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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 240-257

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American Catholicism?:
John England and "The Republic in Danger"

Harvey Hill

The first decades of the nineteenth century were a period of phenomenal growth in the Catholic Church in the United States. A relatively small minority at the time of the American Revolution, Catholicism became the single largest religious denomination in the country by mid-century, largely on the strength of immigration from Europe. However, this growth combined with a pre-existing distrust of Catholicism to precipitate an anti-Catholic, nativist reaction. As a largely immigrant community accused of being incompatible with the dominant culture, Catholics experienced in a particularly sharp way the need to define exactly what it meant to be Catholic in America. Could Catholics enter fully into American life without compromising their faith? Could American citizens divide their loyalty between a foreign ecclesiastical hierarchy and the national government? Was Catholicism in fact incompatible with the liberal principles of the United States government as some anti-Catholics alleged? Or could the two be reconciled? If so, how?

John England, the first bishop of Charleston from 1820 until his death in 1842, sought throughout his American career to answer such questions about the nature of Roman Catholicism in the United States. An Irish immigrant, he had never visited the United States before his arrival to lead the newly created diocese of Charleston in 1820. However, he promptly began to adapt the Catholic tradition to local circumstances as he understood them by drafting a Constitution for his diocese, establishing a newspaper called the United States Catholic Miscellany, and advocating regular provincial councils that could help to standardize the discipline of the Church in America. 1 Each of these initiatives, as well as many others, contributed to England's effort to define American [End Page 240] Catholicism in a way that was, in his view, both authentically Catholic and authentically American.

Given this background, England was well prepared to meet an anti-Catholic, nativist attack that appeared in the Southern Religious Telegraph in 1831. In an article entitled "The Republic in Danger," the anonymous author warned the citizens of Virginia, "Popery has invaded the land, and is laying the foundations of an empire, with which, if it prevail, the enlightened freedom of the republic cannot coexist." England responded with a series of twelve letters addressed to "the candid and unprejudiced people of America" in which he challenged the construction of Catholicism offered in the Telegraph and countered with his own quite different construction. Although not carefully analyzed by modern scholars, England's anti-nativist writings like these letters shed significant light on his vision of American Catholicism. 2 Catholics in America were, he contended in these letters, more rational and more faithful to the principles of the American Constitution than were the nativists who opposed Catholicism as a threat.

1. Rational Religion

England's construction of American Catholic identity in his response to "The Republic in Danger" appears most clearly by contrast with the anti-Catholic allegations of his opponent. "The Republic in Danger" began with an attack on "intemperance," which, the author claimed, "has invaded the whole land." 3 Two paragraphs on intemperance set up the [End Page 241] parallel attack on "Popery," which had also "invaded the land." The author specifically identified these two opponents, "for," he said, "next to the fire which burns out reason and conscience," presumably meaning intemperance, "that power is to be dreaded which stupifies conscience and blinds the understanding, and withholds the only light which can guide human reason aright, and makes the whole man a superstitious slave to the impositions of a crafty priesthood." He went on to refer to Catholicism as "the beast" and Catholics as "the minions of the Pope," who sought "to extend his authority in our land." "Popery," the author warned his readers, was such a fearful antagonist because it was able "to excite the imagination, captivate the senses, and enslave the mind to forms of superstition." In contrast to Catholics were "enlightened Christians" who espoused the "religion of...


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