Freedom of Religion Comes to Boston

A photo of pre-revolutionary Boston

By Robert Johnson Lally
Archdiocesan Archivist and Records Manager
During the early days of our country, it was dangerous to be a Catholic in Boston. Massachusetts had been settled by religious dissenters who were displeased that the Church of England had not completed the Protestant Reformation. Members of that movement had spurned, beginning with Martin Luther, the idea of selling indulgences. They also objected to the Latin Mass, Transubstantiation and the authority of the Pope.
Colonial law made it unlawful for Catholics to openly practice the faith. In fact, it was a criminal offense for a Catholic priest to even enter Massachusetts. By 1700, a priest found residing in the colony could be penalized with life imprisonment.
The turning point toward tolerance came, not as a result of a change of heart, but because of politics. In order to defeat the British in the American Revolution, colonial leaders realized they needed the support of the French Canadians and the Catholic Native Americans. The first friendly overtures toward Catholics were dictated by political reality.
But in 1780, the freedom to worship as a Catholic became official. It was codified in the Massachusetts Constitution.