One of the most important aspects of early American history is just how devoid of actual Roman Catholics it is. Obviously, on the North American continent, Catholicism throve in the French and Spanish areas and, frequently, among American Indians. Yet, when we consider the main narrative of American history—that told from the standpoint of Plymouth Rock—Catholics, even when nowhere physically present in the population, represented the absolute worst in Western civilization. According to most mainstream, White Anglo-Saxon-Celtic Protestant Americans, Catholicism embraced superstition, darkness, tyranny, and repression. In other words, despite being physically absent, Catholicism was never mythically far from the minds of early Americans in the English colonies.
It’s hard to counter some of these claims, at least in terms of population. After all, of all the major migrations to the English North American colonies, none included Catholics of any sizeable number. Wave one, the Puritans came to New England in the 1630s and 1640s; wave two, the Anglican-Oxford elite and their servants came to Virginia in the 1640s; wave three, the Quakers came to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware in the 1660s, 1670s, and 1680s; and the Scotch-Irish came to the highlands of Colonial America throughout the century leading up to the American Revolution. Africans, too, came in droves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, always against their will. While Maryland did, originally, allow Catholics to settle there, never more than a few families came, and they could no longer practice their faith legally after 1689.
Statistically, therefore, Catholics remained very small in number in absolute terms and in proportion in the colonies and what would become the early American republic. Not until 1846 would mass numbers of Catholics arrive on United States soil. When they came in 1846 and after, however, they came in huge numbers.
The consequences of this tangible lack of a Catholic presence is profound. It means that all our cultural norms, habits, folkways, and laws reflect a Protestant understanding of the world, not a Catholic one. Even more importantly, given America’s self-understanding, every moment and document of the American Revolution—from the Declaration of Independence to the Northwest Ordinance to the U.S. Constitution to the Bill of Rights—was produced out of an all-pervasive Protestantism. In this sense, Roman Catholics will always exist as aliens in America. Even the very first official act of Congress was to condemn the British government for offering liberal laws toward the Roman Catholics of Canada. Parliament, our Congress proclaimed on October 21, 1774, determined “to reduce the ancient, free Protestant colonies to… slavery…. Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island with blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” Considering that this was the very first official pronouncement from the U.S. Congress, one cannot help but be somewhat stunned.
In his scholarly examination of Protestantism and Catholicism at the time, The Protestant Crusade, Ray Allen Billington notes that the Catholic population, while remaining small relative to Protestants, did grow substantially during the history of the early republic. In 1807, America proper had eighty churches, seventy priests, and, roughly, 70,000 Roman Catholics. By 1830, each of these numbers had increased dramatically and also included nine Catholic colleges, thirty-three monasteries, and six seminaries. In New England—always the center of the most anti-Catholic feeling in the United States—there were 14,000 Roman Catholics and sixteen churches by 1830. Many of these were itinerant, cheaply-hired Irish laborers, especially in and around Boston, competing with much higher-skilled but also more expensive native, white American laborers.
Religious as well as labor tensions grew threatening in the first half of the 1830s. As Billington found, Protestants and native laborers naturally resented the Irish Catholics. In one not atypical poster, a nativist proclaimed: “To the Public: Be it known unto you far and near, that all Catholics and all persons in favor of the Catholic Church, are a set of vile imposters, liars, villains and cowardly cut-throats (Beware of False Doctrines). I bid defiance to that villain–the Pope. [Signed] a True American.”
Most infamously, the prominent Congregationalist minister, Lyman Beecher, offered the sermon, “The Devil and the Pope of Rome,” to his congregation. That same Sunday, another preacher in town admonished his members to besiege and destroy the local Ursuline nunnery. “Leave not one stone unturned of that curst Nunnery that prostitute female virtue and liberty under the garb of holy religion.”
The nunnery in question sat atop one of the three major hills in Boston, Ploughed Hill. Though the Ursulines began their existence as counter-Reformation shock troops—female equivalents of the Jesuits—they had mellowed considerably since the sixteenth century. Indeed, they had come to Boston at the request of the elite Unitarians in town, promising to provide a somewhat liberal and Christian education to elite Bostonian young women. The Boston elite especially wanted their daughters to become polished in the French language as well as in French manners. For all intents and purposes, the Ursulines provided a non-threatening finishing school. The nuns had even promised only to teach “those great truths of religion, which are common to most Christian sects,” downplaying Catholic doctrines, the sacraments, and the liturgy. Further, the nuns did everything possible to prevent any association with the lower-class Irish workers.
The week before Beecher and other Boston Protestants delivered their anti-Ursuline sermons, a rumor had spread that several of the nuns were being held in the monastery against their will. Old European stories about priests impregnating nuns and offering the babies for sacrifice to the Devil in secret dungeons and catacombs took on new life, putting almost all Boston Protestants into a frenzy.
The Monday following the Sunday sermons, huge crowds protested in front of the Ursuline convent. A not atypical placard read: “Leave not one stone upon another of this curst nunnery…. When Bonaparte opened the nunneries of Europe, he found crowds of infant skulls.” The nuns allowed a representative committee of townsfolk to explore the convent fully. Finding nothing even resembling any of the rumors, the committee told the crowd to go home, and they did.
As evening fell, though, a second crowd—an unruly mob—appeared at the nunnery and lit massive bonfires. The infuriated Bostonians demanded the release of all captive women. When the Mother Superior, Sister Edmund, appeared at the front doors, she demanded the crowd to disperse. When it did not, she threatened to recruit all the nearby Irish workers to protect the nuns. Given that many Bostonians already feared the Irish to be a papal army, the crowd exploded into an even greater fury. Opening fire on Sister Edmund, the Bostonians stormed the nunnery. Once inside, they burned everything—the books, the rosaries, the furniture, and the structure itself. Amazingly, none of the nuns died, most having escaped dressed as local women.
While the burning of the Boston nunnery shocked most Americans, it also inspired a significant minority of Americans to demonstrate and harass American Catholics throughout the country. The most interesting manifestation of such anti-Catholicism, though, came in the form of published pulp. One of the most important and mainstream presses of today (I’ll leave it to you to find out which one) made most of its early money under the name of an imprint, publishing salacious and sexually titillating pornographic romances about the secret horrors of the Catholic Church. Some of these books—which sold very well—were even illustrated. The most famous was Maria Monk, the story of a good Protestant woman who innocently converts to Catholicism and joins a religious order, only to find that all nuns are, in actuality, sex slaves to perverted and abusive Catholic priests. And, yes, every one of the babies produced by these rapes and orgies became a sacrifice to the Devil. The first of these, the iconic Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures, sold more than 600,000 copies in the nineteenth century and spawned a whole host of imitations.
The great Pat Buchanan has argued famously and persuasively that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice. If true, such anti-Catholicism has had a very long history in this country.
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Editor’s Note: The image at top is of Maria Monk and her baby, taken from the book, Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk of the Hôtel-Dieu Nunnery (New York, 1836). The featured image is a detail from the cover of the 2015 edition of this work by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. “Ruins of the Ursuline Convent” (1834) above is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.