Reflections on Maryland Day, the founding of the Maryland Colony in 1634 – now the State of Maryland – and the Feast of the Annunciation, from the Rev. Greg Syler, Episcopal priest and rector of St. George’s Church and Church of the Ascension, St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
My comments follow…
O Lord Christ, whose prayer that your disciples would be one, as you and the Father are one, inspired certain of your followers to create on American shores a colony that would practice tolerance, consecrated in the name of your blessed mother to whom the angel announced this day a new gift: Grant that the people of this land may continually give thanks for your protection and uphold the liberty of conscience and worship, until all shall receive the benefits and follow the disciplines of true freedom, endowed by the Name of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
On 22 November 1633, a group of English travelers — about 150 in all — boarded two ships, the Ark and the Dove, and set off from their mother country from the Isle of Wight. Most of the group were indentured servants who would help settle the new colony and prepare the way for future arrivals, roughly equal numbers Catholic and Protestant, in fact, and on board was also at least one Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White, as well as Leonard Calvert, the intended future governor of Mary’s Land, the third English colony in the so-called “new world,” and Lord Baltimore’s younger brother.
Rough sailing met them as they traversed southward down Europe’s coastline and even more demanding storms beset them as they made a direct western trek across the ocean. At one point, the Ark separated from the smaller Dove, only to be reunited in Barbados, and they eventually, together, made their way to their new home, even pausing for a bit to make a temporary peace treaty with the native Conoy tribe in advance of their landing. When the time was clear and the setting just right they waited just a few more days.
They waited until March 25 — the Feast of the Annunciation, the Christian remembrance of the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a child (amazingly exactly nine months before December 25!) On 25 March 1634, Fr. Andrew White, along with the others, stepped off the boat onto the shores of what is now St. Clement’s Island — a rather tiny little island in the Potomac River, a quick swim from what is now northern St. Mary’s County — and celebrated Mass, presumably the first such Catholic celebration in this part of the Americas.
Even though it would be several more years before religious toleration was officially the policy of this new colony — the Maryland Toleration Act or, as it’s known, an Act Concerning Religion wasn’t signed until 21 April 1649 — it was clear from the earliest days that this new place, named for and consecrated in Mary’s name, was going to practice a degree of forward-thinking inclusivity, if only toleration that was unknown in their homeland and yet unpracticed in this new frontier.
Today, March 25, is “Maryland Day” around these parts. We in St. Mary’s County uphold our role as the birthplace of the colony; for some among us, it’s important as the birthplace of Catholicism in America (just as it was back in the 17th century Episcopalians are vastly outnumbered by Roman Catholics down here); for still others, this place shimmers with the bright and not uncontroversial origin of a new thing in a new land: religious toleration, if only, given the obvious limitations of that founding century, freedom of worship specifically for Trinitarian Christians.
This is a pretty special day celebrating a pretty special place. Mary’s Land is a unique contribution to the American experience, and it’s well worth the time to pause and consider what implications the ideas that led to this colony’s founding had on the development of the rights and privileges we enjoy — some may say, ‘take for granted’ — today.
Maryland is rather unique in being, first, the only proprietary Roman Catholic colony among the original 13 American colonies (as well as the third settled), but also the first to enact religious toleration among Trinitarian Christians (be they Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Protestant “dissenter”) in the Maryland Toleration Act (“An Act Concerning Religion”) of 1649, just 25 years after the Founding:
The Toleration Act, passed on April 24, 1649, granted religious freedom to all who believed in the Trinity and that Jesus was the son of God: “… no person or persons whatever within this Province, or the islands, ports, harbors, creeks, or havens belonging to it, who professes to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any way troubled, harassed or embarrassed for … his or her religion …” [language modernized]
In addition, the law made it a crime to jeer at other believers by calling them names such as “papist,” “heretic,” or “Puritan.” The death penalty could be meted out to anyone who denied the Trinity or reject Christ’s sonship. Those who profaned Sunday by swearing excessively, becoming drunk or working unnecessarily could be fined. Anyone who spoke against the Virgin Mary could be fined and whipped.
Today the Toleration Act seems harsh and restrictive, but in its day it offered more religious freedom for the citizens of Maryland than for those in England and most of Britain’s colonies. The Maryland Act of Toleration is an important stepping stone to the religious freedom which became such an important characteristic of the United States.
As noted above, this was at a time when religious toleration was very far from the norm! Europe was just coming out of the period known as “the Wars of Religion,” and the English Civil War was just ending: King Charles I of England, an Anglican King with (reportedly) some Roman Catholic sympathies had been executed by order of the Puritan (radical Protestant) Parliament on January 30th of that same year. So this really was “a new thing in a new land.” Just one of many reasons I am proud of my native State.
Happy Maryland Day!