Glance at Baltimore’s skyline and you can’t help but notice spires, towers, and domes scattered throughout the city. There are more than 600 churches and synagogues here. Part of the reason for the abundance of sacred spaces is that Maryland was founded in the 17th century on the principle of religious tolerance. Settlers were able to build places of worship and practice their faiths in ways that suited them. Today, Baltimore’s historic sacred spaces still play a major role in the neighborhoods they serve, and many of the churches also have unique historical significance.
The first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States was the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Baltimore Basilica. The neoclassical-style building was constructed between 1806 and 1821, not long after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The funeral for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence, was held within its walls. The Basilica is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. Every year, more than 100,000 people visit the Basilica; guided tours are offered Monday through Friday at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m.
Not far from the Baltimore Basilica and on the same square block as the Washington Monument is Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Asbury House. The Norman-Gothic-style church features three spires and is built of six different types of stone, including unique green-toned Maryland fieldstone. The church was erected on the site in which Francis Scott Key, who penned the U.S. National Anthem, died in 1843. Construction was completed in 1872. During World Wars I and II, the church was a haven for service personnel stationed temporarily in Baltimore. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public for tours.
Established in 1787, the Sharp Street United Methodist Church was highly influential in the antebellum freedom movement and the establishment of the first black school in Baltimore after the abolition of slavery. The massive Gothic Revival stone building where the congregation met beginning in 1921 includes an 85-foot-high bell tower and sharply pitched gables. During their formative years, the NAACP held meetings at the church, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The First Unitarian Church was once the largest building in America. The Greco-Roman structure is essentially a domed cube that was built in 1818. It features stained glass from the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is significant in the history of Unitarianism because it is where a sermon by William Ellery Channing laid the foundation for the denomination. It is also the oldest building continuously used by a Unitarian congregation and is on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest independent black institution that still exists in Baltimore. By 1811, the church had a roster of more than 600 members. In 1816, delegates were sent to Philadelphia to help establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first denomination in the world to form on account of race. In 1847, the church became the first of its kind to play instrumental music during services. Today, the church features an Afrocentric mural in the sanctuary with services open to the public.
In 1839, three free black men founded the Orchard Street Church, which became a central part of a thriving community for free African Americans after the Civil War. The congregation grew rapidly, and in 1882 a new church was built in the same location. It remains the oldest-standing structure built by African Americans in Baltimore, and is now home to the Greater Baltimore Urban League, an organization that helps disadvantaged Marylanders gain access to equal opportunities in employment, education, health care, housing, and more.
Perhaps most famous as the burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is a graveyard and former church on the west side of downtown Baltimore. The graveyard was established in 1787, and the restored historic church features stained-glass windows, an 1882 pipe organ, cathedral ceilings, and raised balconies. The grounds are open to the public during daylight hours and plaques explain the history of the cemetery and tell the biographies of the many people buried there.
There are also several noteworthy synagogues in Baltimore. The Greek Revival-style Lloyd Street Synagogue, built in 1845, is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States and the first synagogue erected in Maryland. It is located in Historic Jonestown. In 2011, archaeologists found a mikveh—a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism—under the synagogue that is believed to be the oldest known mikveh in the United States. The Lloyd Street Synagogue, also on the National Register of Historic Places, is part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
The historic Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Synagogue is now the Berea Temple Seventh Day Adventist Church. It features two octagonal towers flanking the main entrance and a large central dome that is about 40 feet in diameter.
The First Presbyterian Church and Manse is a notable example of Gothic Revival architecture and has the tallest steeple in Baltimore at 273 feet. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was built in 1911 in the Greek revival style and is located across from the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University. There is also a historic Quaker meeting house, the Old Town Friends’ Meetinghouse, that was built in 1781. This is just a sample of the many sacred spaces throughout the city that still play a major role in the neighborhoods they serve. Of course, there are many other sacred spaces on the National Register of Historic Places; in fact, about 16 percent of all the buildings on the listing in central Baltimore are religious buildings.