In the textbook version of history, we are told that
the first English settlers the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay
Colony, or the followers of Anne Hutchinson in Connecticut came
to America in search of religious freedom. The full story is more complex.
Protestant groups did seek the New World as a haven for religious liberty
their own! What the textbooks usually omit was that equal liberty
was often denied to others, particularly Catholics and Jews. One of
the first persons charged with blasphemy in the English colonies was
a Jew: Jacob Lumbrozo of Maryland.
Established in 1634 by a Catholic, Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore,
under a grant from King Charles I of England, Maryland was intended
as a refuge for Calverts co-religionists. At this time, English
Catholics were far more persecuted than atheists, Muslims or Jews. Appreciative
of being allowed to create a Catholic haven in the colonies, Calvert
gave his appointed governor in Maryland careful instructions not to
offend the surrounding Protestant majority. Catholic masses were to
be said in private. Further, the governors should "treat the Protestants
with as much mildness and favor as Justice will permit." He was
silent on the question of Jews.
Calvert encouraged Puritans from neighboring Virginia, themselves an
unpopular minority, to settle in Maryland, which they did in unexpected
numbers, soon becoming the majority. In 1649, to keep the Puritans from
persecuting Catholics, Calvert submitted an "Act Concerning Religion"
to the Maryland General Assembly. The acts primary provision proclaimed
that any believer in Jesus Christ, regardless of which church he attends,
should be tolerated. No form of Christianity was to be exalted over
While placing Catholics on an equal footing with Protestants, the act
took aim at all those including Jews who denied the divinity
of Christ. Those who "blaspheme God . . . or deny our Saviour Jesus
Christ to be the sonne of God, or shall deny the Holy Trinity . . .
shall be punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his
or her lands and goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heires."
Marylands Puritans resented the act, as it forced them to tolerate
Catholics. In 1654, they rose up in arms, removed Calverts governor
after a fight known as the "Battle of the Severn," renounced
Calverts rule and expelled all Catholics from the General Assembly.
For two years, Catholics could not worship in Maryland and members of
the Jesuit order were expelled. Curiously, the punishment for blasphemy
was reduced from death to mere admonishment.
In 1656, Calvert persuaded Oliver Cromwell to restore his title. Upon
resuming control, Calvert ordered that the 1649 act be reinstated, including
its provision that blasphemy be punished by death.
Ironically, one of the first
persons tried under this law was a Jewish
physician, Jacob Lumbrozo, whom historian
Abram V. Goodman describes as a 1656 immigrant
to Maryland from Lisbon, Portugal.
There, Lumbrozo had lived as a Christian,
but New World freedoms permitted him openly
to practice Judaism.
While Puritans and Catholics fought each other,
they mostly ignored the few Jews who lived
in Maryland. While Jews could not vote or
hold public office, they were treated more
as a curiosity than a threat. Enjoying such
indifference, Lumbrozo miscalculated how freely
he could proclaim his beliefs.
In 1658, Lumbrozo met a proselytizing Quaker named Josiah Coale. Within
the hearing of witnesses, Coale asked Lumbrozo a number of theological
questions. Lumbrozo answered honestly, according to his faith. A short
time later, he was accused of blasphemy and called to a hearing. Witnesses
testified that to Coales question, "Did the Jews believe
in a messiah?" Lumbrozo answered in the affirmative. Coale asked
who was crucified at Jerusalem. Lumbrozo answered, "A man."
And how did he perform his miracles? "By the art of magic."
And the resurrection? Lumbrozo speculated that disciples probably stole
the corpse. Another man present accused Lumbrozo of calling Jesus a
necromancer. The court transcript notes, "To which said Lumbrozo
answered nothing but laughed."
Having sufficient probable cause, the court required that Lumbrozo
post bail. Before his trial could resume, however, the governor of Maryland,
celebrating the accession of Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector of England,
issued a pardon to all who "stood indicted, convicted or Condemned
to dye." Lumbrozos case dropped from the record.
Five years later, in 1663, Lumbrozo served on a jury and acquired denization
papers, which granted him all the rights of an English citizen. Soon
after, he was allowed to represent his two indentured servants in a
court case. One can conclude that Lumbrozos principles
affirming that he did not believe that Jesus was the messiah
only temporarily got him in trouble with the law. Not until 1823 were
Jews finally granted full relief from Marylands discriminatory
religious laws but, fortunately, no other Jews were charged with blasphemy
after Lumbrozo, and no Marylander of any religion was ever put to death
for the crime.
Jewish Historical Society