3.1.1 The Old South (1607-1787): The Fight for Religious Freedom


Maryland’s Toleration Act (1649); Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)

  • The proprietors who settled the coastal upper South colonies were comfortable with having a state-sponsored religion, but unlike the founders of New England, it was not at the core of their world view.  As a result, the upper South became the main incubator of the American concept of religious freedom.
  • In 1634, Charles I granted the proprietorship of Maryland to Cecil Calvert, a practicing Catholic, who encouraged his co-religionists to settle the colony and prohibited the practice of any other religion.  But a large number of Puritans also settled in Maryland.  They complained about religious persecution and in 1649, after Puritans and their allies overthrew the Stuart monarchy and temporarily gained ascendancy in England, Calvert’s authority waned and the colony’s legislature passed the first American law of religious toleration.  With one brief interruption the law remained in effect until 1692, when the restored British crown tried to tighten its control and encouraged Anglicanism as the official religion in the Southern colonies. 
  • The Act later influenced Maryland’s neighbors.  North Carolina’s 1669 constitution and Delaware’s 1701 charter (granted by William Penn, who as a Quaker had a deep interest in religious toleration) both provided for toleration of all Christian sects, and a 1701 North Carolina law providing for state support of Anglican churches was soon repealed.  
  • Thomas Jefferson and Virginia provided the most advanced model for American religious tolerance.  In 1786, after several years of effort, Jefferson persuaded the Virginia legislature to adopt his Statute for Religious Freedom, which unlike previous toleration acts was not limited to Christian sects and explicitly forbade any state support for local ministers or other aspects of religion.  Jefferson’s statute was incorporated into the federal Bill of Rights (1791) and, eventually, into the constitutions of most states.

“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free … That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical; … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; … And finally that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself … Be it enacted … that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever … but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion … we … do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind.” – Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)

Parson’s Cause - Virginia, 1763 (unpublished)

  • Throughout the colonial era, the Anglican church was the official church of Virginia and the colony’s legislature levied taxes for its support.  In 1758 the legislature provided that taxes could pay fixed amounts of tobacco for taxes.  When the price of tobacco rose many Virginians sought to pay in cash instead, but King George III did not allow it.
  • Colonists persisted in paying cash and in 1762, Rev. James Maury sued to obtain his allotted share of tobacco.  Patrick Henry, soon to win immortality as a leader of the American Revolution, made a blistering speech against Maury and against state support of religion generally.  Henry persuaded the jury to award Maury only a penny in damages – a stinging setback for state religion and for British authority generally.  Equally damaging was the fact that the judges presiding over the case made little effort to suppress Henry’s attack on either the church’s or the Crown’s authority – perhaps a surer sign than Henry’s oratory of how weak the Crown’s position was becoming in the American colonies.  

 “[Henry] inferred, ‘that a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.’ … When he came to that part of it …, the more sober part of the audience were struck with horror.  Mr. Lyons called out aloud, and with an honest warmth, to the Bench, ‘That the gentleman had spoken treason,’ and expressed his astonishment ‘that their worships could hear it without emotion, or any mark of dissatisfaction.’  … Yet Mr. Henry went on in the same treasonable and licentious strain, without interruption from the Bench, nay, even without receiving the least exterior notice of their disapprobation.” – Rev. James Maury, commenting on Parson’s Cause


Broadside annoucing Maryland's Toleration Act (1649) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“[W]hereas the inforceing 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 quiett and peaceable government of this Province, … noe person … professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof … nor an way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent, soe as they be not unfaithfull to the Lord Proprietary.” – Maryland Toleration Act (1649)




Patrick Henry addressing Virginia legislature (1765) - courtesy Library of Congress

“Do [the Anglican clergy] manifest their zeal in the cause of religion and humanity by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the Gospel of Jesus?    Oh, no, gentlemen!  Instead of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, these rapacious harpies would, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children their last milch cow! The last bed, may, the last blanket from the lying-in woman.” – Patrick Henry, in Parson’s Cause