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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