The foundation of religious freedom in America was laid over 150 years before the Bill of Rights. The Lords Baltimore were major architects of that foundation.
George Calvert, First Lord Baltimore
George Calvert (1580-1632) was the first Lord and Baron Baltimore. He was a very successful member of the British cabinet and parliament.
But then, in 1625, he “came out” and publicly declared himself to be a Roman Catholic. His timing was terrible.
The Protestants and Roman Catholics had fought each other for 250 years. Lord Baltimore announced his Catholicism in the middle of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants. That war resulted in the destruction of over 20,000 villages and 2000 castles throughout Europe. The death toll was staggering.
Lord Baltimore was forced to resign from government. He wisely moved to Newfoundland. There, he also encountered anti-Catholic religious persecution. He tried to settle in Anglican Virginia, but was refused permission.
Finally, Lord George Calvert applied for a charter to establish the colony of Maryland where Catholics would be safe, and where everyone could freely worship “God’s holy and true Christian religion.” (Maryland was officially, and wisely, named after Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of the King. Many people think that “Maryland” honored the “Virgin Mary.”)
The King granted the charter for an American colony of Maryland. Sadly, it came on the day of George Calvert’s death.
Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore
George’s son, Cecil Calvert, second Lord and Baron Baltimore received the charter.
As “Lord Proprietor” of Maryland, Cecil Calvert issued orders to his government leaders to “be very careful to preserve unity and peace,” and to “suffer no scandal or offense to be given to any of the Protestants, whereby any just complaint may hereafter be made by them in Virginia or in England.”
In 1636, he required his governors to take an oath not to “trouble, molest, or discountenance any person professing to believe in Jesus Christ, for or in respect to religion.” They swore to punish any person who persecuted any Christian.
Interestingly, only 17 of the original settlers to this religious haven were Catholic. The majority were Protestant indentured servants. Over the next 15 years, the number of Protestant settlers increased, and there was fear that religious liberty would be taken away from the Catholics.
Under Lord Baltimore’s direction the Maryland colonial assembly in 1649 passed this “Maryland Toleration Act.” This was the first law enacted in the New World designed to promote religious tolerance.
The Act protected all who “believed in Jesus Christ” and the doctrine of the Trinity. The law forbade any religious persecution of Christians.
The Act also banned religious “hate speech.” It imposed a fine, public whipping, or imprisonment for any person who called another person a “heretic, Schismatic, Idolater, Puritan, Independent, Presbyterian, Popish priest, Jesuit, Jesuited papist, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Brownist, Antinomian, Barrowist, Roundhead, Separatist, or any other name in a reproachful manner relating to matter of religion.”
Ironically, this religious toleration act also provided that any person who blasphemed God or Jesus Christ “shall be punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands.”
Sadly, the religious toleration act was short-lived. In 1654, Puritans took political control of Maryland. They quickly repealed the Act, and abolished freedom of religion.
Anti-Catholicism prevailed in the colony until the 18th century with an influx of Catholics into Baltimore. Laws were once again enacted to help protect against religious persecution.
The monumental impact of the Lords Baltimore on freedom of religion in America is memorialized in their many honors. Several cities, counties, geographical locations, and streets are named after them, including the City of Baltimore. The Lord Baltimore Penny is the first copper minted in America. The Maryland state flag, which is on car license plates today, is the Lord Baltimore Coat of Arms.
We owe George and Cecil Calvert Baltimore a debt of gratitude. We can pay that debt remembering and honoring them.
(Sources: Brett London, Religion and Law: Cases and Materials, pgs. 5-10 (1998); Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, pgs. 3-9 (1964); Kosmin and Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, pgs. 1-10 (1993); Martin, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, (1984); Mead & Hill, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 9th ed. (1990); Rosten, Religions of America: Ferment and Faith in an Age of Crisis, (1975); “European Wars of Religion,” “Elizabeth 1, Mary I Tudor,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “James I and VI,” “Henry VIII,” “George Calvert,” “Cecil Calvert,” Wikipedia.)
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