Maryland Act of Toleration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Act of Toleration formally codified the relative religious freedom that Maryland had enjoyed since its founding. While requiring all members of the colony to espouse Trinitarian Christianity, the act recognized the equal validity of Protestantism and Catholicism and forbade anyone from mistreating a colonist based on their affiliation with either of those forms of Christianity.

Summary of Event

In his instructions to his brother Leonard Calvert Calvert, Leonard and to the commissioners leading the first settlers to Maryland in 1633, the colony’s first proprietor, Cecilius Calvert, Calvert, Cecilius second Lord Baltimore, cautioned that “they be very carefull to preserve unity and peace amongst all the passengers on Shipp-board, and that they suffer no scandall nor offence to be given to any of the Protestants. . . .” George Calvert, Calvert, George the first Lord Baltimore and father of Cecilius and Leonard, had died the previous year, before his goal of founding a colony free from religious animosity could be realized. While the sincerity of Lord Baltimore’s position is unquestionable, it was nonetheless also quite necessary to the recruitment of Protestant settlers for the venture. Maryland was envisioned as a colony of religious freedom for all, but especially for Catholics. It would have been impossible, however, to find enough British Catholics willing to emigrate to support an entire colony, so advantages had to be offered men of humbler rank, usually loyal practicing members of the Church of England, to persuade them to participate in an undertaking led by Catholic gentlemen. Catholicism;Maryland Migration;Catholics to Maryland [kw]Maryland Act of Toleration (Apr. 21, 1649) [kw]Toleration, Maryland Act of (Apr. 21, 1649) [kw]Act of Toleration, Maryland (Apr. 21, 1649) Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 21, 1649: Maryland Act of Toleration[1650] Religion and theology;Apr. 21, 1649: Maryland Act of Toleration[1650] Social issues and reform;Apr. 21, 1649: Maryland Act of Toleration[1650] Colonization;Apr. 21, 1649: Maryland Act of Toleration[1650] American Colonies;Apr. 21, 1649: Maryland Act of Toleration[1650] Toleration, Act of (1649) Maryland

Some Catholics took advantage of the freedom of religion to proselytize among colonists, as well as among the native populations of the colony. To seek to convert colonists was illegal, however, and it was punished, because religious toleration was practiced from the first. Maryland was indeed unique. Nowhere else had anyone experimented with the concept that Protestants and Catholics could live together amicably and enjoy political and religious equality. Anyone who dared attempt to force his beliefs upon another could expect to meet the fate of one William Lewis, Lewis, William a Catholic who was fined heavily in 1638 for proselytizing among the Protestants.

Cecilius Calvert, loyal to his father’s purpose, encouraged missionary work by all Christians among the Maryland Indians, and Catholics and Protestants used the same chapel for their services of worship. Cecilius Calvert had determined that there should be no established church in Maryland; likewise, he believed that the government should not interfere in spiritual matters. Because of this policy, Maryland was able to attract non-Catholics from England and even Puritans and Anglicans from New England.

In ensuring the first of these tenets, the first proprietor became involved in a long dispute with the Jesuit missionaries in the colony. Claiming that they were exempt from civil authority, the Jesuits wanted to obtain land directly from the Indians rather than through the proprietary, as the charter specified. They also demanded special privileges, such as exemption from paying quitrents and preferred treatment for their retainers and servants. Lord Baltimore finally prevailed when the Jesuits’ father provincial ordered them to renounce their claims.

The decade between 1640 and 1650 was an inauspicious time to try to stabilize a colony founded on the principle of religious toleration. Leonard Calvert barely managed to recover the province after he was forced to flee to Virginia in 1644 by William Claiborne, Claiborne, William a troublemaker of long standing. Claiborne captured Kent Island, and Richard Ingle Ingle, Richard took the village of Saint Marys and plundered the colony. The combination of American discord and England’s Civil War was almost fatal for Lord Baltimore’s proprietorship. Only through his shrewdness was he able to ward off revocation of his charter by the triumphant Puritans, and as it was, Catholics and loyalists were threatened with imprisonment and confiscation of their property.

Amid this turmoil, Lord Baltimore drafted the famous document “An Act Concerning Religion,” which has come to be known as the Toleration Act. The General Assembly passed the measure on April 21, 1649. Since toleration had been practiced from the colony’s founding, the act represented no change in Lord Baltimore’s policy. It apparently was passed in order to refute the charge by those who had tried to annul the charter that the colony was a hotbed of popery.

The act had two parts, each with its own preamble, but the second part, positive in its sentiment, was apparently framed by Cecilius Calvert. This section proclaimed that no person “professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced, for or in respect of his or her Religion, nor in the free Exercise thereof within this Province.” It further provided for the punishment of anyone failing to respect these rights. The first clause of the act was added later by the General Assembly, then controlled by a Protestant-Puritan majority, to accord with an act passed by Britain’s Long Parliament in 1648 to punish heresies and blasphemies. As punishment for blasphemy, or for denying the Holy Trinity or that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, it prescribed the penalty of death and confiscation of property. Paradoxically, the next section again emphasized toleration, prohibiting disparagement “in a reproachful manner” of any religious group and stipulating penalties for offenders. Finally, the act forbade swearing, drunkenness, recreation, and labor on the Sabbath.


The Toleration Act did not guarantee complete religious liberty, freedom of thought, or separation of church and state. The first part, added by the General Assembly, actually represented a regression, since it formally limited toleration to Trinitarian Christians. What the act did accomplish was the official, formal expression of the toleration of Catholics and Protestants for each other’s beliefs that had been practiced since 1634. It was the first such document in the New World, where several other groups of European settlers had come seeking religious freedom but always in relatively homogeneous religious communities.

Following an investigation into the colony by Parliamentary commissioners, a Puritan-dominated assembly was called on October 30, 1654. The assembly repudiated Lord Baltimore’s authority, repealed the Toleration Act, and replaced it with an act denying Catholics protection. When the Calverts regained control in 1657, however, Lord Baltimore promised to stand firm for “An Act Concerning Religion.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Charles M. The Settlements. Vol. 2 in The Colonial Period of American History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Writing from the English point of view, the author places the Calverts into their British context, demonstrating the practical nature of the proprietors in promoting religious toleration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Matthew P. The Founding of Maryland. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1933. The Catholic founders of the colony, from the start, promoted religious toleration and punished only those who bothered their colonial neighbors by proselytizing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craven, Wesley F. The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607-1689. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949. Chapters 6 and 7 provide an introduction to Maryland’s beginnings, especially in religious matters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Clayton C., ed. Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1946. This collection of original documents includes Lord Baltimore’s instructions to the colonists, the text of the Act of Toleration, and various firsthand accounts of the early years of the Maryland colony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanley, Thomas. Their Rights and Liberties: The Beginnings of Religious and Political Freedom in Maryland. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1959. Argues that the principles of religious freedom were in evidence long before the Act of Toleration, and those principles were much more extensive than the Puritan Assembly eventually permitted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hennessey, James. “Catholics in an American Environment: The Early Years.” Theological Studies 50 (1989): 657-675. Lord Baltimore considered conscience, not political expedience or civil authority, as paramount when it came to colonists. However, he did not extend his concept of conscience to the natives of the colony, whom he considered idolaters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krugler, John D. English and Catholic: The Lord Baltimores in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Describes how the Calverts’ resolved the conflict between their loyalty to England and their Catholic faith, including their experiments with religious freedom in Maryland. Focuses on George Calvert’s career, nationalism, desire for fame and fortune, and deepening sense of Catholicism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lasson, Kenneth. “Free Exercise in the Free State: Maryland’s Role in Religious Liberty and the First Amendment.” Journal of Church and State 31 (1989): 419-449. The author argues that Maryland colonial experience helped shape the eventual policy of the new nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steiner, Bernard C. Beginnings of Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1903. Relations between Protestants and Catholics are covered well in this general history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terrar, Edward. “Was There a Separation Between Church and State in Mid-Seventeenth Century England and Colonial Maryland?” Journal of Church and State 35 (1993): 61-82. Terrar maintains there was not only religious toleration in the colony, but there was also an inchoate separation of church and state, largely through the leadership of the Calverts.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

George Calvert; Charles I; Anne Hutchinson; Roger Williams. Toleration, Act of (1649) Maryland

Categories: History