The Catholic Church in America began in a southern context, and Catholicism was the first form of Christianity to take root in the American South. Sixteen years before Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to found the first British colony in North America, thirty-seven years before the Virginia Company of London set up shop along the banks of the James River, and fifty years before the first English Calvinists anchored their ships on the tip of the arm of Massachusetts Bay, Spanish priests were serving soldiers on what eventually became known as Parris Island, South Carolina, and Jesuits were working to convert Algonquian Indians along what was then called the “Ajacán Peninsula,” between the James and the York Rivers that empty into the Chesapeake Bay.1

The Catholic presence in colonial Virginia and South Carolina, of course, would not last for long. While the Escamacu Indians who converted on Parris Island seem to have remained Catholic into the early years of the seventeenth century, the Spanish were gone from the Port Royal Sound by 1587. Catholicism, however, continued to grow in other parts of the South—eventually dominating the religious landscape in Louisiana and parts of Florida and assuming an English accent in Maryland at the time of that colony’s founding in 1634.

Nevertheless, the religious history of the South—be it colonial, antebellum, Reconstruction, or Civil Rights-era—has been an almost exclusively Protestant and evangelical story. By that same token, the history of Catholicism in the United States has been an almost exclusively northern and urban story, in spite of the fact that the first Catholics to live in the United States were located primarily in the slaveholding states of Maryland and Kentucky, and there were more Catholic dioceses in the South than there were in the North until 1850.2

The primary reason evangelical Protestantism has dominated the religious history of the South, and northern urbanism has dominated the American history of the Catholic Church, is simple: numbers. In spite of the bravado with which I began this essay, boldly staking a claim for Catholicism on the colonial southern landscape, the reality is that the vast majority of people living in the region—white, black, and Native American, alike—were unchurched in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Moreover, it was not until Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian evangelicals made the inhabitants of the South their personal project that the South became the “Bible Belt” that journalists have been writing about ever since H.L. Mencken spent a few historically significant days in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925.3

As far as Catholicism goes, the Church has been the largest denomination in the United States since 1850 because of the massive waves of Irish—and then German, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, and Latin American—immigration that began hitting the shores of New York and Massachusetts in the 1830s. Indeed, between 1830 and 1860, the Catholic population in the United States grew by more than 900 percent, and by the outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South in April 1861, there were more Catholics living in the Diocese of Boston alone than there were in all eleven states that would ultimately secede from the Union, plus Maryland—the state that was home to the oldest diocese in the United States and had been the epicenter of English-speaking American Catholicism for more than 200 years.4

Immigration to cities like New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and Chicago was the driving force behind the growth of the Catholic Church in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is not surprising, then, that so much of the scholarship on American Catholic history has focused on urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest—and on the process of “Americanization” that Catholicism experienced following its nineteenth-century incarnation as an immigrant church.

The relationship between Catholicism and American culture has not been natural or easy. The Church is not a democracy; it is a corporate body that until very recently (1965) did not subscribe to the notion that the proper relationship between the Church and the State was one of “separate spheres” or to the belief that religious pluralism was an ideal to be embraced and encouraged. True freedom for Catholics is not the purview of the individual, the way it is for most Americans; true freedom is to be found only within the community, and with the guidance, of the Catholic Church. Immigrant Catholics, therefore, who had been raised in the hierarchical, “ultramontane” tradition that the Vatican started cultivating in Europe following the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution had to adapt to—and adopt—the individualistic, rights-oriented values that dominated the political, economic, social, and religious culture of their new country.5

The transition was far from seamless—thanks not just to the rabid anti-Catholicism of Protestant leaders like Theodore Parker, Lyman Beecher, Samuel Buchard, and Paul Blanschard, but also to the religious and ethnic parochialism that was encouraged by Catholic leaders like Archbishop John Hughes of New York and Archbishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia. While it is true that Protestants did not want “slavish” Catholics threatening their supposedly free and liberal society, it is also true that many Catholic clergy did not want their parishioners fraternizing too closely with dangerously individualistic Protestants. As a consequence, from the 1840s until the end of the Second World War—if not the post-Vatican II era of the 1960s and 1970s—Catholicism in America was characterized by what historian Garry Wills has called a “ghetto mentality” that encouraged Catholics to settle in the same urban enclaves, send their children exclusively to Catholic schools, and cluster in occupations that were dominated not just by Catholics, but often by people who had the same ethnic backgrounds.6

Until recently, many, if not most, of the scholars writing about the American Catholic experience grew up within this “ghetto” tradition that defined American Catholicism for more than 100 years. This reality, too, in addition to the numbers, is the reason historians have tended to focus on the period between 1840 and 1960, the years when the ghetto tradition took root in America and thrived, and on the urban north, where the considerable concentration of Catholics made parochialism possible.7

But the times have certainly been changing. Younger scholars who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and without the Baltimore Catechism, are now writing about the history of the American Catholic Church, untouched (and unscathed) by the experience of the Catholic ghetto. In a particularly refreshing development, American Catholicism has also become a topic of interest for scholars who are not even Catholic.8 Add to these changes the push within the fields of southern and colonial history for a more layered, “Atlantic” approach to the region and the period—one that extends the boundaries of the colonial South beyond those of Virginia and appreciates that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British, French, and Spanish colonies of the South were “ground zero” for a host of imperial rivalries that had economic, political, and religious manifestations. From these developments, you get a small, but growing body of scholarship that considers the experiences of lay and clerical Catholics in the colonial South.9

This recent scholarship, interestingly enough, has not entirely abandoned the old fascination with Americanization, though some of the newer scholarship has deliberately avoided the word “Americanization” because of the term’s republican implications and its tendency to build up an oppositional relationship between “American” and “European” Catholicism that a handful of scholars consider to be false.10 But even when the scholarship has eschewed the word “Americanization,” the focus has still been on the ways in which Catholics and Catholicism changed when they were placed in an American context. Scholars have asked how and why priests, nuns, and lay Catholics took responsibility for their religious identity in climates that were culturally hostile and institutionally poor. They have also explored how Catholics’ collective and individual responses to the local circumstances they encountered in the colonial South shaped American Catholicism into a religious creature that, to this day, is unlike anything found anywhere else in the Catholic world.

Papist Patriots

America’s first Catholics—that is to say, the Catholics who oversaw America’s transition from a collection of British colonies to an autonomous republic—were southerners, slaveholders, ardent republicans, and enthusiastic revolutionaries. Catholics from Maryland, some of them priests, joined the independence movement, even as their co-religionists in Europe condemned the war as a “sedition” that was “worthy of damnation.” Additionally, their compatriots in North America labeled George III’s toleration of Catholics in Quebec “intolerable” and insisted that the war was an effort to keep the British colonial people free from a “most cruel tyranny in Church and State” that was “fed with blood by the Roman Catholic doctrines.”11

Catholics supported the Revolutionary War in numbers that were proportionally greater than those of their Protestant contemporaries. An astounding seventy-nine percent of the 145 Catholic men who married in St. Mary’s County between 1767 and 1784 swore their allegiance to the free state of Maryland, donated money and supplies to the American war effort, and served in the Continental Army or the St. Mary’s County Militia. Fifty-eight percent of the men who belonged to the Jesuits’ congregation at St. Inigoes Manor in 1768 did the same, and an analysis of the lives of more than two thousand men from St. Mary’s County who aided the independence movement reveals that more than half of them were probably Catholic—at a time when Catholics represented between twenty-five and thirty-two percent of the population of St. Mary’s County.12

In contrast, the most generous estimates argue that just forty to forty-five percent of the white population in all thirteen colonies actively supported the independence movement, and that average includes Massachusetts and Virginia, where support for the Revolution may have been as high as sixty percent. Maryland was home to one of the largest contingents of Loyalist soldiers, and Maryland’s merchants were among the last to sign on to the colonial non-importation agreement in the wake of the Stamp Act.13 Protestants in the colony seem to have been quite ambivalent about independence; that ambivalence, however, was not shared by their Catholic neighbors.

Why, though, did a movement that emphasized individual rights, challenged traditional authority, and came wrapped in the mantle of anti-Catholicism resonate with a group of people who subscribed to a hierarchical, communally-oriented faith like Catholicism? And why were America’s first Catholics so willing to take the independent, republican attitude that animated their approach to politics into their church? Historians, after all, have long noted (and the more apologetically Catholic among them have lamented) the phenomenon of “lay trusteeism” within the early American church, whereby boards of elected laymen oversaw the “temporal affairs” of their parishes, matters that included everything from when and how a new roof might be placed on a chapel to the hiring of priests and the payment of their salaries.14

In short, why did “papists” become “patriots”? This is a question that I have tried to answer in my own research.15 I believe that the answer has a long history, one that began in England in the early seventeenth century, when being English and Catholic meant rebelling against both the Church and the State to some degree, and gained momentum during the nine decades preceding the American Revolution, when Maryland’s Catholics lost a religious toleration that had been uniquely theirs in the English-speaking world and were forced to maintain their faith in an environment that was neither welcoming nor supportive.

Throughout the so-called “Penal Period” in Maryland’s history, which ran from 1692 to 1776, the colony’s General Assembly took up numerous pieces of legislation that were designed to restrict the civil, military, educational, economic, religious, and even parental rights and behavior of Maryland’s Catholics. Even when these bills were not actually turned into laws—and they were, frequently, turned into laws—the discussions and debates that the bills engendered made it decidedly inconvenient, at times even onerous to be Catholic in Maryland. But it had not always been this way. The colony had been founded in 1634 by a Catholic nobleman, and for the first fifty-five years of Maryland’s existence, Catholics had worshipped freely along the Chesapeake—something they had not been able to do in England. At times, they had even dominated the Upper House of the Assembly, thanks to the unabashed and indelicate nepotism of the colony’s third proprietor, Charles Calvert.

The age of Catholic toleration in Maryland came to an end when the Glorious Revolution in England sparked a similar revolution in Maryland, firmly establishing that to be “English” was to be “Protestant” and forcing the Calvert family to convert to Anglicanism in order to retain the charter to Maryland. For the next eighty-four years, Catholics in the Calvert family’s colony would be politically marginalized. They subsequently fashioned a version of Catholicism for themselves that reflected both the adverse political circumstances under which they lived and the New World contingencies with which they were forced to grapple on a daily basis.

They also constructed a collective “memory” of what life had been like in Maryland during the age when all varieties of Christianity had been tolerated. The memory was a bit selective. It tended to avoid the reality of religious favoritism in Charles Calvert’s government, and it also spoke of toleration in the seventeenth century as if it were a fact, simply because it was a law. The reality was that many of Maryland’s Protestants rebelled against the rule of their Catholic proprietor, even before the Calvert family was forced to convert. The memory was not meant to be completely factual, however. It was meant to sustain the Catholic community during a time when being Catholic had become inconvenient. The memory preserved Catholic identity, in spite of the inconveniences that came with it, by linking that identity to liberty and tradition and, in so doing, ennobling it. The memory also, implicitly, identified England as a source of corruption. Maryland’s “constitution” (to use the word that Catholics started using as early as 1718) had been a perfect guarantor of the rights of Englishmen. Those rights, according to one priest who served in Maryland from 1712 to 1724, included “Liberty of Conscience,” which was the “reason behind the peopling of this province” and the “perpetual and inherent birthright of each Marylandian.”16 Had the colony not been tied to England, the priest implied, the religious bigotry that had infected England’s constitution in 1689—and which threatened the rights of Englishmen in Maryland—never would have infected the constitution of Maryland.

Little wonder, then, that when the break with England finally came in 1776, Catholics enthusiastically embraced it. They had been evolving into Americans for decades by that point. The independence movement’s emphasis on liberty and freedom, and its insistence on the separate nature of the colonies’ constitutions and on the corrupting influence of England resonated with a population that had experienced first-hand the negative consequences of being tied politically to England. In many respects, Maryland’s Catholics were the colonists most prepared in the 1770s to accept the ideological, cultural, and psychological implications of a break with England.

Masterless Mistresses

There were no convents in British colonial America. At least thirty-one women left the colony of Maryland between 1747 and 1756 to join convents in continental Europe. But unlike the men who traveled to Europe throughout the eighteenth century and returned to the Calvert family’s proprietary holding as Jesuit priests, none of the women who left Maryland to join the Church leadership during the colonial period returned to the New World until after the colonies had won their independence in 1783.

Mother Bernardina Teresa Xavier of St. Joseph returned to her native Charles County in 1790, having left her parents thirty-six years earlier so that she could sail to Belgium as Ann Matthews and enter the contemplative order of the Discalced Carmelites. Together with her two nieces, who were also Maryland-born Carmelite nuns, and Charles Neale, a priest from Port Tobacco whose older brother, Leonard, would one day become the second Archbishop of Baltimore, Mother Bernardina founded the first convent in the United States, the Mount Carmel Monastery in Charles County, Maryland.17

In 1831, Archbishop James Whitefield moved the Carmelite convent to the city of Baltimore. Today, fifteen sisters (and one border collie) serve the Catholic community in Maryland from that post.18 In an ultimately obvious, though initially confounding twist, however, the first convent in the United States is not the oldest convent in the United States. That title belongs to the Ursuline Convent of New Orleans, which was founded in 1727, three-quarters of a century before Louisiana finally secured its permanent identity as part of the United States.

Historian Emily Clark has painstakingly unearthed the joys, sorrows, trials, and accomplishments of the sixty-nine French, Cuban, and Creole women who belonged to the Ursuline Convent from its founding in the age of French colonial expansion, through its existence in a Spanish New World colony, and into its status as an early institutional leader of the Catholic Church in the new United States.19 The story that emerges from Clark’s work is a decidedly “American” one, in that the women who operated the convent learned early on that life in the New World was different from life in the Old, and that many of the traditional hierarchies and values that had governed their lives in Europe could not be easily transplanted to North America. This does not mean that the sisters did not try—and Clark makes it very clear that within the convent’s walls, the Ursuline nuns did order their universe “along rigidly conservative lines” that maintained the Old World distinction between elite “choir nuns” and working-class “converse” nuns and, in so doing, “cultivat[ed] and preserve[ed] in a colonial setting a replica of the hierarchical European social order to which elites were attached.”20

But Clark also makes it clear that even as they replicated this European social order, the Ursuline nuns were forced to grapple with realities that were uncommon, unnecessary, or often even non-existent in Europe. The experience of reconciling these realities with their identities as women, nuns, and especially Ursulines turned the people who operated the convent in New Orleans into women, nuns, and Ursulines who were different from—that is, more independent and worldly than—their counterparts in Europe.

Race was one of the realities that Ursulines of the New World grappled with. It was an unavoidable consequence of the geographic and economic setting in which the sisters found themselves. Indians were mere novelties in France, and people of African descent, while not unheard of in Europe, were far more plentiful in eighteenth-century Louisiana, where they also tended to be enslaved. Clark tells us that the Ursulines chose to order their convent in a way that respected the agenda of universal female education that had been laid out for them by their order’s founder and by the original superior of their convent. In a city where the complexion of the Catholic Church grew darker and darker as the century progressed (a development that the Ursulines played no small role in affecting), this meant that within the convent’s walls, white students were increasingly expected to share classrooms and bedrooms with black and mixed-race students, irrespective of the laws and social mores that governed racial relations on the streets of New Orleans.

This dogged determination to remain true to the obligations that had been set for them in the Old World, together with their status as educated, permanently unmarried female members of colonial society, forced the sisters to assume assertive and at times even antagonistic postures toward certain civil and religious leaders in Louisiana, especially during the period from 1767 to 1803, when the colony was under Spanish rule. The Spanish, Clark tells us, “practiced an established choreography of racial demarcation at odds with the slippery categories that evolved in the French colonial church and convent.” During the Spanish period in Louisiana’s history, “an elaborate repertoire of labels was introduced to classify people of color.” The French were “certainly not indifferent to skin color,” and the Ursulines who ran the convent in New Orleans never actually challenged the institution of slavery, in spite of the fact that they clearly recognized the wretched nature of the slave condition. But the nuns did exhibit a substantial degree of color-blindness when it came to the issue of the Sacraments, recognizing inter-racial marriages that violated the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre, i.e., “purity of blood,” and insisting that marriages involving slaves be consecrated in the Church, even as civil authorities were reluctant recognize such marriages.21

Sometimes, this racial ecumenism created conflict within the convent itself, as Spanish creole nuns who were “accustomed to a cultural vocabulary of racial purity” joined the convent and struggled with the fluid nature of race relations within. Often, however, the conflict that the Ursulines created was between themselves and the civil and clerical authorities who represented the Spanish government in the New World. Beginning in the 1770s, these authorities “enacted a series of measures that signaled diminishing formal toleration for blurred and imprecise social and racial demarcations.” And yet, behind the convent’s walls, the Ursulines continued to teach and minister to “all of the city’s female population, even as this activity grew notably more incongruous with the interests of the class and race to which they belonged.”22

In asserting themselves in this way—as well as in other ways that involved the convent’s finances and the non-educational services the sisters would supply (or were expected to supply) to the city—the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans morphed into New World Catholics who challenged not just the gender norms that dominated their church in the Old World, but also—as Clark points out in her epilogue—the gender norms that would dominate the early years of the American republic. The nuns were “masterless mistresses” whose experiences of “independence” were markedly different from those of both the nuns who belonged to the same order in Europe and the Protestant women who made up the bulk of the population in the country the New Orleans sisters would ultimately join. “These elements,” Clark tells us, “mark the Ursulines as American.”23

Frontier Fathers

In France, revolutionary sensibilities took on a tone that was very different from the tone that characterized the independence movement in the British colonies. This tone, of course, was overtly anti-aristocratic. But it was also anti-clerical, and during the ten months that constituted the so-called “Reign of Terror” in 1793 and 1794, twenty-seven Ursuline nuns, ranging in age from thirty-one to seventy, were beheaded by revolutionary zealots who saw the Catholic Church as antithetical to the republican society the reformers claimed to be establishing.24

The Ursulines were among 126 clerical women who were put to death during the Reign of Terror. Ten times as many priests and monks were also killed. Between 1789 and 1800, revolutionaries forced nearly 30,000 priests to leave France or else face execution. Most of the priests who fled chose to remain in Europe, but twenty-three of them elected to immigrate to the United States, which was just a few years old at the time. The number seems small, until one considers that in the 1790s, there were just thirty priests living in the entire United States. Seen in this light, it becomes perfectly understandable why—in the words of historian Michael Pasquier—“French missionary priests did wield considerable influence in the development of an ecclesiastical presence in the United States, and especially in Maryland, Kentucky, Texas, and Louisiana.” 25

Many scholars have noted the role that the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution played in the spread of an “ultramontane” approach to Catholicism.26 Ultramontanism was a philosophy of worship that the Vatican began cultivating in the early nineteenth century, in response to the “de-Christianization” of France. It stressed the fallen nature of humanity and the idea that people and their governments could overcome the reality of sin only through the wisdom and guidance of the Church. Rome was the font of all authority for ultramontane Catholics, be it civil or religious, and French priests who knew what could happen when civil authorities refused to recognize the authority of the Church helped to cultivate a strain of conservative Catholicism that historian Luca Codignola has insisted soon came to dominate the faith in “the new North Atlantic World.”27

While Codignola is undoubtedly correct that refugee French priests were vital to the spread of ultramontanism—even in the United States—I think his analysis of ultramontanism’s growth in the North Atlantic World is a little too eager to ignore the strong strains of republicanism that were present in American Catholicism during the first few decades of America’s existence as an independent nation. In so doing, Codignola has failed to do justice to the role that Irish immigration played in the growth of ultramontanism in American Catholicism. Ultramontanism found fertile ground in Ireland, where the authority of the local, civil officials had been rendered understandably suspect by centuries of religious persecution. Looking “over the mountain” (i.e., the Alps) to Rome was a way for Ireland’s Catholics to delegitimize English authority, even as they were forced to defer to it. When they came to the United States, Ireland’s Catholics brought their Rome-centered Catholicism with them.28

Understanding that the dominance of French priests on the ecclesiastical landscape in early America did not automatically mean that American Catholicism became ultramontane, Pasquier focuses his attention on the role that “local circumstances, individual personalities, and educational formation played in the practice of the priesthood in American missions.”29 Pasquier’s analysis actually lies beyond the “colonial” parameters of this roundtable; his exiled French priests arrived in the United States, and although some eventually made their way to Louisiana, the people they served were technically no longer European colonists by that point. They were Americans.

I include a brief discussion of Pasquier’s work in this roundtable, however, in part because his work serves as a corrective to Codignola’s effort to label North Atlantic Catholicism as definitively “conservative,” and also because I think his exploration of the “frontier fathers” who guided the ecclesiastical development of early American Catholicism could serve as a model for scholars who are working on the history of Catholicism in Spanish colonial America—parts of which, of course, ultimately became the American South.

Pasquier consciously avoids the theme of “Americanization” in his analysis, because the priests he focuses on were decidedly not Americanizers; indeed, many of the priests who came to the United States from France—or who were trained in the United States by priests who had fled from France—were leaders in the successful movement to banish lay trusteeism from the American Catholic experience. John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States, had been a reluctant, but definitive supporter of lay trusteeism as a way of managing the Church’s affairs during the years when there were very few priests in the United States.30 Following Carroll’s death in 1815, however, American bishops began working to dismantle lay trusteeism because they saw in it the taint of American Protestantism.31

While he eschews the Americanization theme, Pasquier does understand that the priests who came to America from France were irrevocably and unavoidably changed by the experience. “Missionary priests struggled to reconcile what they were taught in French seminaries and read in devotional literature with what they experienced on the frontier,” Pasquier tells us. As French priests moved from Baltimore into the territory that lay west of the Appalachian Mountains—Kentucky, the Mississippi territory, Louisiana, Missouri, even Texas—they experienced poverty, disease, isolation, non-Catholics, and irreverent Catholics. Very few of them abandoned their vocations as they encountered these challenges. But some did “slip,” so to speak, taking mistresses and drinking too much alcohol, and even those who maintained their celibacy and sobriety “changed the way they practiced the priesthood as they encountered a diversity of people, ideas, institutions, and places.”32

In America, the French priests became more devotional, as living along the frontier tested their faith. In the privacy of their own hearts, they often questioned their vocation and the appropriateness of their mission to North America. In an effort to triumph over their spiritual crises—and to hide them from the men and women they were bound to serve—the priests focused upon the role that Christ’s suffering on the cross played in the salvation of humanity. It was not enough that Christ had died for humanity’s sins; he had suffered for them, just as the fathers on the frontier were suffering. And the saints had suffered, too. “French missionary priests looked to the saints for ways to interpret suffering as something to be welcomed,” Pasquier explains. “They attempted to incorporate Catholic symbols like crucifixes, statues, and relics into the visional and material fabric of the American frontier.”33

Europe, too, eventually saw the growth of a highly devotional approach to Catholicism.34 But it happened a little sooner along the frontier in the new United States. Also, the development of Catholic devotionalism in the United States was not, at least initially, a response to modernity and/or secularism, as it was in Europe. Rather, the first strains of Catholic devotional piety were a response to the spiritual challenges that French priests experienced in the wilds of the frontier.35

“The decision to ‘Americanize’ the Church … was not always made in official councils or pastoral letters or theological treatises or papal announcements,” Pasquier writes (in his one overt acknowledgment of the contribution he is making to the conversation about Catholic Americanization). “Priests rarely decide to transform the Church in obviously calculative ways…. Much of the Church changes when the priests change, and priests change because of the places they go and the people they meet.”36

I think it could only be a good thing if the scholars who focus on the development of Catholicism in Spanish colonial America could take this realization with them into the archives. Some have—but their work has focused primarily on Mexico, and not on the territories that eventually joined the slave-holding American South. Jodi Bilnikoff and Alan Greer have put together a marvelous volume that considers the ways in which the Catholic Church in Mexico accommodated itself to the contingencies of the New World. Devotion to St. Anne, for instance, flourished in Mexico, even though the Vatican actively sought to suppress this devotion as part of its effort to promote a patriarchal view of the Holy Family. The priests in Mexico allowed—and even encouraged—devotion to St. Anne because their parishioners demanded it, and according to Charlene Villaseñor Black, this demand was a consequence of the “preference for the extended matriarchal family” that characterized “indigenous family structures.”37

To what extent did this kind of accommodation take place in the Spanish colonial territory that eventually became Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Florida? Future scholars, I hope, will tell us.

American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism

The Ursulines who immigrated to New Orleans in 1727 and the priests who fled to Baltimore in the 1790s all joined a culture that had firmly embraced race-based slavery – and Clark insists “it was beyond their power… to delay or oppose” the development of this economic and cultural institution.38 The English Catholics who migrated to Maryland in the 1630s and 1640s, however, did not join a culture that had accepted slavery; they helped to create that culture. The first legal recognition of race-based slavery in British colonial America, after all, was a law passed in Maryland in 1664, requiring all Africans brought into the colony as servants to serve “durante vita,” i.e. for the duration of their lives.39 An interrogation of the relationship between colonial Maryland’s Catholics and the institution of slavery, therefore, offers scholars a unique opportunity to explore the contours of the Catholic relationship with a fundamental—possibly even foundational—component of American cultural identity.

Many scholars have already explored the Catholic Church’s support for slavery in the United States. Most have focused on the religious intolerance of the abolitionist movement’s leaders, concluding that the Church’s stance on slavery was fueled as much (if not more) by the virulent anti-Catholicism of firebrands like William Lloyd Garrison and Lyman Beecher as it was by a theological commitment to the enslavement of an entire race of people. A few scholars have also ventured into the realm of doctrine, noting that Church fathers such as Augustine and Aquinas taught that slavery brought order to a fallen world in which some people were born without an ability to govern themselves.40

My own research, however, has suggested that slavery may have played a role in the creation of a distinctly “American” form of Roman Catholic identity—one that was comfortable with the republicanism and individualism that were at the heart of what it meant to be an American at the time of the Founding. The British journalist Harriet Martineau observed the republican leanings of American Catholics in the early 1830s and concluded that in America, Catholicism had been “modified by the spirit of the times.” Historians since then have agreed with her, concluding that pre-immigrant Catholics were “influenced by broader American notions of authority.” They were “accustomed to the republican idea that ordinary people such as themselves were the source of power in civil society.” They assumed, then, that that meant they were the source of at least some power within the Catholic Church, as well.41

But American notions of authority at the time of the Founding were not simply about the idea that “ordinary people” were the “source of power in civil society.” As Edmund Morgan pointed out nearly forty years ago, “American slavery,” with its racially based, inherited qualities, was the “flying buttress” to “American freedom.” The reason the “most ardent American republicans [in the 1770s] were Virginians,” Morgan wrote, was that lawmakers in colonial Virginia had taken the poorest residents and “isolated [them] by race and removed [them] from the political equation.”42

In the eighteenth century, the Chesapeake Bay region was home to the second-largest concentration of slave labor in the burgeoning British empire. In 1790, when the first formal census of Maryland’s population was taken by the United States government, roughly a third of the state’s entire population was enslaved. Between 1743 and 1759, the average number of slaves owned by an elite planter in Maryland was 22—but the average number of slaves owned by a Catholic, “elite” or clerical, during this same time period was 31. Indeed, Catholics such as Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Henry Darnell were some of the largest slaveholders in the entire colony.43

The American identity that Maryland’s Catholics embraced in the 1770s and 1780s, republican though it was, was not based on a foundation of radical individualism (or more overtly, anti-Catholicism) the way it was for many Protestants, especially in the North. Catholic republicanism—like the republicanism identified by Morgan, Eugene Genovese, and Lacy Ford—was a racialized republicanism built on a foundation of ordered relationships that were defined and defended by the institution of race-based slavery.44 Republican society for southerners and colonial and early national Catholics alike was not one in which freedom and individualism ran amok, as they did in the industrializing North soon after the Revolution was over. Rather, it was one in which communal obligations were honored and relationships were seen to be ordered in such a way as to allow for the basic human needs of all individuals to be met, while at the same time giving a growing number of men—white men—the freedom to cultivate their individual talents.

Slavery, in other words, made republicanism and individual freedom “safe” for eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Catholics to embrace by ensuring that the bonds of hierarchy and reciprocal obligation that were so important to the Catholic understanding of human relations remained intact. This may explain why few, if any Catholics manumitted their slaves in the years that immediately followed the American Revolution. From 1783 to 1790, between 7,000 and 10,000 slaves in Maryland were freed by their masters—a phenomenal spike in manumissions that scholars have pointed to as a sign that some slaveholding members of America’s founding generation recognized that slavery could not be easily reconciled with the ideology of the American Revolution. Yet, extensive genealogical surveys of the surviving manumission records from the period reveal that Catholics in Maryland did not start manumitting their slaves until at least the second decade of the nineteenth century—a time when scholars believe manumissions may have been prompted by other factors, such as the declining profitability of slavery in the Upper South.45

None of this information requires that Catholics be condemned as a group for failing to manumit their slaves in the immediate wake of the American Revolution. The fact is that most Methodists, Anglicans, and Calvinists did not free their slaves during this period, either. But some did. And the fact that Catholics did not suggests that they may not have seen the hierarchical and authoritarian reality of slavery as inconsistent with the republican principles they embraced when, in the wake of the Revolution, they officially became Americans.

The study of Catholicism in the colonial South—particularly the study of lay Catholic experiences during this period—will, I fear, continue to be plagued by an exaggerated version of a perennial problem in the field of colonial American history: the scarcity of sources. Nevertheless, the scholarship that has come out in the last decade or so suggests that the contributions early Catholics made as people, rather than as members of an institution, to the cultivation of American and even southern identity in the eighteenth century can be uncovered with some creative massaging of the surviving sources, a bit of genealogical research (so as to find the Catholics in the sources that are not specifically church-related), and a whole lot of dedication.

  1. Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast During the Sixteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 205–231; Stephen Adams, The Best and Worst Country in the World: Perspectives on the Early Virginia Landscape (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 61; and Jon F. Sensbach, “Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire,” Journal of Southern History LXXII, no. 3 (2007), 632.

  2. J.F. Regis Canevin, “Loss and Gain in the Catholic Church in the United States, 1800–1916,” Catholic Historical Review (January 1917), 380–81; Jay Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 58; and Michael Pasquier, Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789–1870 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 58.

  3. Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Origins of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

  4. Dolan, American Catholicism, 58; and Benjamin J. Blied, Catholics and the Civil War (Milwaukee: n.p., 1945), 53.

  5. For more on ultramontanism, and particularly its expression within the immigrant communities that came to the United States, see Patricia Byrne, “American Ultramontanism,” Theological Studies 56 (1995): 301–338; David J. O’Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), 242–320; John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 12–13, 28–29; and Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism, 44–49.

  6. Garry Wills, Bare, Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 15. For more on this Catholic parochialism, see Mark Massa, Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (New York: Crossroad, 2001), 1–20; and Patricia K. Good, “Irish Adjustment to American Society: Integration or Separation? A Portrait of an Irish Catholic Parish: 1863–1886,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (1975): 7–23.

  7. See, for example, James O’Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); Paula M. Kane, Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism, 1900–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Ann Taves, The Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986); and Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

  8. The interest in American Catholicism among non-Catholic scholars is not completely new, of course. Rueben Gold Thwaites, who was raised as a Congregationalist, broke that ground more than a century ago, with his 73-volume English translation of the Jesuit Relations . In the 1980s, Martin Marty made significant contributions to the field, in spite of his ardent Lutheranism. Nevertheless, the study of American Catholicism has consistently been dominated by Catholics—many acting as apologists, some not—and that reality is changing to some degree. Emily Clark’s book on the Ursuline sisters of New Orleans, Kevin Schultz’s book on Catholic contributions to the American climate of religious pluralism, Tracy Neal Leavelle’s book on relations between the Jesuits and the Illinois and Ottawa Indians, and Amy Koehlinger’s book on the involvement of nuns in the civil rights movement all stand as recent examples of the great work that has been done on American Catholic history by non-Catholics. See Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610–1791 (Cleveland: Burrows Bros., 1896–1901), 73 vols.; Martin F. Marty, An Invitation to American Catholic History (Chicago: Thomas More, 1986); Emily Clark, Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727–1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Post-War America to its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Tracy Neal Leavelle, The Catholic Calumet: Catholic Conversions in French and Indian North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Amy Koehlinger, The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  9. Sensbach, “Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire,” 634.

  10. Joseph P. Chinnici, “Freedom’s Freedom: A Conversation with John McGreevy,” U.S. Catholic Historian 21, no. 4 (2003): 93–99; Luca Codignola, “Roman Catholic Conservatism in a New North Atlantic World, 1760–1829,” William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 4 (2007): 717–756; Peter D’Agostino, Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 5, 315; and Pasquier, Fathers on the Frontier, 11.

  11. Arthur O’Leary, “Address to the Common People of the Roman Catholic Religion,” (1779), in O’Leary, The Life and Writings of the Rev. Arthur O’Leary, ed. Michael Bernard Buckley (Dublin: James Duffy, 1868), 103; and William Henry Drayton, “Charge of William Henry Drayton,” in American Archives, Fourth Series, Peter Force, ed. (Washington, DC, 1837) 6:959.

  12. Maura Jane Farrelly, “American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism,” Early American Studies 10 (2012), n. 24.

  13. Robert M. Calhoon, “Loyalism and Neutrality,” in Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., A Companion to the American Revolution (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), 235; William Hand Brown et al., eds., Archives of Maryland (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1883–), 9:315, 25:258–59; M. Christopher Newton, Maryland Loyalists in the American Revolution (Centreville, MD: Tidewater, 1996); Ronald Hoffman, A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 80–82, 98–100; and David Curtis Skaggs, “Maryland’s Impulse toward Social Revolution, 1750–1776,” Journal of American History 54 (1968): 771–86.

  14. Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 156; O’Toole, The Faithful, 59. Kevin Roberts, the founder of Catholic Families for America, and Timothy Dolan, the current Archbishop of New York, have both written that the age of lay trusteeism in the American church was a time of “rebellion” and “heresy.” See Kevin Roberts, “Modern Lessons from America’s First Bishop,” National Catholic Register, October 2, 2009; and Timothy M. Dolan, “Right from the Start: John Carroll, Our First Bishop,” lecture lecture given at the Archdiocese of Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration, Baltimore, April 22, 2008, available at Catholic Culture,

  15. Maura Jane Farrelly, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  16. Peter Atwood, “Liberty and Property, or the Beauty of Maryland Displayed,” rpt., United States Catholic Historical Magazine 3(1889–90): 252, 242.

  17. Fr. George Hunter to John Tichbourn, no date (but between 1747 and 1756), “Hunter Letterbook,” Maryland Province Archives (MPA), Box 2, Fol. 10, Special Collections, Georgetown University (SCGU); “Notes and Comments,” Catholic Historical Review (Washington, DC, 1917), 2:238–239; and Charles Warren Currier, Carmel in America: A Centennial History of the Discalced Carmelites in the United States (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1890), 56–59, 70–86.

  18. Currier, Carmel in America, 191; “The Restorers of Mount Carmel in Maryland, Inc.,” (accessed 9 July 2012).

  19. From the convent’s founding until the sale of Louisiana to the Jefferson administration in 1803, sixty-nine women served in the Ursuline Convent. Clark’s book, however, does briefly consider the experiences of additional nuns who were serving in the convent as late as 1834.

  20. Clark, Masterless Mistresses, 150, 156.

  21. Ibid., 3, 100–104, 132–133.

  22. Ibid., 134, 139.

  23. Ibid., 264, 4.

  24. Jacques Guilhaumou and Martine Lapied, “Women’s Political Action During the French Revolution,” in Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women, ed. Christine Faure, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 124.

  25. Ibid.; Timothy Tackett and Claude Langlois, “Ecclesiastical Structures and Clerical Geography on the Eve of the French Revolution,” French Historical Studies 11 (1980): 357; and Pasquier, Fathers on the Frontier, 27, 15.

  26. See, for example, Peter N. Stearns, Priest and Revolutionary: Lamennais and the Dilemma of French Catholicism (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 46–49; Norman Ravitch, “Liberalism, Catholicism, and the Abbé Grégoire, Church History 36 (1967): 437; J. Francis Stafford, “‘Train Up to Virtue’: A Reflection on the Maryland Tradition,” U.S. Catholic Historian 8 (1989): 61; and Obed Heilbronner, “The Age of Catholic Revival,” in A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Europe, 1789–1914, ed. Stefan Berger (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 236–247.

  27. Codignola, “Roman Catholic Conservatism in a New North Atlantic World.” Peter D’Agostino also discusses the role that exiled French priests played in the spread of ultramontanism in Rome in America.

  28. Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates ; Emmet Larkin, “The Devotional Revolution in Ireland,” American Historical Review 77 (1972): 625–652; Michael P. Carroll, American Catholics in the Protestant Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 5–6, 46–48; and Patricia Byrne, “American Ultramontanism,” Theological Studies 56 (1995): 301–338.

  29. Pasquier, Fathers on the Frontier, 28.

  30. John Carroll, “John Carroll’s Letter on Trusteeism,” (1786), in Mark Massa and Catherine Osborne, eds., American Catholic History: A Documentary Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 32; Rodger van Allen, “Lay Distrusteeism,” Commonweal, 12 September 12 2008. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York has argued that Carroll was an opponent of lay trusteeism, but Carroll’s letter to the trustees of St. Peter’s Church in New York City makes it clear that he saw lay trusteeism as an important means by which the Catholic Church in early America might be sustained. See Dolan’s lecture, “Right from the Start: John Carroll, Our First Bishop.”

  31. Thomas J. Shelley, “When Catholics Were Congregationalists,” Commonweal, 12 September 2003, 29; Dale B. Light, Rome and the New Republic: Conflict and Community in Philadelphia Catholicism between the Revolution and the Civil War (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 241; Carey, Priests, People, and Prelates, 214.

  32. Pasquier, Fathers on the Frontier, 59, 19.

  33. Ibid., 68, 65–66.

  34. For more on the growth of Catholic devotionalism in Europe—particularly English-speaking Europe—see Mary Heimann, Catholic Devotion in Victorian England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Bill McSweeney, Roman Catholicism: The Search for Relevance (New York: Palgrave, 1980); and Derek Holmes, The Triumph of the Holy See: A short History of the Papacy in the Nineteenth Century (Shepherstown, WV: Burns and Oates, 1978).

  35. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the United States did experience a wave of Catholic devotionalism that was cultivated by the Church hierarchy as a way of shepherding Catholics to the margins of their predominantly Protestant society and, in so doing, preserving the unique features of the Catholic faith. This manifestation of devotionalism was a deliberate reaction against the move toward “Americanization” that Catholic converts like Isaac Hecker and Orestes Brownson were pushing for, and in this sense, its origins were very different from earlier varieties of Catholic devotionalism along the frontier. See McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, 27–29; and Ann Taves, “Context and Meaning: Roman Catholic Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” Church History 54 (1985): 482–195.

  36. Pasquier, Fathers on the Frontier, 21.

  37. Charlene Villaseñor Black, “St. Anne Imagery and Maternal Archetypes in Spain and Mexico,” in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas. 1500–1800 ed. Allan Greer and Jodi Bilinkoff (New York: Routledge, 2003), 22.

  38. Clark, Masterless Mistresses, 160. Tracy Fessenden has suggested that Clark may be a little too willing to attribute a “rhetoric of equality” to the Ursuline sisters, in light of their unwillingness to challenge slavery. Tracy Fessenden, “untitled review,” review of Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727–1834,* * by Emily Clark, Church History 77 (2008): 1073–1078.

  39. “An Act Concerning Negroes and Other Slaves” (1664), in Civil Rights and African Americans, eds. Albert P. Blaustein and Robert L. Zangrando, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 8–9.

  40. Thomas J. Murphy, Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1717–1838 (New York: Routledge, 2001), 131, 147–149; James Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 143–157; and McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, 43–67.

  41. Harriet Martineau, Society in America (London: Saunders and Otley, 1837), 2:323; and O’Toole, The Faithful, 59.

  42. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 381, 380.

  43. Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom in the Middle Ground (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 13; Trevor Graeme Burnard, Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite, 1691–1776 (New York, 2002), 5, 36, 38, 265; and Beatrize Bentancourt Hardy, “Papists in a Protestant Age: The Catholic Gentry and Community in Colonial Maryland, 1689–1776” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1993), 214, n. 68. Charles Carroll of Annapolis owned 386 slaves in 1773. Henry Darnell owned 100 in 1711.

  44. Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Political Thought, 1820–1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), 6, 17; Lacy K. Ford, Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 372–373. For more on how Protestants used anti-Catholicism to define the parameters of American freedom, see Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  45. Farrelly, “American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism,” 92–94, n43; and Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: New Press 1992), 46, 29.