Most Americans of the early Nineteenth Century remained Protestant and evangelical, but the United States is a rapidly changing nation. While not officially America's state religion, Protestant values predominate. So much so that standard old fashioned American values approximate Protestant values. Historians believe most Americans favored tax supported education because American public education was Protestant education. Three factors support this:
1. Schools taught history from the Protestant perspective.
2. Schools used the King James Version for reading instruction and devotional thoughts.
3. Almost every American college had Protestant roots. Protestant denominations started eight of nine colleges that began between 1830-1860. Even the state universities reflected Protestant values.
Roman Catholicism challenged the Protestant majority in the 1830s and 1840s. How that challenge occurred, and its effect, I trace out here.
I. The coming of the Catholics.
Catholic came to North America quite early. George Calvert established Maryland as a Catholic refuge in 1634. The first colonial bishop in the English colonies resided in Baltimore and by 1808, the Baltimore see attained Archbishop status. By 1808, bishops sat in Bardstown, Kentucky, and two other American cities. Catholicism spread westward along with Protestantism.
Immigration spurred Catholic growth. In the 1830s, thousands of Irish immigrants entered the United States for two reasons. First, the English landlord system in Ireland forced many out of the country. Second, the potato blight caused such hardship that others left Ireland for better lands.
Irish immigration reached panic proportions in the 1840s because of the potato blight. Potatoes normally grew well in the Irish soil, but potato blight destroyed whole crops. Since the Irish diet depended on the potato, blight created starvation and economic collapse. Potatoes keep well for about a year under the right conditions. If one crop fails, and the seed potatoes are bad or nonexistent, then a potato farmer is finished. Irishmen faced only two choices, emigrate or die. Thousands did both. Let the statistics speak for themselves.
Most early Catholic immigration came from Ireland, but German Catholics also contributed to their numbers. During the 1830s and 1840s, the U.S. Catholic population increased five-fold. The sheer number brought a number of internal and external pressures.
II. Internal Catholic problems
The American Catholic church found Episcopal supervision difficult after the Revolution. The large geographic areas of the dioceses made control difficult. Many local congregations followed the earlier Anglican lead and formed strong boards of "lay trustees." These "lay trustees" held title to Catholic property which bishops normally controlled.
In the 1830s, the Catholic hierarchy reduced the size of the typical American diocese to allow more direct and efficient supervision. By then the "lay trustees" had grown accustomed to their authority and refused to relinquish their semi-authoritative position. Struggle ensued between lay leadership and the clergy. In 1786, the trustees of New York City's St. Peter's church asserted the right to select their own priest--an unheard of practice. In 1847, trustees locked out a bishop from his Buffalo, New York, building. In Philadelphia, William Hogan, a rebellious priest whom the trustees supported, had a showdown with his bishop. Hogan appeared to hold the upper hand but the bishop excommunicated him and the trustees eventually fell into line. Even as late as 1930, the American bishop's authority remained somewhat in doubt. Because of all this, American Catholicism develops along a different path than most of the world's Catholics. American Catholicism tends to hold more liberal views on many issues and often manifests a more independent spirit than other Catholics.
The fact that most nineteenth century Catholics were immigrants creates its own set of problems. New American Catholics found cultural adjustment difficult. Each national group had a difficult time identifying with Catholics from other national groups. Furthermore, Rome appointed few American bishops. John Carroll, Baltimore's first bishop, and a few others were homegrown, but the church imported many bishops from France. Many American Catholics, American, Irish, and German, found themselves supervised by French bishops, who reported to Rome through the French church. American Catholics resented those ties to Europe. The immigrants didn't like it either. The Irish, for example, hated French supervision. In effect, they felt dominated by a "foreign" clergy. But the Irish don't have their own priests in the New World yet and had not had time to education a priesthood. Until the Irish raised up their own priests, they tolerated French supervision. When Germans arrived later they faced a similar situation. By then, the Irish had priests but the Germans didn't. The Germans resented Irish leadership. When the Poles came even later, they discovered their hierarchy had German roots. And so it went . . . .
III. Catholic external problems
Catholics needed to adjust to the new American scene with its "melting pot" philosophy. Protestants also needed to adjust to the Catholic minority.
Few ethnic problems faced the United States right after the Revolution. Blacks wrote Thomas Jefferson to ask how "all men created equal" could be kept in slavery. Jefferson could only answer with embarrassed silence. Little tension existed between American Protestants who fought and American Catholics who fought. Catholics had fought well for American independence and earned acceptance. Irish immigration changed that! The Irish who came here had little education, came from rural areas, and appeared slovenly. To "native born" citizens, the typical Irish "Mick" was unstable and foreign. Earlier British, German, and a few Scandinavian immigrants moved west to settle readily available farmland. Poor Irishmen settled in the cities because they had no money to underwrite a farming venture. They also lacked skills and became day laborers. Irish immigrants built the canals, railroads, became dock workers or went into the construction business. In the south, Irishmen wound up doing most of the really dangerous work. After all, in the 1840s, good strong black "bucks" sold for $2,500 each and owners did not want their "stock" damaged. Conditions forced the Irish immigrants to work in conditions unfit for slave labor.
With large scale Irish immigration, Protestant paranoia reared its head. Did the Catholics intend to "take over" America? Protestant fear came from several different areas.
1. Protestants feared loss of jobs. After all, Catholic immigrants worked for less money. They made job competition tough and held down wages. Many Protestants blamed deteriorating conditions in most cities to poor immigrants who settled there, most of whom were Irish.
2. Protestants feared Catholic clannishness. The native born citizen saw Catholics voting as a bloc. This practice gave them considerable political clout. Furthermore, Catholics voted according self-interest! To the native born, such voting was un-American. A real American voted to express his opinion of what was best for everyone. Since most immigrants arrived from countries where no one voted, most Americans worried they would not vote intelligently or properly. The rise of "boss" politics in the cities justified that fear to some extent.
3. Protestants remembered past conflicts. English-speaking Protestants, in particular, remembered the many Catholic plots in their homeland; plots against Queen Elizabeth in particular.
Anti-Catholic newspapers and societies fanned these fears. Both the Protestant and "The Protestant Association" formed to agitate against Catholics. Riots followed a Catholic attempt to break up meetings of "The Protestant Association." These riots created suspicions that Catholics intended to make trouble and take over. Tensions soon ran high with violence lurking just beneath the surface. Events supported this.
About 1834, a Boston Ursuline Convent, founded in 1818, operated a girls' school for wealthy Bostonians. Most students in the school came from Unitarian families, so these are not "novices" training to become nuns. Former nuns circulated wild sexual stories about some of the convent's activities. While the Parents knew better, other Boston Protestants believed the Catholics brainwashed these girls preparing them for prostitution. Lyman Beecher came to town for a revival in August 1834. He preached three strong anti-Catholic sermons during the revival. After the last sermon, a mob attacked the convent and burned it down. No one died in the fire but the church lost the property. Boston police arrested some of the arsonists. A Protestant jury and judge tried and acquitted the arsonists.
In 1836 one of the most vicious anti-Catholic propaganda pieces appeared, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Maria Monk claimed to be a nun who escaped from unspeakable horrors at the Hotel Dieu, a Montreal convent. When she arrived in New York, she was obviously in an advanced pregnancy. She told stories of priests who seduced young women in the confessional and raped nuns. She told about secret passageways from the rectory to the convent. She gave graphic descriptions of the treatment given to children born to nuns. These decadent priests baptized these infants then strangled them. She told about nuns who were suffocated because they refused to allow sexual intercourse.
Investigation proved Maria's story fraudulent. Her own mother told authorities that Maria was a liar. Maria had one illegitimate child and carried another. She had never been to Hotel Dieu but to a Magdalene House--a home for reforming prostitutes. Evidence later revealed that a group of New York Protestant ministers wrote the entire book. In an attempt to discredit the story, the Montreal convent's Mother Superior invited Protestant gentlemen to investigate and they also reported the story false. The book was resurrected in 1960 during John F. Kennedy's bid for the presidency and Jack Chik comics revised it with "a twist." In 1837, Alexander Campbell debated Cincinnati's Bishop Purcell and quoted from a Book on Moral Theology, a book similar to Awful Disclosures.
Catholics did hurt their cause when, in 1840, they condemned the character of public schools. Bishop John Hughes, who led the condemnation, appeared to attack the schools and the Bible. Catholics complained that the new public schools promoted a Protestant bias, which they did. The Catholics pushed for tax money to assist parochial schools.
In another incident, a priest burned Protestant tracts and Bibles in 1842. Book burnings always carry a picture of prejudice and anti-education. The action stimulated Protestant suspicions and increased their irritation with Catholics.
In Philadelphia Protestants formed the American Protective Association to fight Catholicism. The APA became a national group with numerous local auxiliaries. In 1844, riots broke out when Catholics broke up an APA meeting. Protestants killed several Catholics and destroyed nearly two blocks of Catholic property including two church buildings. The riots spread from Philadelphia to New York with similar threats of destruction. New York Bishop John Hughes issued guns to Catholic men and stationed them around the churches. After doing so, Hughes publicly announced his actions and New York had no further trouble.
In 1845, the American Republican Party, known as the Know Nothings, formed. They, too, stood opposed to Catholicism. By 1854, they elected several members to Congress but overall they remained largely ineffective. An anti-slavery party later absorbed them and they disappeared.
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