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Legislating for toleration – an innovative approach

In the 17th century, people were very much defined by their faith. Europe had splintered into a Catholic part and a Protestant part, and being a Catholic in Protestant England was as uncomfortable as it was being a Protestant in Catholic Spain. In both cases, unfortunates could be submitted to gruelling interrogations and torture, as the presumption was that people were more loyal to their faith than to their country.

His Restored Majesty

The Civil War in England added further divides to the issue of religion: being a Protestant was no longer enough, now one had to be the “right” sort of Protestant, which as per the Westminster Assembly in the 1640’s was to be a Presbyterian (the assembly was very influenced by the Scottish Kirk). Not a unanimous opinion, and once Charles II was safely restored, the only right Protestant was an Anglican, while Presbyterians were persecuted. The one thing Presbyterians and Anglicans had in common was their hatred of the Catholics, who ended up at the bottom of the dog pile no matter who was on top.
Not everyone was as narrow-minded as the various church representatives. Some (and I’d include Charles II here, despite the implementation of the Clarendon Code and all the suffering this unleashed on the members of the Scottish Kirk) felt faith was very much a personal issue, not something to be meddled in by the state. And one man decided to do something about all this persecution, sickened by what his co-religionists were subjected to. It helped that the man in question was a peer, filthy rich and endowed with a colony of his own…
Cecil Calvert

Lord Cecilius Calvert was gifted with the colony of Maryland in 1632, this despite the loud protests from neighbouring Virginia. Calvert was a Catholic, and in retrospect it is rather amazing that he was given the colony, but Lord Calvert senior had always been a loyal servant of the crown, and Charles I held no major beef against Catholics – after all, he was married to one. Lord Calvert senior died before the grants came through, and so it was Cecilius who became first proprietor of Maryland.
Now a colony without colonists was not much good to anyone, and Calvert could not hope to populate his new lands only with Catholics. He needed intrepid settlers, no matter faith, and besides he was not all that convinced that there was any major difference between a Protestant and Catholic – after all, both believed in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Calvert therefore decided that in his colony everyone was welcome – as long as they held to one of the Trinitarian faiths.
This was a very novel approach. In Virginia, the powers that were preferred Anglican settlers, even if they received boatloads of deported Presbyterians as indentured workers. In Massachusetts, there was a clear preference for Puritan (Presbyterian) settlers. (To preempt any discussion about Puritans contra Presbyterians, let me just say that both are Calvinist creeds and that the influence of the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk on Puritan beliefs in the 17th century was huge) In fact, the approach was so novel that potential settlers hung back, not entirely sure they believed in this “religious freedom” nonsense.
Large_Broadside_on_the_Maryland_Toleration_ActTo reassure his colonists, Calvert decided to draft a piece of legislation, converting religious freedom into law. This text was named the Act of Toleration and was approved by the Maryland Assembly in 1649. This innovative piece of legislation included some of the first attempts to curtail hate speech, and would in the fullness of time serve as a blueprint for some of the wording in the First Amendment of the American Constitution – but that was yet in the future.
The English Civil War impacted the colonies as well, and Calvert lost control of his precious colony in the early 1650’s. One of the first things the representatives of the Commonwealth did was to repudiate the Act of Toleration in 1654, and the Puritan settlers took this as an invitation to attack their Catholic neighbours, submerging Maryland in religious violence.
Fortunately, Calvert very quickly regained control over his colony, and in 1658 the Act was passed yet again. This time, the Act of Toleration would remain in place until 1692, when in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution such fripperies as religious freedoms were firmly swept aside, forbidding Catholicism. Not, I fear, a development that made Lord Calvert all that happy, but by then he was safely in his grave, so maybe he didn’t care.
For the hero of The Graham Saga, Maryland beckons as a safe haven. Upon the restoration of Charles II, Matthew Graham finds himself in the very uncomfortable position of being persecuted for his faith and as the pressure increases he takes the decision to leave Scotland behind and find a new home for his family elsewhere. He chooses Maryland.
In the fourth book of the series, A Newfound Land, the Graham family is still struggling to find their feet in this new home of theirs. Settling virgin forest is not exactly easy, but at least they no longer need to fear persecution. And here, in Maryland, Matthew Graham can even dream of a future in which free men rule themselves. It helps, of course, that his time travelling wife Alex has told him this is what will happen – here, in Maryland, where many years later the Treaty of Paris will be signed, thereby formally recognising that a new country has been born – the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Below an excerpt from A Newfound Land in which Matthew tries to explain what the future will bring to his young son. Enjoy!
Jacob had never ridden so far before, and by the time they made their way into Providence, three days after setting out, all he could think of was the sore, chafing skin along the crease of his buttocks and down the insides of his thighs. For three days he’d listened to Mr Leslie and Da while they discussed the latest incidents of burning and pillaging, and he could hear in Da’s voice that he wasn’t happy about leaving his own home unprotected to go and protect elsewhere.
“It’s them that provoke the Indians that should handle it themselves,” Da said at one point. “I’ve had no problems with them; none at all.”
Thomas Leslie agreed, saying that the colonists were in flagrant breach of the treaty lines, and he could understand that the Nanticote and Powhatan settlements were irritated by this encroachment.
“In Virginia in particular,” Mr Leslie said, “it’s not that long ago since Berkeley fought them to submission and signed treaties with them that are now being trampled underfoot.”
“Long enough.” Da smiled. “About the time you and I were fighting for the Commonwealth.”
Jacob listened avidly. Rarely did Da talk about the four years he had served in the Horse, and then mainly to bewail the futility of war or to tell them harshly that war was not about glory and honour; it was about blood and pain and being hungry and cold and wishing desperately to be back home with your mam. Needless to say, none of his sons believed him, and in secret they played out long battle sequences between Roundheads and Royalists, with Ruth and Sarah being roped in to add to the numbers.
“When we were both young men.” Mr Leslie twitched at the ancient buff leather jacket that strained over his middle despite the extra panels in it.
“Did you both serve in the Horse?” Jacob asked.
“Aye, but not in the same regiment.” Da twisted in his saddle towards Mr Leslie. “Did you ever meet him? The Protector?”
“Not as such, no. I saw him at the battle of Naseby, and once I saw him in London. And you?”
Da hitched his shoulders. “Nay, but then why would a man such as Oliver Cromwell notice an eager farmer’s lad with his head and heart full of convictions but nothing much else?”
Mr Leslie smiled. “It was people like that who changed it all – at least for a while. It was all those that burnt with these new ideas of self-governance and equality that achieved a time when England was not ruled by a king but by free men.”
“A very short period, all in all,” Da said.
“A precedent.” Thomas Leslie nodded. “And one day that precedent will be followed by others.”
“Do you think he’s right, Da?” Jacob asked later. It was a relief to be walking, not riding, and he hurried as best as he could to keep up with Da through the narrow streets of Providence.
“Who?” Da shortened his stride.
“Mr Leslie. Is he right when he says you all set a…a precedent with the Commonwealth?”
“Shh!” Da looked about before returning his attention to Jacob. “These are things you don’t discuss openly and never with people you don’t know and trust.”
“Sorry,” Jacob mumbled, allowing his thick hair to come down like a curtain before his face.
“Aye,” Da said some moments later, “I think he is. And it will all start here.”
“Here?” Jacob surveyed the small, nondescript town around him.
Da smiled and straightened up to his full height. “Aye, here. I won’t see it, you won’t see it, but mayhap your children, or at least your grandchildren. This is the cradle, and it’s already being set in motion.” He laughed and ruffled Jacob’s hair. “That’s what happens. Most people you see here have come on account of convictions, lad. They have come determined to build a new life for themselves, free of persecution and ancient constraints… There is no turning back the flood, and this particular tide will build until it one day washes away all vestiges of the old.” He peeked down at Jacob. “You didn’t follow, did you?”
Jacob shook his head ruefully. “No, I don’t understand. Not yet.”

3 thoughts on “Legislating for toleration – an innovative approach”

  1. Pingback: A Wilderness of Sin by M J Logue [Book Review] - Themself

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