Document Type

Article

Department

History

Degree

Master of Arts (MA)

Chair

Samuel C Smith

Primary Subject Area

American Studies; History, Church; History, United States; Religion, History of; Religion, General; Sociology, Public and Social Welfare

Keywords

Anti-Catholicism, identity, Protestantism, religious liberty

Disciplines

American Studies | Christian Denominations and Sects | Christianity | History | History of Religion | Religion | Sociology | United States History

Abstract

From the colonial era through the mid-nineteenth century, anti-Catholicism colored key points of development in America's early history. Amidst the English colonial experience, the Revolution and establishment of the republic, and the educational reform efforts of the nineteenth-century, anti-Catholicism emerged as a fundamental factor in the development of America's characteristically Protestant political and religious identity. While many studies of early American anti-Catholicism focus on one region or time period, drawing connections across geographic boundaries and constructed historical periods attests to the sentiment's pervasive and enduring influence. While this sentiment varied in intensity throughout America over time, its presence profoundly shaped the country's cultural orientation. While American political culture espoused ideals of religious toleration, the anti-Catholicism of its early history reveal that this toleration had its limits. Since the colonial era, America had been populated almost solely by Protestants. Even by the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic population's significant growth still left them far behind the Protestant majority. While the New World represented a place of religious freedom for its early settlers, these people were nearly all Protestants who carried with them a strong aversion to the Catholicism of the Old World. Establishing a fundamentally Protestant society, Americans embraced the ideal of religious toleration, largely understanding this concept as it applied to interactions among various Protestant denominations. As greater numbers of Catholics arrived in America, they requested an equal share of religious liberty, forcing Protestants to consider how these newcomers and their faith would affect American culture. Since Catholicism seemed to embody the very Old World values American Protestants had abandoned, efforts to preserve liberty against the corrupting influences challenged the country's ideal of religious toleration.