Marking the Birth of Religious Freedom on Good Friday
On March 25th, 1634, the State of Maryland received its first English colonists on the island of St. Clement’s. They would eventual find their permanent settlement some 30 miles away in what would become St. Mary’s. How apropos that they would arrive on the feast day of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Maryland was established as a proprietary colony when the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, was granted a charter from King Charles I of England in 1632. By the time that the ships Ark and Dove landed on the banks of St. Clement’s in 1634, George Calvert had died and the second Lord Baltimore – Calvert’s son – Cecilius took over the charter as proprietor.
The two ships brought to the new world a group seeking a refuge from religious persecution in England. Of the colonists aboard, not all were Roman Catholic or men. There were many Protestants and a few women. Interestingly the group did not include the second Lord Baltimore. Cecil stayed in England and monitored the business of the colony from home. He appointed his brother Leonard to be the First Proprietary Governor of Maryland.
Although Calvert’s intentions were to build a colony that would provide safe haven for the Catholics, it quickly became one were the Protestant population not only exceeded the Catholic population in the number of colonists, it did so in the Maryland Assembly as well. In fact one of the first documents ever to call for religious freedom throughout the world was passed by a majority of Protestant assemblymen.
It wasn’t until the passing of Leonard Calvert that the Maryland Toleration Act was passed by Maryland Colonial Assembly. The “Act Concerning Religion” (1649) gave all Marylanders the freedom of conscience to practice Christianity no matter their sect. In essence the Assembly was providing for tolerance of Catholics, not the other way around.
Prior to the American Revolution, Maryland saw great struggles among the faiths. In fact, when the Anglican Church became the official church of Maryland upon the ascendance of the Protestant William III of England, the public practice of Catholicism was officially banned. For nearly one hundred years Maryland the “Catholic State” would not allow Catholics to vote.
It all changed when the U.S. Constitution was written. The Maryland Toleration Act as narrow as it was, was a model for the drafting of the 1st Amendment’s clause on religious freedom.
The men and women of the Ark and Dove who started something great with their intention to provide a home to those being persecuted for their religion in the end won out. It may have taken nearly 140 years for their dream to be carried out, but it has.
One March 25, 1634, a group of 300 wary souls landed upon the shores of a small island in the Chesapeake Bay, raised a cross, and celebrated mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin.
Three hundred and eighty-two years later, we remember Good Friday, the day Jesus died upon the cross.
In America, we are blessed to be able to worship the way we want without fear of persecution or worse based on the seeds that were planted on St. Clement’s Island.