Freedom of Conscience & Religious (In)Tolerance in 17th c. America

Maryland, founded by Lord Baltimore (Catholic)

In 1649, Catholics and Protestants together drafted and the General Assembly passed the first piece of legislation regarding religious toleration in America’s original thirteen colonies. The Act Concerning Religion (Maryland Toleration Act) was limited in scope, mandating tolerance of Trinitarian Christians. This act was precipitated by “the Plundering Time,” a time of tension between the Protestant majority and Catholic elite.

“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….”

Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams (Puritan)

In 1635 the devout Puritan minister Roger Williams was found guilty of “spreading newe & dangerous opinions” and kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He sought refuge with the Narragansett Indians, who sold him land, which he named Providence. In 1638, Williams founded the first Baptist Church in America. At that time, churches were state-supported. States collected taxes from the people to build and support the churches. Williams, however, spoke against this practice and promoted separation of church and state.

Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils. — Roger Williams

Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn (Quaker)

Penn was born into an Anglican family, but joined the Quakers; he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for seven months between 1668 and 1669 for “pamphleteering,” specifically for The Sandy Foundation Shaken, in which he refuted the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1681, Penn received a charter for the territory that would become Pennsylvania.

“If thou wouldst rule well, thou must rule for God, and to do that, thou must be ruled by him….Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.” –William Penn, writing to Peter the Great (see Can These Bones Live: How the Providence of God Established America by David P Pett)

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Early American churchmen and churchwomen soon discovered that if they wanted to practice their beliefs unmolested in a diverse society, they had to grant the same right to others. This wisdom did not come easily.


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