America's First Experiment In Toleration

John Hartsock details the rise and fall of noble tolerance of religious freedom in 17th-century Maryland.

Like the sudden thunderstorms that can roll swiftly up the Chesapeake Bay in summer, turning the normally tranquil waterway into a storm-tossed sea, an equally intolerant and dark spirit had descended on the hardscrabble tobacco plantations dotting the lush shoreline of that tidewater region some 300 years ago, in what was Lord Baltimore's former palatinate of Maryland.

In 1692, three years after a Protestant revolution had ousted a Catholic government in Maryland, the arrival of a royal governor appointed by William III confirmed its results and effectively spelled the end of the first experiment in England's Thirteen Colonies of the practice of religious toleration as a fundamental principle of civil governance. Three centuries later we can only marvel that the experiment lasted as long as it did.

Lord Baltimore's experiment in religious toleration is worth recalling not only for its novelty. At a time when Americans have just completed observance of the bicentennial of their Bill of Rights, with its guarantee of religious freedom, the events that happened 500 years ago in Maryland are a reminder of the vulnerability of a principle now taken for granted. Considering the religious temper of the seventeenth century, Maryland's social experiment can only elicit admiration for the courage of an enlightened family who for more than half a century practised religious toleration as a guiding principle.

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