Maryland, the only colony started by Catholics, was the first. George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, had been a rising person of influence in the court of King James I of England, but his political career derailed when he converted to Catholicism in 1624. Calvert developed an interest in the New World and in 1632 secured a grant from the new king, Charles I, who was married to a Catholic and under whose reign Catholics were not significantly persecuted, to establish what he later named Maryland, after his wife. But he died soon after the royal grant. His son, Cecil Calvert, the new Lord Baltimore, took up his father’s quest and sailed to the New World in 1634 on two ships, the Ark and the Dove.
Maryland was a “proprietary” colony, meaning that Calvert was the outright owner and landlord. In order to have a sufficient number of settlers and because of his intention to establish religious freedom in the new colony, Calvert deliberately loaded his ships with both Catholics and Protestants.Share
For eight years, religious freedom prevailed, but when the English Civil War between the Royalists, whose religions were Catholic and Anglican, and the Protestants and Puritans under the fearsome Oliver Cromwell, spilled over into the New World, Puritans from Virginia invaded Maryland in 1645, deposed Calvert, and began to oppress Catholics, thus abolishing religious freedom.
Calvert regained control of the colony in 1647, and in 1649 the Maryland colonial government, at a time when the English Civil War was still raging, enacted the Act of Religious Toleration – the first clear statement of religious freedom by a public body in the modern world and the source of the phrase “free exercise of religion” in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The Act stated that “no person … professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any way troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province.” The Act also provided that “no person may be compelled to the belief or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent.”
Although it is difficult to find historical confirmation, this separate statement on behalf of “any” religion seems to have meant religious freedom beyond Christianity – that is, for Jews and for Indians. Upon the later accession to the English throne by William in 1680, the Anglican Church was established as the official church of Maryland, and with respect to religion, Maryland became similar to the other English/Anglican colonies, where Catholics were oppressed. (Read more.)