Catholics in Virginia

statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County
statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County

inscription on statue
inscription on statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County

When Virginia was started as a colony, the English monarch was the head of the church as well as head of the state. Henry VIII had rejected the authority of the Pope in the 1530's and establised himself as the head of an Anglican Church. Queen Mary later re-established the Catholic faith as the state religion, but she was replaced by Queen Elizabeth I. The "virgin queen" restored Protestantism as the official religion.

Political authority and religious authority were centralized in England, and all government officials had to take the Oath of Supremacy. There were no political parties or democratic contests for leadership. Religious differences were political differences, and dissent was potentially treason.

English rulers insisted on one and only one official church. They did not endorse others establishing their own independent denominations, which might lead to independent political movements.

While Virginia was a colony, there was no guarantee of religious freedom. The Anglican Church was "established" as the official church of England, and Virginia was an Anglican colony. When Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, after the charter to the London Company was revoked, there was an even-tighter connection between church and state.

After 1634, however, there were always Catholics on the Virginia border.

Charles I was the son of James I. His wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, was the daughter of the French ruler Henry IV. She was a Catholic, and Charles I was sympathetic to that religion.

The marriage was arranged for political reasons, to encourage an alliance between those rival governments, but the two fell into love. The relationship started off with some difficulty.

Charles I did not actually travel to France for the wedding. He sent a representative, which was an acceptable practice rather than a snub. However, the representative was unable to attend the ceremony in person because it was a Catholic rite, and he was a Protestant. The reverse occurred when Charles was crowned as king. Maria was unable to attend the coronation in person, since it was a Protestant ceremony and she was a Catholic.

The English Civil War between Charles I and the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, was a war for power and control. International alliances were based on personal connnections, such as who was married to whom, and national religions could change with new rulers. Charles I's perceived support for Catholicism was a threat to the Puritans, and led to the king's execution in 1649.

The religious sympathies of Charles I were revealed in part when he granted a charter for the colony of Maryland. This was originally intended to be a grant to George Calvert, who had served as Secretary of State and Privy Councillor to James I. George Calvert converted to Catholicism and resigned his official positions, but the king created the title of Baron Baltimore for him and Charles I planned to meet his request for a colonial grant.

Starting in 1620, Calvert had sponsored a settlement known as Ferryland in Newfoundland. It acquired a reputation as a haven for Catholics fleeing England, but the colony was not an economic success. After Calvert personally visited his colony in Canada, he discovered:1

"the air so intolerable cold as it is hardly to be endured... I am determined to commit this place to fishermen, that are able to encounter storms and hard weather, and to remove myself with some 40 persons to your Majesty's Dominion of Virginia..."

George Calvert asked Charles I for a new grant in Virginia. The first Lord Baltimore died just before Charles I issued his 1632 charter for the requested proprietary colony, so the king gave the charter instead to George Calvert's son, Cecil Calvert. Charles I requested that the new colony be named after Queen Maria. Maryland, named after a Catholic queen, was from the beginning a place where Catholics were welcome.

The settlers in Virginia did not appreciate the creation of Maryland. It gave to the Calverts valuable lands that the Virginians considered to be within their colonial boundaries, based on the Third Charter issued by James I in 1612.

The Virginian most affected by the creation of Maryland was William Claiborne. He had arrived in Virginia in 1621 as the colonial surveyor and established a fur trading post on Kent Island in 1631. Claiborne was evicted by the Calverts. He appealled to Charles I that his pre-existing claim to the island should be exempted from the grant of "a Country hitherto uncultivated" to the Calverts, but Charles I backed Cecil Calvert instead.

Claiborne had partial revenge against the Calverts. He spurred the Susquehannock to take their fur trading business to the Swedes in Delaware, rather than do business with the Maryland colony. Claiborne's dispute with the Calverts did not end there, however. He participated in the 1644 revolt against Leonard Calvert, seizing St. Mary's City for several years. Later, from 1652-57, he served on the Parliamentary commission that governed Maryland under Cromwell. Despite those moments f revenge, Claiborne was never able to regain control of Kent Island.

Maryland settlement under the Calverts started with the arrival of the Ark and the Dove in March, 1634. The majority of the first settlers at St. Mary's City were Protestants, but clearly Catholicism would be accepted in the colony. The first religious service in the colony was a Catholic ceremony led by a Jesuit, Father Andrew White.2

In 1649, Maryland passed the Act of Toleration in 1649, which said:3

"noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beleife or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent..."

This legislation was not based on an ecumenical movement or modern perception that each religion has value. Instead, it was a political move to attract new settlers. In the 1640's, the population of Virginia and Maryland increased through immigration rather than natural births of existing colonists. Recruiting settlers to serve as indentured servants was not easy. The Calverts recognized that they could attract more European immigrants, and even dissatisfied settlers from Virginia, by minimizing the threat of discrimination based on religion.

Virginia officials harassed religious dissenters, which in the mid-1600's were primarily Puritans. Though the Puritans in England were clearly anti-Catholic, the Calverts encouraged the religious sect to settle in Anne Arundel County. The Catholic officials of Maryland wanted to increase the population of their colony and stimulate more economic growth with greater tobacco exports.

The Calverts planned to steer the Virginia Puritans to settle on the edge of their existing population centers. That would make the Puritans into a buffer between the existing settlements and the Susquehannocks and Iroquois raiders from the north. Virginia did the same thing a century later, welcoming the Scotch-Irish immigrants and the "Pennsylvania Dutch" to the Shenandoah Valley.

The Brent Family

The First Catholic Church in Virginia

Parson Waugh's Tumult

Religious Toleration/Intolerance in Colonial Virginia

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment



1. Letter from Sir George Calvert, Lord Baltimore to King Charles I, 19 August 1629, (last checked October 23, 2011)
2. "The Story of the Ark & Dove...," Historic St. Mary's City, (last checked June 21, 2017)
3. "Maryland Toleration Act; September 21, 1649," The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, (last checked June 21, 2017)

roadside historical marker for statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County
roadside historical marker for statue honoring Brent family on Route 1 in Stafford County

Religion in Virginia
Virginia-Maryland Boundary
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