Guest Post: Review of Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860

Today’s guest poster, William S. Cossen, is an Atlanta-based historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, specializing in the intersection of religion and nationalism. He serves as the book review editor for H-SHGAPE (Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) and am a member of the faculty of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, the top-ranked public high school in Georgia. Cossen received his PhD in History from The Pennsylvania State University and is currently revising a book manuscript entitled, Making Catholic America: Religious Nationalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Maura Jane Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

51bnna9rw6l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Whether John Higham was correct in describing anti-Catholicism as the “most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history” is a matter of debate.[1] Not as disputed, though, is the reality that, until relatively recently, a great many Americans did view Catholicism as one of the principal threats to liberty and order in the United States. Maura Jane Farrelly’s masterful new volume, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860, traces the development of anti-Catholicism in the United States (or what would eventually become that country) from the establishment of Plymouth Colony to the coming of the Civil War. Farrelly’s work is at once a survey bringing together several decades of scholarly work on American religious, social, and political history, and an impressive example of primary-source research in its own right. For Farrelly, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, the history of American anti-Catholicism extends beyond questions of religiosity, instead encompassing the meaning and composition of the nation. As she explains in the book’s introduction, “Any understanding of anti-Catholicism…requires us to interrogate the meaning of American freedom and, by extension, the promise of American identity.”[2]

The idea that competing conceptions of freedom was the engine driving the power struggle between Catholics and Protestants is a central theme in much of the literature in US Catholic history. From John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom and Jon Gjerde’s Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America to Farrelly’s previous work on colonial Catholicism, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity, the argument that understanding interactions between Catholics and Protestants is key to grasping the development of American politics, constitutionalism, and theories of liberty has become a prevalent one in recent years.[3] Farrelly demonstrates convincingly that anti-Catholicism became for English colonists in North America “a tool…used to maintain their sense of ‘English’ identity.”[4] Despite the fact that outside of Catholic havens such as Maryland, there were actually very few Catholics until the nineteenth century, Protestant colonists embraced anti-Catholicism as a means of both separating themselves from non-English people and claiming the liberty and reason they argued were creations of the Protestant Reformation. By the end of the seventeenth century, New England residents had forged “a kind of ‘pan-Protestant’ identity” in opposition to the alleged Catholic conspiracy to recapture the English crown.[5]

Farrelly does a fine job explaining the important difference between anti-Catholicism and expressions of hostility toward individual Catholics. The former was a political ideology that challenged Catholic conceptions of freedom and government, while the latter may not have always been widespread. As Farrelly notes, Catholics “were often on quite friendly terms with the Protestants they lived near, worked with, and sometimes even married.”[6] This distinction between distrusting Catholicism while embracing Catholics—one likely not embraced by Catholics themselves—was made explicit by American Protestants well into the nineteenth century, as has also been demonstrated by Steven Conn in his analysis of “ideological anti-Catholicism.”[7] In 1765, John Adams similarly drew a distinction between Catholicism as a religio-political system and the Catholics who were supposedly held captive by it. Adams argued that the partnership of Catholic priests and European nobles “reduc[ed] [Catholics’] minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity,” leaving human nature chained fast for ages, in a cruel, shameful and deplorable servitude.” It was, on the other hand, Protestants’ “love of universal Liberty…that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.”[8]

The heart of Farrelly’s narrative examines the history of colonial Maryland—which served as a venue for fights between Catholics promoting a community-oriented notion of freedom and Protestants stressing a Calvinist idea of individual, rights-based freedom—and how the experience of Catholics as a religious minority in Maryland (an irony since Catholics had founded the colony) pushed them to join the Patriots’ fight for independence. Farrelly argues that for eighteenth-century Protestants in the colonies, “popery” became somewhat disassociated from its religious origins and instead acted as a stand-in for anything perceived to be tyrannical. “Popery” or “papist,” then, could be adaptable, flexible signifiers rather than stable identities in the hands of Protestant colonists. The anti-Catholic attitude at the root of many Protestant founders’ politics played a significant role in shaping the American Revolution’s ideologies of individual freedom and religious liberty. Ironically, though, when Maryland’s colonial government attempted to emphasize their Englishness in the decades before the American Revolution—which they did by attempting to import Parliament’s anti-Catholic legislation—Maryland’s Catholics (most notably, several members of the politically prominent Carroll family) took the “opportunity to articulate an understanding of the colony’s relationship with England that was surprisingly similar to the understanding the Patriots put forth in the 1760s.”[9]

By the time of the Revolution, Catholics in Maryland and elsewhere were on board with the Patriot cause. Catholic Patriots such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton and John Carroll reconciled Catholic traditions of church governance, as Michael D. Breidenbach has recently explained, with American, Protestant-influenced notions of individual rights.[10] This led, Farrelly argues, to “a time of unusual freedom for Catholics in the United States” after the Revolution.[11] Early in his presidency, for example, George Washington wrote to the country’s Catholics, expressing the hope that “[a]s mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government.” Washington was confident that “fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their Government: or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”[12] In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a number of Catholic prelates—for example, the country’s first bishop, John Carroll, and John England, the first bishop of Charleston—took advantage of the opportunities offered to their church by this relatively agreeable atmosphere and worked to overcome some of the real differences between “the hierarchical orientation of Catholicism” and “the individualistic and self-empowering ideals of republicanism.”[13] This came in the form of accepting the power of lay Catholics, known as trustees, to have some say in the temporal affairs of their parishes, although this would be reduced and mostly eliminated by the mid-nineteenth century.

The early republican period, however, represented the calm before the storm of the antebellum era. As Catholic immigration from Germany and Ireland increased, anti-Catholicism made a fierce reappearance. Farrelly does an excellent job recounting the rise of anti-Catholic nativism in the decades before the Civil War and takes readers on a tour of disturbing incidents of violence and bigotry, including the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834; the Philadelphia Bible riots of 1844; the spread of lurid (and fraudulent) convent tales by such figures as Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk, which fueled anti-Catholicism for many years; and the rapid rise and fall of the Know Nothings in the 1850s. As the sectional crisis intensified, northern Catholics and Protestants often found themselves on opposites sides of the political and moral divide over slavery, with many Catholics silent when it came to attacking slavery on the basis of human rights since “[r]ights-talk…was a Protestant way of framing things.” The Catholic Church, on the other hand, “stressed the importance of reciprocal prerogatives and duties.”[14] Here, Farrelly challenges previous works on Catholics and slavery, which have held that Catholics were often anti-abolitionists because they feared “the job and wage competition that newly freed slaves would have presented (and indeed did present) to immigrant Catholic workers.”[15] The author grants that this is accurate, but she points to the inadequacy of fear of job competition as the sole rationale for opposition to abolition, arguing that historians must also take into account Catholicism’s historical record of defending slavery on social and theological grounds – a record which, in addition to the Catholic Church’s charitable and educational work in the region, may have hastened white Catholics’ assimilation into the antebellum South’s dominant racial order.

I consider this to be one of the best histories of American anti-Catholicism I have ever read. It is impressive that Farrelly was able to cover so much ground historically, geographically, and thematically in just under two hundred pages of narrative text and endnotes. Anti-Catholicism in America can serve for students as a model of strong prose, superb primary- and secondary-source research, and persuasive argumentation, and it is entirely suitable for undergraduate and graduate seminars. It should be the go-to source on pre-Civil War anti-Catholicism for those familiar with the subject and for readers seeking an introduction.


[1] John Higham, Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 68.

[2] Maura Jane Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), xii.

[3] John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003); Jon Gjerde, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. S. Deborah Kang (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Farrelly, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 5.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 52-53.

[7] Steven Conn, “‘Political Romanism: Re-evaluating American Anti-Catholicism in the Age of Italian Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 521-548.

[8] “III. “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law,” No. 1, 12 August 1765,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, [emphasis in original]. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 1, September 1755 – October 1773, ed. Robert J. Taylor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977, pp. 111–115.]

[9] Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 90.

[10] Michael D. Breidenbach, “Conciliarism and the American Founding,” The William and Mary Quarterly 73, no. 3 (July 2016): 467-500.

[11] Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 105.

[12] “From George Washington to Roman Catholics in America, c.15 March 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 299–301.]

[13] Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 121. On England’s embrace of democratization, albeit in a limited form, see my own “Catholics, Constitutions, and Conventions: Bishop John England and the Democratization of American Catholicism,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 114, no. 4 (Oct. 2013): 316-340.

[14] Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 171.

[15] Ibid., 170.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: