Catholics in America have frequently been confronted with threats to their religious liberties beginning with the colonial era. The Penal Laws against Catholics originating in the Elizabethan era were carried over to the English colonies in America where they were enforced in varying degrees during the colonial times.
At times, Catholics were denied the vote, could not practice law, could not hold public office and had special taxes levied on them. The observance of Christmas was forbidden and was punishable by a fine in Virginia in the 17th Century and Catholics were banished from the colony.
Mass could not be celebrated publicly in most of the colonies until the time of the revolution. Priests were banished and severely punished if they returned. In 1704, Maryland enacted a law permitting the state to take the child of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother in the event of the father’s death.
Catholics were not the only ones denied religious liberties. At times Quakers, Moravians, Unitarians, Jews and other non-Christians were persecuted in various ways. Pennsylvania was the great exception. Because of his own experience of persecution as a Quaker, when William Penn was given the right to establish a colony, he protected the religious freedom of all groups. There was a time in the 18th century when Philadelphia was the only place in the English speaking world where it was legal to celebrate a Catholic Mass.
Toleration was established briefly in Rhode Island and in Maryland. Both colonies were the first examples of complete separation of church and state. Lord Baltimore did not establish Maryland as a Catholic colony, but religious freedom was allowed for all until the Baltimore family was driven from control by Puritans, and the Church of England was established.
Suppression of Catholics continued until the time of the revolution. At Valley Forge, General George Washington forbade the Continental Army from observing Guy Fawkes or Pope’s Day, when it was customary to burn an effigy of the Pope.
Even though religious freedom was written into the Constitution in 1788 and established state churches were forbidden, it took until 1844 for all states to comply. Sadly, that was not the end of anti-Catholicism in America. I will discuss the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements of the 19th century in a future blog.
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