American Anti-Catholicism
and its Literature

by

Joseph G. Mannard

excerpted from:

Ex Libris

Vol. 4, No. 1 (1981). pp. 1-9.



Today the Roman Catholic Church has sewn itself firmly into the crazy-quilt pattern of American society. Although prejudice and hostility towards Catholics continue to exist in various forms, no longer does any intelligent person believe tales of Vatican intrigues against the United States. Witness the popular effusions during the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to this country. In the nineteenth century, however, the nation's capitulation to Roman legions appeared an imminent possibility to thousands of American Protestants.

Although a conspiracy to subjugate the United States to Papal authority never existed, this belief constituted reality to many anti-Catholic nativists. Anti-Catholic literature played an important role in the growth of nativism by reflecting and helping to shape public opinion about Catholicism.

American anti-Catholicism and fears of Papal conspiracy did not suddenly spring full-blown from the feverish brains of Protestant ministers and nativist propagandists. Nativist literature found a ready acceptance in part because anti-Catholic xenophobia and conspiracy theories traced back to the first English colonists.

Two forms of anti-Papal rhetoric existed in colonial society. The first derived from the heritage of the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars of the sixteenth century. These writings depicted the Pope as the Anti-Christ, the "Man of Sin" and the "Whore of Babylon" described in Revelation, who schemed to deliver the Christian world into the hands of his master, Satan.

This primarily Scriptural argument dominated anti-Catholic thought until the late seventeenth century. More secular writers then proposed political anti-Papal theories to supplement religious polemics. John Locke, John Milton, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon influenced British subjects to view Rome as a center of intrigue intent on extending its medieval despotism worldwide. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 upheld the triumph of English government and liberties over Vatican cabals.

Revolutionary America inherited this twin tradition of conspiracy theory. The founding fathers, in part, reflected these fears by their insistence on separation of church and state, freedom of the press, and public education as fundamentals of republican government.

On the darker side, the nation accepted the idea of foreign conspiracy as normal to the American political situation. However, enough Catholics supported the War for Independence to erase many old myths about the inherently treasonable nature of Catholicism. Yet, "anti-Popery" remained vigorous, if less vocal, ready to re-emerge given optimal conditions.

Childhood education reinforced underlying fears. Textbooks used in American grade schools from the Revolution until the Civil War sowed the seeds of nativism in young minds. Anti-Catholicism appeared as a prominent theme in these texts. The authors consistently lauded Protestantism as the true faith of Christianity. By contrast, they portrayed Catholicism as opposed not only to the valid Church but also to the free Republic. "An American adult in 1830," according to historian Ruth Elson, "had already as a youth been fully indoctrinated in anti-Catholicism."

The cultural transformations of Jacksonian America coupled with events from across the Atlantic convinced many Protestant Americans that the Pope hoped to add the United States to his imperial realm. In Europe the 1820's had witnessed the suppression of republican revolutions by the Holy Alliance, the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in England, and the formation of Catholic missionary societies in Austria and France dedicated to proselytizing throughout the world, including the United States.

In America the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening professed an evangelical Protestantism inimical to Roman dogma. Disestablishment of their state churches led some Congregationalist ministers to try to regain their authority by leading the fight against Catholic infiltration. Most importantly, an unprecedented wave of foreign immigrants, mainly Irish and German Catholics, fed the fires of indigenous nativism.

Throughout the nineteenth century numerous works of nativist literature helped to keep the Catholic issue before the American public. The printing of nativist newspapers, pamphlets, and books did not cause anti-Catholicism. These publications mirrored and helped to mold attitudes which grew out of rapid social, economic, and political disruptions as well as ethnic and religious conflicts. Anti-Catholic writings often presented the most extreme and irrational side of nativist thought. Still, anti-Catholic literature constitutes an invaluable source on the intellectual history of American nativism. Analysis of these works illuminates the social and political concerns of their authors, audience, and age.

Most writers sincerely sought to alert their fellow citizens to the Catholic threat, others sincerely sought to make a dollar. The vast amount and variety of anti-Catholic literature testified to the great appetite of the reading public for this kind of material.

Anti-Catholic writings were theological, political, or sensational in content, although a single work frequently contained all three of these elements. Books like Thoughts on Popery (1836) by Reverend William Nevins and Errors of the Papacy (1878) by E. M. Marvin opposed Rome chiefly on matters of doctrine.

In sermons, tracts, and debates Protestant clergymen challenged their Catholic counterparts on points of Christian dogma. These controversies did not necessarily involve anti-Catholic nativism, for theological sparring also occurred among denominations of Protestantism. All forms of Catholic-Protestant conflict, however, aggravated existing religious and ethnic animosities.

If some readers showed interest in doctrinal matters, others prepared to meet and defeat the Papal invasion. In the 1830's Protestant America awaited a spokesman who could articulate its fears regarding Catholicism and expose Rome's designs on the young republic. This task initially fell to two individuals, Samuel F. B. Morse, later the inventor of the telegraph, and Lyman Beecher, Presbyterian minister and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. Morse's Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (1835) receives the dubious distinction of being the first book to connect the flood of foreign immigrants into eastern ports to Vatican plans for world conquest. Supposedly, the immigrants formed the Pope's vanguard in his struggle against true religion and free government in America.

Expanding on Morse's revelations, Beecher, in his influential work A Plea for the West (1835) discussed the more subtle sides of Vatican strategy. Beecher's title indicated where his major concerns lay. "It is equally plain," he prophesied, "that the religious and political destiny of our nation is to be decided in the West."

The West, the largely undeveloped area of the Mississippi River Valley, promised to be the ultimate proving ground for Protestantism. Here some Protestants expected Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, with Protestantism representing the forces of light, and Catholicism standing with the powers of darkness. Beecher warned that Rome planned to send hordes of Catholic immigrants into the region. Priests and nuns had already established schools that welcomed Protestant children in order to indoctrinate them with Papist ideas. Following his victory, the Pope expected to establish his new throne in the West.

The "Papal Conspiracy" which Morse and Beecher unveiled remained, with modifications, the favorite theme of anti-Catholic propaganda throughout the nineteenth century. Despite dire predictions, nativists soon realized that foreigners would never overrun the native population. Writers, therefore, shifted their focus to the manipulation of immigrant voters by the Catholic Church.

Nativists alleged that this control permitted Jesuits to dictate the political balance of power in the country. In 1855 Reverend Edward Beecher, a son of Lyman Beecher, wrote The Papal Conspiracy Exposed. This apocalyptic chronicle of Papist depredations through the centuries added little to the revelations of the previous generation, but gained an audience among Know-Nothing party members and their allies.

Religious antagonisms alone fail to explain why antebellum America proved receptive to the sirens of anti-Catholicism. The Jacksonian era experienced sweeping, often abrupt, political, economic, and social change. Together with increased immigration came industrialization and urbanization, causing the transition into "modern America." These changes supplied numerous opportunities to individuals to succeed through personal merit. But a lack of permanency also resulted-a person's fortunes might plunge as quickly as they had ascended.

Jacksonian society exhibited a sense of dislocation, of rootlessness. The belief in individual enterprise belied the people's attempts to re-establish lost security and identity by joining voluntary associations. The tendency to strike out at groups different from themselves magnified the frustration of certain members of society. For these people the Catholic Church became a convenient scapegoat for their dissatisfaction. In the 1840's and 1850's these feelings manifested themselves in the growth of nativist political organizations, chiefly the American Republican party and the American (Know-Nothing) party.

The 1860's marked a temporary quiescence in anti-Catholicism. Nativism declined swiftly following the debacle of the 1856 presidential campaign in which the Know-Nothing party, having split over the slavery question, suffered a crushing defeat.

Furthermore, the temporary drop in the rate of immigration and most significantly the coming of the Civil War, replaced xenophobia with more concrete fears in the mind of the American public. During the Civil War the heavy enlistments of Irish and Germans into the Union Army helped to dispel notions of immigrant and Catholic disloyalty.

The post-bellum period never saw anti-Catholicism regain its former strength in national politics, although it remained a significant force at the state and regional levels. The 1870's experienced some Protestant alarm over Catholic attempts to challenge the exclusive reading of the King James version of the Bible in the public schools, and to obtain state funding for parochial schools. During these controversies anti-Catholics tended to direct their fire at the Catholic hierarchy rather than at the immigrants.

In the next decade another influx of foreigners entered America. The overwhelming majority of the "new immigrants" hailed from Southern and Eastern Europe, and many practiced the Catholic faith. The recent arrivals spurred a resurgence of nativist and anti-Catholic feelings. Two other forms of nativism, anti-foreign radicalism and Anglo-Saxon racism, also increased. Besides believing the newcomers to be inferior races, nativists associated them with labor problems and socialist ideologies.

In 1887 a secret society known as the American Protective Association (APA) organized to oppose Catholics and immigrants. The APA attained its greatest strength in the Midwest.

The views of the APA in the 1880's found an able supporter in Reverend Justin Fulton. In Rome in America (1887) and Washington in the Lap of Rome (1888), Fulton revived half-a-century-old arguments that outlined the constant peril which Popery posed to the nation.

The depression of 1893 further stimulated the movement as some Americans seeking a cause for their misfortunes again found an answer in tales of Papal plots. But, within a year, its failure to verify its allegations, along with its own internal dissent, hastened the decline of the APA in most areas of the country. By the turn of the century, the waning influence of anti-Catholicism on nativism resulted principally from the greater secularization of American society.

Anti-Catholicism, nevertheless, reappeared on many occasions in the twentieth century. The phenomenal growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920's, and the smear tactics employed against Alfred E. Smith in the presidential campaign of 1928 are the most familiar examples. Although the presidential contest of 1960 included anti-Catholic attacks on a candidate, the election of John Kennedy ended the specter of a Papist in the White House and effectively signaled the acceptance of Catholics in national government.

Perhaps the primary appeal of anti-Catholic literature rested on its titillating aspects. Books promising to divulge the esoteric rites and rituals of the Catholic Church sold briskly Former priests and nuns reputedly authored these exposes. Nativists scrutinized the Mass, the sacraments, and the priesthood in works such as William Hogan's Auricular Confession and Popish Nunneries (1848), High and Low Mass in the Catholic Church (1846), William Potts' Dangers of Jesuit Instruction (1846), and the anonymous Pope or President? Startling Discoveries of Romanism as Revealed by its Own Writers (1859).

Judging from the number of volumes concerning them, convents stimulated the imaginations of anti-Catholic authors as did no other facet of Romanism. Writers pictured nunneries as dens of sex, secrecy, and sedition. The secrecy surrounding convents intrigued nativists and allowed free rein to their creative energies. They described the convent system as a subversive network seeking to undermine the institutions of church, family and nation. A convent education prepared Protestant maidens to be "Romish mothers."

Moreover, anti-convent material proved doubly attractive to readers imbued with Victorian sexual mores. Here was the opportunity to condemn the depravity of convent life and guiltlessly to enjoy the legal pornography that described such conditions.

The genre of convent literature, long a popular standard in Europe, established itself with American readers upon the success of Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent (1835). The sales of Miss Reed's account of life in a nunnery reportedly reached 10,000 copies in one week. One optimistic nativist editor predicted "that one or two hundred thousand copies of this work can be disposed of in one month."

Narratives of other "runaway nuns" continued to tantalize portions of the American public throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century Josephine M. Bunkley's The Testimony of an Escaped Novice from the Sisterhood of St. Joseph appeared in 1855 at the height of Know-Nothing power and influence.

After the war, books like Edith O'Gorman's Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O'Gorman (1871) showed the sustained market for convent themes. The most infamous of these works Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery became the best selling volume of 1836, and eventually sold over 300,000 copies. As late as the 1960 presidential campaign, extreme opponents of John Kennedy reprinted copies of Awful Disclosures in an effort to besmirch his Catholicism.

The mystery surrounding the convent made it a popular setting for anti-Catholic novels laced with Gothic motifs. Writers substituted the convent for the traditional castle with winding passageways and diabolical torture chambers, or the ancient mansion with its legend of bloody deeds and haunted attics. Instead of nymphs skirting across foggy moors, virginal novices fled the clutches of debauched Jesuits. Such titles as Dangers in the Dark; A Tale of Intrigue and Priestcraft (1854) and The Haunted Convent (1855) deftly played on an audience's desire to encounter the unknown.

In addition, nativists asserted that they based their portraits of convent fife on actual situations. For example, the subtitle for the novel The Convent (1853) declared it to be A Narrative Founded on Fact.

Anti-Catholic fiction had great appeal. In the mid-1850's Charles Frothingham earned a comfortable living from the sale of three tales that were set around the 1834 burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The publisher's preface to The Convent's Doom (1854) boasted that "more than 40,000 copies were sold within ten days after publication in their original form..." By 1857 Frothingham's Six Hours in the Convent had entered its sixteenth edition, each edition accounting for 10,000 printings. In the post-war period Julia McNair Wright seems to have been the most prolific and successful novelist of nativism, producing such provocative titles as Almost a Nun (1868), Almost a Priest (1870), Priest and Nun (1871), and the obligatory Secrets of the Convent and Confessional (1873).

Fiction or non-fiction, novel or expose, anti-Catholic writings provide fascinating insight into the thinking of another age. Furthermore, they remind Americans that religion may still be twisted by frightened people to deny basic rights and freedoms to others.



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