Catholics in British America

Crucifixion Tile

The Catholic/Protestant divide that resulted from the establishment of the Protestant Church of England during the sixteenth century impacted English, and then British, domestic and international affairs throughout the colonial period. Brtiain's chief enemies, Spain and France, were Catholic, and the first Catholics to visit the Atlantic seaboard of North America were Spanish explorers who vied with England for control of lands in the Western hemisphere.

Before the English settlement of Virginia, a band of Spanish Jesuit priests tried to establish a mission near the Chesapeake Bay in 1570. Indians destroyed it after only a few months. The next Catholics in Virginia were a handful of English, Irish, and Polish Catholic tradesmen who lived and worked in the settlement at Jamestown beginning in 1607. Hindered by proscriptive legislation, however, few Catholics came to the colony. Most, like the Brent family of Stafford County, came from Maryland after its establishment as a haven for Catholics in 1634 and were dependent on priests who ministered on both sides of the border. Lieutenant Governor William Gooch and the Virginia assembly enacted further proscriptions against the settlement of Catholic clergy in Virginia in the 1740s. A few Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and France arrived as indentured servants or plantation overseers at mid-eighteenth century, nevertheless. There were only about 300 Catholics in Virginia at the time of the American Revolution.

Cecelius Calvert, the second Baron Baltimore, established Maryland as a place of refuge for Catholics, when two ships, the Ark and the Dove, arrived with his brother and some three hundred colonists in early 1634. From the beginning, however, Protestants were the majority in Maryland, with Catholics comprising barely a tenth of the population by 1700. William Stone became the colony's first Protestant governor in 1648. The following year, the Maryland legislature, made up of both Catholics and Protestants, enacted a broad Act of Toleration. By 1654, the Puritan element in Maryland had overthrown the proprietor, repealed the Act of Toleration, and outlawed Catholics. Lord Baltimore regained control of the colony for a few years, but England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed the Calverts again. Maryland became a Royal Colony in 1691 and criminal legislation put an end to Catholic equality. The Church of England was established there by law the following year, and a new capital city of Annapolis would be built in the next years on a site removed from the Catholic center of population. The government completely disenfranchised Catholics in 1718. Fifty years later, in 1765, the Catholic minority in Maryland numbered about 20,000.

Catholics fared better in neighboring Pennsylvania, founded by Quaker William Penn in 1681 on a basis of broad religious toleration. The colony attracted a number of Catholic families from Maryland, and German Jesuits immigrated to several rural counties. The first Catholic mission and school were established in Cecil County in 1706. In 1734, Joseph Greaton became Philadelphia's first resident priest. By 1765, there were some six thousand Catholics in Pennsylvania.

New York's history as a colony of two Protestant nations made it less amenable to the spread of Catholicism. Catholic hopes swelled after the 1664 English conquest of Dutch New Netherland, when James, Duke of York (later James II) became proprietor. James revealed his conversion to Catholicism in 1672 and appointed Col. Thomas Dongan, a Catholic, to be governor in 1682. Dongan sponsored a bill of rights, adopted in October 1683, which guaranteed religious freedom for those professing faith in God. As in Maryland, however, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 overturned this policy, and a German-born Calvinist, Jacob Leisler, led an overthrow the government. Leisler was executed for treason in 1691 but Parliament later cleared his name. By 1693, the Church of England enjoyed the advantage of legal establishment in the four chief counties of the colony.

Resentment against the Pope and his Church reigned in Congregationalist New England throughout the colonial period, and Massachusetts enacted anti-Catholic measures in 1647. In contrast, the 1635 charter of Rhode Island established broad religious freedom for those who believed in God. Yet not one Catholic was known to reside there in 1680. Statistics for Catholics in most of the colonies do not exist due to the lack of resident priests to keep records. In the absence of the oversight and guidance of a Catholic bishop before 1790, the 186 Jesuit priests who worked in British North America between 1634 and the suppression of their order in 1773 struggled to fulfill their missions. Britain's support for the Catholic Church in the Quebec Act of 1774 alarmed New England Protestants who view this law as one of the Intolerable Acts.

With the outbreak of war in 1775, army service leavened religious toleration in the military. George Washington modeled deference to Catholic sensibilities in 1775, when he stopped troops at Cambridge from burning the Pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day. The general's secretary and aide-de-camp, John Fitzgerald, was a Catholic. When the new states began crafting constitutions in 1776, with Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland pondering proposals for religious toleration, many Catholics stepped forward in service to their nation. John Barry helped found the United States Navy. Stephen Moylan became Washington's muster master-general. Daniel Carroll joined Congress from Maryland, and Thomas FitzSimons represented Pennsylvania.

Marylander Charles Carroll of Carrollton perhaps best exemplified the realization of American Catholic aspirations. Born at Annapolis of a prominent family, Carroll received a Jesuit education in France and returned to America in the midst of the patriot reaction against the Stamp Act. In early 1772, he penned a series of patriotic letters in the Maryland Gazette under the pseudonym "First Citizen." Carroll served in the revolutionary Congress, helped craft Maryland's constitution, and become the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. After the war, he served in the both the federal Congress and the Maryland legislature.

The American alliance with France in 1778 brought the French navy to Philadelphia and Boston, each unit with its Catholic chaplain, and by 1780 the French army landed in Rhode Island. The presence of these allies and the first French minister, Conrad Alexandre GĂ©rard, in the capital at Philadelphia, accelerated mutual respect between Catholics and non-Catholics during the war years and made public slights to the Roman Church unthinkable. By the end of the Revolution, Catholics in the United States numbered about 25,000 out of a general population of 4,000,000.

Browse Content By Theme