How Catholics Introduced Religious Freedom to the Colonies

During the Fortnight for Freedom which just concluded July 4, the American bishops encouraged Catholics to think about religious freedom and the threats it faces today. It is not always recognized or appreciated that our country is both the source and the home of religious freedom in the modern world and that Catholics had a groundbreaking role in that. While religious freedom was a preoccupation of many colonists, three colonies in particular played an essential role in developing the understanding of religious freedom that is reflected in the First Amendment.

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. 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.

When Puritan minister Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, he found that the colony contained a mixture of Pilgrims, who were separated from the Church of England, and Puritans, who were reformers of the Church of England. As for religious freedom, neither group satisfied Williams. Surely one of history’s strongest advocates of liberty of conscience, he began to criticize the unified civil and religious authority in Massachusetts. He further annoyed almost everyone by asking why the Indians had not been paid for their land, which the colonists had settled on. In 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts, stating that Williams had expressed “diverse new opinions against the authority of the magistrates and churches here,” expelled him from Massachusetts.

Williams went next door and founded the new colony of Rhode Island and named the chief city Providence. He separated the colony’s government completely from religion. In 1663, King Charles II, who became a Catholic on his deathbed, officially chartered Rhode Island and declared that no person in the colony “shall be molested, punished, disquieted, or called into question for any difference in opinion in matters of religion.” All Christians were guaranteed “the free exercise and enjoyment of their civil and religious rights.” Such liberty almost immediately became available to non-Christians and the unchurched as well. Rhode Island soon began to be regarded as a haven not only for various kinds of Christians but for atheists, skeptics and other non-conformists as well.

Charles II of England was also the legal source of the creation of Quaker William Penn’s Pennsylvania, the last of the three Americans colonies that played an historic role in establishing religious freedom not only in this country but also in the modern world. As a Quaker, Penn was a dissident in England, and he had actually served time in prison for his public advocacy of religious tolerance. But the king, owing a large debt of gratitude to Penn’s father, a famous admiral in the king’s navy, established the proprietary colony of Pennsylvania and Delaware in 1681 with Penn as the proprietor. In 1682, Penn published his Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, which provided that “all persons” shall “in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice” nor “be compelled . . . to frequent or maintain any religious worship…” This applied to everyone, although there were initially restrictions on non-believers and Jews holding public office.

These three American colonies pioneered religious freedom at a time, the 17th Century, when all European countries had established national religions. In addition, they created the background and set the stage in the next century for our Constitution’s First Amendment, with its prohibition of an established national religion and its guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion.

image: jiawangkun /

image: This article was first published in the Catholic News and Herald of the Diocese of Charlotte, July 5, 2015

Avatar photo


Thomas R. Ascik is an attorney who gave a recent talk at St. Barnabas Church in Arden entitled "Religion and the American Constitution, a Primer," as part of the U.S. bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaign that ran June 21-July 4.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage