Believers and Patriots

On May 16, 2012, Bishop William Lori, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, was installed as the Archbishop of Baltimore.

In his homily at his installation Mass, he stressed the need to defend religious liberty, harkening to the foundation of the oldest diocese in the United States of America and its first bishop: “We defend religious liberty . . . because Archbishop John Carroll’s generation of believers and patriots bequeathed to us a precious legacy that has enabled the Church to worship in freedom, to bear witness to Christ publicly, and to do massive and amazing works of pastoral love, education and charity in ways that are true to the faith that inspired them in the first place.” 

Archbishop John Carroll’s “generation of believers and patriots” were heirs to the great Maryland experiment in religious liberty in the middle of the 17th century — an experiment that did not last then and has not received the attention it deserves since. 

George Calvert founded the Maryland colony as a commercial venture and to demonstrate that it was possible for a person to be a Catholic and loyal to the monarch, a combination long thought impossible in England. He and his heirs struggled to establish the Maryland colony and to maintain religious liberty in its laws and culture. They were swimming against the tide of European religious settlements: subjects were expected to go with the flow of their sovereign’s religion. 

The Revert and Founder

George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, the founder of the Maryland colony, had gone with the flow since his early adolescence: when he was 12 he was confirmed in the Church of England. Previously, his parents had been recusant Catholics in Yorkshire, refusing to abandon their faith. But local officials intervened and George’s Catholic education and reading ceased. After attending the University of Oxford, he rose steadily in government and supported King James I in his goal to see the Prince of Wales married to the Catholic Infanta of Spain. After the marriage negotiations failed and Calvert’s first wife died in childbirth, he announced his retirement and reversion to his childhood Catholic faith. 

George Calvert Thinkstock

Then Calvert set out to found a colony in the New World where Catholics could prove their loyalty to the monarch without renouncing their faith. Obtaining charters from James I and then his heir, Charles I, Calvert planned colonies at Avalon in Canada and then in Maryland — named for Charles’ Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria — bordering Virginia. 

Although he died before the Maryland colony started, he left his son Cecilius Calvert a project for Catholics and Anglicans to live and work together in peace and prosperity. To help ease the process, Cecilius issued a letter of admonition to the new colonists: 

“His Lopp requires his said Governor and Commissioners that in their voyage to Mary Land they be very carefull to preserve unity and peace amongst all the passengers on Shipp-board, and that they suffer no scandal nor offence to be given to any of the Protestants … and that for that end, they cause all Acts of Roman Catholique Religion to be done as privately as may be, and that they instruct all the Roman Catholiques to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion and that the said Governor and Commissioners treate the Protestants with as much mildness as Justice will permit.” 

On March 25, 1634, two small ships, the Ark and the Dove, landed at St. Clement’s Island in southern Maryland. On board were the colony’s first settlers, led by Leonard Calvert, Cecilius Calvert’s younger brother. The group consisted of 17 gentlemen, their wives and their households. Most of the servants were Protestants. The first Catholic Mass in the colonies was then said by Jesuit Father Andrew White. 

The Act of Toleration

The Maryland project was fraught with difficulty because no one had ever done it before. Catholics would be free to worship and priests could legally celebrate the sacraments, but the second Lord Baltimore warned them not to be too bold. Anglicans had to accept Catholics freely practicing their faith. They jealously watched for signs of favoritism. 

Charles Carroll of Carrollton Thinkstock

The first attempt did not last long, especially because Calvert allowed a group of Puritans to live in Maryland as exiles from Anglican Virginia. He introduced the Act of Toleration in the Assembly in 1649 to codify his vision of freedom of religion and conscience. As the English Civil War raged at home with Puritans ruling in Parliament, the Maryland Puritans overthrew Calvert’s rule, destroying Catholic lands and property. Working with Oliver Cromwell, Cecilius Calvert reasserted his control in Maryland, but the experiment in religious liberty was on hold. 

When the monarchy was restored in England, King Charles II supported the Calverts, and the Act of Toleration was effective in Maryland from 1660 until 1688. While the act guaranteed religious liberty to all Christians, it did not include freedom of speech. Certain pejorative words were forbidden, such as heretic, schismatic, Puritan and papist. Cecilius Calvert not only decreed that the government would not interfere with an individual’s religious practice, he demanded — with punishments ranging from fines to flogging — civility among citizens. 

The Calverts were not just creating a place where people could practice their religion freely. They were establishing religious plurality in Maryland, expecting that Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers and others could all live together, work together, and yet worship apart. 

Each religious group was responsible for funding its own churches and ministers (this innovation never worked for the Anglicans). The Maryland Catholics, accustomed to supporting priests in their households as they had in England, relied on the Society of Jesus for the sacraments and spiritual counsel. 

The Glorious Revolution

When Cecilius Calvert died in 1675, his son Charles succeeded, and he took the success of the Maryland experiment for granted, showing Catholic favoritism. Then religious conflict in England ended the entire enterprise. 

The Ark and the Dove, shown here in a 1934 postage stamp Thinkstock

Charles II’s heir was his Catholic brother James, the Duke of York, who was married to a Catholic princess. Even though the Whigs in Parliament opposed this succession, Charles prevailed with the support of the Tory party. Neither party, however, would support Charles’s Declaration of Indulgence, his attempt to allow freedom of worship at least for both Catholic and Protestant dissenters. 

When Charles died in 1685, James became king, with two Protestant princesses, Mary and Anne, to succeed him. Then his Catholic wife delivered a Catholic son and the rule of primogeniture meant that the prince displaced the princesses. Parliament and Church leaders called on James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, to invade and make England safe for Anglicanism again. William and Mary took the throne in what was hailed by Protestant propagandists as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. 

Maryland’s Anglicans led a coup d’état ratified by the newly crowned King William III: the Church of England was established in Maryland, funded with taxes. Catholics in Maryland endured penal laws restricting their religious practice from 1692 until 1776. Yet they persevered, remembering the dream of religious freedom. To regain control of the colony, the Calverts became Anglicans. 

The Dream Fulfilled

Maryland’s Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served in the Maryland state senate and contributed to the state’s constitution, which included an article on religious freedom in 1776. His cousin Daniel Carroll attended the Constitutional Convention, working on the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights — and Daniel’s older brother was John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore. 

Despite enduring prejudice and minority status, Catholics had influenced the founding of a new nation and the inclusion of religious liberty among the rights guaranteed its citizens.  

The cause of religious liberty requires constant vigilance and defense, as the history of colonial Maryland demonstrates. TCA 

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation” (Scepter Publishers, 2009). She resides in Wichita, Kan., and blogs at