

Although Baltimore was restored to power rather quickly, a growing dissension erupted in 1689 following the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” in England, when Catholic James II was replaced by Protestant King William III and Queen Mary II.  An August 26, 1689 Address of the representatives of the Protestant subjects of the Province of Maryland to King William III, complained against the "Popist" governors who were appointed by Lord Baltimore (LLMC #35557).  A 1689 pamphlet entitled The Declaration of the reasons and motives for the present appearing in arms of their Majesties Protestant Subjects in the Province of Maryland stated the "Protestant Association's" grievances against Lord Baltimore and Council, sufficient to justify Protestants John Coode and Nehemiah Bakiston’s overthrow of the proprietary Catholic government.  (LLMC # 35585).  Shortly thereafter, Lord Baltimore lost proprietary control in Parliament and Maryland became a royal colony (See LLMC #35597 for an excellent discussion of the various laws and actions during this period, as told in a 1766 letter from a “Gentleman in Annapolis.”). 

Maryland’s tolerance ended, and persecution began, as seen in The Laws of the Province of Maryland relating to the Church and the Clergy, Religion and Learning, compiled by Nicholas Trott and printed in 1721 (LLMC #35551).  Included was the Church Act, which repealed Maryland Act of Toleration and established the Church of England as its state church, with funds provided for the maintenance of ministers.   An Act to prevent the growth of “Popery” within the Province of Maryland, including the prosecution of priests, was passed in 1704, and remained in effect until 1718.  Irish servants who were Catholic were subject to a substantial duty upon their arrival in Maryland, in an attempt to minimize their numbers, while Catholics were also prevented from holding public office.   In 1756, a House bill even “excepted” men who were “Papists” from serving in the militia, along with “Neutrals, Servants, and Slaves” (LLMC #35593). 

Elsewhere, however, positive changes in small incremental steps did occur.  While some changes prevented the establishment of a particular church in a state (see, William Tennant’s 1777 speech against the establishment of the Church of England in North Carolina, LLMC #21205), ultimately the United States adopted the First Amendment in 1789: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This long and winding road to religious freedom, as found in the Early State Records collection, will prove to be both sobering and inspirational for researchers. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

[1] See also the 1762 two-volume set of the Charters of the Province of Pennsylvania, which contained the 1701 Charter of Privileges, which provided for the liberty of conscience and religious worship, although some portions were repealed (LLMC #35441).