“Have You Ever Read?”: Imagining Women, Bibles, and Religious Print in Nineteenth-Century America
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“Have You Ever Read?”
Imagining Women, Bibles, and Religious Print in Nineteenth-Century America

In March 1837, the Unitarian Christian Register and Boston Observer published a short dialogue allegedly between an “inexperienced” Protestant clergyman and a “pious” and “quick witted” Catholic woman on the streets of Baltimore. Questioning the Catholic woman about her beliefs, the Protestant clergyman related his conversation to the Christian Register’s readership:

‘How do you know,’ said I, ‘that [the Catholic Church] is the true church?

‘O,’ said she, ‘it is founded upon the teaching of the apostles.’

‘How do you know that? Have you ever read the history of the church?’

‘No, I have not.’

‘How then do you know?’

‘The priest has told us.’1

As one of thousands of similar nineteenth-century reports circulated by Protestant reformers and anti-Catholic spokesmen, “Reminiscences of an Inexperienced Clergyman” suggested Catholics in the United States did not have the intellectual sophistication to interrogate religious texts or were forbidden from doing so. Echoing arguments as old as the Reformation, Protestant critiques of the Catholic Church’s beliefs and practices often placed ideas about books and reading at their center—as in the case of the clergyman’s female interlocutor, who claimed piety but had never perused a study of church history for herself.2 [End Page 1]

As studies of the U.S. “Bible Wars” remind us, nineteenth-century religious conflicts drew distinct lines between the ways in which Protestants and Catholics envisioned the role of God’s word in the material world.3 Stories appearing in the Christian Register and other U.S. religious publications reveal Protestant evangelization and widespread anti-Catholicism in the new nation. Read with missionary chronicles and fictitious anti-Catholic exposés, these narratives fueled the suspicions many Americans already harbored about the growing threat of a secretive and sinister “popery” on their shores. While such developments serve as important markers of a sometimes violent religious intolerance, the literature of nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism and Protestant reform also functions as an important window into American Catholic encounters with print in which women were often the primary actors, “approaching every family with words of wisdom and everlasting truth.”4

An examination of this intersection of women, books, and reading reveals anti-Catholic writers and Protestant home missionaries frequently traded in images of biblical literacy.5 In antebellum anti-Catholic narratives, female characters illustrated charges that Catholics were not people of the word, forbidden from having or reading religious books. In contrast, evangelical Protestant missionaries—represented here by the prolific American Tract Society (ATS)—found reason to portray Protestant women as special conveyors of the word. In conversation with one another, these depictions of women illustrated battles over religious literacy and women’s influence in nineteenth-century America.

Forbidden Books in the Convent Exposé

For U.S. Catholics, the convent school served as one of the most important foundations of female literacy in the new nation.6 Protestant families [End Page 2] joined their Catholic neighbors in having Catholic sisters educate their daughters, to the horror of anti-Catholic critics, who focused on these sites of women’s education to charge that Catholic educators forbid their reading Bibles and religious books.7 Hence, despite U.S. Catholic bishops’ exhortations to read the Bible, and, in particular, encouragement to read Mathew Carey’s American edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible, nineteenth-century Protestants continued to suggest that Catholics could not be considered people of the word.8 One of the most violent examples of this prejudice, the burning of Boston’s Ursuline Convent in August 1834, drew regional attention to the numbers of elite Protestant families seeking Catholic education for their daughters, and how opposition to Catholic schools stirred opponents to extreme lengths.9 Moreover, the mob’s actions would be debated in print over the next three decades, shedding light on the role books and reading played in Protestant and anti-Catholic discourses around women’s education.

While a sympathetic 1834 incident report cited Bible and library book burnings as the most heinous of the destructive mob’s crimes against property, other reports questioned the Ursuline’s reading lists, and local...