Roman Catholics

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Roman Catholics

ROMAN CATHOLICS. Roman Catholicism was a small but diverse religious community in 1776. Numbering about twenty-five thousand members (just one percent of the American population), it was confined principally to the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where there had evolved distinctive versions of the faith that produced different but equally fervent responses to war and revolution.


Maryland Catholicism was English, rural, and hierarchical, composed of a gentry class with extensive holdings in tobacco plantations and slaves; a middling group of small planters and farmers engaged in subsistence and commercial agriculture; and African slaves, three thousand of whom belonged to the church. Ministering to Maryland Catholics were seven Jesuit priests, who operated farms that served both as mission stations for an itinerant clergy and as informal parish churches.

Pennsylvania Catholicism, on the other hand, had a sizable urban, ethnic contingent. St. Joseph's Church, founded in Philadelphia in 1734 as the first urban Catholic Church in America, contained a rich ethnic mix of forty Irish, English, and Germans. By 1776 the church had grown to twelve hundred and included French as well as English, Irish, and Germans. Most of the parishioners were laborers, servants, and sailors, but the church came to include a group of English and Irish merchants whose rise to economic power reflected Philadelphia's growth as a seaport. Pennsylvania Catholicism had a lesser rural component, which was in part developed by Jesuit missionaries from St. Joseph's and in part by migrants and their Jesuit pastors from Maryland and Germany.

Catholics faced complex problems when the onset of Revolution made a choice of loyalties both mandatory and urgent. But from whom could they seek counsel on the crisis? Turning to the hierarchy for leadership was a possibility, but suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 had thrown the American clergy, Jesuits all, into a state of disarray. Suppression forced Jesuits to become secular priests, subject no longer to the direct authority of the Jesuit missionary superior but to the bishop of London. In addition, the Declaration of Independence and war severed formal ties between American Catholics and the London hierarchy, leaving leadership of the church in the hands of the Reverend John Lewis, pastor of Bohemia Manor, Maryland. But because he had received his appointment from the bishop of London, not a few American priests refused to submit to his authority. Individual pastors called upon Catholics to take the oath of loyalty to the Revolution and defended the morality of the war against England, but most priests were loath to enter the fray, believing that they should have "little to do with civil broils and troubled waters" (Henley, p. 179).

In the absence of clerical leadership, responsibility for steering the Church through the "troubled waters" of war and revolution was assumed by Catholic laymen belonging primarily to two elite groups. These were the Maryland gentry and the Philadelphia mercantile community.


The atmosphere in America in 1776 was hardly conducive to Catholic cooperation with the Patriots. Penal laws proscribing the civil or religious rights—or both—of Catholics existed in all the colonies, including Maryland. In addition, revolutionary ideology had heightened anti-Catholicism as Patriots blamed the crisis on the British royal court's flirtations with "popery." The Quebec Act of 1774, which extended religious toleration to the Catholics of Canada, raised American anti-papalism to a fever pitch. "GEORGE III REX. AND THE LIBERTIES OF AMERICA. NO POPERY," proclaimed a rebel banner. If American Catholics had good reasons for hesitating to join the "glorious cause" against England, they had equally strong reasons for choosing neither loyalty or neutrality. Siding with England raised the same objections as adopting patriotism, for England was as anti-Catholic as America. On the other hand, neutrality would subject Catholics to even more harassment than they had suffered under the penal laws.

Faced with difficult choices, many American Catholics were persuaded into choosing patriotism over neutrality or loyalty by laymen who had risen quickly to the defense of American liberty. To be sure, more than a few Catholics became Tories, but not in Maryland, where Loyalists were rare.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland planter and one of the wealthiest men in America, was the preeminent lay leader of the Catholic radical movement in America. Carroll chose to enter the political fray against England as early as 1773, when he published a pamphlet defending the principle of no taxation without representation against the conservative Maryland pamphleteer, Daniel Dulany. The pamphlet gained him notoriety in non-Catholic as well as Catholic circles, elevating him to a position of national leadership in the movement toward independence. He served as an adviser to the Continental Congress; made a trip to Canada in 1775 to secure that country's support for the Revolution; was elected a delegate to the Maryland Convention in 1776 that formed the new state constitution; and was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence as a newly elected delegate to Congress. For the remainder of the war he represented Maryland either in Congress or in the state's senate.

Carroll's radicalism must have come as a shock to Americans accustomed to associating Catholicism in religion with absolutism in politics. But his Jesuit teachers, who were active in the European Enlightenment, had taught him well the philosophy of republicanism, including natural rights theory and the legitimacy of revolution against tyrants. So when the crisis with England hit, Carroll immediately recognized in the rapidly evolving revolutionary ideology ideas that were congenial with his own. Carroll's great contribution to American Catholicism, at the moment of its inception, was to demonstrate, both in word and in deed, the compatibility between Catholic liberalism and the ideals of the new Republic.


In Pennsylvania, the local Catholic merchant community of Philadelphia provided the leadership for Catholics choosing to participate in the radical movement. Unlike Maryland's Catholics, they distinguished themselves less in civil than in military affairs, serving principally in the Continental army and not in provincial militias, as was mainly the case with Catholic combatants in Maryland. This was due in part to their proximity to Congress, which sat in Philadelphia for much of the war, and in part to their commercial and financial expertise, which were in great demand. In addition, Philadelphia's sizable community of laborers, a class from which the bulk of the Continental army's enlistees was recruited, provided a natural constituency for Catholic merchants inclined to express their patriotism by raising a troop of soldiers.

Stephen Moylan was Philadelphia's answer to Charles Carroll. A member of a prominent Catholic family and a wealthy wholesale merchant, Moylan was "the outstanding American Catholic solider in the Revolution" (Metzger, p. 218). He threw himself into the war as early as 1775, when in the wake of Lexington and Concord he financed a contingent of Catholic volunteers, drawn in part from the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a fraternal society that had recently elected him president. He then led it to Boston to join Washington's new army. Moylan went on to serve the Continental army in other important military capacities. Then, in January 1777, he became commander of the Fourth Continental Dragoons, a position he held to 1783, when he became a brigadier general.

Other Catholic merchants, drawing upon similar sources of wealth and commercial expertise, also moved into important congressional military and fiscal offices during the war. Two of Stephen Moylan's brothers played major roles in the fiscal affairs of thearmy, one as a commercial agent of the United States in France, the other as clothier general of the Continental forces. Thomas Fitz Simmons and George Meade, his brother-in-law, were partners in Meade and Company, an import and export firm that traded mainly with the West Indies. Throughout the war, the firm of Meade and Company engaged in a number of licit and illicit commercial activities, including privateering, for the purpose of provisioning American armies and French naval forces in desperate need of military supplies. Many of the privateers recruited for service by the two men came from the Catholic community of St. Mary's, which saw at least fourteen of its parishioners serve as privateers for Fitz Simmons and Meade. Such examples offer a mere glimpse into a complex community of Philadelphia's Catholic merchants and traders who made an impact on the Revolution.

In contrast to this record of patriotic leadership is the evidence regarding Catholic Toryism, which seemed to have been confined largely to Philadelphia and its environs. Catholic Loyalists made a brief but conspicuous appearance in Philadelphia between September 1777 and June 1778, when the town was under British occupation. Upon capturing Philadelphia, the British organized "three regiments of provincials," including one "wholly made up of Roman Catholics" (ibid., pp. 244-245). But the force disbanded soon after the British abandoned Philadelphia in June 1778 and returned to New York, a city in which Catholics were a rarity. As historians have found, Philadelphia's Catholic Tories were not confined to any one class or ethnic group, but cut across all segments of the society.


Despite their differences, American Catholics generally supported the Revolution, and as a result reaped the benefits of its success. Most revolutionary governments, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, abolished all penal laws against Catholics and implemented ideals of religious toleration, freedom, and equality. The impact on Catholics was immediate. Liberated from civil and religious restraints, American Catholics were free to form a new American church according to the principles of the religion and the Revolution. Leading Catholics in the radical transformation of the Church was the Reverend John Carroll, cousin of Charles of Carrollton, and—like Charles—educated in republicanism at various Jesuit schools in Europe. Returning to Maryland in 1774, he led an inconspicuous life as a missionary priest until 1784, when he was appointed superior of American missions. Committed primarily to the revival of Catholic devotion to the sacraments, Carroll took full advantage of the new toleration towards Catholics, convening the first American diocesan synod in 1791, in an effort to revitalize Catholic lay piety. Carroll was also guided by a vision of a national church with an independent system of governance, an objective achieved through the formation of institutions that also served as instruments of Catholic revival, the most significant of which was the system of Catholic colleges founded soon after Carroll became the first American bishop in 1789. These included St. John's College (1789), Georgetown University (1791), St. Mary's Sulpician Seminary (1791), and Baltimore College (1803). Having demonstrated their worth as American Patriots, American Catholics suffered significantly less discrimination from Protestants until the arrival of the Irish in the nineteenth century.

SEE ALSO Carroll, Charles; Moylan, Stephen.


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Metzger, Charles H. Catholics and the American Revolution: A Study in Religious Climate. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1962.