In a remarkable piece of legislation, the General Assembly of Maryland in 1649 passed the celebrated Maryland Toleration Act (some called the Religion Toleration Act). It passed that body, the majority of whom were Catholics, without a dissenting voice.
The Act reads:
“And whereas, the enforcing of the conscience in matters of religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous consequence in those commonwealths where it hath been practiced, and for the more quiet and peaceable government of the province and the better to preserve mutual love and amity amongst the inhabitants thereof: Be it therefore enacted that noe person or persons whatsoever within this province. . . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall henceforth be in any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion or in the free exercise thereof within this province nor in anything compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent.”
The principle of the “free exercise” of Trinitarian religion without being “troubled, molested or discountenanced” would soon provide a safe haven for a large group of Puritans who emigrated from England to Virginia during the 1620s through the 1630s. They settled south of the James River, assuming that Virginia would be more tolerant of them as “dissenters” from the established Church, than the other colonies.
Yet with the arrival in 1642 of Virginia’s new governor, Sir William Berkeley, attitudes shifted against the Puritans, spurred by the conflict between Charles 1st and his Parliament. As ordered directly by the King, Berkeley began using all means to bring about conformity to the Church of England. That same year Virginia made it illegal for citizens not to worship in the Anglican church and support it with taxes. In 1643 Governor Berkeley and the General Assembly passed legislation ordering that, “all nonconformists . . . shall be compelled to depart the collony with all conveniencie.”
In search of refuge, they went north to Maryland, where at their pleading as religious refuges Governor William Stone, as guided by the Toleration Act, set aside a large tract of land on the Severn, which they called Providence, now Annapolis.
Not long after, the news reached the colonies of the trial and execution of Charles 1st and Cromwell’s subsequent assumption of the title, Lord Protector. As a result, in 1653 Parliament sent a commission to Maryland, including William Claiborne, who with the help of Protestant members of the Assembly repealed the Toleration Act in 1654, making it illegal for Catholics to openly practice their faith, declaring, “That none who profess and exercise the Papistic, commonly known as the Roman Catholic religion, can be protected in this province.”
This was only a decade after Maryland had offered the Puritans asylum from persecution in Virginia! The Puritans declared also Catholics ineligible as either members or electors.
This lawless usurpation of power, using the means of self-ruled gangs, flaunted the province by condemning ten Catholics to death, desecrating churches and mission houses, destroying Catholic property and rounding up Jesuit priests to be chained and shipped back to England for trial.
To stem the purge, Lord Baltimore appealed to Cromwell to call a halt to the strife. The Lord Protector sent word to Maryland, “not to busy themselves about religion, but to settle the civil government.” An uneasy alliance of sorts was worked out, yet under a complexity of English politics the return to religious tolerance was still several years away.
Under the direction of Lord Baltimore, ousted Governor Stone raised a small Catholic army to defeat the Puritans and drive them from the Severn. The Battle of the Severn was over in under an hour, forty of Stone’s men were killed, and he himself was wounded and captured by the Puritans. Stone and nine others were condemned to death but he and five others were saved when the women of Providence begged for mercy. Four prisoners were duly executed for treason.
Lord Baltimore was restored his proprietorship by Cromwell, but civil unrest continued until 1660 when Charles 2nd ascended the throne, thus ending the era of Puritan political dominance and returning Lord Baltimore’s colony to his full proprietorship. In 1658 the Toleration Act was passed once again by the Maryland assembly. It would remain in place until 1692 when Maryland’s Protestants once again overthrew the government, repealed the Act and made the public practice of Catholicism illegal.