by Mary Klein, diocesan archivist

Separation of church and state is an ingrained tenet of American democracy, but it was not always practiced in Colonial America. In fact, several colonies had “established” (or state-supported) churches, including Maryland. But Maryland’s Establishment was tempered by beginnings unique to The Old Line State. (So named by George Washington in honor of the heroic fighting of a Maryland regiment, which protected his retreat in the Battle of Long Island.) Religious toleration was not practiced in Europe during the 17th century, to put it mildly. Beheadings, burnings at the stake, banishment, and torture were all means of assuring that the religious preference of the powers in charge were followed by everyone. So when a policy of religious toleration was decreed by Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore and Proprietor of the Province of Maryland, it was viewed with wonder and suspicion.

Map of the Palatinate (an area ruled by a hereditary nobleman enjoying special authority and autonomy from the rest of a kingdom or empire) of Maryland

Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore

Cecil Calvert, a Roman Catholic subject of an Anglican king, had to answer only to the king concerning his palatinate. Settlers may have had the rights of Englishmen, but Calvert owned all the land, and his heir would succeed to all the rights and privileges as Absolute Lord and Proprietary of Maryland. Cecil Calvert had sunk all his wealth into the crazy venture of establishing a colony, and knew the only way to recoup his investment was to offer generous terms to potential settlers. Englishmen were reluctant to immigrate to a province owned by a Roman Catholic overlord, so Calvert proposed an untried experiment: creating a colony where church and government were completely separate.

The Maryland Charter of 1632 gave Calvert the right to create parishes, but instead he chose to welcome anyone who would swear allegiance to the Lord Proprietor, and not misbehave in public. In fact, most of the settlers on the Ark and the Dove (The two small ships which sailed into what is St. Mary’s City, Maryland) were not Roman Catholics, but Anglicans. Seventeen gentlemen were on board who had agreed to finance the venture (they were mostly younger sons of Roman Catholic gentry)  plus 100 “ordinary folk”, the Anglican farmers and craftsmen. Before the band of settlers sailed for the New World in 1634, Cecil Calvert issued instructions to be very careful “to preserve unity and peace” on sea and land. The Roman Catholics were to worship in private, refrain from religious discussions, and to “treat Protestants with as much mildness and favor as justice will permit.” When the ships set sail, they secretly took on two Roman Catholic priests, but Calvert would not play favorites. He refused to give any group money to establish churches, and when Jesuits tried to acquire land directly from the Indians, he stopped them.

Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom Maryland is named, and wife of Charles I

Inevitably, the religious wars in England were played out in the colonies. When England’s King Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649, and a commonwealth declared by Oliver Cromwell, the Maryland Assembly acted quickly to protect against the rising tide of aggressive Protestant views. On April 24, 1649, an “Act Concerning Religion” was passed, known as the Toleration Act. Heavy fines were to be imposed for making derogatory references to others’ religious practices, and using words such as heretic, schismatic, idolater, puritan, roundhead or separatist. Thus Roman Catholics were protected from radical Protestants, and Protestants were assured of fair treatment from a Roman Catholic proprietor. (This applied only to Christians, and settlers could be given the death penalty for refuting the Trinity or denying Jesus as the Son of God.) Even with its inadequacies, this seems to be the first law passed in America to specifically refer to what we know as the “free exercise of religion.”

Under Calvert’s toleration, Church of England churches were built in St. Mary’s County – all by voluntary subscriptions and the physical labor of the worshippers. St. Mary’s City, Poplar Hill, and St. Clement’s Manor were served by lay readers before the first Anglican priest arrived in 1650. But not everyone saw Calvert’s experiment of religious toleration in a positive light. In fact, Maryland was criticized for failing to support organized religion. So when “the Glorious Revolution” of 1688 took place in England, and William and Mary were placed on the throne, Calvert’s family venture was taken over by the crown, the colonial capital was moved from St. Mary’s City to Annapolis, and Maryland became a royal colony. Shortly thereafter, in 1692, the Act of Toleration was repealed and the Church of England became the official, state-backed, state-supported, Established Church of the colony.


Map of St. Mary’s County, MD, 1890s