The Most Religiously Tolerant Law of the 17th Century

Preparing for some forthcoming lectures, I came across (again, but had never typed out) the far-reaching and profound Maryland Act of Toleration, passed on April 21 in 1649.

I might be wrong about this, but I think this is the single most tolerant law in the western world up to this point regarding religious freedom.  Many of us on the libertarian side of conservative would balk at its restrictions on speech today–but, still, an incredible law for its day.

It’s not bettered until the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, unanimously passed by the U.S. Congress and allowing for complete freedom of religion, speech, and association.  As my close friend, intellectual ally, and fellow parishioner, John Willson, has argued–the Northwest Ordinance is the most republican law passed in the entirety of the western tradition, and I must happily agree with him.  This 1649 act, however, helped pave the way (not that I believe in moral progress, but sometimes we do learn from the past).

Sadly, a coup in 1689 by anti-Catholics not only rendered this law obsolete but passed the most anti-Catholic laws in the colonies.  The 1689 laws remained in effect (and, generally, got worse–at least on the books; they were rarely enforced) until 1774 when the new Revolutionary Association of Maryland let them fade out of existence.

Here are the provisions.  I’ve paraphrased three of the five points.


Maryland’s Act of Toleration, April 21, 1649.

1.  No blasphemy vs. God.

2.  No derogatory comments regarding Mary or any holy apostles.

3. “upon any occasion of offense or otherwise in a reproachful manner or way, declare, call or denominate, any person or persons whatsoever, inhabiting, residing, trafficking, trading or commercing within this province or within any the ports, harbors, creeks, or havens to the same belonging, an heretic, schismatic, idolator, Puritan, Presbyterian, Independent, Popish priest, Jesuit, Jesuited Papist, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barrowist, Roundhead, Separatist, or other name or term in a reproachful manner relating to matter of religion, shall for every such offense forfeit and lose the sum of ten shillings sterling.”

4.  No profanity on Sundays.

5.  “No person or persons whatsoever within this province or the islands, ports, harbors, creeks, or havens thereunto belonging, professing to believe in Jesus Chris shall from henceforth be anyways 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 there-unto belonging, nor any way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent, so as they be not unfaithful to the Lord Proprietary, or molest or conspire against the civil government, established or to be established in this province under him or his heirs.”



  • Ruth Joy

    It’s ironic that Maryland, under the Catholics, was the most tolerant of the colonies, but would later become most harsh in its laws against the practice of Catholicism or even the education of Catholics.

  • John Hinshaw

    You are absolutely correct. For all of Roger Williams contributions, and they were great, Maryland Catholics don’t get much credit from Americans who owe them. Chesterton was very emphatic on this point, by the way.



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