Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Barbara Welter

SOURCE: "From Maria Monk to Paul Blanshard: A Century of Protestant Anti-Catholicism," in Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Frederick E. Greenspahn, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 43-71.

[In the following excerpt, Welter summarizes some of the enduring themes of the nativist crusade of nineteenth-century America, and illustrates some of its institutional arguments by focusing on the popular anti-Catholic tract Awful Disclosures, by Maria Monk]

American historians are willing to spare few of our cherished illusions. George Washington's cherry tree and Thomas Jefferson's family life have vanished with our lost passenger pigeons. It is, therefore, not surprising that our boast to be a nation dedicated to religious freedom has also been refuted.

When the Statue of Liberty, symbol of a safe harbor for tempest-tossed souls, was completed in 1886, its symbolic lamp was dimmed by the prior publication of Josiah Strong's Our Country, a best seller extolling undiluted Anglo-Saxon racial and religious purity.1 The Haymarket Riot, which John Higham termed "the most important single incident in late nineteenth-century nativism,"2 occurred in the same year. It was, however, only one incident in a very long line of nativist hostilities, of which those involving Roman Catholics and Protestants were perhaps closest to the original concept of what well-ordered religious hostility should be about in this new Jerusalem.

The origins of this conflict and its linear growth on this continent have been well traced in several monographs, and I do not intend to repeat the chronology of these tensions from colonial times to the present.3 I should like only to recapitulate some of the enduring themes in this most Christian crusade, especially those most appropriate to the New World, and then focus on two texts written more than a century apart in order to illustrate some of the peculiarly institutional arguments.

Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal was a best seller in 1836, and Paul Blanshard's American Freedom and Catholic Power achieved the same status in 1949. I suggest that the themes and even the language—metaphor, invective, connotative adjectives—are remarkably similar. Best sellers rarely demonstrate great literary imagination or intellectual rigor, but they do show what a large segment of the Republic wants to be told at a given time. When books are reprinted over and over, as has been the case with Monk's work, they reveal at the very least attitudes and ideas that appeal to many generations.

Historians of nativism—Ray Allen Billington, John Kane, John Higham, David Brion Davis, Richard Hofstadter, and Sydney Ahlstrom among them—uniformly denounce and categorically deny the objective reality of this anti-Catholic prose. The writers of these inflammatory tracts are dismissed as "hatemongers," "fanatics," and, most damning of all to the healthy historical mind, "paranoids."4 I should like to suggest, if only as a kind of devil's advocate for popular culture, that these popular writings be reexamined, not as embarrassing blots on the national copybook of rights or as the ravings of a lunatic fringe of un-American Americans. I suggest that these two documents (and others in the same vein) be taken seriously as the expression of serious concern on the part of perfectly rational Americans.

Consensus is a way of dealing with controversies, not of denying them. The inflamed rhetoric of the anti-Catholic tracts, like the actual conflagration of anti-Catholic mobs, sprang from deep concern for values and for a way of life based on that most fragile value of all, personal liberty. Paranoids may be persecuted or, more often, may remember a time when they were persecuted. When anguish translates into hate literature and mob violence, it may reflect a passionate although inarticulate commitment to a genuinely endangered specific. Popular delusions and the madness of crowds are not hallucinatory in origin, however illusory in accomplishment. When there is widespread fear, as Mrs. Willy Loman might have defended her class, "Attention must be paid."

The litany of Protestant grievances against Catholics is a long and bitter one, as long and bitter as its reverse would be. Any list of grievances in any national catalogue of collected injustices tends to run to many pages, incorporating many varieties of experience, religious and political. To recite them, or even to list them all, sounds perilously like "How do I not love you? . . . . Let me count the ways." In this particular litany it might include: "We dislike your men (priests), your women (nuns) and your children (Boy Scouts), and a few institutions; we dislike the arrogance and elitism of claiming to be the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church'; we dislike the reliance on authority, rather than on individual judgment; we dislike the substitution of a parochial for a public school system; we find celibacy unwholesome and perverse for the clergy (indeed, for practically anyone); we oppose inflexible social rules masquerading as immutable natural laws; we oppose censorship in books; we prefer to read the Bible for ourselves and scorn official interpretation; we deplore the level of taste in architecture, statuary, and hymns; we shudder at the superstition surrounding the Virgin and the saints; and we deplore intransigence in the face of progressive reform, especially in temperance and women's rights." Now, although the most casual perusal of Puritan doctrine and law would find equal or greater violations of all the above without leaving the boundaries of Massachusetts, that does not deny the fact that Protestants believed themselves to be the upholders of these yeoman, self-evident truths, which they believed Catholics opposed.

Catholics have historically responded to these accusations with such helpful arguments as: "You do not understand, and because you are not a member of the One True Church there is not a prayer that you ever could understand," or, "Only certain benighted ethnic or social groups believe that," or, "Have you stopped burning your witches lately?" Historians and liberal Protestants have been equally quick to deny any lingering validity on their side of the controversy. They metaphorically stuff Maria Monk and Paul Blanshard into the closet, saying soothingly to liberal Catholics, "We know that you, like us, have nothing to do with the clods who read bad books and burn convents. That's un-American and frightfully low, but neither side can be responsible for its 'crazies.'" This argument is both anti-historical and evasive.

When historians actually address themselves to the question of why the unenlightened Protestant has gotten these ideas so firmly fixed, they respond with a litany of their own:

the English anti-Catholic tradition dates back at least to the Armada;

it was intensified by an anti-Irish bias dating at least to Cromwell and extending, with all its ugly stereotypical ramifications, across the ocean;

American Protestantism has been quick to refer to its honorable scars from Reformation Wars, even though the Reformation predated the founding of this country;

the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Puritans was intensified by popular books and sermons (John Foxe's Book of Martyrs was, after all, one of the few books a Protestant child could read on Sunday);

the Quebec Act of 1774 had galvanized Americans into revolutionary action as they saw the spread of American Protestantism checked;

France and Spain, which represented continual threats to American independence, were identified with moral decadence and woeful disregard of the work ethic;

the large influx of Catholics to American cities represented what one historian refers to as a "disruption of America's agrarian dream,"5 and those same immigrants posed an economic threat to American labor and an overburdening of very modest social-welfare agencies;

a "Protestant frontier thesis" saw winning the West as a religious rather than a territorial race, with "Presbyterians and Jesuits" as a more sober version of "Cowboys and Indians";

the gradual loss of status and prestige by American Protestants called forth a "backlash" which was expressed in the historical terms most familiar to the threatened group, namely, Reformation rhetoric.6

Seeking to explain the persistence of the anti-Catholic bias, David Brion Davis sees the nineteenth-century stereotyped Catholic as the "precise antitheses of American ideals, an inverted image of Jacksonian democracy."7 Since the Jacksonian "ideals" were, in fact, largely composed of mythful thinking, constantly challenged by internal and external events, they were all the more in need of a countervailing demonic force. John William Ward argues that the need for a hero was so strong that if the age had not in fact produced Andrew Jackson, it would have invented him.8 A similar need for an anti-hero produces the inverse of that thesis: If the age had not produced Catholics, it would have invented them as the necessary negative image of the proposed national virtue. This early Republic nationalism culminated in the most widely publicized burst of anti-Catholic violence, the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and the publication of that remarkable nativist tract, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.9

The period before the American Civil War saw the "Beast of Rome" invading even this new Eden, as a series of highly visible conversions brought Americans from well-known American families (Sophia Dana Ripley, for example) and the "Seeker for Truth," Orestes Brownson, into the Catholic church. The Paulist Fathers were founded by another such convert, Isaac Hecker, for the avowed purpose of bringing the United States into the "True Church."10 Hecker's visionary prose added to the bombastic transcendentalism of Brownson suggested to many Americans that Protestantism was being attacked for being too permissive, too secular, and too democratic. Since Protestants themselves were split over recent liberal changes in theology and society, this was a very palpable hit. Lyman Beecher went full tilt against the pernicious influence of convents in general and the Ursuline convent in particular, starting in 1830 when the convent had already been successfully educating young women for a dozen years.11

Besides the traditional Protestantism at war with the more relaxed tenets of Unitarians, the "New Light" versus the "Old Light," and other quasi-theological controversies, there was the persistent class structure, denied by both church and state and equally pervasive in both institutions. To the lower-class bricklayers in Charlestown, the Ursuline convent represented luxury and mystery. The vagaries of heterodox and orthodox were mere puffs of smoke compared to the concrete fury generated by the flight of a young woman, Elizabeth Harrison, from the convent in 1834. Here was something a man could protest with all his strength and be proud in the blow he was striking for free American womanhood. The young Ursuline nun subsequently repented of her decision and asked Bishop Fenwick to allow her to return to her convent, but by this time all of Boston was involved. The selectmen were invited to tour the convent in order to put the more lascivious rumors to rest, but they were embroiled in a separate controversy with the bishop over a Catholic cemetery and dragged their feet. By the time they had their tour and published their report guaranteeing Miss Harrison's freedom and safety, a mob had burned the building, to the cheers of a large crowd.12

The persistent focus on convents as the most feared element in Catholic life involved more than just maintaining the female as scapegoat or even than substituting sexual for political issues in order to make the latter seem more threatening. This was a period in which American women, consistently described by themselves and foreign observers as the "free female in a free country" and "uniquely blessed among women in Christian lands," were beginning to exert themselves. Most Americans hoped to combine the traditional roles for women with a belief that these roles were carried out in the New World in such a way as to make them part of democratic life, liberty, and happiness. The existence of groups of women in convents was both a persistent threat and a frightening alternative to the cult of domesticity.

The prospectus of the school run by the Ursulines differed almost not at all from those of similar "female seminaries" of the period, and there is no evidence of overt religious proselytizing. In fact, it would appear that at this school, as well as in similar schools staffed by Roman Catholic Sisters, the curriculum was highly traditional and ornamental. In many parts of the country these convent schools were eagerly prized because they taught the rather raw young women at least some of the graces associated with civility, gentility, and the dubious values of young ladyism. Since it was widely believed that it took three generations to turn a young man into a gentleman but only one to make the woman into a lady, this crash course in social mobility was all the more prized.13

Americans' fascination for convents—illustrated in the twentieth century by the popularity of The Nun's Story14 —was explained by one nineteenth-century British visitor, Frederick Marryat, as a national feeling that nothing must be kept veiled, an inherent commitment to freedom of information and open covenants openly arrived at. "Americans," he wrote in 1839, "cannot bear anything like a secret—that's unconstitutional."15 In the absence of knowledge, they constructed their own fantasies, aided by a small but lurid literature of "ex-priest" and "ex-nun" autobiographies.16 What went on after the Portress closed the heavy doors to those mysterious buildings surrounded by high walls? What mysterious sounds, smells, ceremonies took place in an atmosphere that, for many Protestants, literally reeked with incense and with sin? Simplicity in church liturgy and architecture, along with services in the vernacular, were identified with the vigor and strength of the country. Would not these virtues be eroded, smothered in the images, obscured by the Latin, shrouded by the very mysteries and authorities from which Protestants had presumably fled in escaping to America?

The most popular tale of all was that constructed by Maria Monk and presented to the public in 1836. (Monk's work is a sort of revenant of anti-Catholicism, most recently wafted through the country in the wake of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.) Although refutations appeared almost immediately, challenging both her authorship and her sanity (in a published interview with her mother it was revealed that a slate pencil had entered Maria's head as a child and she was never the same since), nature in this case proved no match for art.17 And in this particular art the public most definitely knew what they wanted. Interestingly enough, however, although there certainly was the requisite discussion of hanky-panky in the confessional and elsewhere, the majority of the pages were devoted to a diatribe against Catholics because of their resistance to democracy, rather than their immorality.18 The focus of attack was the complete authority that the priests had over the nuns and that the Mother Superior exercised over her charges. No matter how repugnant the act required might be, blind obedience replaced reason or independent judgment. Unspeakable humiliation was sanctioned in the name of obedience to authority. It is of interest that "breaking the will," a staple mandate in child-rearing manuals, was under attack in this period, and the parental authority formerly invested in the rod was being replaced by a "dominion of love and reason."19

The traditional mainspring of Protestant conviction, the independent reading of the Bible, was a long-standing matter of controversy between the two religions. Monk solemnly averred that she was not allowed to read the Bible and indeed never had, although a few chapters of scripture had been read aloud in her presence. When she asked her superiors why Catholics did not read the New Testament, she was told, "Because the mind of man is too limited and weak to understand what God has written."20 The young women systematically became automatons, until they could say to their priests (not their God), "Not my will, but thine be done." Instead of encouraging a nation of sturdy yeoman, pulling their forelocks to no man, the network of Catholic clergy demanded a subservience based not on Jefferson's "elite of virtue and intellect," but on the hierarchy of religion. Superstition was rampant, and the Blessed Virgin was a terrible role model for the American girl. At a time when what William James dubbed "the religion of positive thinking" was replacing the negativism of earlier years, such acts of penance as putting a pin through one's cheek or disciplining the flesh with a whip brought new revulsion.21 The grim enthusiasms of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards might have produced equal consternation if offered to this new generation, but the "mortification of the flesh" once so much a part of Puritan life was identified with the negative aspects of Catholicism.

One of the things most noticeable about Monk's book is the specificity of her charges. The reader is given detailed descriptions of the layout of the convent, the room for accouchement so conveniently placed next to the room where the priests strangled the babies after first baptizing them to secure "their everlasting happiness."22 If these details were so accurately drawn, the overall theme of obedience and authoritarianism replacing independent thought and democratic process seemed equally true. These were the same Americans who, according to amazed travelers' accounts, let their hired girls sit at the dinner table and declined to respect titles or degrees. Samuel F. B. Morse, painter and inventor, allegedly became an ardent anti-Catholic when a soldier in Rome knocked off his hat as a religious procession was passing.23

The fragility of democracy seemed real, and the tightrope between European reaction and European revolution was difficult for Americans to walk during the tumultuous years before the Civil War. The threat from Catholicism was even more serious, since it combined the outer threat of external rule—the pope and his "guards"—with the inner threat of subversion, especially of the minds and wills of young women, future mothers of democratic men. Protestantism consistently defined itself as the liberator of women. This was the primary theme used to recruit women missionaries, urging them to volunteer in order to bring their benighted heathen sisters the blessings American Protestantism had conferred on women.

As the missionary movement increased in energy and numbers during the nineteenth century, it was often defined as a "war" between Catholics and Protestants for the dominion of the earth. One of its early themes was the impending millennium, which could take place only if the world was converted. This was interpreted as meaning not only the required baptism of the "heathen," but also the reconversion of what Protestants termed "nominal Christians" or Roman Catholics. This passion resulted eventually in a plaque that adorns the walls of the Vatican to this day, announcing the coming of the American Baptists in 1870 on their mission of "conversion."

The rivalry on the mission field usually consisted in harmless attempts on the part of the Protestants to harass their boards and their congregations by demanding more money or missionaries. Roman Catholic nuns were allegedly drawing away prospective women converts in China by dint of their beautiful embroidery. A call went out for Protestant girls with similar skills—a call not well heeded, it might be said. The popularity of the Catholic priest Father Damien resulted in the demand for a "Protestant leper," which was partially met through the work of Mary Reed, although stories about her never achieved the virtual cult of Damien. The Catholic Indian saint Catherine Tegawitha was responded to with a call for a Protestant Indian saint. Duly converted and duly dead, Henrietta Brown, young and pious though she was, somehow never captured the public imagination as did the "Lily of the Mohawks." At a more virulent level, however, Protestants charged that the Whitman Massacre, which occurred in Oregon in 1847, was the result of the Jesuits inciting "their" Indians to remove the threat of a Protestant Northwest.24

Violence was the exception, not the rule, even during the demonstrations and confrontations of the school Bible controversy and other rock-throwing, name-calling incidents. Rather than consider these well-documented incidents, let me instead point to the permeation of cultural anti-Catholicism in virtually every area of American popular culture.

What my colleague John Cuddihy has called "Protestant taste" became the measure of American taste—other religions were, by definition, lower on the aesthetic ranking and fell short of approved literary and artistic standards.25 A brief examination of the children's literature popular from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century is replete with examples of almost offhand anti-Catholicism, often associated with convents. Although there is nothing as avowedly polemical as the work of the English writer "Charlotte Elizabeth," the Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley and the numerous works of "Pansy" are imbued with the principles of Protestantism and of Chautauqua.26 A "convent" is the threat with which a wicked adult attempts to control an innocent child.

There are no comparably popular books of Catholic literature preaching against Protestants, at least not until the twentieth century, but one vivid example...

(The entire section is 9249 words.)