The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism
By Ray Allen Billington
Macmillan, 1938, 514 pp.
Back about a month ago, I noticed a reference to this book on a Catholic blog. I’m always game for history books about alleged “anti-Catholicism” in America and was delighted that our county library had a copy of the 1938 initial printing (the photo above is of a later, paperback edition, circa 1960s).
Historian, Ray Allen Billington (d. 1981), begins this book by noting the antipathy towards Roman Catholicism that the early Puritan and Anglican settlers had brought with them to colonial America. There were relatively very few Catholics in early-America, so conflicts were uncommon. However, when Irish and German Catholics began emigrating en masse to America beginning in the 1840s, problems ensued.
Native Americans (in this pre-politically-correct-era book, the term was used to refer, not to Indians, but to descendants of the original Puritan and Anglican settlers) were concerned about the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants for several reasons:
- Religious – Roman Catholicism propagated a false gospel of sacramental grace and merit that was antithetical to the Protestants’ Gospel of grace. Protestants of that era, in contrast to today, were acutely aware of the anti-Biblical nature of Catholicism’s peculiar institutions and ceremonies (priestcraft, sacrifice of the mass, confessionals, nunneries, statue worship, etc.).
- Economic – Native Americans resented the competition of cheap, Catholic immigrant labor.
- Political – Catholicism ultimately demanded loyalty to a foreign “pontiff.” Protestants questioned if Catholics could ever be good American citizens holding such divided loyalties. In European countries where Catholicism held sway, Protestants were not tolerated.
Antipathy towards Catholics and Catholicism reached a crescendo in the 1850s with the rise of the nativist American (aka Know Nothing) Party, which sought to limit immigration and prolongate naturalization residency requirements. The Know Nothings initially had a degree of success, but that success was very short-lived because of the rising and overriding national political tensions regarding slavery.
I appreciated this book for its historical detail, but it has some MAJOR faults. Billington devotes a single chapter, only 26 pages, to Catholic “blunders”/provocations that led to Protestant reactions. He makes little mention of Rome’s militant, hegemonic intolerance in Catholic Europe. Popes openly condemned democratic forms of government and the democratic principle of freedom of religion as late as 1899 with the papal encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae – Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, With Regard to Americanism, issued by pope Leo XIII. American Protestants had very legitimate reasons to be concerned about Catholic encroachment and possible domination.
It’s the responsibility of every objective historian to acknowledge the wider context of a circumstance/turmoil instead of ignoring the antecedent causes and focusing, almost exclusively, on the consequences, as Ray Billington does. The unbiased reader will note the irony involved with Billington’s portrayals of 19th-century American Protestants in which he uses the very same type of invective and draconian hyperbole that he accuses them of employing. It’s also quite ironic that the alleged “sensationalism” and pruriency of 19th-century Protestant literature regarding the corruption of Catholic clerics and their institutions has been vindicated many times over in the last twenty years by newspaper headlines. With all of those major shortcomings, it’s regrettable that this disappointing book is often cited as THE standard in examinations of American Protestant “anti-Catholicism.”
Without any argument, antebellum Protestant attitudes towards Catholics sometimes did cross the line into outright hatred and bigotry. That was regrettable. We witnessed a similar type of religious partisanship with the popularity of Jack Chick’s disreputable Jesuit-world-conspiracy publications in the 1970s and 80s. But never did 19th-century American Protestant sectarianism approach anything near the magnitude of European Catholicism’s intolerance, as exemplified by such events as the Massacre of Wassy (1562), the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), the massacre following he revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and the various permutations of the Inquisition.
We must reach out to Roman Catholics with the truth of the Gospel and with the love of Jesus Christ. Sadly, these days a growing number of evangelicals are unaware of the irreconcilable differences between the Gospel of grace and Roman Catholicism and view Gospel outreach to Catholics with disdain and repugnance.