Indeed, just a few years after the Pilgrims arrived, the Massachusetts Colony enumerated in its “Body of Liberties” (1641) those crimes that would be punishable by death: witchcraft, blasphemy, and having or worshiping “any other god, but the lord god.” It gave the civil authorities “power and libertie to see the peace, ordinances and Rules of Christ observed in every church according to his word.”
Other colonies were similarly intolerant to dissenting views. For example, under the “Maryland Act concerning Religion” (1649), blasphemy against the Holy Trinity was punishable by death and forfeiture of all property. Irreverent words “concerning the blessed Virgin Mary” or working on the Sabbath were also subject to punishment: fines, public whippings, or imprisonment.
But even during this era of religious repression, rays of tolerance began piercing the gloom. The Pennsylvania Charter of 1682 and the Delaware Charter of 1701 both declared that a person would be left unmolested—as long as he acknowledged the existence of only one God. The 1669 Constitution of the Carolinas opened the colony’s borders to “Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion,” but these “heathens” were tolerated only so that they would not “be scared and kept at a distance from” Christianity. While these provisions may seem discriminatory by today’s standards, they were models of tolerance compared with most other parts of the world.
The most influential beacon of religious freedom during this period came from England: John Locke’s 1689 “Letter Concerning Toleration.” Locke’s arguments were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, and in many ways they formed the basis for America’s understanding of religious freedom. Locke advocated a greater separation between religion and politics than any popular writer before him had done. Locke and his adherents, however, still denied liberty to Roman Catholics, atheists, and dissenters. He did not carry his arguments forward to their logical conclusion: religious freedom. In America, that task would be left to James Madison.