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When anti-Catholicism inspired riots

A cartoon by Thomas Nast, printed by Harper’s Weekly in 1876, depicts Catholic bishops as crocodiles attacking public schools

The seekers of religious freedom in the North American colonies often did not extend that right to the 'papist devils'

Historians, including some of the good ones, have often proffered sweeping generalisations about American anti-Catholicism. You’ll read about it being “the deepest bias in the history of the American people” or the most “tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history”. The pity is that these analyses are not too far wide of the mark. It can sometimes become a little stereotypical, and we should not forget that plenty of Protestants in colonial or 19th-century America got along perfectly well with their Catholic neighbours. But the fundamental cultural animus against what they called “popery” back then is ludicrously easy to spot.

The irony is that it was all so unnecessary. With exceptions such as Maryland, Catholics comprised less than one per cent of the population of the British colonies. So it was mostly rhetoric. New Englanders would be told, in their primers, to “abhor that errant whore of Rome and all her blasphemies” and “drink not of her cursed cup”, but they probably only knew a handful of Catholics, if any, so the risks were low.

The other irony, of course, is that the seekers of religious freedom in such places did not see sense in extending that right to the papist devils. Naturally, it should be added that in many places back in Europe, where Catholics ruled the theological roost, tolerance of Protestants was hardly any more fashionable. So, honours even.

Then something unexpected happened. American Catholics did well out of the revolution that produced the United States: they had proven themselves to be loyal citizens. For a fleeting moment there was space for optimism. The huge numbers of Catholic immigrants changed all that and the bigots had a field day. You did not need to crack a code to understand the venom of Samuel Morse. He spat out accusations of papal invasion plans and how Catholicism was a “system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism”. William Hogan, educated at Maynooth and formerly a priest in a Philadelphia parish, turned his back on Rome and, in the 1850s, declared that there was “not a more corrupt, licentious body of men in the world” than the Catholic priesthood.

Catholics, he explained, had always been a problem. Those pesky Jesuits had inflicted their “fiendish avocations” and America had not been spared their machinations: “They roamed about, like so many gnomes, from country to country”, spreading “seeds of moral death”.

Americans, he shouted, should not be fooled by talk of Rome’s reforms. The chicanery was still there, the pope still wanted to conquer the world, and the “monstrous, horrible and impious” doctrines endured.

The difference, this time around, was that such words could lead to atrocities. In 1834, an Ursuline convent and school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, were burned down, with the thugs returning to finish the job by destroying the surrounding gardens and orchards. In the Philadelphia riots of 1844, concerns about Catholic resistance to having their children being forced to read Protestant Bibles made a phrase like “city of brotherly love” a joke. At first it was rocks being thrown; by the end cannon were being aimed at churches.

Sometimes it became truly absurd. In 1854, John Orr turned up in Bath, Maine. He liked to call himself the “Angel Gabriel” and even carried a trumpet to hammer home the point. He belched out the usual anti-Catholic tripe and, before long, pews were being smashed up by the mob.

Perhaps the worst of it is that such posturing had great success in mainstream politics, from the Know-Nothing party to the influence, well into the 20th century, of the Ku Klux Klan.

Things are much better these days, and sober criticism of American Catholicism is sometimes richly deserved.

But the backstory adds layers of poignancy and menace to Catholic-bashing. Isn’t it sad that people you want to be your historical heroes could be so nasty when it came to religion? Consider John Adams talking of the “cruel, shameful and deplorable ignorance” that Catholicism produced. Or the other Adams, Sam, asserting that Catholicism would lead “directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war and bloodshed”.

Catholics at the time could be just as spiteful, but the long history of cursing Catholicism still resonates in the US, even if people don’t always realise it.

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University