- Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835-1860
Due to their increasing numbers, Catholics became threatening to the Protestant-dominated United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Animated by the Irish Potato Famine and the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, many European Catholics had fled to a largely unwelcoming United States, swelling the ranks of U.S. Catholics into a visible minority. W. Jason Wallace's fine monograph—drawn from the antebellum religious press, books, and sermon literature—explores the significance of this infusion of Irish, German, and French Catholics in the cauldron of American Protestantism after the Second Great Awakening. Set against the backdrop of the sectional discord involving [End Page 856] slavery and competing visions of nascent nationalism, this increasingly vocal Catholic presence helped shape the antebellum debate over God and country. For the New England Protestants, Catholics and slaveholders became the dreaded other—threats to a millennial vision of a righteous, free-labor, Constitutional Republic. In defending themselves against Protestant assaults, Catholic apologists appeared to support Southern Evangelicalism's understanding of the Bible and social relations. In reality, the Catholic defense constituted more of a critique of the loose, subjective theology of much of the "Benevolent Empire," rather than an affirmative defense of slavery.
Catalyzed by a belief that the self-evident principles of the Declaration of Independence found fullest expression in its view of constitutional government and that its reformed Calvinism constituted the purest soteriology, antebellum New England Protestantism imagined itself as the de facto national church. Although Catholicism represented an ecclesiastical threat, it was its alleged ties to papal hierarchy and European despotism that invited the ire of Protestant writers and preachers. Furthermore, Protestantism considered Catholicism a relic of the social, economic, and political order of the Middle Ages, rather than an expression of moral and material progress represented by the antebellum United States. The newly constituted Leopoldine Society served as proof of Catholicism's desire to destroy political and religious liberty in the United States. The anti-Catholic arguments of Lyman Beecher, Albert Barnes, and Samuel Morse, among many others, provided grist for the emerging American Party, whose anti-Catholic nativism held sway in many parts of the antebellum United States.
Slavery provided the other target for Northern evangelical ire. Like Catholicism, it represented an outmoded system of despotism, and Northern evangelicals targeted it for extinction, because it was anti-American and thoroughly un-Christian in concept and practice. Although a few Catholic laymen undertook to defend Southern social relations from Northern evangelical critiques, Catholic bishops such as Augustine Verot, John England, Patrick Kenrick, and Martin John Spalding (along with Bishop John Hughes of New York) wrote lengthy defenses of the welter of social relations that Catholicism tolerated as a consequence of human sin, slavery being among these. Although slavery did not represent God's law, it was protected under natural law that accommodated the sinful nature of humanity. The Thomistic Catholic defense of slavery was not unlike the evangelical defense of slavery, which held that slavery, in se, was not unscriptural, although it could be practiced in a sinful manner. Slavery, like the republic extolled by Northern evangelicals, was a temporary and imperfect human institution operating in a sinful world. For Catholics, a Protestant theology that extolled progress and human perfection at the expense of traditional theology was both an expression of hubris and expediency. In both its Northern and Southern form, Protestantism lacked the "vigorous political realism that took seriously both the history of church-state relations and the development of moral doctrine over time" (p. [End Page 857] 150). Thus, in Wallace's treatment, a diverse, rather than unitary, American Protestantism became one symbol of nationalism, rather than the arbiter of nationalism.