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In the period 1820–1870 Catholicism became the single-largest individual religious denomination in the United States, although by 1850 American Protestants counted together outnumbered American Catholics by two to one. The growth of American Catholicism can be seen in the fact that while in 1826 there were 250,000 Catholics in the United States, by 1865 there were 3.5 million. In part the numbers swelled due to the high number of conversions: 700,000 from 1813 to 1893. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) commented on the large number of conversions to Roman Catholicism among Americans, noting in his magisterial study Democracy in America that Americans, who were otherwise governed by individualism in their civil lives, welcomed a religion that exhibited discipline and unity.


The increase in the population of American Catholics was also driven by natural population growth and by a formidable influx of Catholic immigrants. These immigrants came principally from Ireland, especially at the time of the Great Potato Famine (1845–1849). In spite of their poverty and lack of marketable skills Irish immigrants had an advantage over Catholic immigrants from other countries. They could speak English—even if their education in other respects was lacking due to the severe privations imposed upon them by English rule. Nonetheless, in 1850 over 75 percent of the Irish Catholic population of America could read and write English. All the same, these immigrants tended to be employed in unskilled jobs—manual labor for the men, household duties for the women. The effect of this was that relatively few Irish Americans before 1870 had risen into the middle class. Most were poor members of the working class, and for this reason these immigrant Catholics were regarded with condescension and sometimes with contempt by the Protestant establishment.

Prior to 1820 the Catholic population of the United States largely comprised Anglo, French, and Hispanic peoples. The French had come to New England from Quebec and the Acadians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, from which they were exiled in 1755 and 1758 to various parts of the American seaboard from Maine to Georgia, the most famous settlement occurring in what is now Louisiana. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) depicted the expulsion of the Acadians in his long narrative poem Evangeline (1847). In that well-known poem a young Acadian woman searches for the man who, abruptly exiled from his homeland, had been separated from her on her wedding day. She finds him at last while serving as a Sister of Mercy in Philadelphia in the late 1790s. Longfellow associated Evangeline's Franco-Catholicism with a pastoral, European stability, of which he felt the lack in American society.

In 1835 the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the relationship between Catholicism and American democracy:

The Catholic religion has erroneously been regarded as the natural enemy of democracy. Among the various sects of Christians, Catholicism seems to me, on the contrary, to be one of the most favorable to equality of condition among men.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., edited by Phillips Bradley (New York: Knopf, 1956), 1:300.

Following the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) there was a huge influx of Hispanic Catholics into the United States, many of whom had had merely a sporadic contact with the clergy. A series of reforms soon followed, led by missionary leaders like Jean B. Lamy (1814–1888), who regularized the practice of the faith in the American Southwest. Regular contact with priests was indispensable to the practice of Catholicism, in the saying of Mass and in the administering of the sacraments such as the Eucharist, for example, through which Catholics in the Southwest and elsewhere believed themselves brought miraculously and materially into the presence of God. There were other significant immigrant groups including German Catholics, who began to arrive in the 1830s. They arrived with better work skills and more education than the Irish, and they tended to come from more prosperous backgrounds. Other Catholic immigrant groups in the period included the Italians and the Poles, both of whom brought with them church-related ethnic practices.

Prior to the building of Catholic schools the doctrinal knowledge of most immigrant Catholics was rudimentary and often heterodox. The solution to this problem adopted by the American bishops—preeminently John Hughes (1797–1864), bishop and then archbishop of New York (1842–1864)—was to build seminaries in which to train a knowledgeable clergy and to build schools and colleges for all Catholics. An example was Fordham College, which opened in 1841 and which went on to become a distinguished university. Hughes was concerned that public education in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States was tinged with a Protestant ethos, which would eventually undermine Catholic culture. In a similar spirit he and other American bishops developed a network of parishes not only as places of worship but also as social, cultural, and to some extent political gathering places for what was rapidly becoming a large American subculture.

At the head of this subculture were the Irish, who formed a hegemony of bishops in America so that by the end of the nineteenth century two out of three bishops were of Irish descent. With some exceptions these Irish American bishops tended to be authoritarian and anti-intellectual administrators. The essayist and novelist Orestes Brownson (1803–1876), the most important American Catholic writer in the period from 1820 to 1870, complained that American Catholics were too insular and too suspicious of non-Catholic culture and that in this respect they reflected the worst aspects of their European origins in countries where there had been an intermingling of church and state. Such cultural isolation, Brownson argued in an article in Brownson's Quarterly Review in April 1847, merely intensified an existing prejudice against Catholics that saw them excluded from honor and wealth.


As exemplified by Brownson, American Catholics in mid-nineteenth-century America tended to be partisan and unyielding in their claim of possessing the true faith. Mr. Howard in Brownson's novel Charles Elwood; or, The Infidel Converted (1840), for example, suggests that Protestantism is not a religion in itself but merely what remains of Catholicism. Brownson's novel The Spirit-Rapper (1854) took aim at the widespread appeal of spiritualism, seeing it as both foolish and, at bottom, demonic. A conspicuous source of difference between Catholics and other American Christians was the special worship of Mary. On the one hand women were elevated in the eyes of Catholics by Mary's role as the mother of Jesus, but on the other hand Mary's virginity seemed to subordinate married women. Thus, although the family was at the top of Catholic social values, married women were assigned a role in Catholic culture that was inferior to celibate women in religious orders. Both groups of women were in turn subordinated to men. As Brownson put it in The American Republic (1865), men were created as the heads or intellects of women.

Although Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) in her novel Agnes of Sorrento (1862) praised the communal aspects of Catholicism in contrast to Protestant individualism, many other Americans looked askance at the influx of Catholics into their society in the nineteenth century. The pope was viewed as an intrusive force in American life, and this, together with the poverty and rough behavior of many Irish immigrants who soon set up their own drinking establishments, eventually gave rise to anti-Catholic incidents in a number of eastern cities. In the 1830s and 1840s the nativist movement, including the anti-Catholic weekly The Protestant, helped to foment reaction against Catholic institutions. For example, in 1834 an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was burned by nativists. In the 1850s the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist group, joined the fray against Catholics. Spurious, allegedly autobiographical books depicting the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests fed the flames, such as Ned Buntline's The Jesuit's Daughter: A Novel for Americans to Read (1854), Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent (1835), and Maria Monk's scandalous best-seller, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836). These books suggested that not only were priests unlikely to be able to keep their vows of celibacy but that they were hypocritical and predatory in pretending to do so.

At a more sophisticated level there is the implicit anti-Catholicism of Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–1849) "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1843), in which the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are portrayed. Poe plays on the common American Protestant association between Catholic Europe, superstition, and clerical corruption. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) novel The Marble Faun (1860), Catholic Italy is viewed skeptically, especially regarding the practice of the sacrament of confession, which is depicted in its dispensing of forgiveness as dulling the conscience and discouraging the renunciation of evil. In his French and Italian Note-Books (1858) Hawthorne laments the superstition of the Italians, as in their fear of the evil eye—a belief, he adds, that is frequently found in monasteries. In Italian Journeys (1867) the novelist William Dean Howells (1837–1920) characterizes the rituals that he witnessed in the Vatican as tedious and vacuous and as led by haughty and sinister-looking prelates. Like Hawthorne, Howells comments on the superstitiousness of the Catholics he encountered in Italy. In the novella "Benito Cereno" (1855), Herman Melville (1819–1891) depicts Catholics as addressing votive prayers not to God or to Christ but to Mary, the mother of Jesus. A young Spanish nobleman, Don Joaquin, marquez de Aramboalaza, pledges that in return for a safe ocean passage to Peru he will deposit a jewel at the feet of Our Lady of Mercy in Lima. While Melville records the matter objectively, he captures the view of many American Protestants at the time that Catholics were idolatrous and superstitious in focusing their piety on Mary and the saints and, even more egregiously, on statues. Even more significantly perhaps from the point of view of Melville's attitude toward such Catholic practices, Don Joaquin is killed before reaching his destination.

Realizing that Catholics were viewed negatively by many other Americans, some Catholic writers responded with popular novels designed to make Catholicism more attractive than it had been to non-Catholic American readers. As Willard Thorp has documented, between 1829 and 1865 there were almost fifty novels published in which their authors attempted to clear up misconceptions about Catholicism and in which a proper way for Catholics to relate to the American cultural mainstream was suggested. One of the most influential of these popular novelists was Mary Sadlier (1820–1903), who as a young woman in 1844 emigrated from Ireland to Montreal and there married James Sadlier, who managed the Canadian branch of his family's New York publishing house. Sadlier began publishing her novels through the firm, and some fourteen years later the couple moved to New York City, where they established a successful Catholic newspaper, The Tablet. In New York the Sadliers became influential members of the Catholic community and Sadlier became friends with Orestes Brownson.

Most of Sadlier's readers were Irish Catholic women. In addition to depicting Catholicism, Sadlier conveyed the flavor of Irish American speech and customs so that at times readers like Brownson were sometimes unclear as to where religion began and Irish culture left off. From reading novels like Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America (1865), Catholic readers learned how to achieve success in the work-place while not succumbing to the largely Protestant culture that dominated that workplace. Where the temptations were too great, her central characters were advised to leave and head westward, where society was more open, less rigidly organized, than in the eastern cities. Sadlier was a strong advocate of Catholic schools, hospitals, and charitable agencies. In a similar vein, in Willy Burke; or, The Irish Orphan in America (1850), Sadlier sets out to undermine the assumption that in order to achieve success in America one had to be Protestant. The Blakes and the Flanagans: A Tale of Irish Life in the United States (1855) explores the lure of the American dream of success in tension with the demands of the family and condemns the Blake family for sacrificing the family to success. The Flanagans, on the other hand, reconcile success and virtue by organizing a successful family business. For Catholics the family was valued as having been created by God and was regarded as intermediate between the individual and society. The family was a shelter against being assimilated by the larger society and the most appropriate environment in which to practice virtue and to strive for religious salvation. In this respect the Catholic ethos emphasized something distinct from the traditional American Puritan or Calvinistic theology in which the individual encounter with God paralleled an equally individual pursuit of material success. Nevertheless, Sadlier's characters reflect the difficulty of centering on the family amid the poverty that characterized Catholic immigrant life at this time, by which marginal employment often made it difficult for family members to be together.

Another well-known Catholic popular novelist in the mid-nineteenth century was Charles Pise (1801–1866), a priest and writer who, unlike Sadlier, had been born in the United States. Pise, who was elected a chaplain to the U.S. Senate in 1832, the first of his faith to be so installed, argued for the compatibility of American republican ideals and those of the Catholic faith. He depicted characters who were more genteel than those presented by Sadlier and who articulated their faith for a literate, non-Catholic audience, rationalizing the Catholic practice of venerating the saints, for example, as an honoring of great persons. Typically Pise's novels, like Brownson's, emphasized apologetics in scenic clashes of ideas in which doubters are convinced and conversions follow.

Pitched at a higher intellectual and cultural level than Sadlier's novels, Orestes Brownson's fiction, including Charles Elwood, the Spirit-Rapper (1854), and The Convert (1857), centered on the philosophical principle that Catholic theology fundamentally expressed reality. If Catholicity was indeed from God, Brownson argued in The Convert, an autobiographical novel that anticipated John Henry Newman's Apologia pro vita sua (1864), then God as the author of reality would protect Catholicism from illusion. In Charles Elwood, Brownson erected a narrative super-structure that thinly veiled the work's didactic purpose. The novel is basically composed of a series of debates in which Elwood, an admirer of John Locke and of empiricism, slowly approaches Catholic belief both through his reason and intuition, a faculty that, as an ex-transcendentalist, Brownson regarded as cognitive rather than emotional. In contrast Brownson portrayed Protestantism as comparatively emotional rather than rational and philosophical. In Charles Elwood, Brownson suggested that in any void left by Christianity, a void that spiritualism and a diluted and amorphous Protestantism appeared to Brownson to be filling in the second half of the nineteenth century, the irrational and the absurd would find fertile ground. Brownson also ridiculed the growing ascendancy of the idea of progress across the whole American cultural spectrum since he believed it was unconnected to a teleological framework (such as Catholicism provided) that would give meaning to the concept of progress by pointing to an absolute end, so that steps toward that end could thereby be assessed.


Like Brownson, another of the nineteenth century's most influential Catholic essayists, Isaac Hecker (1819–1888), had been associated with the transcendentalist movement and was a convert to Catholicism. In contrast to many other Catholics who looked askance at thought that had not received the blessing of the church, Brownson and Hecker, who had both begun as American Protestants, were accustomed to an open society, at least one that was more open than the European countries from which the large numbers of Catholic immigrants had come. Brownson was scathing in his attack on the intellectual xenophobia of the Catholic Church in America, particularly when contrasted with what he perceived as the rich intellectual heritage of Catholicism over the ages. In an article published in Brownson's Quarterly Review in July 1861 he observed that nowhere in the church's history could he find a period in which the leaders of the church had displayed so great a dread of intellect as in nineteenth-century America. For Brownson the vitality of Catholicism had been strongest when the surrounding culture had been replete with intellectual, especially moral and theological, controversy.

Although in their intellectual sophistication and openness to culture in the broadest sense Brownson and Hecker may not have been typical of the thinking of the Catholic population around them, they did present Catholicism to the wider community as an intellectually respectable religion, and in time their influence on American Catholic thought was appreciated by those in the fledgling Catholic intellectual community in the second half of the nineteenth century and subsequently by later generations of American Catholics. Both Brownson and Hecker emphasized the compatibility of Catholic faith and reason, arguing that the supernatural tenets of their faith were not irrational but were, rather, beyond reason and in some respects beyond the reach of science. Indeed, Brownson argued that there was no inherent conflict between Catholicism and science—that the findings of science had to be accommodated by religion but also that science needed to hold to its own area of knowledge and not drift into philosophy and theology. For this reason he was skeptical of some of the philosophical and religious inferences that were drawn by those looking at Charles Darwin's findings. On the whole, however, Brownson affirmed science and other fields of knowledge as contributing to one's knowledge of reality, a reality that could ultimately be traced back to God. For this reason he was impatient with Catholics who saw these other aspects of culture as irrelevant to them as Catholic Christians. The project of American civilization, he made clear, was one that Catholics ought to make their own, both in order to know more about the immensity of the creativity of God and also as a project to which they could, steeped in the writings of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, contribute valuable philosophical and moral direction.

The openness that both Hecker and Brownson valued in American society was part of their commitment to American constitutional ideals. Though it may have seemed a doubtful claim to some readers at the time, in 1835 Tocqueville in Democracy in America concluded that, among all of the religious denominations in the United States, Catholics were the most likely to embrace democratic ideals. This was, he explained, because except for the distinction between the clergy and lay people, all below the level of the priest were regarded as equal before God. Protestantism, Tocqueville added, tended to make its adherents independent and individualistic rather than equal. Freed from the sort of European society in which religion had bonded with royalty and with the aristocracy, Tocqueville concluded, Catholics in America would quite naturally embrace democracy in a society in which there was a separation of church and state, a separation that both Brownson and Hecker affirmed. A further incentive pointed out by Tocqueville was that most American Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century were poor and so had little to gain from supporting a society in which hierarchical privilege reigned. Brownson and Hecker urged Catholics to participate fully in the democratic process, incorporating into American society those principles in Catholicism that were universal rather than sectarian, principles that would benefit the whole population in clarifying and supporting the essential dignity and rights of human beings. In this matter Brownson regretted that in its inner workings his church frequently failed to adopt democratic principles—principles that, he felt, need not have endangered the preservation of the faith. Instead, he lamented, the clergy tended to deny freedom, especially free discussion, to its members because of a rigidly hierarchical ecclesiastical culture.

In Questions of the Soul (1855) and Aspirations of Nature (1857), Hecker pursued many of the issues related to Catholicism and democracy that his friend Brownson found absorbing. Indeed, Hecker contended that the Catholic view of what human beings were was not only useful to American society but indispensable for it to thrive as a democracy. Affirming, like Brownson, the compatibility of Catholicism and reason, Hecker maintained that if Christianity was true, then the shaping of American society according to its principles must benefit that society in terms of its overall good. Carrying into his Catholic beliefs the optimistic view of human nature he had acquired as a transcendentalist, Hecker believed that the legacy of Calvinistic Protestantism undermined the assumptions about human goodness and reason that underlay the U.S. Constitution. His eventual rejection of transcendentalism, on the other hand (a rejection that he shared with Brownson), arose from what he viewed as a blurred distinction between the individual as capable of transcendental understanding and the objective, ontological reality of God as creator and sustaining power of the cosmos.

In spite of the robust ideological advocacy of democratic ideals by Brownson, Hecker, and other Catholic intellectuals at the time, Catholic attitudes wavered somewhat in connection with slavery. In the 1850s Brownson had no insurmountable moral difficulty with the Fugitive Slave Law, just as Archbishop John Hughes of New York failed to declare himself an abolitionist. Nonetheless, with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Brownson, feeling himself forced to choose, declared himself opposed to slavery and in favor of emancipation. The issue would not be resolved for many American Catholics until well into the twentieth century following the Second Vatican Council. In the 1960s the public opposition of most American Catholic leaders to racism and to economic and social as well as political discrimination would be trenchantly and influentially articulated by American Catholic writers like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan, who articulated a fuller understanding of the racial implications of American constitutional ideals than had been expressed by Catholic thinkers in the nineteenth century.

See alsoDemocracy in America; Immigration; Irish; Political Parties; Protestantism; Science; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Brownson, Orestes. The Works of Orestes A. Brownson. 1882–1907. Edited by Henry F. Brownson. New York: AMS Press, 1966.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Passages from the French and ItalianNote-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1858. London: Strahan, 1871.

Hecker, Isaac. Aspirations of Nature. New York: James B. Kirker, 1857.

Hecker, Isaac. Questions of the Soul. New York: Appleton, 1855.

Howells, William Dean. Italian Journeys. 1867. Evanston, Ill.: Marlboro Press/Northwestern University Press, 1999.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835, 1840. Edited by Phillips Bradley. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Secondary Works

Fisher, James T. Catholics in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Franchot, Jenny. Roads to Rome: The Antebellum ProtestantEncounter with Catholicism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Griffin, Susan M. Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hennesey, James. American Catholics: A History of theRoman Catholic Community in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Labrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in AmericanLiterature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

McDannell, Colleen. The Christian Home in VictorianAmerica, 1840–1900. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986.

Taves, Ann. Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Thorp, Willard. Catholic Novelists in Defense of Their Faith, 1829–1865. New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Ross Labrie