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Anti-Catholic prejudices were carried from Reformation England to the New World, taking root in the colonies where actually very few Catholics lived. Anti-Catholicism helped transplanted Britons retain some tenuous cultural connection to a distant mother country in a strange and often hostile world. Because of their diverse origins, purposes, composition, and location, virtually the only trait these colonies shared was their traditional hatred and fear of Catholicism. In the absence of any organic unity, or any other organizing ideology like nationalism, Catholicism helped to define for most colonials what was "other" or "foreign."

Although the most virulent anti-Catholicism would have been found in Massachusetts and in the Chesapeake colonies, nearly all British colonies imposed restrictions on Catholic settlement, landholding, political participation, and religious liberty. Only in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania were Catholics safe from persecution; but even in tolerant Pennsylvania, Catholics were not allowed to hold public office.

In all of the colonies, regardless of the official position of the government, hatred of Catholicism was contained in everyday popular expressions, folktales, songs, and popular amusements. However, outbursts of real anti-Catholic persecution could, at any time, be generated in time of war or revolution.

In the long period of wars between England and Catholic France and Spain (1689–1763), anti-Catholic action was strongest in those colonies most exposed to potential attack. In the newly founded frontier province of Georgia, Catholics were not allowed to enter the colony. Even in Virginia, with less vulnerability to attack, all Catholics were disarmed during the French and Indian War, and they were not allowed to own horses. The Carolinas prohibited Catholics from holding any public office, and North Carolina forbade the employment of Catholics as guardians after 1755. Only political disunity in Maryland prevented much overt anti-Catholic legislation in Virginia before 1755; but, in that year, Maryland began double-taxation of Catholics.

No actual anti-Catholic legislation was passed in Pennsylvania until the outbreak of the French and Indian War, when prejudicial laws flowed from the formerly tolerant Quaker legislature. All Catholics were disarmed, forbidden from serving in the militia, double-taxed, and prohibited from settling in the western part of the colony most vulnerable to French attack. Even in formerly tolerant Connecticut, Catholics were denied any protection of their religion after 1743. New Hampshire instituted an oath of allegiance in 1752 requiring Catholics to renounce their allegiance to the pope.

Fear of a Catholic invasion died out with the defeat of France and Spain in 1763. The American colonies had other, more pressing, issues to divert their attention from anti-Catholicism. Resistance to new British regulations and taxes filled the space once occupied by fear of a Catholic foreign enemy. When this resistance movement began to develop momentum, however, anti-Catholicism provided demagogues with a handy tool for arousing popular sentiment.

The Quebec Act of 1774, designed to treat fairly the French Catholics now in the British Empire, stirred up a flurry of anti-Catholic outbursts. Preachers and politicians claimed that Great Britain was actually threatening Protestant religious liberty in the colonies by establishing Catholicism on their western frontier. And for those interested in destroying any residual loyalty to the British Crown, labeling George III as an ally or a puppet of the pope aided the cause considerably. Contemporaries testified later that the anti-Catholicism caused by the Quebec Act was a major unifying element in the American Revolution.

The Quebec Act led to a short revival in the colonies of the English celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, renamed Pope Day in the colonies, on 5 November each year. Involving the lower-class practice of burning an effigy of the pope, the celebration quickly spread from its home in New England to all the colonies in 1774. As far south as South Carolina, the pope was burned in a bonfire of English tea. When such celebrations threatened to destroy the unity among the recruits in the Continental Army, George Washington condemned the practice. Throughout the colonies after 1775, Pope Day foundered because of the desire to attract Catholic Canadians to the Revolutionary cause.

Attempts to use anti-Catholicism in the war against Great Britain also faced impediments once it became apparent that a French alliance was in the best interests of the Revolution. Even so, some states disarmed Catholics as they had during the French and Indian War, and many an anti-Catholic commentator expounded on the sinister presence of Catholic Irish soldiers in the British Army. Assistance from Catholic France after the Alliance of 1778 was always looked on by some with suspicion. The Alliance also gave Loyalists an opportunity to pillory the Patriots with the seeming incompatibility between Catholic hierarchy and British freedom.

Of the constitutions drawn up by the Revolutionary states, only those in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia accorded Catholics full equality with other Christians. For a hundred years after 1776, New Hampshire upheld its seventeenthcentury test oath, its funding for only Protestant teachers, and its requirement that all members of the state government be Protestants. Similarly, in its 1779 constitution, Congregational Massachusetts supported only Protestant institutions and teachers and required all officeholders to take an oath rejecting any loyalty to foreign ecclesiastical powers. These restrictions were not removed until 1833. Congregationalism remained the established church in Connecticut as well until 1818.

In New York, John Jay strove unsuccessfully to have the constitution of 1777 prohibit Catholics from holding land or participating in state politics until they had abjured their beliefs in Catholic teachings and their loyalty to the pope. Yet the milder form ratified still refused naturalization to anyone holding "foreign" religious allegiance. This prohibition was removed in 1806. Although New Jersey proclaimed religious freedom in its 1776 constitution, Catholics were forbidden until 1844 from holding political office.

In 1776 North Carolina restricted officeholding to Protestants, as did South Carolina in its 1778 constitution. These restrictions were lifted in the latter in 1790 and in the former in 1835. Georgia kept its pre-independence anti-Catholic statutes on the books until 1798.

Even the new Constitution of the United States was attacked by North Carolina because it did not contain the anti-Catholic test oath to which so many Americans were accustomed. The tolerant spirit of the Constitution, however, was infectious, as is evidenced by the removal of anti-Catholic laws in the states after 1790.

Given such a dispensation, American Catholic clergymen were quite wary of doing anything to resurrect the old fears of their religion. An appearance of foreign attachment had to be avoided at all costs. For that reason, they petitioned for, and obtained, the appointment of an American, John Carroll of Maryland, as the first Catholic bishop in the United States in 1789. He and his successors were at pains to defuse Protestant hostility by reinforcing the idea of Catholics as loyal Americans and not the puppets of a "foreign" leader.

The type of anti-Catholicism that emerged with the formation of the Federalist Party was more political than anything else. That party formed around an antipathy for the French during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and by their understanding that renewed immigration from Ireland largely benefited their opponents, the Democratic Republicans. The fact that the French and the Irish were Catholics was important but incidental. Nevertheless, it could be used to political advantage to justify persecution of political rivals under the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790s. Irish Catholic, Mathew Lyon, was the first person prosecuted under John Adams's Sedition Act, but Adams had no qualms about appointing British Catholic William Kilty to the highest judicial post in the District of Columbia.

After the Democratic victory in 1800, anti-Catholic sentiments once again went underground except among Federalist holdouts in New England. Renewed immigration of Catholics from Ireland in the 1820s, however, increased Protestant fears that their beliefs and institutions were again in jeopardy. An attempt by the American Catholic hierarchy to calm Protestant fears by calling the First Provincial Council of Catholicity in America in 1829 actually backfired. Certain decrees of the council, like those warning against non-Catholic interpretations of the Bible, calling for the creation of separate Catholic schools, and urging baptism of Protestant children if there was a chance they could be raised Catholic, all stirred up ancient fears of a powerful, aggressive Catholicism. In a divided society experiencing unprecedented geographic growth and socioeconomic change, the monolith of Catholicism was very frightening.

The trusteeism controversy in several Catholic churches only served to catalyze these fears for the next thirty years. At issue here was whether or not lay trustees, who often had been instrumental in purchasing land and funding the construction of Catholic church buildings, should also have the right to select their religious ministers. To the trustees, and to most Protestant Americans, such a power seemed most in keeping with American customs. When, however, the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia, in a long, ugly confrontation that lasted from 1820 to 1830, was able to defeat the trustees, and when the state legislature refused to intervene, it seemed to many that foreign authoritarianism had triumphed.

Anti-Catholic responses to this threat merged with the growing reform mania in the United States. Immigration restriction became popular, as did appeals to rediscover the true Protestant Bible. Thirty religious newspapers with a definite anti-Catholic agenda were founded by 1827, warning Americans of the evils of the Catholic Church. These and other examples of anti-Catholic propaganda were so troubling that formerly diffident Catholic church leaders felt compelled to respond to attacks in speeches, public debates with Protestant clergy, and apologetic publications of their own. Bishop John England of Charleston was an especially aggressive leader, founding the United States Catholic Miscellany in 1822. Reverend John Hughes of Philadelphia, later to become the bishop of New York when anti-Catholicism had progressed from mere words to brickbats and guns, established a Catholic Tract Society in 1827 to defend the beliefs of Catholics. In the end, Catholic attempts to explain themselves fell on deaf ears, and probably only added fuel to a fire that was about to engulf America in the nativist and Know-Nothing era.

See alsoCatholicism and Catholics; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; European Influences: The French Revolution; European Influences: Napoleon and Napoleonic Rule; Religion: The Founders and Religion; Religious Tests for Officeholding; Theology .


Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. New York: Rinehart, 1952.

Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Lee, Francis Graham, ed. All Imaginable Liberty: The Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendment. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995.

Smith, Elwyn A. Religious Liberty in the United States: The Development of Church-State Thought since the Revolutionary Era. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Joseph J. Casino

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