As we enter into a period of radical uncertainty regarding religious freedom—especially for Catholics, as witnessed most recently by the anti-confession laws in California—it is worth re-considering America’s track record on the issue. Frankly, it’s not good. Or, perhaps, it’s better to state, when it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

Our standard textbooks, sadly, tell a false story. Not only do they claim “religious freedom” from the beginning of colonial settlement, but they also attempt to do so by identifying each colony as a place of refuge for a particular denomination. New England for the Puritans (Calvinists), Pennsylvania for the Quakers, Maryland for the Catholics, Virginia for the Anglicans, etc. What our textbooks fail to note, however, is that these colonies which might very well offer complete religious freedom to one denomination rarely do the same for competitor denominations. Virginia, for example, encouraged the members of the Church of England to the nth degree, but they persecuted Calvinists, Baptists, and any other dissenters. New England despised Catholics, but they hated the Baptists even more.

Outside of a minor attempt in colonial Pennsylvania to offer some religious freedom and Maryland, briefly, to offer complete religious freedom, the thirteen colonies were rapidly intolerant of multiple denominations. Given the frontier, there was a considerable amount of freedom, but only because the frontier allowed one to flee an oppressive situation and take refuge in the wilderness with its absence of laws.

Maryland provides the fascinating exception that proves the rule. Founded by a small group of Catholics in the 1630s, Maryland grew increasingly tolerant of all Christian (and non-Christian) sects throughout the 1630s, 1640s, and 1650s. It did so, however, through a tradeoff. The colony could not recognize freedom of religious worship with freedom of speech and privileged the former against the latter. By 1649, the colony of Maryland possessed, arguably, the most tolerant attitude anywhere in the modern world regarding religion. Any person—as a resident or as a sojourner—enjoyed complete and utter religious freedom to choose or not choose as one saw fit. (N.B. If any other place in the world—in Western or Eastern civilization—so lovingly protected religious freedom, I have yet to identify it.) As a way to protect religious freedom in the April 21, 1649 “Act of Toleration,” the colony also passed a number of speech codes and restrictions. First, no person could publicly in any way, shape, or form denigrate the name, the essence, or the attributes of God in His monotheistic and Trinitarian forms. Second, no person could publicly mock the Blessed Virgin Mary or any of the twelve apostles, with the exception, of course, of Judas.

Third, and most interestingly, one could not mock or denominate any persons not of their sect. The text is worth quoting here in full:

And be it also further Enacted by the same authority advise and assent that whatsoever person or persons shall from henceforth uppon any occasion of Offence or otherwise in a reproachful manner or Way declare call or denominate any person or persons whatsoever inhabiting, residing, traffiqueing, trading or comerceing within this Province or within any the Ports, Harbors, Creeks or Havens to the same belonging an heritick, Scismatick, Idolator, puritan, Independant, Prespiterian popish prest, Jesuite, Jesuited papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barrowist, Roundhead, Separatist, or any other name or terme in a reproachfull manner relating to matter of Religion shall for every such Offence forfeit and loose the somme of tenne shillings sterling or the value thereof to bee levyed on the goods and chattells of every such Offender and Offenders, the one half thereof to be forfeited and paid unto the person and persons of whom such reproachfull words are or shalbe spoken or uttered, and the other half thereof to the Lord Proprietary and his heires Lords and Proprietaries of this Province. But if such person or persons who shall at any time utter or speake any such reproachfull words or Language shall not have Goods or Chattells sufficient and overt within this Province to bee taken to satisfie the penalty aforesaid or that the same bee not otherwise speedily satisfyed, that then the person or persons soe offending shalbe publickly whipt, and shall suffer imprisonment without baile or maineprise [bail] untill hee, shee or they respectively shall satisfy the party soe offended or greived by such reproachfull Language by asking him or her respectively forgivenes publiquely for such his Offence before the Magistrate of cheife Officer or Officers of the Towne or place where such Offence shalbe given.

However noble Maryland’s attempt, it ultimately failed. With the so-called Glorious Revolution in England, radical Protestants (of the Church of England) overthrew the existing government in Maryland and repealed all laws of toleration. Not only would one, by law, support financially the Church of England, but he must also become a practicing member of that denomination. While the 1689 laws forbade membership in any other Church, they hit Catholics hardest. Over the next several years, intolerance increased dramatically against Catholics, and Catholics were forbidden to attend Mass, assemble in public (or private), to testify in a court of law, or to raise a child “in a Catholic fashion.”

All of the colonies had similar laws, but none were as drastic as those enforced in Maryland. In ways that no modern historian has studied or come to understand, almost every one of those discriminatory laws in Maryland and elsewhere simply faded out of favor and existence during the revolutionary years of 1774, 1775, and 1776, as governments transitioned from sanctioned to extra legal. In those years, patriotism and republicanism mattered far more than did any single denomination. George Washington, never a bigot, spent much of his presidency assuring various Christians and Jews that they were welcome in America as long as they placed their republican citizenship above their denominational preferences. By 1787, through the Northwest Ordinance, Congress, more or less, destroyed any hope of the religious bigots by declaring all men absolutely free—to worship or not—as each saw fit, as long as that worship did not infringe violently upon the rights of another.

Over the last several years, we have seen state after state revert to the pre-1774 standards of intolerance, especially for Christians and Jews. The chances are good, sadly, that this will become worse long before it becomes better. While I do not call yet for alarmism, I do believe we would be foolish to believe that we should not be vigilant about such things and recognize that, yes, intolerance can happen, even on American soil.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” (c. 1604) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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