Religion in Colonial Md. - Southern Maryland Headline News

Religion in Colonial Md.


ANNAPOLIS—While a quick Internet search of “Maryland religious history” may turn up claims that the colony's founding heralded an era of religious tolerance, the truth is that the revolutionary idea was short lived. The right was not reestablished until the U.S. Constitution protected religious liberty for all citizens.

Several landmarks throughout Maryland, beginning in St. Mary’s City, tell the story of the colony’s trial and struggle with religious tolerance.

“Religious toleration is one of those things that didn’t take right away,” said Susan Wilkinson, director of marketing and communications for Historic St. Mary’s City. “It lasted here about 60 years and then it was revoked and went away, and it wasn’t until the U.S. Constitution reset it that it stayed.”

In 1632, King James I chartered the land that is now Maryland to George Calvert, a Catholic who was interested in the economic potential of the New World. Calvert died before settling the colony, so his son Cecilius Calvert carried out the settlement.

In 1633, approximately 140 colonists left Anglican England to settle the new colony. Seventeen colonists were Roman Catholic gentlemen, and the rest were poor Protestants who came to make a better living as indentured servants. In 1634, the colonists arrived at St. Clements Island near St. Mary’s County.

While the Calverts established the colony to make a profit, they also sought refuge from the religious discrimination they experienced as Catholics in England, where the established church was Protestant. To avoid conflict between majority Protestants and minority Catholics in the colony, Calvert instituted a progressive religious policy called The Maryland Toleration Act that allowed all Christians, regardless of sect, to freely worship in Maryland.

He also chose not to establish an official religion for the colony.

After settling in what is now St.Mary’s City, the colonists erected a small wooden chapel that burned down in 1645. Then, in 1667, a brick Roman Catholic chapel was constructed at the same location.

“The chapel is believed to be the founding place of the Roman Catholic faith in British North America,” Wilkinson said. “It was built at a time when a Catholic chapel couldn’t be erected at any other place in the English speaking world.”

In spite of the Calverts’ push for tolerance, there was tension between the colony’s Protestant settlers and Catholic elite. In 1652, Protestants seized the government, and in 1692, the Anglican Church became the official religion of the colony, and public worship by all other sects was outlawed.

According to Historic St. Mary’s City’s website, in 1704, the royal governor ordered the Catholic chapel be locked and never used again for religious purposes. The building was dismantled and its pieces used to build other structures.

After the chapel was dismantled, the land once again became farmland, and the chapel’s foundation was buried beneath corn crops.

“The story of the chapel existed only in oral histories,” Wilkinson said.

In 1938, architect, historian and archaeologist H. Chandlee Forman uncovered the chapel’s foundation, and in the 1980s, the town began excavating the land around the chapel and raising money to build the reconstruction that currently stands on the site.

Catholics were not the only religious group to find at least some level of tolerance in Maryland.

In the mid-17th century, the colony’s Toleration Act brought Quakers to Maryland’s Eastern Shore from the Virginia colony where they faced discrimination. Several meeting houses were established in the Eastern Shore, and the Third Haven House in Easton is still used for meetings.

Following the Protestant Revolution in Maryland, the General Assembly in 1695 moved Maryland's capital from St. Mary's City to Annapolis.

When Gov. Francis Nicholson designed Annapolis’ city plan in 1695, he set aside one of the highest spots in the city for the establishment of a Protestant church, St. Anne’s. The current St. Anne’s Parish is the third church built in the same location in Church Circle.

When the capital moved to Annapolis, Catholics were not allowed to worship publicly, but the Carroll family of Annapolis had a private chapel in their home, which they opened to the small community of Catholics in Annapolis.

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