What drove English and American anti-Catholicism? A fear that it threatened freedom

The US Declaration of Indepdence: Thomas Jefferson saw Catholicism as despotism

Foreign visitors are often bewildered, and occasionally disgusted, by the spectacle of Guy Fawkes Night. The English are not a notably religious people, yet here they are wallowing in what looks like a macabre orgy of anti-Catholicism.

In fact, of course, the event has transcended its sectarian origins. To the extent that participants are aware of any historical resonance at all, they believe they are celebrating parliamentary democracy – which needs protecting, these days, from the Treaty of Rome, not the Bishop of Rome. Fifth of November bonfires serve as a neat symbol for what has happened across the English-speaking world. A political culture that was once thought to be inseparable from Protestantism has transcended whatever denominationalties it had.

Guy Fawkes Night used to be popular in North America, especially in Massachusetts. We have excised that fact from our collective memory, as we have more generally the bellicose anti-Catholicism that powered the American Revolution. We tell ourselves that the argument was about “No taxation without representation” and, for some, it was. But while constitutional questions obsessed the pamphleteering classes whose words we read today, the masses were more exercised by the perceived threat of superstition and idolatry that had sparked their ancestors’ hegira across the Atlantic in the first place. They were horrified by the government’s decision, in 1774, to recognise the traditional rights of the Catholic Church in Quebec.

To many Nonconformists, it seemed that George III was sending the popish serpent after them into Eden. As the First Continental Congress put it in its resolutions: “The dominion of Canada is to be so extended that by their numbers daily swelling with Catholic emigrants from Europe, and by their devotion to Administration, so friendly to their religion, they might become formidable to us, and on occasion, be fit instruments in the hands of power, to reduce the ancient free Protestant Colonies to the same state of slavery with themselves.”

Puritans and Presbyterians saw Anglicanism, with its stately communions and surplices and altar rails, as more than half allied to Rome. There had been a furious reaction in the 1760s when the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to bring the colonists into the fold. Thomas Secker, who had been born a Dissenter, and had the heavy-handed zeal of a convert, had tried to set up an Anglican missionary church in, of all places, Cambridge, Massachusetts, capital of New England Congregationalism. He sought to strike down the Massachusetts Act, which allowed for Puritan missionary work among the Indians and, most unpopular of all, to create American bishops.

The ministry backed off, but trust was never recovered. As the great historian of religion in America, William Warren Sweet, put it: “Religious strife between the Church of England and the Dissenters furnished the mountain of combustible material for the great conflagration, while the dispute over stamp, tea and other taxes acted merely as the matches of ignition.”

John Adams is remembered today as a humane and decent man – which he was. We forget that he earnestly wondered: “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” Thomas Jefferson’s stirring defences of liberty move us even now. Yet he was convinced that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

Americans had, as so often, distilled to greater potency a tendency that was present throughout the English-speaking world: an inchoate but strong conviction that Catholicism threatened freedom. Daniel Defoe talked of “a hundred thousand country fellows prepared to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether it be a man or a horse”. Anti-Catholicism was not principally doctrinal: few people were much interested in whether you believed in priestly celibacy or praying for the souls of the dead. Rather, it was geopolitical.

The English-speaking peoples spent the better part of three centuries at war with Spain, France or both. The magisterial historian of the Stuarts, J P Kenyon, likened the atmosphere to that of the Cold War, at its height when he was writing. Just as western Communists, even the most patriotic among them, were seen as potential agents of a foreign power, and just as suspicion fell even upon mainstream socialists, so 17th-century Catholics were feared as fifth columnists, and even those High Church Anglicans whose rites and practices appeared too “Romish” were regarded as untrustworthy. The notion of Protestantism as a national identity, divorced from religious belief, now survives only in parts of Northern Ireland; but it was once common to the Anglosphere.

When telling the story of liberty in the Anglophone world in my new book, I found this much the hardest chapter to write. Being of Ulster Catholic extraction on one side and Scottish Presbyterian on the other, I am more alert to sectarianism than most British people, and I’ve always loathed it. But it is impossible to record the rise of the English-speaking peoples without understanding their world view. Notions of providence and destiny, of contracts and covenants, of being a chosen people, were central to the self-definition of English-speakers – especially those who settled across the oceans. Protestantism, in their minds, formed an alloy with freedom and property that could not be melted down into its component elements.

And here’s the almost miraculous thing: they ended up creating a uniquely individualist culture that endured when religious practice waned. Adams and Jefferson led the first state in the world based on true religious freedom (as opposed to toleration). From a spasm of sectarianism came, paradoxically, pluralism. And, once it had come, it held on. “I never met an English Catholic who did not value, as much as any Protestant, the free institutions of his country,” wrote an astonished Tocqueville.

Best of all, Anglosphere values proved transportable: they are why Bermuda is not Haiti, why Singapore is not Indonesia and why Hong Kong is not China. There’s a thought to cheer us, whatever our denomination, all as the orange sparks rise from the bonfires each year.

How we Invented Freedom and Why it Matters, by Daniel Hannan, is published on November 25 by Head of Zeus