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Digital History ID 2997


The Mormons were not the only pre-Civil War group subject to intense prejudice. Catholics, Jews, and African American Protestants also faced hostility from the dominant culture. In response to discrimination, Catholics, Jews, and free black Protestants formed fraternal lodges, benevolent associations, and mutual benefit societies which allowed them to preserve a distinctive group identity.

No church grew more rapidly or faced more bitter hostility than Roman Catholicism. Numbering no more than 25,000 in 1776, Catholics grew to 1.75 million in 1850, making them the nation's largest religious group and the country's first truly multicultural church.

During the colonial period, Catholics constituted a tiny minority, just one percent of the population, concentrated in three colonies: Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. In 1776, there were just six priests in the American colonies and not a single bishop.

Massive immigration from Ireland and Germany between 1820 and 1860 dramatically increased the size of the Catholic church, from 195,000 to 3,103,000, but also generated ethnic tensions within the church. Following the Revolution, the church had been led primarily by English Catholic families from Maryland and by French Catholics. As the composition of the American Catholic population changed, Catholics of German and Irish ancestry wanted priests of their own background.

During the pre-Civil War era, Catholics faced intense hostility and even violence. The evangelical Protestant revivals of the 1820s and '30s stimulated a "No Popery" movement. Prominent northern clergy, mostly Whigs in their politics, accused the Catholic church of conspiring to overthrow democracy and subject the United States to papal despotism.

Popular fiction (such as Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal [1836], which sold 300,000 copies before the Civil War), offered fictitious descriptions of priests seducing women during confession and nuns cutting infants from the womb and throwing them to dogs. A popular children's game was called "Break the Pope's neck."

Anti-Catholic sentiment culminated in mobs rioting and the burning of churches and convents. In 1834, after a vicious anti-Catholic sermon, a Protestant mob burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass. A decade later, after Philadelphia's Catholic convinced the city's school board to use both the Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible in schools, a vicious riot erupted in the nearby suburbs of Kensington and Southwark.

The advent of massive immigration from Ireland and Germany after 1845 led to renewed anti-Catholic outbursts. Native born workers blamed Irish and German Catholics for increases in poverty and crime and briefly supported the anti-Catholic Know Nothing political party.

The Catholic church responded to Protestant hostility in a variety of ways. Concerned that many immigrants were only nominally Catholic, the church established urban missions and launched religious revivals to strengthen immigrants' religious identity. Catholics responded to the intensification of Protestant reform activities in the 1850s by establishing a separate system of benevolent societies, hospitals, orphanages, and sanitariums, as well as trade schools and houses of protection for single working women. Discrimination in public schools, where many teachers used texts that portrayed the Catholic church as a threat to republican institutions, led Catholics to establish a separate system of parochial schools, beginning in New York in the early 1840s.

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