Lakeville Crucifix: A Religious War in 19th Century Connecticut
By Geoffrey Brown
Between the Lakes Group, 2018, 321 pages
Books about the historical “tensions” between Protestants and Catholics in America are of great interest to me, so when I got wind of “Lakeville Crucifix” while searching for news articles for my weekend roundup, I immediately ordered it.
As a buildup to the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics in Lakeville, Connecticut in 1882-1883, author and local historian, Geoffrey Brown, provides an extensive chronology beginning with the start of the Reformation in 1517. We follow the English Puritan pilgrims to the New England colonies and the rise of Congregationalist churches. The Protestants of 19th century, smalltown Connecticut shared their forebearers’ animus towards Romanism, for reasons both theological and social. In counter-balance, the Vatican’s continuing intolerance of Protestants back in Catholic Europe at that period is also touched upon (lightly). Theological differences between Protestants and Catholics are addressed only in very general terms throughout the book. As Irish Catholic immigrants flooded into the Northeast U.S. in the 1840s, religious, economic, and social tensions increased. Various nativist, “Know Nothing,” political and social groups arose in the 1850s as a reaction to the deluge of Irish Catholic immigrants. However, by the 1880s many of the mainline Protestant denominations were drifting into modernism and the social gospel and had little reason to confront Catholicism’s false gospel, but pockets of remnant believers existed here and there.
In October, 1882, Roman Catholic priest, Henry Lynch, erected a twelve-foot-high crucifix with a life-size statue of Jesus on the grounds of St. Mary’s Church next to a public road in Lakeville, Connecticut. The Protestants of the area were aghast at this idolatrous display. Indignation grew and in July 1883, three of the town’s Protestant dignitaries (including an ex-governor) visited the priest and presented him with a petition signed by seventy-two of the town’s Protestant citizens, including nearly all of the shopkeepers, demanding he remove the crucifix. Lynch did not comply. Instead, Lynch’s Catholic parishioners immediately boycotted all of Lakeville’s merchants and did their shopping at the nearby town of Salisbury instead. In retaliation, twenty of the wives of the wealthiest men of the community met in October to discuss replacing their Irish Catholic female servants with African Americans from New York City or the South, although the effectiveness of that proposed counter-boycott is unclear. However, the Catholics of St. Mary’s were denied the use of transportation and picnic facilities owned by Protestants in their celebration of the establishment of a convent.
As time passed, tensions eased. In late 1887, the giant crucifix was taken down without any fanfare and brought inside of St. Mary’s where it is still on display today. Throughout the conflict, the region’s Protestant politicians remained largely neutral rather than antagonize their Catholic constituents.
The author gently derides Lakeville’s Protestants for their “sectarian intolerance,” but also criticizes Lynch and his bishop for inflaming Protestant passions with such an incendiary display of Roman militancy that was most certainly inspired by the ultramontanism of pope Pius IX that had crested a few decades prior to the crucifix controversy with the provocative Syllabus of Errors and Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility.
This was a somewhat interesting story although the book’s very unpolished writing style is a distraction. Brown cites many regional and even national newspaper articles that reported on Connecticut’s bygone-era “religious war.” Much of the material is redundant.
The author’s ecumenical views and criticisms of this sectarian skirmish are evident throughout. While I certainly don’t agree with the author’s “liberally high-minded” ecumenism, I do agree that the confrontation was regrettable. Rather than stirring up conflict, the Protestant believers of Lakeville, Connecticut should have been reaching out to their Catholic neighbors with the Good News! Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. At the end of the book, Brown notes that fidelity to Biblical orthodoxy is rare in Northwest Connecticut these days and that Protestant churches in the area have little if any influence and are largely dying on the vine.