Two Acts of Toleration: 1649 and 1826


Founding of MarylandOn April 2, 1649, at St. Mary's City, then the capital of Maryland, freemen gathered for a meeting of the General Assembly in the St. Mary's room of Governor Stone's house, the foundations of which can seen today at Historic St. Mary's City. Acting as representatives of the people, they were to consider sixteen bills for possible approval as laws of the province. Since many of the contemporary records have been lost, little is known today of all that happened in that session of the Assembly. Certain it is, however, that nineteen days later, on April 21, the freemen voted twelve of the proposed bills into law. Among them was An Act Concerning Religion.

From time to time, in the long struggle of the American people toward complete religious liberty, several colonies - especially Rhode Island and Pennsylvania - made notable contributions. Maryland's gift to the common cause was this Act Concerning Religion-- one of the pioneer statutes passed by the legislative body of an organized colonial government to guarantee any degree of religious liberty. Specifically, the bill, now usually referred to as the Toleration Act, granted freedom of conscience to all Christians.

Then, in 1649, the freemen had approved An Act Concerning Religion part of which stated that, "no person or persons whatsoever within this province . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion, nor in the free exercise thereof...." This Act of Religious Toleration, like Lord Baltimore's policy of separating church and state, was far ahead of its time.

The purpose of the vague religious clause in the charter he perceived with the utmost clarity. It was to prevent a repetition in the colony of the unhappy religious and political troubles prevalent in England. Accordingly, he made every effort to impress upon his settlers the necessity for avoiding religious controversy.

In 1649 Cecil Calvert submitted to the General Assembly a series of proposals, which, so he wrote in an accompanying letter, had been suggested to him - by whom we do not know. The proposed sixteen laws, however, covered a range of subjects so wide that they may well have been designed for the primary purpose of strengthening his tottering position as Lord Proprietary of Maryland. Among them was an act for punishing counterfeiters of the seal of the province, and another to punish offenders against the peace and safety of the colony. But most important of all - since politics and religion were closely interwoven - was An Act Concerning Religion.

The Maryland Assembly, whose membership by this time was about half Protestant, considered the proposals. Some of its more conservative members, no doubt, were as full of anxiety and foreboding as was Lord Baltimore back in England; to them the old order seemed to be collapsing before the strange idea of a government more responsive to the freemen's wishes. But other members were feeling their power to create a government by the consent of the governed, and they showed it. They refused to accept His Lordship's proposals en bloc; four of them they rejected, and some of the remaining twelve they proceeded to rewrite. In the end, on April 21, they endorsed the bulk of them as substantially sensible, just and right.

The first of those approved was An Act Concerning Religion. From internal evidence it is clear that this was one of the bills partially rewritten. It begins with a terrific and lengthy blast against profane swearers, blasphemers, Sabbath breakers, and others of the ungodly. This section had nothing to do with the main purpose of the act, and it is reasonably certain that Baltimore did not write it. It may even have been camouflage to obscure the latter section which granted toleration. However, to assume, as some have done, that the first section was a repudiation of the spirit of tolerance constitutes an unwarranted removal of the act from its historical setting. Severe laws against blasphemy and similar crimes had been on the statute books of England and other European countries for generations.

In any event, the act was remarkably comprehensive. Its provision that no man should "be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion " was tolerance. But it went further. In a previous clause, it imposed fines and imprisonment on anyone who should in a reproachful manner or way apply certain terms to other persons to disparage their religion. This went beyond mere tolerance, and looked toward fellowship, understanding and complete freedom of conscience.

True, toleration in Maryland temporarily was struck down only five years after its enactment. By 1654, the conflict in England was over, but postwar hysteria flooded the colony like a tidal wave. Cromwell was seated firmly in England's saddle; only death would dislodge him. Zealous Maryland Puritans, caught in the emotional frenzy, swept away the Act of Toleration and put Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Atheists, and all dissenters under disabilities as oppressive as any imposed in America.

In enacting this legislation, Maryland was among the world's leaders. It is an honor of which she cannot be deprived, and a great honor when one considers what followed. The step taken at St. Mary's was an important part of the movement toward religious freedom which reached its national climax in 1791 with the addition of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which says, in part, that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first amendment, in separating church and state, made profitless a war using religion as a pretext, and the United States of America remains today one of the few large nations in the history of the world that, from its foundation, has never been torn by the conflict of religious strife. Yet, what was made national policy in 1791 would remain unattainable at the state level in Maryland for several decades longer. Not until the Constitution of 1867 would religion cease to be a test for public office holding, although provisions were made to accommodate non-Christians as officeholders in 1825.

Despite the experience of nearly forty years of toleration under the 1649 An Act Concerning Religion, the framers of the Maryland Constitution of 1776 provided only that "all persons professing the Christian religion are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty." This exclusion of non-Christians from a Constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience was extended in Article 35: "No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State... and a declaration of belief in Christian religion."

The exclusion of all who would not profess the Christian faith from positions of public trust in the state of Maryland continued until Thomas Kennedy, a man of Scottish Presbyterian origins, took up the fight "to consider the justice and expediency of placing the Jewish inhabitants on equal footing with the Christians."

Thomas Kennedy was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1817, representing Hagerstown. From the very beginning of his legislative career, he demonstrated an interest in social issues. In the words of his granddaughter, he "took an active part in politics largely...because of his interest in religious freedom." Because of this interest, he was, in 1818, placed on a committee in the House that was to consider removing the "political disability of the Jews."

At the time, there were only about 150 Jews in Maryland. Thomas Kennedy had never even met one, but he was outraged by the injustice of excluding an entire group of people because of their religious beliefs. For him, religion was "a question which rests, or ought to rest, between man and his Creator alone." The bill reported out of the committee in January 1819 was entitled "An Act to extend to the sect of people professing the Jewish religion the same rights and privileges that are enjoyed by Christians." When it was defeated, Kennedy pledged himself to renew the fight. The following year, Kennedy reintroduced the bill and it was defeated again by a wide margin.

These efforts to secure religious liberty for the Jews brought him virulent attacks as "an enemy of Christianity" and a "Judas Iscariot" and, in the election of 1823, Kennedy was defeated by Benjamin Galloway, who had spoken out strongly against the "Jew Bill." Even while out of office, Kennedy declared his intention to continue the fight: "although exiled at home, I shall continue to battle for the measure, aye, until my last drop of blood."

In 1825, Kennedy ran for the House of Delegates as an independent and was elected. By this time, public and press opinion in the state had turned in favor of the measure and, in 1826, the bill became law. A few months later, two Jews were elected to the Baltimore City Council. Having fully accomplished what he had set out to do some eight years earlier, Thomas Kennedy returned to Hagerstown where he put his long interest in writing to use by establishing the Hagerstown Mail. His fellow citizens again prevailed upon him to represent them in the General Assembly, and he was elected to the state Senate to serve out the term of a member who had died. He sat in the Senate from 1826 to 1831 but found that he preferred the Lower House and returned to that body in the next election. An epidemic of asiatic cholera claimed Thomas Kennedy's life in October 1832.

The bill that Thomas Kennedy helped to pass extended political rights to Jews, but it still required that an officeholder profess belief in a "future state of rewards and punishments." This requirement was retained in the Maryland Constitution of 1851 and was not dropped until the present Maryland Constitution was adopted in 1867.

SOURCE: Adapted from Maryland State Archives, "Two Acts of Toleration: 1649 and 1826"

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 2: The History of the Studentsí Own State or Region 

STANDARD 3: The people, events, problems, and ideas that created the history of their state.

Standard 3D The student understands the interactions among all these groups throughout the history of his or her state. 

3-4: Analyze the significance of major events in the stateís history, their impact on people then and now, and their relationship to the history of the nation. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] 

Standard 3E The student understands the ideas that were significant in the development of the state and that helped to forge its unique identity. 

3-4: Analyze how the ideas of significant people affected the history of their state. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 

Topic 3: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the People from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic, and Political Heritage 

STANDARD 4: How democratic values came to be, and how they have been exemplified by people, events, and symbols. 

Standard 4A: The student understands how the United States government was formed and the nationís basic democratic principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

K-4: Explain the importance of the basic principles of American democracy that unify us as a nation: our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; responsibility for the common good; equality of opportunity and equal protection of the law; freedom of speech and religion; majority rule with protection for minority rights; and limitations on government, with power held by the people and delegated by them to their elected officials who are responsible to those who elected them to office. [Demonstrate and explain the influence of ideas] 
K-4: Analyze how over the last 200 years individuals and groups in American society have struggled to achieve the liberties and equality promised in the principles of American democracy. [Analyze continuity and change]

Standard 4B: The student understands ordinary people who have exemplified values and principles of American democracy. 

K-4: Identify ordinary people who have believed in the fundamental democratic values such as justice, truth, equality, the rights of the individual, and responsibility for the common good, and explain their significance. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 
K-4: Analyze in their historical context the accomplishments of ordinary people in the local community now and long ago who have done something beyond the ordinary that displays particular courage or a sense of responsibility in helping the common good. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Excerpt from the Original Official Recording of An Act Concerning Religion
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings) 1637-1657 MSA S1071-4
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: An Act Concerning Religion
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1689 printing
    SOURCE: CO5 718, pt. 1, f. 51
    REPOSITORY: Public Record Office, Great Britian

  3. DESCRIPTION: An Act Concerning Religion, ff. 354, 355, 356, 357, 358, 359
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: April 21, 1649
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: An Act for the Relief of Jews in Maryland, ff. 1, 2
    SOURCE: GENERAL ASSEMBLY (Laws, Original). MSA S 966-182
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

Additional Media Resources

THOMAS KENNEDY: Maryland Legislator Who Made A Difference. From the Maryland State Archives

Additional Instructional Resources

Religious Toleration in Maryland, April 21, 1649  
An Interpretation and Tribute to the Citizen Legislators of Maryland. Includes Maryland Act of Toleration, 1649, original and transcription, and An Act for the Relief of the Jews in Maryland, 1825.

The Strength of our Diversity, 1634-1900
Includes images and documents mostly focused on immigration which reveal the ethnic, racial, economic, and religious diversity in Maryland. This packet is a sampler of documentary sources, both text and graphics.

Daily Life in the New World, 1634-1715. Archives of Maryland (Documents for the Classroom) MSA SC 2221-3.

Writing It All Down: The Art of Constitution Making for the State and the Nation, 1776-1833. Archives of Maryland (Documents for the Classroom) MSA SC 2221-4. 

Maryland State Archives Museum Online - Religious Freedom Under Law

Secondary Resources

Brugger, Robert. "From Province to Colony (1634-1689)." In Maryland: A Middle Temperament. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Maryland Historical Society, 1988.

Durand de Dauphine. A Huguenot Exile in Virginia; or Voyages of a Frenchman exiled for his Religion with a Description of Virginia and Maryland [1687]. New York: The Press of the Pioneers, Inc., 1934.

Everstine, Carl N. "Maryland's Toleration Act: An Appraisal." Maryland Historical Magazine 79, no. 2, (Summer 1984): 99-116.

Fausz, J. Frederick. "By Warre Upon Our Enemies and Kinde Usage of Our Friends: The Secular Context of Religious Toleration in Maryland, 1620-1660" (Published privately by the author, 1983).

Krugler, John D. "With Promise of Liberty in Religion: The Catholic Lords Baltimore and Toleration in Seventeenth-Century Maryland, 1634-1692." Maryland Historical Magazine 79, no. 1, (Spring 1984): 21-43.

Papenfuse, Edward C. "Citizen Legislators and Toleration." Remarks to the House and Senate of Maryland, March 25, 1999

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.


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