Here’s something I bet you — and many well-rounded, well-educated Catholics — didn’t learn in your history books – especially if you attended public schools. No, it’s not another wacky conspiracy, but it does involve secret societies, anti-Catholicism, and a bizarre cast of characters that would make The Da Vinci Code look tame.
In the early part of the 19th century a group of Americans who were virulently opposed to the influx of Irish and German Catholics into the United States formed a secret society officially known as the Order of United Americans. Whenever a member was asked about the group, he would say, “I know nothing.” Thus they became more popularly known as the “Know-Nothings.” They accepted into their group only native-born Protestants who were unrelated to Catholics either by blood or marriage. Their notoriously bigoted movement to stop the flood of Catholic immigrants became known as nativism.
By 1825 over 100 periodicals were being published in the United States. Three-quarters of them were religious, and half of those were overtly and unrepentantly anti-Catholic. These nativists produced a vast amount of propaganda against the Catholic Church in the first half of the 19th century. The great number of Catholics, mostly German and Irish, moving to the Midwest caused the Know-Nothings and other nativists to think that the power of the Pope might be transferred there. Many of these anti-Catholic publications claimed that Catholics were not and could not be patriotic but owed their allegiance solely to the Pope and therefore could never be true Americans. The propaganda became increasingly absurd: Some articles actually predicted that the Pope and a papal army would land on American shores to set up a new Vatican in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, learned that a group in Vienna, called the Leopoldine Society to Aid the Missions, was making contributions to the Bishop of Cincinnati to build churches and schools for the Catholics who were making Ohio their new home. Morse wrote a series of articles calling this a “foreign conspiracy.” He urged Protestants to put aside their religious differences and unite against the Catholic schools, the bishops, the Jesuits and the lenient immigration laws which were continuing to allow Catholics to move into the U.S. Morse dedicated the rest of his life to opposing the Catholic Church, and not just in Morse code.
Another well known Know-Nothing was Lyman Beecher, a seventh generation Puritan preacher. Beecher moved from Boston to be the president of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati so that he could educate ministers to protect the western United States from becoming a Catholic country. In one of the nativist magazines of the time, Beecher wrote that he came to Cincinnati “to battle the Pope for the garden spot of the world.”
In 1834 Lyman Beecher returned to Boston to deliver three anti-Catholic sermons in various churches on a single day. He succeeded in rallying the Protestants together, and the next day a mob gathered at the Ursuline School in nearby Charlestown, carrying banners which said, “Down with Popery” and “Down with the Cross.” Fifty men broke down the doors of the convent and set everything on fire. Although the arsonists were caught, none were found guilty. Mob attacks on Catholic churches in New England soon became so frequent that insurance companies refused to insure Catholic buildings.
Beecher returned to Cincinnati and published his rabble-rousing sermon as a pamphlet called “Plea for the West.” He amplified the papal plot envisaged by Morse, maintaining that Catholic schools would win converts who would ally themselves with Catholic immigrants to control the west. Many joined Beecher, allying themselves against the immigrant Catholics.
The nativist presence under the leadership of Lyman Beecher in Cincinnati prompted the bishop of that city to erect a new cathedral which became the tallest building west of the Allegheny River at the time. The cathedral was designed without windows in the lower walls, rather only solid stone some 45 feet high to protect against anyone throwing bombs into the building as had been happening in the New England church burnings.
A vast network of newspapers, magazines, lecturers and propagandists was set up from Boston to the Mississippi valley. The most infamous of the many propaganda works was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, published in 1836. This book created a sensation despite the testimony of the Protestant mother of Maria Monk that her daughter had never been in a convent but had been paid a large sum of money by a Protestant minister to sign her name to the fictitious story. The book sold more than 300,000 copies – making it a runaway best-seller during those days.
In the 1840’s the Know-Nothings became more formally organized and politically active. By 1855 most of the state senators and representatives were affiliated with the Know-Nothings. In 1856 they even nominated a Presidential candidate, Milliard Fillmore. Bigotry against Catholics continued, especially reaching unheard of bitterness in the national elections of 1856 when Abraham Lincoln wrote, “If the Know-Nothings get control, the Declaration of Independence will read: All men are created equal except for Negroes, foreigners and Catholics.”
The Catholics responded to the vicious propaganda campaigns, the terrorism and discrimination with remarkable restraint and a sense of humor. Many of them felt challenged to become better Catholics. Because of these persecutions in the first half of the 19th century, the Catholic Church in the U.S. established a remarkable system of parochial schools and Catholics came together for a healthy and vibrant parish life.
What remains most amazing perhaps is the fact that this embarrassing episode of history has remained such a huge secret, especially considering famous historical personages like Samuel Morse and Lymann Beecher played keys roles in the anti-Catholic bigotry of the Know-Nothings. The fact remains: Anti-Catholic bigotry was an accepted prejudice then and, in the words of Arthur Schleslinger, Jr., it remains the “last acceptable prejudice” today.