Anti-Catholicism: The Defining Religious Principle of Early America?

I have been reading Owen Stanwood’s excellent book The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution, which has taken me back to my own doctoral research and first book (now a cult classic!) The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism. Stanwood shows just how much weight “anti-popery” carried in early English America, and how it framed discussions of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, in which the Catholic King James II was booted out in favor of Protestant monarchs William and Mary. One might expect anti-Catholicism to have colored New England Puritan culture, but Stanwood demonstrates how the same rhetoric – and rumors of Catholic conspiracy – characterized responses to the Revolution even in places such as Barbados, which was not exactly a Puritan stronghold.

In The Protestant Interest, I argued that the classic “Puritan” mindset of seventeenth-century New England was replaced after the Glorious Revolution with an identity that people in Anglo-America called the “Protestant interest.” (I have come to realize that George Whitefield used that term, too, in sermons a half-century later.) The defining qualities of the Protestant interest were British nationalism, international Protestantism, and anti-Catholicism. Earlier Puritans were often skeptical of English imperial power. And while Puritans certainly allied against what they saw as the ultimate earthly enemy of Roman Catholicism, they spent a great deal of time battling over the relative merits of Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregational distinctives. The Glorious Revolution set in motion two generations of intermittent war between England and Europe’s Catholic powers, especially France and Spain. The friends of the Protestant interest realized that whatever their ecclesiastical differences, orthodox Protestants could not afford to squabble in the face of a global Catholic menace.

There’s nothing like war to fuel prejudice of all kinds, and the imperial conflicts of the first six decades of the eighteenth century fostered a particularly intense anti-Catholicism among many Americans. Virginia Presbyterian pastor Samuel Davies warned in 1755 – not without some basis in fact, given the recent outbreak of the Seven Years’ War – about the threat of “Popish slavery, tyranny, and massacre.” He summoned Virginia militiamen to fight against “the infernal horrors of Popery.”

When Americans debate the role of religion in the American Founding, they’re often given two stark choices – either it was a religious founding in which religion worked for good, or a secular founding in which secularism worked for good. But in anti-Catholicism, we see a third type of role that religion played in early America, a species of religious opinion that was, from a modern perspective, less than constructive. Their anti-Catholicism may have been understandable, given the background of the Reformation, the serious theological concerns that birthed it, and the interminable wars prompted by the religious alliances of European states. Just ask French Protestants, the colonists would have reminded us, what happens when a Catholic state takes away Protestants’ very right to exist. (Catholics had evidence of such nightmare scenarios, too.)

But for evangelicals today who have grown to appreciate our Catholic friends’ advocacy for life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty, as well as their defense of doctrines such as Christ’s divinity in an era of liberal Protestant heterodoxy, the pervasiveness of early American anti-Catholicism makes one wince. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the founding of the colonies, and of the new American nation, but we should not assume that their religion was always a force for good.

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  • Alecto

    The Catholic Church and the current Administration mirror each other in structure and function (centralized bureaucratic, top-down, corrupt) which decent Americans deplore. That may explain why anti-Catholic sentiment is again growing. Catholic leadership lauds Obama’s forced redistribution of property to select “victim” groups because Catholics have metamorphosed into a political advocacy first, and a religion second. Catholics consider the Enlightenment heresy. Americanism is labeled a “grave sin”. Free markets are evil. Capitalism is a sin. Anything ordinary Americans strive to achieve is 1) evil, 2) greedy, or 3) bigoted. Keeping what you earn? Selfish! Daring to make decisions about your life? Damnable!

    When will Americans understand that the Catholic Church fights every noble idea that underpins this society, everything that lifts the soul to our Divine Creator who imbued us with the desire for liberty and the means to achieve it?

  • David Tiffany

    “and rumors of Catholic conspiracy”
    There is a conspiracy that goes deeper and far beyond what even those in the Catholic hierarchy realize. As a result of teachings that go beyond Scripture the gospel presented by the Roman Catholic church is a different gospel than the one that the Apostles presented in Scripture and as a result many are going to their graves not being right with God. This is a tragedy.

  • ProudCatholic

    Wow. Great to see the bigots out in force (well, just two so far in David and Alecto). Complaining the Catholic Church is centralized is like complaining that God is centralized. I mean, seriously, why can’t God have a democracy?! Is he just some big government liberal!?

    And yes, the Catholic Church is based on the Bible and the INSPIRED philosophy of its leaders. That makes it richer. The world is always changing and you can’t take literally the things in scripture.

  • James Stagg

    You are simply silly.

  • James Stagg

    Perhaps, David, you will one day study the early history of the Catholic Church, and learn that, indeed, the Catholic Church is NOT a church “of the Bible”; the Bible IS a book of the Catholic Church.

    Good studying!

  • JIZ

    Thank you, Dr. Kidd, for your thoughtful post.

    To address one of the points in the comments, I’d like to encourage anyone who is curious about what the Catholic Church teaches to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official handbook of Catholic teaching. And I’d also encourage anyone to attend Mass at a Catholic parish, whether on a weekday or on a Sunday, in order to understand Catholic worship better. A non-Catholic wouldn’t go up to receive Holy Communion, but one might be surprised by how suffused with Scripture the Mass is.

    To address one other point, “Americanism” has a peculiar meaning in the history of Catholic thought: it’s the name attached to set of ideas associated with a French translation of a biography of a 19th-century American priest, Father Isaac Thomas Hecker.

    In his 1899 letter Testem Benevolentiae, Pope Leo XIII identified some of these ideas that, lumped together, go by the name of “Americanism”: that the Church should change her doctrines in order to gain converts; the confusion of license with liberty; and the idea that natural virtues gained by effort are more important than the supernatural virtues that are given by grace.

  • Alecto

    The truth hurts, doesn’t it, James?

  • James Stagg

    If any of it were true, it would be simply amazing that the Church would still be in existence. Something about the Holy Spirit remaining with her til the end of time……that’s somewhere in Scriptures…..just to encourage your continued education..

  • Alecto

    Why are you amazed? The Jews have endured much longer than Catholics, so have Hindus, and even Zoroastrians. Jesus wasn’t speaking to Catholics, but I’ve noticed Catholics get mileage out of that one.

  • John C. Gardner

    I am a retired business ethics professor. During my lifetime there was still a large amount of Protestant prejudice and hostility towards the Catholic church. This has diminished in recent decades and I am very thankful for that as a Missouri Synod Lutheran. We need to see each other with Christian eyes and look with Christian charity upon each other as we hold to what C.S. Lewis termed mere Christianity(which we have in common). Thank you for the insightful post.

  • Sophia Sadek

    The people in my life who are most opposed to the Catholic Church had been raised within the Catholic tradition. Vatican II has allowed a significant level of reform withing the institution, but it still has some pretty rough edges. The degrading treatment of American nuns has added insult to injury. The cover up of priestly malfeasance has also prompted a significant level of distaste for the Roman power structure. The founding padres had even greater reasons for fearing the despotism of the Vatican. It had not been that many years since Rome discontinued the practice of burning free thinkers at the stake. Of course, that is one of the things Rome has in common with Protestant Evangelicals, witness the case of Michael Servetus.

  • Cotswoldsrose

    David, I grew up thinking just like you–taught the same stuff all the way through Christian college. After I left college, I decided to study Church history on my own (primary documents and Protestant-authored histories). This led me to study Catholic doctrine to understand how the Church fell into such fatal error, when it had clearly existed from the 1st century (along with the Orthodox, as they were once one unit). What I discovered was deeply disturbing–I was fed a whole lot of misinformation and misinterpretation of what the Church actually teaches and of how it operates.

    The tragedy here isn’t a different gospel (it isn’t); the tragedy is that the point of view you are expressing continues on. The tragedy is that when presented with the possibility that they might be wrong about Catholicism–as I was and as you are–Protestants are not generally interested in hearing why. If you are different, I encourage you to study Catholic apologetics and the catechism from cover to cover (all 600+ pages). Scott Hahn, a former Protestant, is a good place to begin with a study of Catholic doctrine/apologetics. There are many, many great resources, though.

  • Cotswoldsrose

    Um, what are you talking about? I am Catholic, and you are seriously mistaken. Your sources are clearly a wee bit mixed up or else are twisting what the Church actually teaches into crazy knots.

  • Guest

    The Bible is the Jewish holy writings, of the Jewish religion. Catholicism is nothing.

  • James Stagg

    Silly. Go back to school. Learn to use Google. Learn to read. Do something, but don’t remain ignorant.

  • Guest

    Catholic dogmas are false. Catholicism is heresy.