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June 20: How a Minority “Tolerates” the Majority

Maryland Charter (1632):
Catholic Toleration in Maryland

The Seal of Maryland

It was on this date, June 20, 1632, that Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, was issued a charter by Charles I of England (1600-1649), entitling him to create a Catholic colony in the New World that became known as Maryland. This charter was originally intended for George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and father of Cecilius, but the father died before Charles could sign the charter and the property passed to his heir.

The vertically challenged Charles was a Protestant-born Catholic convert with a Catholic wife, and so exercised a bit more tolerance toward English Catholics that other monarchs since Henry VIII. Indeed, the colony of Maryland was named not for Queen Mary but for his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria de Bourbon.

Much has been made of the story of how the Catholic settlers of Maryland pioneered religious toleration in the New World. The Maryland charter was granted during the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant Europe, but intra-religious tensions carried over to the colonies. Virginia was none too pleased to have a Catholic-dominated colony right next door, and not just because they would deflate property values. There were some overt hostilities on the part of the Virginians against the Marylanders, even though both colonies were (in a sense) "owned" by England.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "There are no statistics on which to base an opinion as to the number of the inhabitants of" Maryland in 1645, "but the best opinion puts it at between four and five thousand. Three-fourths of this number were Catholics." This is a curious claim to make because it comes in spite of the lack of source or statistics. Bancroft's History of the United States (1876) examined contemporary sources and found that there were "very few Catholics" in the colony by 1654; the figure in 1640 was about 25 percent. Although Lord Baltimore offered English Catholics asylum in the new colony, few accepted. In fact, Maryland never had a Catholic majority in all of its history!

This puts a whole new light on the toleration question. The Maryland General Assembly, under Lord Baltimore, issued An Act Concerning Religion, better known as the Act of Toleration, on 21 April 1649. The Act provided that, "no person in this province professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for his or her religion." [italics added] This is touted as the first statute of religious tolerance in New World law, but thirteen years earlier Roger Williams in Rhode Island had promoted a religious toleration that, unlike that of the Maryland Act, did not exclude Jews, Deists and freethinkers.

In fact, Maryland's Act of Toleration was passed by the ruling Catholic elite to protect themselves from the Protestant majority. It took a quarter century for the two Christian sects to learn to get along as neighbors. And the irony is that the colony that was established specifically as a haven for persecuted Catholics – in the charter issued on this date in 1632 – by tolerating all Christian sects, actually attracted more Protestants!

Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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