Catholics in Puritan America

puritan haiku

Image by torbakhopper via Flickr

The initial presence of Catholics in the “New World” was sporadic.  From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, Spanish, French, and English missionaries, merchants, explorers, soldiers, governors, and their servants and slaves brought a Catholic presence to the New World.  As part of the colonial expansion of their respective empires, the missionaries came to sustain the religious life of their compatriots and to evangelize the newly discovered peoples who inhabited the lands the colonials explored.  They intermittently established parishes and missions to the Indians on the southern borderlands of the present United States. (CIA 1)  One specific instance pertaining to the Northeast were the French missionaries who evangelized, baptized, and established mission stations among the Abenakis in Nova Scotia and Maine periodically from 1610 to 1763. (CIA 7)

And then out of these pockets of Catholic mission, from the mid-sixteenth century onward, Catholicism existed in numerous isolated and loosely organized religious communities shepherded primarily by missionaries who were, until 1790, without the benefit of the episcopacy and other major ecclesiastical institutions. (CIA 1)

During this time of colonization, Protestants were coming in droves to overtake the New World.  They had a distaste towards Catholics akin to that of many in the Protestant Reformation.  The native population traced its lineage to the seventeenth century Puritan settlers from southern and eastern England… they were inheritors of the Puritan suspicion of Catholics, and in the early years of immigration they often made New England an inhospitable place for Catholics. (RAPLINE 43)

The seventeenth century settlers who came to the place they called New England, consciously replicating (with godly improvements) the society of Old England, hoped to purge the “popish” elements they found still infecting the reformed Church of England.  They wanted above all to preserve their settlement from what they considered the inevitably corrupting influence of Catholicism, which they saw as the embodiment of the biblical anti-Christ.  Massachusetts Bay and other early colonies went so far as to pass “anti-priest laws”, essentially criminalizing that church in their corner of the New World. (RAPLINE 41)  And I thought my Dad’s parents had a prejudice towards Catholics!  Some Puritans in the New World went to the extreme in this.

There were even laws made in an effort to ban Catholics from even living in the New World!  Catholic priests were subversives by definition and they were to be banished from the colony for a first offense and sentenced to death if caught trying to return. (RAPLINE 41) This intolerance and bigotry towards Catholics found its pinnacle in the Act of 1649, which excluded Catholics from general toleration.  Though this Act did not take permanent effect, and the colony continued to enjoy a general toleration for all Christians until the Glorious Revolution, in 1689, when the king replaced the lord proprietor, and gradually thereafter Catholics were excluded from the colony’s political life.  In 1702 the Church of England was established by law, and Catholics were finally disenfranchised in 1718…Catholics thereafter would become second-class citizens and feel the sting, if not the rigors, of the establishment and penal law system. (CIA 13) It’s ironic to see that the same persecution that many fleeing to the New World were trying to escape, they were now inflicting on their Catholic neighbors.

Yet the Catholics wouldn’t be held down for long.  Catholic presence in the English colonies, unlike that of the Spanish and French missions, provided a firm foundation for a lasting influence of Catholicism in the United States (CIA 10)  In fact, the overwhelming majority of immigrants to New England, especially in the early years, were Catholics. (RAPLINE 43)  With the episcopacy established in 1789, American Catholics had the full institutional presence of Catholicism for the first time in 156 years. (CIA 19)  This episcopacy meant that American Catholics had their own bishops and representatives, thereby connecting them to Rome and the International Catholic Church.  Inevitably this was the beginning of rapid growth for the church. In 1785, there were 24 Priests, by 1808 there were 68, and by 1830, there were 232. (CIA 22)



Walsh, Andrew  Religion and Public Life in New England:  Steady Habits Changing Slowly


Carey, Patrick W.  Catholics in America:  A History



3 thoughts on “Catholics in Puritan America

  1. Pingback: Catholics During the Second Great Awakening « benwhite29

  2. Pingback: Catholicism in the 20th Century « benwhite29

  3. Pingback: One Unified Church??? Scattered Protestants and the Central Institution of Catholicism « benwhite29

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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


Connecting to %s