Catholics During the Second Great Awakening

Boston Common, ca.1804

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The 1800’s in America were a time of great spiritual fervor, as well as turbulent societal change.  The flowering of American Protestant evangelicalism, the rise of Transcendentalism and abolitionism, the tidal waves of Catholic immigration, and the emergence of a virulent anti-Catholic Nativism created conditions for a series of crises in American Catholicism and for its simultaneous growth and social transformation: numerically from one of the smaller American religious communities to the largest single denomination; culturally from an Anglo-American community to a predominantly immigrant community; and religiously from a simple home-centered spirituality to an emotional, highly organized, and ostentatious devotional spirituality that was parish centered. (CIA 27)  This movement that had once been a hidden minority started by Catholic missionaries had become a majority mindset and ethnic identity in America.

Beginning in the 1830’s, a massive influx of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and other parts of Western Europe radically transformed New England and the rest of the United States, setting both on a course toward cultural and religious diversity. (RAPLINE 33)  Many of these Catholics stamped their Catholicism within their souls as part of their ethnic identity.  But they were coming into already claimed Puritan territory.  Many Protestant Americans in New England felt threatened by the presence of their new Catholic neighbors.

This Catholic onslaught followed on the heels of a period of dramatic growth that had energized New England Protestantism between the 1780s and 1835.  This period was deemed “The Second Great Awakening”.  During the Second Great Awakening, revivals flourished, and nineteenth century evangelicalism took shape, along with an astonishing variety of educational and cultural institutions, and local, national, and global missions organizations.  During these years, the Congregational mainstream, still theologically conservative, was remarkably vigorous. (RAPLINE 108)  One can travel through New England towns and still see a Congregational church in every town.  It was once a prerequisite to have a Congregational church to become an official town.  Many of these churches have now become social religious clubs that don’t view the scriptures with much seriousness.  But obviously at one point they were bastions of gospel proclamation in their respective communities.


The Yankee population in New England had often been overtly anti-Catholic, immigrants and their descendants might understandably visualize the world as divided neatly into “us” and “them”. (RAPLINE 46)  Much like in Europe before, the tensions between 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Americans were a spoken and unspoken Protestant/Catholic war.  Both sides felt that they were the true church, because both of their doctrines reiterated this.  But because Catholics had come into Protestant occupied territory, they were a minority that had become the majority but still often thought of themselves as a minority. (RAPLINE 47)

Traditional Protestant-Catholic theological antagonisms brought about a virulent hostility toward American Catholics, particularly after 1830.  Catholic life in this period cannot be understood outside the context of what Ray Allen Billington called “The Protestant Crusade”…In religion Catholics were priest-ridden, intolerant, proscriptive, and against free rational inquiry.  Catholicism was also against the spirit of the age, the great foe of progress, and clung to outdated religious forms.  It was the religion of a dead tradition, having little interior religious life and little respect for the Bible. (CIA 31)  The general bigotry that Puritan Protestant Americans had was passed on to the next generation, and the chasm between the two faiths widened.

Nonetheless, amidst great Protestant evangelical revival in the 1800s, the American Catholic population increased by an overwhelming and historically unprecedented 1,300 percent, from about 318,000 in 1830- 3 percent of the total American white population- to 4.5 million in 1870, representing about 13 percent of that population. (CIA 30)

It was potentially a reaction to the bigotry and marginalization that they felt when arriving in America, but the American Catholic view of Protestantism was as reductive as the Nativist view of Catholicism.  Although a number of good people embraced Protestantism, it was a new religious system and a human invention that could not be traced back any further than the sixteenth century…being internally divisive, it could not contribute to social and political unity and stability.  Catholic apologists did not see much good in Protestantism, and if they did, they rarely mentioned it. (CIA 32)  This reaction was similar to many Catholics during the Reformation of Luther.  Catholics saw the Protestant movement as a heretical rebellion against the true church and true heritage of Christ and the apostles.  They saw their church as being capable of bringing the gospel to society and bringing a great unity of faith and morality into the culture, and saw Protestantism as a confused array of dissidents.

In the generations after the 1800’s Catholics and Protestants would undergo a natural separation and more individualized expression.  The tensions between the two would seep under the surface of the skin.  But hidden animosities would not be the sole factor, but certainly contribute to the deterioration of spiritual vitality in New England.


3 thoughts on “Catholics During the Second Great Awakening

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

  2. Pingback: What Do Catholics and Protestants Have in Common? « benwhite29

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

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